Some time back we ran a couple of introductory lectures on the philosophy of Michel Foucault and here we are presenting one of his lectures, on the nature of the human self, with a lengthy question and answer period after. Something dark and revealing here about the nature of the self. We are used to talking about power relations and seeing ourselves as either perpetrators or victims in the struggle for priority. Foucault problematizes the self (itself) by suggesting that we internalize the power relations and are subdued by them. What is a poor self to do when it has internalized the structure of its own enslavement? Makes you think. Who am I anyway?
Here’s helpful bit of context from the European Graduate School biography of Foucault to situate you going into the lecture.
During the later years of his professorship at the Collège de France he started writing The History of Sexuality, a major project he would never finish because of his untimely death. The first volume of the work was published in 1976 in French and the English version would follow two years later, entitled The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. However, the French title was much more indicative of what Foucault was after: “Histoire de la sexualité, tome 1 : La Volonté de savoir”, which translates as The History of Sexuality Volume I: The Will to Knowledge (a newer edition is simply named The Will to Knowledge). It is an amazingly prominent work, maybe even his most influential. The main thesis of the work is to be found in part two of the book called “The Repressive Hypothesis” where Foucault articulately explains that in spite of the generally accepted belief that we have been sexually repressed, the notion of sexual repression cannot be separated from the concomitant imperative for us to talk about sex more than ever before. Indeed, according to Foucault it follows in the name of liberating so-called innate tendencies, certain behaviors are actually produced. With the contention that modern power operates to produce the very behaviors it targets, Foucault attacks here again the notion of power as repression of something that is already in place. Such new notion of power has been and continues to be incredibly influential in various fields.
His last two books, the second and third volumes of the history of sexuality research, entitled The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self respectively, both relate the Western subject’s understanding of ourselves as sexual beings to our moral and ethical lives. He traces the history of the construction of subjectivity through the analyses of ancient texts. In The Uses of Pleasure he looks at pleasure in the Greek social system as a play of power in social relations; pleasure is derived from the social position realized through sexuality. Later, in Christianity, pleasure was to become linked with illicit conduct and transgression. In The Care of the Self, Foucault looks at the Greeks’ systems of rules that were applied to sexual and other forms of social conduct. He analyses how the rules of self-control allow access to pleasure and to truth. In this structure of a subject’s life dominated by the care for the self, excess becomes the danger, rather than the Christian deviance.
What Foucault made from delving into these ancient texts, is the notion of an ethics to do with one’s relation to one’s self. Indeed the constitution of the self is the overarching question for Foucault at the end of his life. Yet the point for him was not to present a new ethics. Rather, it was the possibility for new analyses that focused on subjectivity itself. Foucault became very interested in the way subjectivity is constructed and especially how subjects produce themselves vis-à-vis truth.