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Fr. 533

June 26, 2014

Foucault seizes upon the self’s shift into an objective mode and summarizes it as follows:

At the same time as these practices spread, it would seem that the experience of oneself by virtue of this very fact intensified and widened. The self becomes of a field of observations […] It often concerns the details of daily life, answers of health and mood, the small physical malaise that one experiences, the movement of spirits, one’s readings, quotations that one remembers, reflections and such events, a certain way of relating to oneself and a whole field of experience are to be seen where in earlier documents they are absent.

As an exemplar of this trend in Greco-Roman society, Foucault cites the case of Aelius Aristides, a Greek orator and sophist during the second century AD. If his writings are given over to reflections on his self, this is partially in virtue of a life plagued by health problems, possibly psychosomatic in nature. If Foucault does not wish to posit a direct causal link between illness and reflection on the self or maintain that we need all become hypochondriacs, he does nonetheless underscore a further important link between the medical profession and care of the self. To his mind, the latter do go hand in hand, at least at this time.

In this way and in time, a person engaging in personal writing described above may be able to deduce or surmise from the relation of influence inputs to influence outputs some of the deeper, inner workings of self, and this by teasing out the ways in which these various materials interact, combine and repulse one another. By considering the changes undergone from input to output, this person may indirectly get at the mechanisms governing identity-formation, as we have termed it. All of which goes to show that self is not some permanent, fixed substrate but a permeable, fixable set of dispositions.

Indeed, we should highlight this “fixable” quality, for our presentation may lead one to focus on self as passive “element” rather than as active “agent”. It is important to recall that, through personal writing, the person not only registers the movements of passive assimilation of outside influence but puts him or herself in a position to engage in active work on self as a different kind of outside influence, self-directed and with access to inner experience. By tracking influences on the self, the person now finds him or herself in a place to act as a privileged influence on the self.

Therein lies, for Foucault, the payoff of Greco-Roman culture of the self: the availability of a set of practices and institutions for working on the self. Moreover, the thinker presses home the extent to which this culture was prevalent not merely geographically but across a variety of schools of thought.

The theme of concerning onself with oneself […] is not to be found within any one particular philosophical doctrine. It is a universal precept, and it is also a real practice. Many individuals respond to its call. It is a practice which has its institutions, its rules, its techniques, its exercises, and it is also a mode of experience, of individual experience, an individual experience but also a collective experience with its means and its forms of expression.

Hence being able to speak of a general culture of the self at this period, the terms of which are fixed collectively for individual expression and self-articulation. This remarkable genesis of a permeable, fixable self gives way to a further point key to Foucault’s own work. As we have suggested above, self is not some hidden reality to be disclosed in the way that we disclose the atomic structure of nature. Rather, self stands as the correlate of technologies of the self embedded in various disciplines, i.e. as that on which different cultural practices and institutions bear when it is a question of persons and personhood. In Greco-Roman culture, this first became apparent in the nexus of the medical establishment, personal writing, and the care of the self. In modern times, these technologies have been displaced and are now to be found in disciplinary regimes, as per Foucault’s term.

Insofar as self is not a fixed entity, Foucault deems it a key human end to open up new relationships to the self and, by the same token, develop new technologies of the self. If self is a generative grammar of sorts, then the terms can be changed to produce different iterations, some of which may be more suitably adapted to a given era. It is precisely such a goal that we have fixed for ourselves.


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