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Fr. 534

June 27, 2014

One last question makes itself felt in the wake of Foucault’s somewhat breathless conclusion. In what way has this culture or care of the self been obscured in our own? Why has such a culture been forgotten? For Foucault, this forgetting is not to be ascribed to a single cause but, rather, the combined working of four distinct changes in Western culture:

First is the ethical paradox of Christian asceticism. In this kind of asceticism, the concern for the self has to take the form of a sacrifice. The renouncement is the major target of the work that we have to do on ourselves. The second reason is that most of those techniques of the self have been integrated in our world in educational and pedagogical, in medical and psychological techniques. The techniques of the self have been embedded either in some authoritarian and disciplinary structure or substituted for and transformed by public opinion, mass media, polling techniques, which play a formative role in our attitudes towards the other and towards ourselves so that the culture of the self is now imposed on people by the other, and the culture of the self has lost his [sic] independence. The third reason is, I think, that human sciences suppose that the main, the major relationship to the self is and has to be essentially a relationship of knowledge. And the fourth reason, and the last one, is that most of the time people think that what we have to do is to disclose, to liberate, to excavate the hidden reality of the self. But the self, I think, has to be considered not as a reality which can be hidden. I think that the self has to be considered as the correlate of technologies built and developed through our history. The problem then is not to liberate, not to free the self, but […] to consider how it could be possible to elaborate new kinds, new types of relationships to ourselves.

Although all four changes have had a role to play in the gradual withdrawal of this culture and care of the self, the last three are of particular importance for our study. Concerning the second charge, that of integration and substitution, we will note that the Greco-Roman care of the self has been displaced and translated, as it were, into specific domains which do not coincide wholly or, at times, at all with daily life. These techniques are largely absent from adult life and encountered in circumstances that most approach only with reluctance. If this care of the self arose in relation to the medical practice, as the medical practice has withdrawn from daily public life, so has this care of the self. As Foucault remarks, mass media has in some sense supplanted the medical practice of self physicians and other domains in daily life, and, thus, the role of identity-formation once held by self physicians is now occupied by the likes of pundits and pollsters eager to expose the listener’s self to the listener as they see it.

As regards the third reason, we will say only briefly that the self has become an abstract object of reflection that we are to come to know through methods largely inaccessible to the broader public. These methods are not of the kind that we find in personal writing but take form rather as experiments, tests and analyses, the bases of which prove inscrutable for the layperson. These practitioners of self are, in reality, mere observers who are otherwise uncommitted to elaborating a set of practices and institutions for self-articulation.

The fourth and final reason concerns widely held views on the self, views on which we have already elaborated elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the self represents, for the average person, an immutable, undisclosed entity within ourselves. Additionally, it is our task to reveal or bring out this entity as it is. This shows to what extent, in most minds, the self is an idealized type, unchanged, unchangeable and waiting to be uncovered.

A methodological concern adds itself to the four charges listed above. Someone like Charles Taylor would dispute to what extent the Greco-Roman culture of self and the Greco-Roman self could be considered in the same way that we regard the modern self, particularly as considered under the facet of identity. Indeed, Taylor’s discussion in Sources of the Self aims to discredit precisely such an analogy. That said, the texts with which Taylor concerns himself seem to fall rather into the tradition of gnothi seauton rather than epimelesthai eautou insofar as he links the Platonic notion of self to precisely this provisional or propaedeutic contemplation of the self as, at worst, incidental to and, at best, instrumental to the contemplation and knowledge of the world. Accordingly, it is unclear to what extent Taylor’s objections in Sources of the Self undercut Foucault’s contention. In fairness, it is likewise unclear whether Foucault himself would maintain such an analogy or proximity, given his insistence on the evolution of new and different technologies of the self in the modern and contemporary era. It is here a question of “self” rather than that of the peculiarly modern formation “identity”.

In the end, the differences between these thinkers on the question of ancient self might well owe to their focus on different historical objects rather than to the more basic question of the mutability of the self with regards to practices bearing on the self, a point on which, broadly speaking, they seem in agreement.

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