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Ethico-political engagement and the self-constituting subject in Foucault

Lecturer: Lenka Ucnik

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

This lecture series discusses Foucault’s final works on the care of the self and its connection to political and ethical agency. Over the 5 weeks we will look at Foucault’s shift to practices of the self, discuss his account of the hermeneutics of the subject from the lecture series of the same name, and demonstrates how this attitude of self-care serves as a form of critique and resistance—where it is both a way of living and acting in the world, and a critical response to a particular time and place.

Lecture 1: Overview of Foucault’s works on knowledge and power, and his shift to practices of the self

In the first lecture we will discuss Foucault’s three modes of objectification, which he identifies as affecting the constitution of subjectivity: truth, power and ethics. Additionally, this first lecture serves as an overview of Foucault’s works, looking at,

  • Modes of scientific formation involving scientific investigations in which human beings are the subjects of scientific study and classification. The Order of Things is illustrative of this approach
  • Regulating systems of power concerning practices of manipulation and examination that locate, shape and classify bodies in the social field. Examples of the second mode, typified in Discipline and Punish, include the division between the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy or, the criminal and the good
  • The final mode (ethics) deals with the ways in which individuals establish a relationship to the self that is self-constituted and facilitates personal understanding and the recognition of themselves as subjects.

Lecture 2: Hermeneutics of the self (exegesis and framework for Foucault’s care of the self)

In this lecture we will examine the “appearance” of the care of the self presented by Foucault and explain his 3 models of self-care in antiquity: Socratic-Platonic (ancient Greek), Roman-Hellenistic, and Christian.

In the posthumously published 1981-2 lectures at the College de France on The Hermeneutics of the Subject Foucault discusses the historical dimensions of subjectivity-truth relations and presents a detailed account of the relationship between truth and the subject. In the context of his broader examination of self-constitution, Foucault investigates how people are brought to see themselves as particular subjects in the first place.

Lecture 3: The subject of ethics

In this lecture we will examine Foucault’s understanding of ethical substance as an aspect of the self that is relevant for ethical judgment, and provides the basis of personal concerns and self-understanding.

Foucault identifies three aspects of ethics: ethical substance, the mode of subjection, and ascesis (technique). The particularities of these modes of subjectivity govern a person’s thinking and actions, and can range from such things as forms of sexual identity to how people are brought to embrace the ideals of a socio-cultural milieu. The formation of a particular kind of subject, a process that Foucault refers to as subjectivation, is the result of a complex set of forces acting and reacting upon one another. This contrasts with a view of subjectivity that casts it as unchanging and fundamental.

Lecture 4: Aesthetics of existence

In lecture four, we look at Foucault’s account of an aesthetics of existence, where the use of the term “art” exists in the space between ancient notions of technique and modern ideas of art as beautiful objects.

The constitution of subjectivity and self-knowledge is a never-ending process, with personally monitored practices of self-care at its centre. The relationship between ethics and aesthetics manifests through technical and ascetic practices, whereby ethical practice is principally a matter of self-critique and development, and not located in a “universal form of the subject”. The task Foucault sets, in articulating an ethical practice based in freedom, is to bring out ascetic practices from the realm of art, and place them into politics and society more broadly.

Lecture 5: Freedom, political thought and the ethical subject

In the final lecture, we will explore Foucault’s vision of the care of the self as a form of critique and resistance wherein the critical task is to question and challenge forms of domination, at whatever level, and sound a warning through one’s words and deeds

Self-care is central to Foucault’s vision for the expansion of resistance, with ethics serving as the mediator between the subject, knowledge and power. Through a critical attitude towards the present via an individual ethics, based on a specific notion of freedom, Foucault questions the limits imposed upon us and experiments with ways to reconfigure such limits. Simply, the care of the self is the acknowledgement that a person exists in a world that cannot be transcended, whilst simultaneously remaining an active part in it.