Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

(1) Foucault's genealogy of an anti-theory of the normative ethical subject

Bregham Dalgliesh

Department of Politics, University of Edinburgh,

31 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9JT, Scotland, U.K.; Email: [email protected]

Many commentators detect two separate though theoretically interrelated problems in Foucault's ethical investigations. Crucially, they interpret genealogy as evidence of Foucault's ontological nihilism. In addition, his conception of power is seen as indicative of the decline in traditional forms of collective politics. Foucault's ethics, critics claim, is akin to a hermetic intellectual retreat characterised by an ascetic subject and a relativistic conception of politics. Hence the imperative to address these discriminating readings of Foucault. One way in which to do this is to see if his conceptualisation of the subject really does leave us theoretically stranded. In other words, to what extent does Foucault's genealogical research add to and inform - rather than negate - our present understanding of who we are as subjects?


The reception of Foucault's late-writings has been as varied as it has been influential.(3) His kindest critics, for example, argue that Foucault's main success lay in his role as a historian who is at the same time a critic of power.(4) They read Foucault, contradictions and all, as one of those rare thinkers who pushes one way of thinking to its limits in order to recognise and overcome earlier limitations.(5) In so doing, Foucault is able to avoid the narcissistic complacency of the prophetic intellectual in order to know himself generically in the unthought.(6) Indeed, Foucault on Foucault, as it were, encapsulates these interpretations in L'Usage when he writes:

As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next - as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet. ... There is irony in those efforts one makes to alter one's way of looking at things, to change the boundaries of what one knows and to venture out a ways from there. Did mine actually result in a different way of thinking? Perhaps at most they made it possible to go back through what I was already thinking, to think it differently, and to see what I had done from a new vantage point and in a clearer light. Sure of having traveled (sic) far, one finds that one is looking down on oneself from above. The journey rejuvenates things, and ages the relationship with oneself.(7)

Somewhat less sympathetically, other critics detect several problems in Foucault's investigations and his related ethical concerns. They argue that Foucault's ethics is an ontological cul-de-sac and his method an intellectual U-turn. Thus, Foucault's genealogical method in his late-writings was little more than an attempt to address the ego split and the role of the detached metaphenomenologist of his archaeological period.(8) Norris further argues that shortly before his death in 1984 Foucault was forced to shift from the moral-political bankruptcy of his post-structural genealogy to the ethics of stoical self-fashioning. In this guise, all Foucault could offer in terms of freedom was a thinned down normative commitment.(9) Accordingly, Foucault may well have been in the Heidegger-Nietzsche mould, but he was inferior to them in his style of specific historical analysis.(10) Along with his compatriots Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida, Foucault was basically a young conservative whose total critique of modernity ultimately turned in on itself.(11)

His critics continue further that Foucault was no more than an engaged, postvanguardist intellectual who employed philosophical history as farce.(12) Lévy even cites Foucault as the cause of the death of the intellectual due to their inability to outlive the decline of the universal (pretensions of philosophy).(13) Hence, Foucault was, as Habermas has notoriously claimed, a cryptonormativist who proposed an escape into the aesthetic and a decentred subjectivity divorced from work and usefulness.(14) Finally, Walzer argues that one of the broader consequences of these developments has been the retreat of the active, politically engaged social critic into the critic-in-small of the academy - Foucault is the archetype - who tends toward intellectual hermeticism and gnostic obscurity.(15)

Well, does Foucault in fact fail to offer us a critical conception of the subject? Is his legacy for ontology the conceptual vacuum which fuels the above criticisms? In the following study we will attempt to address these hostile readings of Foucault by arguing that his genealogy is a normative commitment which results in the critical concept of the ethical subject. So, firstly, how does Foucault conceptualise ethics or the rapport à soi? To answer this, we will examine the precise nature of the technologies of the self outlined in the first part of L'Usage as Foucault's 'anti-theory' of the subject. Thereafter, we will look into the specific epoch of Greek antiquity to see the evaluative differences between Foucault's anti-theory ethical subject and today's codified subject originally implied by Plato's theory of the subject.

Foucault's genealogy of ethics as an 'anti-theory' of the subject

Foucault markets a tri-axial interpretation of experience, which he argues is composed of knowledge, power and the subject.(16) In virtue of his philosophical concern with who we are, he examines experience's third postulate, the moral objectivisation of the subject, for it is here that our historical styles of subjectivity are assembled. It is therefore genealogy which arms Foucault with the material to be critical of our experience of who we are today; that is, the experience of oneself in respect of a code-oriented rather than an ethics-oriented morality wherein a self-disciplining style of subjectivity of conformity to the norm is regurgitated. Ultimately, it is this style which blights our ontological landscape for Foucault, and so it is necessary to examine the genealogical material - ethics - that functions as his criticism of it.

Let us reason, for a moment, why Foucault invites us to read his work on the discourses of sexual activity as a history of ethics rather than morality? Any answer to this question will at the start depend on the philosophical perspective one takes and the precise theoretical point one wants to make. In pondering Foucault's separation of them, it is useful to keep his normative commitment in the foreground, his ethics, which involves the constitution of the ethical subject and their associated style of subjectivity.

At a general level, and given that sexual activity has repeatedly fallen under the spell of our moral wizards, Foucault is concerned with the history of sexual morals. Yet, because of genealogy, he finds it necessary to delve deeper into the conventional history of moral prohibitions. He argues that a unified moral code, what we call morality, stipulates at least two types of normativity. Typically, there is a code of prescriptions, which specifies permitted from forbidden acts. In so doing, it serves as the contextual reference point for an assessment of the subject's behaviour.(17) Foucault describes this as the morality of behaviours, and it assigns a positive or a negative value - Thou shalt, Thou shalt not - to a range of possible behaviours by the subject.(18)

A second type of normativity, one which is seldom "... isolated as such but is, (Foucault) think(s), very important ...," is morality's requirement of the moral conduct of oneself.(19) This details the manner in which one ought to make or, moving along a crude spectrum of liberty, to obey, forge or create, oneself into an ethical subject who acts in respect of the moral code. Foucault suggests there are several factors - essentially four forms of rapport that one can have with oneself - which influence the ethical subject's conduct of themself. Each form will vary historically in the demands it places on the subject to develop their conduct, and the combined effect of each, an ethical subject and their subjectivity, will therefore differ from epoch to epoch, too.(20) Hence, ethics, the rapport à soi, reveal the normative criteria which are implied in the business of making oneself into an ethical subject of one's own behaviour. Finally, it is the genealogy of the subject that uncovers what these rapport à soi are. It is for this reason that the method ought to be seen as the canvass for Foucault's portrayal of the history of ethics. Even more precisely, it is his writing of a history of ethical practices, or what he also calls the technologies of the self.(21)

But what made Foucault theorise the four rapport à soi? It seems that contrary to what one would expect if we were to judge a book by its cover, L'Usage and Le Souci do not have as their primary aim a history, a documentation or an explanation of what our current understanding of sexuality is.(22) Of course, L'Usage started out as a historical study which aimed to plot the evolution of sexuality from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.(23) Eventually, however, the issue of sex began to 'bore' Foucault the more he discovered the dissimilarities in each epoch's problematisation of sexual activity and the subject's ethical relation to it.(24) Maybe we ought to therefore think of Foucault's ethics as a sign of his deeper philosophical and political concern. This quite untypical normalien invites us to consider the pivotal role that the field of sexual activity has played in the formation of the ethical subject's moral experience. In those ethics-oriented, philosophical moralities such as was to be found in antiquity, Foucault calls the abstract procedures which constituted this experience of oneself as an ethical subject the rapport à soi.

However, to reveal exactly what these are involves a complicated argument. Foucault has to look at the broad features which first determine for the western mind that sexual activity is established as a domain of moral valuation and choice. To accomplish this, he starts in L'Usage from the common notion of a general ethic of the chrésis aphrodisión (use of the pleasures). This allows Foucault to map the four interrelated rapport à soi to which it refers. Then, through an examination of several of the crucial practices indigenous to Greek antiquity and particular to the citizen, for example, his health regimen, method of household management and his practice of courtship, Foucault can study how medical and philosophical thought formulates the (historically recurrent) theme of austerity around sexual activity, and in response to which the ethic of the chrésis aphrodisión was developed. Hence, the citizen could only attain virtue insofar as he embodied, through his style of moderation, a quite stringent attitude of austerity in respect of the four major realms of his ethical experience. They are the ethical subject's relation to his body and his wife, and his relation to young boys and the truth. Similarly, the theme of the epimeleia heautou, which was the specific manifestation of the general discourse of moderation in Greek antiquity, was encapsulated as numerous aesthetics of existence in the form of dietetics, economics, erotics and philosophy, respectively.(25)

What, then, does Foucault mean exactly by the four rapport à soi which he says the chrésis aphrodisión relate to? There is, briefly, an ethical substance (substance éthique) and a type of subjection (mode d'assujettissement), which together constitute one's relationship to oneself. Descriptively, the ethical substance deals with the region in the subject's behaviour that is to be assigned ontological primacy, and in virtue of which it becomes the object of one's moral conduct. The ethical substance, as the territory over which ethics presides, is the aspect of our behaviour nominated for moral valuation or judgement.(26) This leads on to the second rapport à soi, the type of subjection, which is the way the subject establishes their relation to moral conduct and thus comes to recognise themself as obliged to practice it. The type of subjection is deontological, and pertains to the form of exposure given by the subject to the ethical substance independent of any specification of it.(27) Together, these two rapport à soi see to the constitution of one's relationship to oneself:

(In) the reflection of the Greeks of the classical period, it does seem that the moral problematization of food, drink and sexual activity was carried out in a rather similar manner. Foods, wines, and relations with women and boys constituted analogous ethical material; they brought forces into play that were natural, but that always tended to be excessive; and they all raised the same question: how could he, how must he 'make use' (chréstai) of this dynamics of pleasure, desires, and acts? A question of right use.(28)

Next, there is an elaboration of one's ethical work (travail éthique) and a teleology of the ethical subject (téléologie), which form the practices of the self.(29) This third rapport à soi details, firstly, the means by which the subject brings their behaviour into compliance with the relevant moral conduct. At the same time, the subject transforms themself into the ethical subject who performs the behaviour demanded by this moral conduct.(30) As such, the ethical work - the subject's elaboration of the type of subjection against their ethical substance, and thus of themself as ethical - is the central location where the philosophical input into ethics occurs.(31) This is due to the means employed by the subject in their process of elaboration. In order to comply with moral conduct, the subject has to master their own behaviour. But the demonstration of one's self-mastery over one's behaviour is dependent on the prior idea of enkrateia, the domination of oneself by oneself, which is realised through various forms of askésis (ascetics). It is here, where practical thought informs the subject's askésis, or one's daily transformation and work on oneself through a savoir-faire, that philosophy guides the subject in their endeavour to be ethical.(32)

The fourth rapport à soi demands something over and above the subject's behaviour being moral in itself, that one merely constitute oneself as an ethical subject. The citizen was advised to follow the principle of logos, which guarantees the circumstantial integration of the subject's ethical behaviour into his moral conduct to establish his vigorous, self-assertive form of freedom. Secondly, this teleological rapport à soi ensured a place at the pinnacle of power in the overall pattern of relations in the polis for the ethical subject and his active form of freedom. There is, then, a clear sense in which the subject has a goal of being to which he aspires. Lastly, it is a teleology where logos, because it is constitutive of the ethical subject, forms (through him) the foundational background to (his exercise of) political power.(33) Foucault therefore writes of the connection between the Greek citizen's freedom, which is ethically generated, and the wider polity:

The freedom that needed establishing and preserving was that of the citizens of a collectivity of course, but it was also, for each of them, a certain form of a relationship of the individual with himself. The organization of the city, the nature of its laws, the forms of education, and the manners in which the leaders conducted themselves obviously were important factors for the behavior of citizens; but conversely, the freedom of individuals, understood as the mastery they were capable of exercising over themselves, was indispensable to the entire state. ... The individual's attitude toward himself, the way in which he ensured his own freedom with regard to himself, and the form of supremacy he maintained over himself were a contributing element to the well-being and good order of the city.(34)

Foucault's genealogy of ethics as a theoretical critique of a theory of the subject

The central issue under the Foucauldian microscope above is the moral framework in Greek antiquity wherein the desiring subject (of pleasure) experiences himself. We have seen, in our examination of the rapport á soi, the abstract formalities of this experience. Of importance here were the rapport á soi of the constitution of his relationship to himself, and those of the supporting practices of the self. It was in the latter, too, that the significance of knowledge became evident: the concrete effect of the rapport á soi, the ethical subject, had, in his process of becoming, to constitute himself as a subject of knowledge. Therefore, upon the success of the ethical stylisation of his subjectivity through conformity to knowledge, the ethical subject of sóphrosyné constituted by this relation assumed his role as a citizen who exercised political power.

A healthy level of inquisitiveness might lead one to deliberate beyond this conception of the subject to what differentiates, for Foucault, one epoch's ethics from another's? How can we evaluate critically 'their' subjectivity against 'our' subjectivity? An answer to this question will initially have to revert back to the generalities of our tentatively explored concept of morality. Indeed, one of the primary challenges for Foucault is to negotiate the appropriate compromise between the musings of the general on sex and the verities of the particular on the self, and out of which his genealogy of the ethical subject emerges.(35) In any event, and as we have already seen, Foucault argues that all unified moral codes contain prescriptions on the morality of behaviour and the morality of conduct. In virtue of their identity with the same morality, he says that in reality neither of these types of normativity can be dissociated from the other. There is no specific moral behaviour that does not in some way refer back to a unified moral code. Also, there is no moral conduct that does not require the fashioning of oneself into an ethical subject in respect of this same morality.(36) Nevertheless, a unified morality can be said to accentuate what Foucault terms either its code-oriented side or its ethics-oriented part.

A code-oriented morality focuses on the morality of behaviours, the code of prescriptions, to the detriment of the morality of conduct. Analytical attention is directed toward the richness of the code, and its ability to encapsulate and assimilate all areas of behaviour. From the perspective of our ontological foreground, what is significant is the authority that enforces, polices and penalises the code and its transgression. As a consequence, the subject submits their morality of conduct to the code. The subject's ethical relationship is to the moral code of prescribed behaviours. That is, the technologies of the self are no more than a question of normalisation, and the subjectivity of the ethical subject is quasi-juridical in style.

In contrast, an ethics-oriented morality emphasises the morality of conduct, the ethical rapport à soi, a