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John McSweeney
The Singularity of Self in the Later Foucault: Reconsidering the End(s) of Poststructuralist Thought


Recent years have seen influential ‘left’ theorists such as Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek argue that poststructuralism’s particular form of privileging the other and difference leads to the ‘dispersion’ of the self as ethical agent, as well as to resignation and cynicism concerning politics and the political. Inspired by Lacan and precipitating a growing crisis of poststructuralism, they variously call for a renewed attention to the ‘singularity’ of the self and of events in a ‘return of the Real’ capable of adequately engaging the contemporary socio-political situation.

This paper considers the later of work of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault against this backdrop—proposing that, at least with regard to his work, the announcement of the incipient eclipse, or end, of poststructuralism may prove premature. Foucault’s work, it argues, engages with such questions of singularity and the real in ways that challenge the trajectories of Badiou and Žižek, even as their critique challenges poststructuralism to re-examine its ends and to re-position its concerns with the other and difference within an altered situation.

In particular, the paper examines how Foucault in his later analysis of ancient Greek (and Roman) practices of care of the self situates the poststructuralist drive toward ‘becoming other’ in relation to a historically-constituted (if inaccessible) singularity of the self. While Foucault describes this relation to self in uncompromisingly aesthetic and subjective terms, it is shown how this analysis of care of the self performs a re-imagining and critical extension of his earlier conception of his work as ‘fictions’, rooted in specific experiences of exclusion or marginalization, which become true in the new relations to truth that they enable people to develop. As such, the care of the self is enmeshed within Foucault’s broader aracheologico-genealogical framework of thought—a framework that presupposes a sophisticated, if often under-elaborated, evental quality to reality. In this framework, experiences of exclusion and marginalization constitute approximately what Badiou and Žižek would term encounters with the Real.

The paper concludes by comparing the conception of singularity of self, event and the Real operative in Foucault’s work with those conceptualized by Badiou and Žižek. It argues that the critical point is that Foucault’s work—that is to say, his later work—less lacks attention to the Real than it elaborates a different ‘economy’ of the Real, exemplified by his conception of the singularity of the self and the political ambiguity he ascribes to events. Even as Badiou and Žižek challenge those writing after Foucault to eradicate all traces of a postmodern celebration of difference from the ongoing deployment of his work, Foucault’s work invites a debate about those modes of singularity of the Real, the event and the self that are adequate to the challenges and complexities of the present.

John McSweeney is the Coordinator of Pastoral Development for the Catholic Diocese of Cork and Ross in Ireland.  He also lectures in the Adult Continuing Education Programme at University College Cork.  He completed a PhD at the Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland, in 2007.  His dissertation examined the critical intersection of the thought of Michel Foucault with Christian theology.  He has published a number of articles in journals, including Foucault Studies and Louvain Studies.  His principal research interests lie in the religious and political significance of poststructuralist and post-poststructuralist thought.


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