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

IntroductionMurillo's Beggar Boy

Recent years have seen influential ‘left’ theorists such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj ホi゙ek1 join with earlier ‘right’ theorists of normativity to argue that poststructuralism’s particular form of privileging the other and difference leads to the “dispersion” of the self as ethical agent,2 as well as to resignation and cynicism concerning politics and the political. 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’. That is, against what they take to be the ambiguities and deferrals of poststructuralism, they deploy practices of thought, inspired in significant ways by the work of Jacques Lacan (among others), which variously posit a singular Real decisive for the interpretation and negotiation of the infinite differences of the present situation – this the better to recognise and resist the specific unfreedoms that characterise it.

This paper considers the later work of Michel Foucault against this backdrop, proposing that the announcement of the incipient eclipse, or end, of poststructuralism may prove premature, insofar as Foucault’s work engages with such questions of singularity and the real in ways that challenge the trajectories of Badiou and ホi゙ek – even as their critique challenges his poststructuralism to re-examine its ends and to re-position its concerns within an altered situation. In particular, it proposes that Foucault, in his later work concerning practices of the self, situates the drive toward ‘becoming other’ in relation to a historically-constituted singularity of the self. In so doing, he implicitly connects the singularity of the self with his earlier analyses of specific prohibitions, exclusions, and disciplinary productions of individuals, in a thought, it is argued, which is not unsympathetic to the call for the ‘return of the real’. At the same time, it will be proposed, that Foucault’s attention to the ambiguity involved in what he termed “événementialisation”, the analysis of discourse and practices as dimensions of events, complicates the relation of the singularity of the event and the self to the specific and material.3 In Peter Hallward’s terms, the critical question, then, becomes that of how to formulate adequately the singular in its relation (or non-relation) to the specific.4 As such, the paper proposes that the important debate between poststructuralism, at least in its Foucauldian form, and these more recent theorists concerns modes of singularity and their ethical and political implications.

Before turning to Foucault, a brief consideration of the basic coordinates of Badiou’s and ホi゙ek’s deployment of the Lacanian Real is in order.

Badiou, ホi゙ek and the Return of the Real

Crucial to both Badiou and ホi゙ek is Jacques Lacan’s move in the 1960’s beyond a psychoanalytic therapeutics focussed upon understanding and negotiating identity and subjectivity as ‘Imaginary’ constructs that are constituted within, and in relation to, the ‘Symbolic’ system of societal signifiers – the unconscious big Other, to which individuals must give themselves over if they are to achieve being. At that point, Lacan began to formulate his conception of the ‘Real’, as that which is prior to and lies outside of the Symbolic, resists symbolisation, and, hence, is unrepresentable within it. The Real emerges as that which is irreducibly repressed by the Symbolic.

With this development, the focus of Lacanian psychoanalysis shifted to a discernment of those points at which the Real is encountered as the void of gaps in the Symbolic, revealed by symptoms and revealing of the contingency (or “contingent necessity”) and repressions of the Symbolic. In particular, Lacan’s attention turned from negotiating the Imaginary identity of the subject within the Symbolic to a notion of the subject as the split and void that separates the Imaginary ego from its Symbolic unconscious.5 Later still, he would point to those relatively rare moments of “subjectivation”, when individuals attend to, and identify with, the cause of their desire – what he termed “traversing the fundamental fantasy”.6 That is to say, by attending to the remainder of a unity possessed prior to the split engendered in becoming in the big Other – a remainder expressed as a fundamental fantasy, Lacan’s petit objet a – the individual achieves an encounter with the Real and gains a certain subjective power over the split which alienates them, by subjectifying the desires shaped by that split.

For his part, ホi゙ek pursues a more or less direct mapping of Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory onto the political sphere, the trajectory of his work mirroring in important respects that of Lacan himself.7 Hence, in his earlier work he attempts to demonstrate how the postmodern obsession with the play of signifiers and the infinite possibilities of deconstruction obscures those ‘symptoms’ that point to the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real structure of the contemporary socio-cultural and discursive situation.8 Indeed, he considers postmodernism (and poststructuralism in its resonances with the postmodern) to be a particularly insidious subordination to the cultural superego, which in its Lacanian conception operates not merely by prohibition, but additionally through the injunction to “enjoy your symptom”. In ホi゙ek’s view, the ironic distance from and cynicism toward commitment and action are the correlate of our postmodern enjoyment of difference predicted by Lacanian theory.

Drawing on Lacan’s later notion of the “sinthome”, he attempts to bring into focus those specific socio-cultural and discursive ‘symptoms’, the enjoyment of which, function to hold together the Symbolic against irruptions of the Real – irruptions which reveal the former’s necessity to be a radical contingency and thus point to the inherent instability of the Symbolic. In this context, mirroring Lacan’s “traversing the fantasy”, ホi゙ek advocates and performs, as a political strategy, an “overidentification” with those decisive cultural and political ‘symptoms’ that he uncovers, in a complex “acting out” of society’s neurotic, psychotic and hysterical symptoms, designed to provoke readers into a confrontation with the Real of our socio-cultural context.9

More recently, ホi゙ek has acknowledged his excessive dependence on Lacan’s early conceptualisation of the Real as a kind of quasi-Kantian noumenal Thing, positing instead a Real that better resonates with Lacan’s later emphasis upon “traversing the fantasy”.10 Hence, ホi゙ek now posits a Real that is thoroughly immanent and reveals itself not as the void of the Symbolic, but as the “minimal difference” by which things differ from themselves within it. In this framework, one encounters not only a “real Real”, but a “symbolic Real” and an “imaginary Real” as well, such that the Real is woven into the fabric of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real framework as its internal self-difference. If the first is the early Lacanian “horrifying Thing”, the symbolic Real is constituted by those points where our significations of reality can no longer be translated into everyday terms (ホi゙ek gives the example of quantum representations of reality), while the imaginary Real refers to the quality which allows the sublime to shine through ordinary objects.11 This nuancing of his position notwithstanding, he nonetheless continues to argue for the singularity of the Real in relation to the Symbolic and Imaginary, the encounter with which offers us the possibility of radically and effectively engaging the complexities and ambiguities of the present.

For Badiou, by contrast, the importance of Lacan lies more indirectly in the resources toward a theory of the event offered by the conception of the Real as a void which irrupts into the Symbolic. At the same time, Badiou rejects as “antiphilosophy” Lacan’s notion that such decisive events are centred upon the drives generated by quasi-originary constructions of identity. Rather, Badiou focuses upon events as “haphazard” occurrences that interrupt a given situation, allowing for genuinely new beginnings. At the same time, he retains the Lacanian notion of the Real as that which is irreducibly repressed by the Symbolic. While the event is of the same order of being as the elements of the situation in which it irrupts, it counts as nothing in the situation and is unrepresentable within it. Moreover, for Badiou, subjectivity does not coincide with the void of such an irruption, but is constituted after the event, in fidelity to it, when the unpresentable event must be asserted.12

Specifically, subjectivation takes place in the naming of the event, that is, in a subjective deciding upon its intrinsic undecidability – a naming which avoids reduction to decisionism by grounding itself in the event. This subjective naming involves the endless labour of clarifying the specific truth of an event, by identifying its “evental site” within the situation – the site of the event within the situation, which is nonetheless not specified by the situation, but rather which reveals the void of the situation. In particular, this process involves tracing the “edge of the void” where the event irrupts upon each specific element of the situation. Truth emerges, not as a contribution to prevailing systems of knowledge, but in its singularity as the specific truth of the event, a truth nonetheless universal to the situation. This truth can be arrived at only through the ‘subtraction’ of all elements specific to the situation, the event constituting that which is present but unrepresented within each of the situational elements.

Even as Badiou departs significantly from Lacan, he adopts elements of the deep structure of his thought. Indeed, against the differing and deferrals of poststructuralist difference both Badiou and ホi゙ek variously forge the possibility of articulating singular symptoms or events of the Real and the singular truth of current situations or events. And for both, a singular self – a subjectivation in fidelity to the event of the Real or a subjectivation coincident with it – is integral to intellectual practice.

Thinking differently and the Aging Relationship with the Self

Against this backdrop, the later Foucault’s conception of the care of the self, especially conceived as an “aesthetics of existence”, appears to be vulnerable of the criticisms of Badiou and ホi゙ek. This is particularly so when Foucault, in his account of an aesthetics of existence, draws explicitly upon Baudelaire’s dandy moving through a succession of fleeting moments in his evocations of a contemporary care of the self.13 Not only does Foucault appear to remain firmly within the co-ordinates of the Imaginary-Symbolic framework that dominated the work of the early Lacan, as Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner argue, but he appears to celebrate the pursuit of a difference without a Real.14 In this regard, ホi゙ek claims that the later Foucault remains enmeshed in a humanist elitism which holds that the Imaginary self is capable of adequately negotiating in itself all of the signifying forces of the Symbolic.15 Indeed, in his introduction to his revised history of sexuality project in 1984, reflecting on the complex set of transformations, which his work had undergone in that period, not least his reorientation of his history of sexuality to resurrect a question of the self, Foucault stresses that the underlying philosophical problematic is one of a radical becoming other: “to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known”.16 Deploying several metaphors, he stresses and valorises thought as a pure becoming other: it is an “essay” after difference, irreducible to our prevailing categories of thought, a ‘becoming other’ in a philosophical “askesis” brought to bear on the self, and a decisive Ausgang from prevailing modes of thought.

Having taken pains to stress this dimension of thought, however, he unexpectedly states:

There is irony in these 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 travelled far, one finds that one is looking down on oneself from above. The journey rejuvenates things, and ages the relationship with oneself.17

At one level these comments simply state that the work of his final years has greater continuity with his earlier formulation of the project of a history of sexuality than might be expected in view of the eight years of reformulation and rewriting of what Hervé Guibert, in his fictionalised account of Foucault’s later years, termed his “endless book”.18 However, the precise formulation is provocative in its implications for his philosophical practice. Indeed, it bears similarities to other, apparently incidental asides that Foucault tended to deploy when he wished to indicate unexpected consequences of a given analysis that might well call for a radical revision of his prior presuppositions.19

To grasp the import of these comments it is worth recalling Rudi Visker’s view that the “decentred self” of poststructuralist thought is not finally fully decentred but finds that it “is attached to ‘something’ to which it does not find access and from which it cannot rid itself.”20 Foucault evokes precisely such a sense of the circumscription of the possibility of thinking differently and so of becoming other – a sense that the relation to oneself circles about a distribution of more or less fixed points, a out certain specific problematics, without that ‘something’ to which it is attached ever becoming accessible. Insofar as he describes finding himself at a height looking down upon himself, it might be said that if the sites of becoming other constitute a finite “constellation” (on a horizontal plane, as it were) about an inaccessible singularity – even permitting a diversity of experience or intentions over a lifetime – then, ‘becoming other’ is constituted by a vector, a trajectory, in another (vertical) plane. As such, the notion of the aging of the relation to oneself would point to a qualitatively different relation, a different perspective, a useful distance from oneself.21

The notion that such a singular ‘something’ might be signalled in this aside is given credence by an anecdote recounted by Foucault’s colleague at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne. Veyne recalls watching television with Foucault one evening in the 1980s. On a programme that they watched, a man caught up in the midst of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (on which side Veyne does not remember) spoke directly, with passion of what drove him on. The man concluded, “I don’t know where this passion comes from, but there it is”. Veyne tells how Foucault declared, “There we have it at last…everything has been said, there’s nothing more to say.”22 It is reasonable to suppose that Foucault might consider such an inaccessible passion to underlie and find expression in the constellation of problematics about which he finds his own work circling, even as he pursues a radical strategy of becoming other.

Indeed, a broadly similar practice of thought, simultaneously committed to a radical becoming other yet driven by a singular passion, is found in the work of Foucault’s fellow-poststructuralist, Michel de Certeau – specifically his later notion of the mystic as a ‘nomadic self’.23 Inspired by Lacan no less than Badiou or ホi゙ek, de Certeau posits a self driven by a singular “primary passion”, that is, by a lack (of the lost Real), that can only recover the Real fleetingly in performing its primary passion upon ‘other’ contexts – contexts, which may prove opaque to that primary passion. That is to say, de Certeau’s nomadic self can only attain to the Real in a radical becoming other which must risk the loss of identity and the total loss of that lost object toward which it strives, in a repeated saying “yes, in foreign land”.24 (Strictly, for the Christian de Certeau, this primary passion finds fulfilment in Jesus Christ, but since (for de Certeau) the risen Christ is paradoxically encountered in the empty tomb, this fulfilment itself functions as a Lacanian Real, a lacking or lost object, to be encountered in the performance of the Christian text in ‘other’ contexts.) Moreover, for de Certeau, as for Foucault, this performance of one’s (primary) passion leads to a discernable ‘constellation’ of effects of the Real emerging: those marks that accumulate and crystallise on the body of the nomad as a consequence of his or her experiences reflect the singularity of the passion that drove it. Indeed, for the later de Certeau, those bodily marks become, if anything, more important than the Real as such.

Although Foucault’s comments do not bear the specific Lacanian sense of Certeau’s “primary passion”, they point to a similar poststructuralist practice of thought whose radical becoming other is informed and driven by a fundamental passion or passions, which are articulated in the constellation of the elements of one’s thought, its problematics, and preoccupations, even as that passion or those passions are not reducible to them.25 If it is thus possible to conceive of a singularity of self in the later Foucault, questions arise as to the precise extent to which such a conception suggests an image of thought additionally attentive to the singularity of events and of the Real, and, the relation of Foucauldian singularity to that of Badiou and ホi゙ek. To answer these questions, it is necessary to consider Foucault’s elaboration of the ethics of care of the self.

Care of the self

Foucault took inspiration for his discovery of an ethics of care of the self in ancient Greek texts from Pierre Hadot, who, in a seminal 1977 essay, had posited that philosophical activity in the ancient world could not be adequately encapsulated in the notions of either “thought exercises” or “ethical exercises”, but only by the range of significations implied by “spiritual exercises” – that is, exercises that involve not merely “thought but...the individual’s entire psychism”.26 The breakthrough in formulating an ethics of care of the self, came for Foucault, when, departing from Hadot’s view that such spiritual exercises were integrally oriented to the individual’s participation in universal truth, he conceived of the “care of the self” as a phenomenon distinct from such participation. While acknowledging that care of the self had never fully resolved itself within Greek culture, he nonetheless argued that beginning from Plato’s Alcibiades, in which care of the self served as a preparation for the young male citizen toward entering into public life, the gradual emergence of a whole “culture of the self” could be discerned. While still retaining the dimension of being a counterpoint to public leadership, this more developed care of the self would be exercised daily throughout one’s life as a thoroughgoing “practice of the self” or “art of existence” – perhaps under the guidance of a master or supported by friendship.27

In particular, he contrasted the care of the self with two major notions of conversion in the ancient world, which Hadot had identified in an early essay: Platonic epistrophē and Christian metanoia. Platonic epistrophē consists in “a movement leading us from this world to the other”, a liberation from immanent experience toward knowledge, whose primary mode is “recollection”.28 By contrast, Foucault argues, ‘conversion’ within the “culture of the self” is characterised by the movement toward the “complete, perfect, and adequate relation of the self to the self”, and is concerned with practices of the self rather than “recollection” of an external truth – with knowledge as spiritual practices rather than as knowledge of a field of study.

In turn, Christian metanoia consists in a “sudden, dramatic, historical-metahistorical upheaval of the subject…a transition from one type of being to another” – in a “break” in the subject, “a renunciation of oneself, dying to oneself” – what Foucault terms a “trans-subjectivation”.29 By contrast, in conversion within the culture of the self “there is not exactly a break”. Or rather, more precisely, “there is not a caesura within the self by which the self tears itself away from itself…The break must be carried out with what surrounds itself so that it is not enslaved, dependent, and constrained”.30 Foucault describes a whole movement of “withdrawal” from the world, a “return to port”, which is at one and the same time a turning toward the self as “toward an end” in a movement of the self - an “askēsis”, an exercise upon the self which precisely signifies a rejoining of the self, rather than the renunciation of the self the term will signify within Christianity.31 The care of the self comes to constitute a continuous movement toward the self, by which the relation to the self and freedom are perfected – what Foucault terms a process of “self-subjectivation”. Insofar as the self falls subject to the multiple forces within which it must daily operate within the polis, the relation or return to the self is simultaneously a freeing of oneself from oneself (se déprendre de soi-même).

Foucault thus argues that “self-subjectivation” is not the process of “objectification of the self in a true discourse” as found either in the Platonic reconciliation of individual will with the universal, through the recollection of the true, or in the Christian confession of the real within oneself in obedience to an external authority, which comes to be central to the (permanent) process of metanoia. Rather, it is “the subjectivation of a true discourse in a practice of oneself on oneself” in which one becomes a “subject of veridiction”.32

In view of its evocativeness for intellectual practice, Foucault places considerable importance upon the practice of utilising hupomnēmata, or aids to memory, especially among the Stoics and Epicureans, as a means of recalling the master’s discourse in exercises of the self.33 While acknowledging that the term, hupomnēmata, had a wide range of reference, Foucault focuses upon the specific sense it bore of quotations heard or remembered, especially those of one’s master, which one wrote down to be used subsequently as a resource in meditation upon specific personal difficulties or theoretical problems. In Foucault’s view, the principal purpose of these quotations was neither as an aid to memory as such, nor as fragments of a personal narrative or journal. Rather, they were used as a means of recollecting the self in the midst of the disparate fragments of culture and discourse which one encountered in everyday life. Through them one might (re)establish a relationship of oneself to oneself, which would support an ethical, ‘recollected’ path through life, enabling one to resist being buffeted about in a diffusion of one’s energies by these disparate fragments.34

Once more, the focus is not upon a true discourse of which the individual is object, but of the subjectivation of the individual through the use of elements of discourse. Foucault emphasises, in particular, how writing – whether in the direct writing of hupomnēmata or within correspondence – formed a dimension of ascetic exercises of the self, having what he termed an “ethopoietic” function: that is to say, it functions as “an agent of the transformation of truth into ethos,” a veritable “self writing”. Citing Seneca, in particular, Foucault points out how this process both respects the heterogeneity of these disparate elements and engages in a process of unification. This unification is, however, neither formal nor systematic, relating not to the unity of discourse, but to the unity of the process of subjectivation. It constitutes a formation of the subject in and through these elements, yet is thoroughly a unity of the ‘author’ of these notebooks.35

When overlaid with his notion of an “aesthetics of existence”, Foucault’s ethics of care of the self again appears susceptible to ホi゙ek’s critique (that it reflects a humanist-elitist self capable of constituting the site of integrating of the multiple, divergent forces that constitute the socio-cultural sphere), or alternatively to Badiou’s implicit criticism of Foucault’s tendency to separate subjectivation from truth, and to constitute the former as an aesthetic rather than an evental process. While it may be possible to understand the “return to self” as pointing to a certain singularity of self, it is rather more difficult to ascertain how this relation to the self might support or stand in relation to singular events and the Real.

Two critical points are to be noted here, however. First, Foucault’s death in 1984 shortly after the publication of the second and third volumes of his history of sexuality means that he never had an opportunity to clarify how these practices of care of the self stand in relation to his preceding work. That they did, and in a complex fashion, is highlighted by Veyne when he suggests that Foucault’s reading of these ancient texts served for him as a practice of care of his own self, of developing a relation to his own self and his preceding work.36 Second, although Foucault discovers something distinctively different and important in the notion of the care of the self from what he had discovered in early Christian practices, it will only be in his analysis of cynic practices of care of the self in his Collège de France lecture courses in 1983 and 1984 that he discovers practices of the self whose political and ethical tenor are closer to his own. Among the cynics he found a practice of care of the self conducted, not in quiet recollection apart from the bustle of the polis, but in a public frank-speaking (parrhesia) which risks all, even perhaps life itself, in revealing to the polis the absurdities of its rationality.37 Even here, however, the deeper resonances with Foucault’s own practice of thought should not be mistaken for a simple identification with what he termed the “philosophical grimace” of the cynics.38 That is to say, not only does he perform the care of the self he discovers in these texts, he does so at varying degrees of distance from their ancient forms. (On being asked what he thought of the Greeks, Foucault responded, “Not very much”.)39 It is thus important to reconstruct what a contemporary Foucauldian practice of care of the self might entail, and how such a practice evolves in light of his final lecture courses.

Care of the Self as Modulation of Foucault’s Earlier Practice

In his later articles and interviews, it is possible to see outward signs of Foucault pursuing the kind of care of himself and self writing of which Veyne speaks. As he reads these ancient texts, he is enabled to arrive at a renewed appreciation of what his archaeologies of the 1960s work and his genealogies of the 1970s had involved and to gain a critical distance from it – in a simultaneous movement of returning to and of freeing himself from himself. In particular, beyond his earlier preoccupations with the death of the subject, he is able to re-conceive his thought as having always revolved around three critical problematics: namely ‘knowledge’, ‘power’, and ‘subjectivity’. It is not that he r troactively interpret

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