Care of the self

by everlivingpoet

What did Foucault say about confession? That it’s a way of converting ourselves into individuals. This is worth going into, because it’s such a paradox. Foucault belonged to that generation of European philosophers who, after the world wars, and during the cold war (when nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants actually still scared the shit out of us), subjected the bourgeois liberal individual to thorough analysis. Like the third century Indian philosophers of Nalanda, they realized that the ‘I’ is merely designated, a kind of linguistic illusion that organizes our experience in ways that are deeply problematic and suspect. From this point of view, to confess, and to individualize, is to make one’s personal narrative seem more real. More than that, it is to make that narrative knowable, subject to a kind of technocratic discipline: self-definition as self-policing. In our popular music, our films, our novels, feeling individuals seem to never cease to spill their guts, to confess. One doesn’t need to be a philosopher to feel a bit disgusted by, and suspicious of, this gushing. To feel that way isn’t a stoic denial of emotion. It’s a rejection of the call to identify, to recognize one’s incurable alienation in another, and to feel all the more real. Perhaps Foucault is responding to the bureaucratic social sciences, the civil servants or servants of the state (psychologists, lawyers, teachers) who identify people by their observable symptoms. To describe is to control, isn’t it? I seem to remember that for Foucault psychoanalysis was for this reason itself the manifestation of a kind of impulse to reify the identity, if not the state, the institution.

I say it’s a paradox because I believe we live in a time when intellectuals parade this common knowledge – the ‘I’ is socially constituted – and yet art has never been more about the uniqueness of the condition called ‘me’ than it is now. Some people seem to think that’s what Facebook is about. One has to reflect on all that when one is writing a ‘confession’. At least one has to remember that one isn’t defining oneself, and can’t define oneself. One shouldn’t even identify with oneself. But, certainly, one should feel. Some have criticized Foucault precisely for eventually turning to the ‘spiritual’ notion of “care of the self” – apparently a betrayal of his more rigorous (anti-consumerist) critique of the individual. However, and this is something one finds in Theodore Adorno and Cornell West, Foucault’s point is that philosophy is not a propositional endeavour but a way of life, a practice upon oneself, a disruption of closure, an ongoing critique that involves quite the opposite of what we have learned to mean by self-knowledge.