Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Practices of the Self to Politics: Foucault and Friendship

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Practices of the Self to Politics: Foucault and Friendship

Article excerpt

This essay aims to serve as an intervention in the longstanding controversy about the political usefulness of Foucault's work. As I have argued elsewhere, this debate privileges Foucault's early and middle work and either ignores his later work or trivializes it as merely aesthetic.1 This seems odd given that Foucault's later work clearly focuses on ethics in a broad sense, in other words, ethics as embedded in social and historical systems and political contexts. While Foucault's early and middle work (his archaeologies and genealogies, respectively) emphasize the ways that subjects are constituted through language, practices and institutions (all of which normalize), his later work focuses on practices of the self that aim at freedom. I believe that Foucault's focus on ethics in his later work is not a departure from his earlier work, but a continuation of the exploration of the relationship between subjectivity, and historical and social context. In this essay I examine the notions of parrhesia and governmentality, both of which are discussed in Foucault's later work, as mediating relations between individuals and the State. And I explore the potential of friendship, also discussed in Foucault's later work, to transform individuals, social relations and the State.

As is well known, a number of critics argue that Foucault's work undermines liberatory political projects because of its notions of the subject, power, and norms.2 American feminist critics have been particularly wary of Foucault, and in turn have shifted the direction of Anglo-American feminism away from Foucault in particular and postmodernism in general. Feminists continue to disagree about the political usefulness of Foucault's work. Because feminism is not merely a philosophical approach, but a political project that aims to end women's oppression, figuring out whether Foucault is "feminist friendly" has important implications not only philosophically, but also politically. For this reason I foeus on the feminist criticisms of Foucault. Feminists turn to Foucault's work on the care of the self and the practices of the self to see if it can serve as a corrective to what they see as an overly determined conception of subjectivity in his earlier works.3 Although some find resources in Foucault's later work to think about agency, freedom, and autonomy, they criticize the notion of the subject in Foucault's later works as merely aesthetic and individualistic. I show that Foucault's later work on the self is not simply about an aesthetic and individualized self as critics claim.41 argue that for Foucault, as for feminists, self-transformation is an ethical project that requires relationships, including friendships. As noted above, not all feminists dismiss Foucault. Many have found his notions of power-knowledge, and his criticism of universals helpful in exposing the masculinist bias of the history of traditional Western philosophy. His focus on the body, too, provides resources for feminism, as I argue in Feminism, Foucault and Embodied Subjectivity. Here I hope to not only counter feminist criticisms of Foucault, but also to further explore the convergence between the concerns of feminists and Foucault by examining the issue of friendship as a morally significant and politically important relationship. In an interview three years before his death, "Friendship as a Way of Life," Foucault explores the idea of friendship between gay men as a non-normalizing relationship, a relationship outside of current social strictures and limitations. In this interview and in other later essays and interviews, one of Foucault's central concerns is freedom.

The freedom that Foucault advocates is not simply the negative freedom characterized as freedom from restrictions (indeed, this type of freedom is neither desirable nor possible according to Foucault). Rather he argues in essays such as "What is Enlightenment?" and "Care of the Self as a Practice of Freedom," that freedom involves engaged social critique that aims at both self-transformation and social transformation. …

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