Moralities of Self-Renunciation and Obedience

By Wimberly, Cory | Philosophy Today, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Moralities of Self-Renunciation and Obedience


Wimberly, Cory, Philosophy Today


THE LATER FOUCAULT AND DISCIPLINARY POWER RELATIONS

Michel Foucault's work is frequently subdivided in the secondary literature into three different time periods: the early "hermeneutic" work from the 1950s and 1960s, the middle "genealogical" writings of the 1970s, and the final "ethical" work of the 1980s. Most commentators accept that there is some legitimacy to these divisions but there is no consensus on what defines these three periods of Foucault's work. Today, most of the debate centers on the nature of the division between the middle genealogical work and the later ethical work. If we are to believe the story told by Charles Taylor, Eric Paras, and Nancy Fraser then Foucault's genealogies of the 1970s describe a dire political situation that we are helpless to resist:1

Without a nonhumanist ethical paradigm, Foucault cannot make good his normative case against humanism. He cannot answer the question, Why should we oppose a fully panopticized, autonomous society?2

This criticism of Foucault's middle work feeds into the further claim that Foucault's shift to ethical work in the 1980s aimed to address previous faults. The argument runs that Foucault abandoned his pessimistic genealogical analyses of disciplinary power and made a positive turn towards robust notions of individual self-transformation and change in his final ethical work. This Foucaultian ethical "turn" to the subject supposedly corrected the pessimism of his middle work by definitively breaking with it:

According to the consensus established by the secondary literature, Foucault's early and middle work culminates in a kind of totalizing theoretical cage (of which "discipline" is the highest manifestation) that in turn constituted a kind of crisis or dead-end for Foucault's thinking by the mid1 970s __ Foucault's late work performs a 1 80-degree turn away from the (too- totalizing and demoralizing) "power" discourse of the early and mid1 970s and culminated in a renewed appreciation of the Enlightenment subject, the ethical arts of the self, and resistance to normalized totalization through individual action.3

What is especially notable about this thesis is that it cleaves Foucault's corpus in two, definitively separating the parts as having opposing interests and formulations. By picturing Foucault's work as oppositional, it becomes difficult to conceptualize ways to profitably share across the different periods.

Increasingly, commentators have begun to challenge this reading of Foucault, still acknowledging the change in Foucault's work but resisting the earlier narrative that had explained it as a total break. In work done by Jeffrey Nealon, Ladelle McWhorter, and Timothy O'Leary, they treat Foucault's work as undergoing a change of focus between the middle and later work but far from implying a rejection, they treat the work in many ways as complimentary or, as Nealon puts it, as an "intensification" of earlier themes.4 Besides making a convincing argument for their points on a textual basis, this interpretation is attractive because it offers the ability to read across Foucault in ways that are not merely subordinate to the final ethical work. Although one would still need to be careful of the differences in vocabulary and method between Foucault's works, these thinkers open an avenue to promote the cross-pollination of Foucault's concepts, something that would be far less likely if his work was divided into segments that were opposed to one another 180-degrees.

Unfortunately, I do not have the room in this essay to chart my own complete topographical arguments relating Foucault's work across the 1970s and 1980s to put ideas in play across that topology as Nealon, McWhorter, and O'Leary do in their book length treatments. As a result, I plan to build from their work and start from the thesis that the middle and later work are not antithetical to one another but do develop different themes and foci. …

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