Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.

 

 

 

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