Posted on: August 24th, 2022 Foucault’s History of Sex (IV): the Formation of a New Experience

In his belated and eyebrow-raising fourth volume of his History of Sexuality—posthumously published three and a half decades after his death and against the expressed terms of his will—what does Foucault take himself to be doing?

It is difficult to know. Perhaps that is OK, since I am only three chapters in.

I’d like to interact with the material up through the end of chapter 3 (“The Second Penance”) of Part I (“The Formation of a New Experience”).

What becomes fairly clear after the initial chapter—in which Foucault shows that Clement of Alexandria’s “sexual ethic” is mainly continuous with that of certain ancient Greek & Roman philosophers (Musionius Rufus, Athenagoras, Marcus Aurelius), but now democratized and shown to be consistent with God’s revealed logos—is that he is narrating something like a history/genealogy of modern subjectivity. He repeatedly points out how, both in the ancient Christian practice of baptism (chapter 2) and in that of penance (chapter 3) one sees the development of new ways of “the self relating to the self.” This involves various disciplines and practices, but for Foucault it is mainly a matter of speaking or manifesting or (best of all) doing “one’s own truth.”

At one point in chapter two he distinguishes between what one could regard as a spatialized subjectivity (which splits the self into subject and object; this is the focus of his discussion, in his The Order of Things, of the “empirico-transcendental doublet” stemming from Kant, of which he is highly critical) on the one hand, and a temporalized subjectivity on the other: “Metanoia doesn’t split the soul into one part that knows and another that must be known. It holds together, in the order of time, that which one no longer is and that which one is already….”

“That which one no longer is.” This phrase, it seems to me, emerges as the core of Foucault’s point in the book thus far. Both in baptism and in penance, one begins to see the development of an attitude toward the self—an attitude (almost certainly) previously unknown in human culture—of self-rupture. A way of adopting a new identity that breaks with the old one.

The last few lines of chapter 3 radiate in their sublimity:

The pentitant, says Saint Ambrose, must be that young man who comes back home, and the girl he had loved presents herself and says: Here I am, ego sum.  To which he replies: Sed ego non sum ego. A day will come, in the history of the penitential practice, when the sinner will have to present himself to the priest and verbally itemize his sins: ego sum. But in its early form, penance, at the same time a mortification and a veridiction, is the way of affirming ego non sum ego. The rites of exomologesis ensure that this rupture is produced.

Foucault, history of sexuality, vol iv, 78.

What does this history of subjectivity have to do with sexuality, though? Somehow, Foucault wants to trace a genealogy that produces our contemporary assumption (conviction?) that sexuality is the core of our identity. How does he do this, and does he succeed? I hope to answer those questions soon.

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Posted on: July 18th, 2015 Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity

Warning: this post is intended only for philosophy geeks, or those who’d like to become philosophy geeks.

A dear friend, with whom I have been traveling the Christian journey of faith seeking understanding for two decades, asked me to explain how I understand what Kierkegaard means when he says that the human subject is infinitely negative. So here goes:

Hegel writes, “[t]his Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity.” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, § 18)

Twenty years ago in a course on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I was deeply struck by the phrase, in connection with Kierkegaard, “infinite, negative subjectivity.” Turns out, however, I had no idea, metaphysically speaking, what it actually meant.

But I think I’m getting it now.

It is helpful for me to start with a Parmenidean insight. Parmenides, in absolute denial of the meaningfulness or the value of sense experience, states that being must necessarily be one, since nonbeing is not able to be countenanced. That is, it is not the case that multiple object exists, since in this case a kind of nonbeing would obtain: the A is not B. The horse is not the giraffe, and so on.

The cup on my desk is not the same as the pen on my desk. As cup, it is not pen. That is to say, with respect to the (essence of the) pen, the cup is not. It is “negative” with respect to the pen.

But as Dr. Wood said in class recently, it is not of the cup’s essence that it be “negative” with respect to every other object. (That is, the cup has a definite, individuated determination.) However, for “human awareness” (Dr. Wood’s words), this negativity is of its essence. That is, subjective consciousness has no essence other than it is not this or that or the pen or the cup or Socrates. (Unlike the cup, it has no definite, individuated determination.) It has no essence in this sense. It is empty. And yet, we deny that it does not exist. It does exist, also that it has no essence other than infinite negation.

One last note: this is (the logical outworking of) Cartesian subjectivity; it is the subjectivity which Foucault (along with Nietzsche) rejects.

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Filed under: Austin (and Tyler), Me / Us, philosophy | Comments Off on Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity