Home > Uncategorized > Scott Yates and Dave Hiles “Towards a ‘Critical Ontology of Ourselves’?”

Scott Yates and Dave Hiles “Towards a ‘Critical Ontology of Ourselves’?”

Yates, Scott; Hiles, Dave 2010. Towards a “Critical Ontology of Ourselves”? Foucault, Subjectivity and Discourse Analysis. Theory & Psychology 20(1): 52–75.

Power produces more than knowledge and systems of social apparatus, however. It also “produces the very form of the subject” (Foucault, 1989, p. 158). The individual is not a pre-given phenomenological subject, an “elementary nucleus” (Foucault, 1980) onto which power fastens, or some form of original sovereign will standing opposite its antithesis of a power that constrains and limits it (Foucault, 1984/1988). It is, instead, “one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p. 98). (56)

Foucault’s strong emphasis on this dissolution of the sovereign, ahistorical phenomenological subject is what gives rise to readings of his work as denying wholesale the existence of subjectivity (and even, in a wider sense, human agency; McWhorter, 2003). However, as McWhorter (2003) points out, Foucault’s conception of subjectivity is more sophisticated than this, embodying a rejection only of an ahistorical subjectivity alongside a deeper concern for the constitution of forms of subjectivity as actually experienced. (57)

[…] whilst disturbing the concept of the autonomous, self-thematizing subject, Heidegger’s thinking contains a central awareness of Dasein’s agency and experience and its potential for choosing ways of being. As Dreyfus (2004) points out, such a conception had no parallel in the early work of Foucault, but this was something he later came to regret and correct. (58)

Power is “exercised over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (p. 221). Subjects in power relations are “faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions … may be realized” (p. 221). At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that power relations are often “fixed in such as way that they are perpetually asymmetrical” (Foucault, 1984/1997a, p. 292), and there is only “extremely limited” margin for action, freedom, or resistance. (59)

These technologies of the self coalesce around and take hold of specific thoughts, desires, behaviours, or practices, and are related to imperatives to shape one’s conduct in specific ways. It is here that Foucault talked about “government” (e.g., 1982, 1993) in a broad sense to refer to the intersection of strategies by others to govern one’s conduct alongside the actions one performs in relating to and governing oneself. (61)

This is well expressed by Hook (2007). Drawing on Foucault and Rose, he differentiates these technologies of the self from technologies of subjectivity, which refer to broad sets of regulative practices that bring the ambitions and strategies connected to various forms of government of individuals into alignment with individuals’ own ideals. They can be thought of as forms of subjectification that “involve the operation of a type of power that connects the norms of authorities to the motivating ideals we have of ourselves” (Hook, 2007, p. 246). (61)

There is thus a gap between technologies of subjectivity and practices of the self. Foucault’s work implies a degree of freedom in practices of the self, but it must also be noted that they do not entail an uncomplicated zone of liberation” (Hook, 2007, p. 248)—the project of ethical self-relationship and self-formation becomes thinkable only against the background of the systems of thought and the technologies of subjectivity available within a culture. (61)

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