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Nancy Luxon “Ethics and Subjectivity”

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Luxon, Nancy 2008. Ethics and Subjectivity: Practices of Self-Governance in the Late Lectures of Michel Foucault. Political Theory 36(3), 377-402.

Solitary individuals are not to be taken as starting points; the relations that bind them to one another are. In such a context, individuals are quite literally what they do; they achieve constancy and ethical excellence not by attaining an ideal, but by cultivating a “disposition to steadiness” in an uneasy context lacking in absolute values. (380)

Rather than a “knowing subject,” produced in reference to a defined body of knowledge and some external order, the “expressive subject” draws on the structural dynamics of parrhesiastic relationships to give ethopoetic content to her actions. Rather than being urged “dare to know,” individuals are encouraged to “dare to act.” (380)

In its crudest formulation, Foucault’s intellectual trajectory is away from a philosophic investigation of the humanist subject and towards the conditions of political possibility. (382)

While Kant’s relationships to priests, doctors, and books are consistently glossed as ones of dependency, Foucault finds in parrhesia a resource for rethinking the interpretive education offered by the “messy middle” of those personal relationships as-yet unstructured by their endpoint and not predefined by their beginnings. Such relationships potentially offer a context in which the past can be problematized, the future left unforeclosed, and the present always ready-at-hand; they also provide a structure for the reconsideration of ethical obligations and responsibility; and they accomplish both of these tasks without recourse to the private terms of taste. (384)

His goal is to offer not an ethics of absolute values, but a set of expressive practices independent of any appeal to the absolute values offered by nature, religion, tradition, sexual identity, or the human. Foucault’s turn towards expressivity in his late lectures is in many ways a return to his initial concern for those structures that sustain significance, meaning, and expression. (385)

The appeal of parrhesia lies in its consistent focus on the present and the immediate (alternately, le présent, le réel, and l’actualité). Less a problem of epistemological uncertainty, the shakiness addressed by parrhesia is an inability to orient and steady oneself through one’s relations to oneself, to others, and to truth-telling. (387)

Different from confessional technologies, parrhesiastic techniques teach student two capacities: they teach an individual to set his standard of value and then begin the patient labor of moving between this standard and the world-at-hand. Relations to himself and to others provide both a context of immediacy and one for the recognition and sustenance of these values through a community, but without the creation of a universal ethical code to be internalized as conscience. (389)

Motivated by curiosity and resolve rather than desire, parrhesiastic accounts of oneself narrate an interaction not an experience, compose a public site of judgment not a character, and leave postponed the finality of their endings. (390)

Renunciation and desire simply return individuals to the unsteady longing to be other than what they are. Paradoxically, the daily adjustments of parrhesia result in a greater steadiness both in thought and action. Requiring individuals to be otherwise is to unsettle them without educating them to the techniques by which they might regain their balance. As a political program, then, its effects will be fleeting, as individuals are unable to situate themselves in these new ideals or to feel invested in the relations—to themselves, to others, to truth—that sustain it. (397)

This distinction draws attention to a fundamental difference between the activity of ethical self-governance and political governance. Where ethical self-governance is governed by norms of harmony, equilibrium, and steadiness, the norms constituting political governance are different. The daily rough-and-tumble of politics rests on norms of dissent and contestation; in choosing their leaders, debating political programs, and distributing resources, citizens argue and inveigh. Politics relies on the contestation of those collective practices that might facilitate the internalization of cultural norms and values, and unfolds through the contest of claims. Where the art of self-governance takes as its goal a steadiness of disposition and a harmony of words and deeds, modern political governance relies on an artful interruption of cultural attitudes and actions. While parrhesia contributes an ethical steadiness to those who participate in such debates, its personal relationships cannot be scaled so as to characterize politics. Differently from what is often inferred in accounts of a Foucaultian politics of resistance, transgression is not the only possible mode of action, and critique does not automatically entail resistance. Indeed the irreducibility of ethical relationships to a single subjectivity and the insistence on modes of responsiveness would seem to extend to parrhesiastic politics. (398)