Ethical Subjects, Empowered Subjectivities

by FAHD HUSAIN

Ethical Subjects, Empowered Subjectivities:
Individuality, Agency and Interpersonality in the late Foucault

ABSTRACT

This essay will focus on the Foucauldian notion of the ‘care of the self’, wherein care is defined as the process undertaken by the self to perpetually regenerate its own unique ‘aesthetics’ that best informs and enriches its everyday life. Foucault’s insistence on a perpetual self-regeneration hinges upon a problematization of the pre-established criteria of normality structuring the context: it involves a mode of thinking that scrutinizes the relation of the self to such yardsticks and resists the passive acceptance of their prescribed normative blinders. In the case of individual subjectivity, such critical thought discovers and highlights a heterogeneous plurality at the very heart of the unified concept of the Subject pervading normative discourses, and encourages a development of various forms of subjectivities from the site of individuality. In the case of politics, Foucault’s account of this individual ‘aesthetics of existence’ – which is also an implicit insistence on the fundamental co-existence of difference(s) – can be productively extended to develop both an ethics of relationality with the Other, as well as a political theory of reciprocity that serves to inform the praxis of social activism. In other words, it is this ethical relationship with the Other – which, in turn, is predicated upon the care of the self – that constitutes the condition of possibility for a reciprocal politics to emerge – a politics involving ‘loci of mutual recognition’ wherein commonalities can emerge between individuals, not subjects; wherein the strategic affinities developed to resist normativity serve as the gateway for rearticulating the categories of intelligibility; and wherein this critical re-articulation gives rise to the radical action that has the potential to unmoor the nodes of hegemonic power and transform the very fabric of everyday sociality.

Replaying the Games of Truth

In contrast to various a priori models of subjectivity that hinge upon a biological, cultural, or historical essence, Foucault’s account reveals no such irreducible core at the heart of subjectivity. His is an analysis that is often (mis)taken as fixating on an immaterial ‘fiction’, a ‘text’ that is ‘stored’ in the various categorical axes of a normative discourse and imposed upon unwilling, imprisoned subjects. Foucault’s claim, however, is more complex. He does contend that the pre-established barometers of meaning and intelligibility are crucial in informing and upholding the (regulated) concepts of normative discourse; he also contends that the play of such discourses of knowledge – be they medical, economic, sexual, or historical – upholds the concept of the unified Subject, normatively regulating its contours and perpetuating this concept as the prescribed model for (all) individual subjectivity. Yet Foucault vehemently insists that this ‘immaterial’ category of the Subject has a material dimension, one that is essential for its sustenance. By regulating the boundaries and criteria of ‘intelligibility’, discursive ‘fictions’ like the Subject continually normalize the material possibilities of the everyday, thereby structuring the very fabric of life by disciplining it to unfold in accordance with a hegemonic criteria of meaning and knowledge. This regulation of everyday life and individual actions is the necessary condition for the perpetuity of the dominant discourse. For it is only via the perpetually reiterative and normative behaviour of the individual – the disciplined exercise of the docile body – that the abstract referent of Subject can be upheld as the discursive universality that all particular individuals must emulate.

Under such a regime of knowledge, the material place of the individual in the social hierarchy and their intelligible ‘value’ in the local discourse is sustained through her numerous ‘correct’ performances of the discursive ideal. Discipline is not imposed upon the individual, but is internalized and performed voluntarily: through her repetitive performances, she willingly seeks to uphold her value as defined by the current hegemony, daring not to risk ‘abnormal’ behaviour that could result in her marginalization from the dominant discourse. As a measure of her intelligible identity under this dominant discourse, an individual’s ‘subjectivity’ therefore emerges through a perpetual, material, and often voluntary subjection to the categorical axes of this hegemony. In other words: individual subjectivity, normatively conceived under the category of the normal ‘Subject’, only materializes out of a daily and perpetual subjection – a subjection into which most individuals enter willingly.

Such subjectivity is akin to the performative role assigned to a player (trapped) in the ‘games of truth(s)’ that grid society, the realm of play that all individuals must participate in by the very dint of their socio-discursive existence. All possible actions in this discursive realm are branded as valid or invalid to reflect their success or failure in embodying a dictated ideal. A game of truth, then, is an arena with its own set of procedures and results, a space wherein a prearranged set of disciplined behaviours are prescribed for pursuing pre-established ideals (Ethics of Self, 445). It is important to note that, more often than not, the ideal(ized) truths that structure these enclosures of play are “produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint” and thus often devoid of any ‘positive’ content; such discursive concepts of Truth are “subject to constant economic and political incitement”, are policed, controlled and transmitted by various institutions and apparatuses – under the guise of a unified, homogeneous Truth, the fragments of heterogeneous truth-concepts pervade the social realm “under diverse forms, continuously undergoing] immense diffusion and consumption” (Truth and Power, 131-2).

The dissemination and imposition of normative knowledge within the boundaries of the truth-games amounts to the regulation of discursive and material spaces of possibilities available to the individual who seeks to embody the Subject through his or her subjectivity. But where exactly are the boundaries of these enclosures, and just how rigid are they? How, where and why are the limits drawn between which acts are possible and which are prohibited, between what is problematic and what is simply unintelligible? (Genealogy of Ethics, 237) More importantly, how does regulating individual action in accordance with a yardstick of ‘Truth’ structure and sustain the status quo? In short, how are games of truth connected with relations of power and/or domination, which in turn, demarcate and restrict possibilities for social agency?

Such are the questions Foucault hopes to address in investigating the relations between Subject and Truth, player and game, exercise and intelligibility (Ethics of Self, 439). By problematizing the narratives of Truth, considering ‘alternative’ ‘stories’ and reviving excluded fragments, his genealogical approach seeks to lay out the historical emergence and intensification of the disciplinary triad of power / knowledge \ discourse: an attempt at (i) explicating the tether between individuals and a (hegemonic) knowledge as the relation through which intelligible subjectivities emerge; (ii) analyzing the paths and possibilities of power between such individuals in given contexts; and (iii) investigating the limits of performative discourses (such as ethics) which are practiced, exercised and upheld by (morally) disciplined agents (Genealogy of Ethics, 237). The modus operandi of his critical historicity is, first and foremost, a creation of possibilities previously thought impossible or unintelligible, accomplished through the recognition of the arbitrary nature of ‘obligatory’ actions and ‘natural’ habits, and the consideration of the particularities repressed or marginalized by hegemonic universality. Foucault’s is not an attempt at a transhistorical or metaphysical transcendence of the lived everyday or an anarchic nihilism that simply, and only, refuses to obey the rules of the game; nor is it some kind of revolution that installs or instills a ‘true’ set of parameters governing play. Rather, his critical historicity is a reflection on, and a creative engagement with, the limits and thresholds of a discursive and material present in light of its sedimented past. In effect, Foucault espouses

an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them (Enlightenment, 50).

Foucault’s “hyper- and pessimistic activism”, then, is firmly situated in its material sphere and discursive context, recognizing that “not everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad” (Genealogy of Ethics, 231-2). It involves a “problematization of something which is real, but that problematization is something which is dependent on our knowledge, ideas, theories, techniques, social relations and economic processes” (Problematics, 418). It encourages present ‘subjects’ to consider the potentialities of agency and the lines of flight that arise from a problematization of the present hegemony. In becoming actively creative, this philosophical attitude constructs, out of its own emergent (and disciplined) conditions, a temporary and strategic universality as a ‘homogenous domain of reference’, forming its own (revisable) rationality that it can deploy to create new possibilities for expanding social agency (Enlightenment, 48). The aim of the Foucauldian critique, then, is to allow for the development of heterogeneous forms of self-reflexive knowledge in order to build an ethico-political framework that is voluntarily upheld and creatively regenerated, not by its disciplined subjects, but by its empowered agents.

Caring (for) Individuals

The Subject is not a substance, Foucault contends, for it is a form that is “not primarily or always identical to itself” (Ethics of Self, 440). Further, “the self is not merely given but is constituted in relationship to itself as subject[ivity]” (Genealogy of Ethics, 252, emphasis added). The un/reflexive relation of self to self – the governmentality of self by self – is of utmost importance in Foucault’s thought. This relation can take the form of either (i) the disciplined self embodying the normative concept of Subject or (ii) the reflexive, creative self that generates its own ethics and aesthetics of self-actualization. Inevitably, both dynamics are situated in, influenced by and made intelligible through their discursive contexts. But just as creativity gets its impetus from the very conditions that seek to normalize it, it is the examination of the first, ‘normal’ relation between disciplined self and normative Subject prevalent in contemporary hegemonic contexts that serves as a productive catalyst for explicating the second relation of a creative individual ethicality.

Caught in the normative matrix of hegemonic discourse, the disciplined self is shuttled between distinct but overlapping discursive spaces, each enclosure demanding the policed performative reiteration of its imposed regimen. These performances are meant to furnish individuals with a definitive subjectivity, but since they strive after an amorphous ideal regenerated from truths whose negative content is born of multiple constraints and transformative diffusion, their performances can never be complete(d): the mechanisms of normativity perpetuate themselves by ensuring that the individuals are never fully ‘normal’, never fully disciplined and are always in need of further normalization and regulation. Herein emerges the formula for the vicious circle of discipline: the perpetuity of exercise is guaranteed by the uninhabitability of the ideal, and vice versa.

Three points are essential here. First, much like Truth, the Subject, as the (abstract) model for individual subjectivity in any given discourse, is not clearly defined. Transgressions and abnormalities are catalogued as unacceptable or unintelligible behaviour, indirectly constituting the vague boundaries of the Subject. As such, the concept of the Subject emerges through a constant negation – being continually re/defined by what it is not – and comes to acquire only a semblance of fixity. In being primarily defined negatively, the abstract category of the Subject remains a nebulous silhouette, its boundaries and its ‘content’ being malleable enough to be exploited or manipulated by various discourses. The desirable ideal, then, is fundamentally unattainable: the void at its very heart means that there is nothing to attain, nothing that can be attained to embody the ideal once and for all. Secondly, and as a consequence of the first point, one’s individual subjectivity arises from performing the prescribed concept of the ‘Subject’ that is purportedly common to all normative discourses: it is a performance through which one approximates the concept ‘Subject’ that resides in the common realm of various intersecting discourses such as those of psychology, biology, sexuality. Yet each of these discourses brings into the mix its own ideal Subject. The prescribed ideal (Subject) to be attained under such a hegemony is not the unified Subject – the purported commonality of all discourses, their point of convergence – but, rather, is the residual flux of the negating play of the Subject-concepts of these various discourses: an inherent plurality of difference that is homogenized into an illusory unity under the archetype called Subject. What follows is that the ‘subjectivity’ of an individual – an individual ‘value’ only intelligible in relation to the Subject-concept – is not the manifestation or reflection of an individual’s ‘true essence’, but is, in fact, the unstable result of a perpetual, schizophrenic performance that tries to approximate a multitude of complementary and contradictory ideals, none of which are attainable. Vitally: a singular, unified, lived subjectivity does not and cannot exist. Thirdly, it is individuality that emerges as the bodily site that grounds the disciplined exercise of multiple, jostling subjectivities, always exceeding the categories of normative discourse with its performance. The paradox here is that this excess serves both as the condition of possibility for the perpetual disciplining of the body and its liberation from hegemonic inscription – an incessant tension always regenerating that moment of possibility which continually oscillates between creative thought and un-reflexive repetition.

By exposing the unattainable ideals inherent in the dead-ended practice of hegemonic normative subjectivity, Foucault seeks to free the self from the enclosures of categorical discourse of institutional discipline and allow it the possibilities for actualizing various models of individualization born of its own choosing. He insists: “the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our day is not to try to liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state” (Subject & Power, 216). Fittingly, he assigns the individual the responsibility of creativity – to encourage it to develop its own disciplinary paradigm of exercise in accordance with its own ideals. Creativity here is not a kind of relation one has to oneself; rather, Foucault asserts, “the relation one has to oneself is a creative activity” (Genealogy of Ethics, 237, emphasis added). As an analogy to this intrapersonal relation, Foucault points to the hypomnemata that arose in the Greek age, personal notebooks which functioned as a ‘material memory’ of facts and thoughts to be pondered over, reassembled and reassessed. They were not a collection of confessions, but rather texts that contained what had already been said, thought, or heard; their primary function was to recollect the fragments of self to oneself, to attempt to approximate a perfect relation between self and self – to carefully chart and (self)regulate the development of the constitution of self (Genealogy of Ethics, 247). This textual mirror of the self was essential in developing a material exercise unique to oneself, for self-generating the normative universality for one’s idea of ‘subjectivity’, for fueling the transformation of self to “attain a certain mode of being” (Ethics of Self, 433). This practice was not carried out in isolation: acquiring knowledge of the contextual moral framework was a precondition of this self-exercise, but life did not amount to a material existence that simply, and blindly, obeyed legal codes of conduct, or the normative rules of society. Instead, the individual had to creatively interpret, and freely exercise, these recommendations to develop an ‘art of life’.

As Foucault suggests, the discourse governing the self can only be understood if considered in relation to the subjective practices that seek to emulate the Subject, for “there is a technology of the constitution of the self which cuts across symbolic systems while using them” (Genealogy of Ethics, 250, emphasis added). Discursive and/or symbolic performativity is fundamentally intertwined with its discursive and/or symbolic context but is not reducible to it. Taking care of oneself, both then and now, involves an immersion into the context, knowing “the rules of acceptable conduct or of principles that are both truths and prescriptions”, and critically investigating the various possibilities that are marginalized by hegemonic normativity (Ethics of Self, 435). This conscious practice is undertaken by oneself in accordance with one’s own ideals which are informed by, but not reducible to, one’s context – this incessant practice of self-reflexive agency is nothing other than what Foucault calls the ethics of freedom (Ethics of Self, 434-5). Herein, ethics is to be thought of as that critical, interpretative gesture that one must actively undertake in order to actualize one’s universality into the realm of the particular contingencies of the everyday. Foucault’s attempt thus highlights ethicality as a perpetual exercise of interpretation: for “no technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; neither can one learn the art of living without […] a training of oneself by oneself” (Genealogy of Ethics, 246). Reiterative and performative, this ethical paradigm allows for the cultivation of a skill for re/generating a subjective aesthetics of existence, an evolving universality that becomes manifest via the reflexive actualizations of that individual’s performative agency. Foucauldian individuals qua creative agents, then, do not fixate on the Subject of the categorical axes of hegemonic discourse, nor do they subject their selves to the exercising of such disciplined subjectivities; rather, they wend their way through the complementary and contradictory amalgamation of various S/subjectivities, strategically appropriating and exacerbating the excess of normativity in order to multiply and embody those avenues of reflexive thought and agency that can best serve to empower their creativity.

Power, Agency and Other Ethics

Despite its obvious importance, the status of the social Other in Foucault’s thought is somewhat marginal: to whit, he emphasizes the ‘ontological priority’ of the Self over that of the Other while conceding that the techniques and exercises of the Self are irreducibly intertwined with those of the co-existent Other(s) that co-inhabit the social realm (Genealogy of Ethics, 250; Ethics of Self, 437). For Foucault’s account of the care of the self to be ethically practiced in this fundamentally interdependent realm, one must therefore extend his account to include the social Other. This is a move best accomplished by shifting the emphasis from the ‘freedom’ that informs Foucault’s conception of a self-disciplined aesthetics to the concept of ‘agency’. It is this conceptual re-orientation that can productively extend an intra-personal aesthetic ethics to an inter-personal, socio-political ethics.

The shift from freedom to agency is mainly employed to resist the totalizing bent of the language of absolute freedom, where freedom is taken as the desire to fully transcend (and perhaps dominate?) the network of sociality. One cannot be ‘free’, be ‘free’ of the Other (individual), be ‘free’ to do (to the Other) as one pleases; one can only be ‘free’ relative to the social Other. Self and its co-existent Others are always part of an interdependent realm, perpetually engaged in a reciprocal dialogue with each other and their common discursive and material environment. In effect, one does not ‘possess’ freedom, but rather is ‘free’ to exercise social agency.

It is this interdependence that constitutes the latent backdrop for Foucault’s account of power. Power, according to Foucault, is not a ‘possession’ in a zero-sum game, nor does it get ‘shored up’ in scenarios involving ‘top-down’ or ‘vertical’ domination. Rather, power is a fluid relation which is slowly repeated, sedimented and entrenched in the lateral networks of sociality. Inextricably intertwined in any given power relation is struggle, continually constituting a possibility of escape, a line of flight. Despite being fundamentally interwoven, both forces retain their distinct shapes, for “each constitutes for the other a kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal” (Subject & Power, 225). In this relation of a reciprocal struggle, resistance is constitutive of power, and vice versa; neither is in a “position of exteriority” but incessantly surfaces as ‘permanent provocation’ for the other, thereby continuously destabilizing the relation from within (History of Sexuality I, 95; Subject & Power 222). What is essential to note that this simultaneous resistance that continually reconstitutes the power relation can only be present between two potentially creative individuals (or, in Foucault’s terms: ‘free’ subjects), where both have, at the very least, a degree of agency (Ethics of Self, 441). The reciprocal nature of the power relation means that it does not involve possession but revolves around a “mode of action” wherein one acts upon (and, in most cases, strives to limit) the present and future actions of the Other, who subsequently returns the favour, which, in turn, is answered as well and so on ad infinitum: the inherent reciprocity of the power relation is made possible by the perpetual reversal of a “set of actions upon [O]ther actions” (Subject and Power, 220). Rethinking power along Foucauldian lines therefore means nothing less than realizing that the inherent reciprocity of the power relation involves a fundamental recognition of the active agency of the Other.

It is this recognition that unveils in the power relation the latent potential for interpersonal ethicality. Here, the latter relation echoes the model of reciprocal friendship as developed by the authors of classical antiquity (most notably, by Aristotle), wherein the intra-personal regulation of the Self must be extended to bring about a loss of Self in the face of the Other, where the (included) Other is recognized as a creative agent worthy of respect and friendship, and where the Self is de-prioritized in an attempt to negotiate commonalities and affinities between one-Self and an-Other. This is a properly creative and reciprocal relation of re/generating ideals through the dialogue of its self-reflexive participants. It is this loss of Self and the subsequent dialogue with the Other that constitutes the gateway for interpersonality in Foucault’s work, without which his ‘care of the self’ could easily slide into a purely aesthetic solipsism. Strictly adhering to an intra-personal valorization of the aesthetics and ethics of Self over all Others would repeat the normalizing and normalized structure of the (ideal) Subject. And it is easy to see how this could be extended into a scenario where this ideal becomes the norm for all Others, where the Self obsessively strives to become a Subject that ‘possesses’ the power required to lord over the powerless, the freedom to subject them to its universality. In contrast, the development of an interpersonal relation allows for the emergence of a commonality that fundamentally involves the Other, and is only made possible with the inclusion of the Other. With the recognition of the reciprocal nature of relationality also comes the re-cognition of agency as a capacity cultivated at the site of an individuality that is invested in a lateral network of reciprocal power involving various Others. In terms of hegemony, agency is the capacity to exacerbate the excess of performative exercise and radically exceed the normalized avenues of a given regime of power/knowledge, thereby creatively generating the possibilities for vastly increasing horizontal and lateral movement among the nodes of the social network. Importantly, agency is a capacity best cultivated via an interdependence with the Other: instead of the misguided attempt to extract oneself from the reciprocal relation in order to dominate the Other or ‘free’ oneself, the creative potential for agency is best developed through an intensification of the interpersonal relation, forging affinities with the Other so as to transform an intertwined relation of reciprocal struggle into an interdependent relation of mutual empowerment.

The issue here is not a temporal sequence of different mentalities, where one deals first with the Self and then with the Other, but rather a mutual and reciprocal co-existence of complementary attitudes where both Self and Other are simultaneously considered, where both interpersonal and intrapersonal realms are inhabited. By recognizing the Other as a Self, by incorporating the Other into the realm of the Self (and vice versa), an individual ‘aesthetics of existence’ is interpersonally extended to allow for a creative and reflexive co-inhabitance that can interact with, embrace and embody the plurality of difference. Difference here is not to be taken as the antithesis of a self-same, static essence of the individual, but is instead the recognition of the agency of various Others to develop particular subjectivities, orientations, and interpretations – their own ‘art of life’ – which, in turn, contribute multiple possible avenues for the exercise of agency that exceed the normative channels of hegemonic discourse. For just as the individual agent re-cognizes the multiplicity of possible subjectivities inherent in its lived discursive materiality, the plural re-orientations that emerge from the interaction with and inclusion of the Other amplify the creative potential of thought, allowing for various ways to address, accommodate, and articulate difference in both intrapersonal and interpersonal planes, and generate the conditions of possibility for employing and deploying the creative agency of empowered subjectivities.

Towards Strategic Resistance

Despite its lateral fluidity, the flux of power is not completely alien to domination: in fact, the negative force of oppression in the latter is a ‘terminal form’ of the former (History of Sexuality I, 92). In the hegemonic paradigm of power-knowledge-discourse, there is a “conditioning-conditioned relationship” between meta- and micro-powers: the former “can only take hold and secure its footing where it is rooted in [the latter – ] a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations … supply the necessary basis for the great negative forms of power” (Truth & Power, 122, emphasis added). To consider the flow of power vertically, the hegemonic normativity of the State finds its roots in the institutional disciplines that permeate society, which, in turn, discipline individuals, whose regulated docility serves to perpetuate the institutional legitimacy of state-domination. Overall hegemonic domination, then, is a generalized effect of the attempts to render static the fluidity of power, to blockade its avenues and choke its flows at local points in the network of sociality. In other words, domination is the hegemonic, vertical normalization of the different/creative possibilities of (exercising) lateral power.

Foucault’s critical work, and its interpersonal extension, is well placed to undercut the normative discursive mechanisms that legitimize and perpetuate the hegemony of power/knowledge. Intra-personal aesthetics, dialogic models of ethicality and a politics of affinity all create productive theoretical vehicles that can help norm the action of socio-political activism(s). They are starting points at an attempt to develop a theory for a micro-political praxis of empowered resistance, wherein creative agency is strategically exercised at the local nexuses of the power/knowledge network in order to disrupt the normalized channels of power and short circuit the feedback mechanisms fueling hegemony. Indeed, as Foucault asserts, it is the “strategic codification of these points of resistance that makes a revolution possible” (History of Sexuality I, 96). Even in the ‘terminal’ form of power that is domination, the possibility of resistance is always present: the very open-ended, shifting, and reiterative nature of hegemonic discourse makes it “both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (History and Sexuality I, 101). Resistance, then, is the attempt at subversively rearticulating the categories of normative discourse, an attempt that disavows the Subject as the only discursive ideal that can inscribe material lives and rejects the false dichotomies of Truth and error, ruler and ruled, Subject and abject, and Self and Other. It is the attempt to accelerate the various contradictions inherent in a given regime of truth by actualizing possibilities that were previously thought unintelligible, illegitimate and otherwise impossible. It is the attempt to develop avenues of agency by creating and reinforcing interdependent commonalities and affinities with the multitude of Others who co-inhabit the social. It is the attempt to regenerate loci of mutual recognition as spheres of activity for reflexive agents who choose to participate and negotiate, who acknowledge their distinct particularities while negotiating their commonalities, all the while pursuing the collective universalities of the creative resistance of their activism. In Foucault’s words, it is when actors

participate [both] collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally … [they are] at once elements and agents of a single process. They may be actors in the process to the extent that they participate in it; and the process occurs to the extent that [they] decide to be its voluntary actors. (Enlightenment, 35, emphasis added)

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. (1996) “An Aesthetics of Existence” in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), Columbia U., 1996.

——————– “The Ethic of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), Columbia U., 1996.

——————– “Problematics” in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), Columbia U., 1996.

——————– “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: New Press: W.W. Norton, 1997.

——————– “What is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: New Press: W.W. Norton, 1997.

——————– “Truth and Power” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-9777 by Michel Foucault, ed. Colin Gordon. Harvester Press,1980.

——————– “The Subject and Power” Afterword to Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

——————– The History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

1. The use of ‘individual’ in this essay is different from Foucault’s use of the term which he often conflates with self, subject, subjectivity and other such concepts; indeed, at times, he contends that the ‘individual’ does not exist. By the ‘site of individuality’, I simply wish to articulate that phenomenologically felt, materially lived entity-in-flux or bodily site that grounds one’s emotions, thoughts, habits and feelings. The ‘individuality’ used in this essay approximates the notion of ‘oneself’ that Foucault advances as the ‘ontologically prior’ relation one has to oneself.

2. It should be noted that ‘actualization’ here is not the simple application or the direct repetition of a pre-established maxim. Actualization is a process which always involves a gap between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, a creative rupture: actions are not directly ‘caused’ by principles but are the result of an always singular instance of the interpretation of such principles, making the final action always unpredictable and always unique to its interpretive and creative actor.

3. Indeed, even in the ‘normal’ realm of morality and ethics, it is only because of the interpretative nature of morality that an individual can be held responsible for his ethical conduct, for his actions in that ethical situation are the unique negotiated result of his interpretive exercise and creative agency (Aesthetics, 49). If it was simply a case of direct application, then as long as the individual carried out his or her duty of repeating the law, the ultimate responsibility of the situation would be placed on the laws themselves, and not on the individual who simply echoed them.

4. Foucault hints at this move from freedom to agency, yet never actually takes it: “Rather than speak of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of […] a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle” (Subject & Power, 222, emphasis added)

Fahd Husain (’09) is a Philosophy major at McGill University.

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Cover image: “Moral Hangover” by Khaaos

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