Posted by: gcarkner | May 23, 2013

A Critique of Aesthetic Self-creation

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Short Critique of Foucault’s Aesthetic Self-constitution

There are positive and negative implications of Michel Foucault’s aesthetic self-determination, which ultimately yields a full-orbed self-making. A strategic starting point is with Charles Taylor’s diagnostics of self-constitution in his book, The Malaise of Modernity (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65-67, aka The Ethics of Authenticity). This chart is employed in this argument as a criteria grid to begin the critical examination of the robustness of Foucault’s concept of aesthetic moral self-constitution, otherwise know as the art of self. The chart highlights what is present and what is absent or intentionally excluded. It leads us on a trajectory of opening up our awareness of the fullest and richest dimensions of the self.

Taylor begins by agreeing with Foucault that, in the West, one is self-consciously involved in one’s self-development, and that one’s identity, one’s spirituality and one’s moral self are intimately entwined. Those convictions are held in common. Both philosophers are also critical of a cultural over-emphasis on scientific definitions of the moral self: the disengaged subject controlling the world, defining its value.

Their debate begins when one asks who and what else is involved in one’s self-shaping. In Taylor’s analysis, there are five significant criteria in the chart below, divided into categories A and B, indicators of the shape of one’s own moral self-constitution. It is a chart which is respectful of the plurality of contemporary approaches to self. Taylor suggests that all five elements tend to be involved, in some combination and different weight, in moral identity development.

Taylor’s Moral Self-Construction Diagnostics

Category A (Creativity)

(i) Creation and construction (as well as discovery) of the self.

(ii) Pursuit of originality in one’s self-crafting.

(iii) Opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what one recognizes as morality, or the moral order.

Category B (Social and Moral Accountability)

(i) Openness to horizons of significance prevents one’s self-creation from losing the background that can save it from insignificance and trivialization (self-destruction of meaning).

(ii) Self-definition needs to be developed in dialogue with significant Others, that is, fellow moral interlocutors. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)

This chart is rooted in Taylor’s moral ontology of the good (see other blog posts on the “Quality of the Will” for his full moral ontology), but contains a broader application. While admitting the strong impact of the Post-Romantic Turn in philosophy (in which Foucault is a significant player), Taylor understands the existence and currency of the language of self-construction. This is not lost on graduate students in the field of education. In other words, he takes Foucault seriously, even though he disagrees with him on certain key emphases. Taylor does not reject the Romantic and Post-Romantic traditions out of hand, but he does bring a critical reflection to bear on them and some of their extreme positions. he is know as one of only a few philosophers studied in both Anglo-American and Continental philosophy.

To begin, Taylor does not concede the legitimacy of just any form of self- construction, a view that puts him into a significant tension with Foucault’s perspective on the self. Referring back to the chart above, Taylor’s concern with Foucault (as with other neo-Nietzscheans) is the extreme emphasis that he places on Category A (Creativity), and the near exclusion of an emphasis on Category B (Accountability and Mutuality).

Moreover, he contests that Foucault’s radical nominalism, which denies the possibility of self-discovery along with self-creation (Ai); his problem is with what he considers an over-emphasis or skewing of reality. Taylor has a higher stake in (puts a higher value on) certain human and natural (even moral) givens than Foucault. Taylor is not a nominalist, but a falsifiable moral realist. Briefly put, this means that he recognizes both an objective and a subjective component (pole) in moral self- constitution, and will not allow ethics to be reduced to either extreme. The term falsifiable moral realist is coined by Ruth Abbey (Charles Taylor, 2000).

Further, Taylor questions the merits and overall legitimacy of category (Aiii), that self-constitution should automatically by definition involve denial of the moral rules of society—the anarchic stance. He does not have an inherent bias against social norms, but nor is he an uncritical social conventionalist. Taylor (1991, p. 63) justifiably asks why aesthetic self-making should necessarily pass through a repudiation of the moral. Also, why are all moral regimes and all humanisms written off so easily (cynically?) by Foucault? Finally, his concern with Foucault is the inherent denial of the significance of category (Bi) and (Bii), including the idea of moral horizons and the more social/dialogical dimension of self-making. This is a critical oversight which concerns Taylor deeply.

Foucault’s idea of moral self-constitution is hyper-individualistic. Taylor, as a more communitarian thinker, brings a fresh set of concerns to the table of discussion on the self. He suggests that,

What must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other (e.g. A over B) … That is what trendy doctrines of “deconstruction” involve today … stress (Ai) the constructive, creative nature of our expressive languages, while altogether forgetting (Bi). They capture the more extreme forms of (Aiii), the amoralism of creativity … while forgetting (Bii), its dialogical setting, which binds us to others … These thinkers buy into the background outlook of authenticity, for instance in their understanding of the creative, self-constitutive powers of language … while ignoring some of its essential constituents. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 66, 67)

Taylor’s concern is that Foucault makes such a move, ignoring as he does certain key constituents of self-articulation or self-constitution, such as the dynamics of Category B (Accountability). By abolishing all extra-self horizons of significance, and demoting the significance of dialogue with other moral interlocutors, morality can become quite narrowly focused. It can become a virtual monologue, an abstract self-projection of one’s values onto the world, rather than a source of communal conversation, cooperation and responsibility for the Other. This social embeddedness is a crucial concern for contemporary moral dialogue.

For Foucault and his concept Care of Self, the clear weight of bias in his discourse on subjectivity is towards a radical autonomy, not construction as part of a communal dialogue, nor is it an ethics for society. It is an ethics of the individual in rebellion against societal controls. This tends to skew Foucault’s theory of the moral self towards self-interest, or even narcissism (his colleague Pierre Hadot called it Dandyism).

According to Foucault, ethics means that the self studies the power relations within the social matrix, abstracts itself from the problematized social matrix, rethinks itself, and then imposes the newly invented self combatively onto society. “The understanding of value as something created gives a sense of freedom and power.” (Taylor, 1991, p. 67).

Foucault attempts to deal with aesthetic self-constitution issue through his strong emphasis on the creative, constructive imagination. His strong emphasis on the aesthetic hermeneutic of self follows Nietzsche. For him, the language of a transcendent good is repressed in self-making, in favour of the language of the creative imagination and radical individual self-articulation. The grammar of the good is rethought and reconfigured in terms of the artistic self. Self and its expression are taken as the proximate source of the good and the true. Some call this expressionism.

The sources of the self, to use Taylor’s language, are contained within the creative self. Once this is realized, suggests Foucault, individual freedom and power will emerge, over against societal power/knowledge. The attempt here is to break truth free from power. Unlike other conceptions of transcendent moral sources in reason, nature or God, Foucault focuses on sources of the self within the self, in the register of moral self-empowerment and freedom of expression, a continual ongoing re-invention of self and assertion of artistic freedom.

Such a perception of sources makes it possible to relativize, even marginalize the Other and the social world. This gives one power over the Other and the world, a power which could easily be abused by such a subject and lead to abuse or even self-justified violence. At the very least, it decreases vulnerability and accountability to the Other (a key dimension of effectual ethics). This is especially acute given Foucault’s emphasis on the kind of accountability that is merely a self-reflexive phenomenon, a responsibility to care for self first, love self as a first priority.

This posture produces a radical self-determining form of freedom that must give us pause (Jean Bethke Elshtain). Significance can be conferred by choice, by making my life a constant exercise in freedom or self-assertion. The one remaining virtue is choice itself. The kinder side of this, says Taylor, is that this is taken as support for the demands of difference (to fight oppression or marginalization as a minority voice). Overall, it often unfortunately pushes towards a dangerous atomization and fragmentation of society–hyperpluralism or radical celebration of difference (Brad Gregory). Thus we must think critically about the quality of moral self-constitution within its larger horizon of significance: human and divine. In A Secular Age p. 559, Taylor writes, “There is no priority  of the individual’s sense of self over society: our most primordial identity is as a new player  being inducted in an old game.” Lots to ponder…

~Gordon Carkner (excerpt from his PhD dissertation entitled: A Critical Examination of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Moral Self-Constitution in Dialogue with Charles Taylor,  2006,  University of Wales)

See: Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi. 1991 ( Sources of the Self  by Charles Taylor is the larger version of this book: section one is part of his answer to the narrow forms of moral development or construction)

Characteristics of the Post-Romantic outlook gleaned from Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, 1989, pp. 434- 455 (not the writer’s perspective)

Among the Key Players: Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Foucault.

1. Art is superior to morality, and sees itself in conflict with the social moral order.

2. Humans live in a chaotic or fallen natural and social world, rooted in chaos and the will to power. One can take an affirmative stance towards the world through seeing it as beautiful—seeing the world through an aesthetic lens. This is the only remaining basis for its justification.

3. Being itself is not good as such, nor is human being per se taken as good.

4. Hope resides in a strong belief in the power of the creative imagination to transfigure or transform the world and the self, or to reveal it afresh as beautiful.

5. Language is a key means of changing the world, or at least the way one sees the world; it is key to one’s poetic self-expression, and re-writing the self.

6. This tends to result in an aesthetic amorality, a move beyond good and evil, an embrace or affirmation of violence and cruelty as well as patience and care. There is no logical or moral distinction between them.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a l...

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School in 2007. Charles Margrave Taylor, C.C., Ph.D., M.A., B.A., FRSC (5 novembre 1931, Montréal), est un philosophe québécois d’expression anglaise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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