Posted by: gcarkner | June 7, 2013

Critique of the Aesthetic Self…2

Taylor’s Critique of Foucault’s Aesthetic Self-creation continued

Foucault would agree with Taylor’s placement of his project in the twentieth century cultural transition called the Post-Romantic Turn (Taylor, 1989, pp. 434-455). The expressivism of this tradition gives a higher, even perhaps a normative significance to the aesthetic culture sphere, and opens a full challenge to the moral culture sphere (Taylor, 1991, p. 63). Foucault clearly wishes to transcend the code-morality of Old Europe, with its universal intent towards normalization, via a new morality of the evolving ethics of the autonomous, artistic self. The pressing question at hand is whether Foucault’s project of recovering the self is ironically captive to a totalizing impulse, the aestheticization of the moral. Does it become an ideology of the aesthetic which can be easily manipulated by higher or lower motivations?

There is a strong tendency in Foucault to celebrate the individual’s own powers to construct and interpret reality in a context shaped by immanence and the finite, and to deny the legitimacy of any binding moral horizon or moral culture outside or above the self. Taylor sees the picture this way.

Foucault’s spiritual profile: an even higher estimate of the unrestricted powers of the imagination than the Romantics had, and hence a celebration of those powers … This subjectivism of self-celebration is a standard temptation in a culture which exalts freedom and puts such value on the creative imagination. (Taylor, 1989, pp. 489, 490)

According to this sentiment, all values are welcome to the table of open hospitality (moral levelling). In Foucault’s moral ontology of aesthetic freedom, there is no hierarchy of various goods. The consequence is that nothing appears to be of ultimate value, nothing is better or worse. Everything is flattened. Virtues and vices, good and evil are levelled and reduced to an individual’s stylization of self (lifestyle).

Oxford culture philosopher Lois McNay (Foucault: a critical reader; Foucault & Feminism: power, gender and the self) values some of Foucault’s insights, but on this point, sees a hole in his ethics that one could drive a large truck through. He may understand power relations and sexual stereotypes, but he leaves women vulnerable and without rights protection in the end. Justice is a far reach from his solipsistic ethics. One’s individually chosen values remain, with the freedom to either cherish and champion them or discard them later as one chooses. No one else dare comment on these values; there is a lack of social accountability in this Dionysian approach.

It is ethics as self-assertive politics; one posits and then promotes one’s values in the name of style, poetics, art. This is a Nietzschean embrace of it all in the name of beauty. There remains no higher or lower morality, no higher or lower marks of authenticity in Foucault; choice of one’s own spiritual path is primal. All moralities are just expressions of the self, all self-authorized, legitimate in and of themselves. “Beauty is a satisfaction for itself … gives its own intrinsic fulfilment. It’s goal is internal….  Aesthetic wholeness is an independent goal with its own telos, its own form of goodness and satisfaction” (Taylor, 1991, pp. 64, 65). Taylor makes an astute connection between Nietzsche’s nihilism (transvaluation of all values) and Foucault on the issue of the aesthetic.

It is here that one recognizes that Foucault’s project of the recovery of the subjective agency is threatened by a loss of meaning or trivialization. There is a potential fall into a fatal and tragic nihilism, with self imploding in upon itself, without a broader horizon of significance and the recognition by the Other. On one hand, Foucault sought to escape nihilism of power-knowledge regimes through the invention of the aesthetic self. On the other, his project is in grave danger of running out of gasoline and returning to nihilism.

Taylor notes that, in this Post-Romantic philosophical turn, there is a tendency to legitimate action and ethical behaviour according to beauty rather than by its inherent good.

What in the universe commands our affirmation, when we have overcome the all-too-human, is not properly called its goodness but comes closer to being its beauty … Part of the heroism of the Nietzschean superman is that he can rise beyond the moral, beyond the concern with the good, and manage in spite of suffering and disorder and the absence of all justice to respond to something like the beauty of it all. (Taylor, 1989, p. 454)

The interpretative lens of goodness is exchanged for the lens of the beautiful. The beauty of it all for Post-Romantics makes all things tolerable, perhaps dangerously so, undermining healthy relationships and commitments. If Foucault’s ethics as artistic life expression (e.g. Oscar Wilde) is passed through such a repudiation of the moral, any socially empowering moral principle is recognized and yet demoted in favour of the individual’s controlled agenda over the self. This is a distortion of reality and a distortion of self. A prestigious place is given to one’s own inner powers of construing, imagining or interpreting the world, and making over one’s self. We recognize that this is ambitious indeed and not for the faint of heart.

Self emerges as the creator, stylizer and valorizer of its own individual values. The danger of much identity politics today is that things can devolve into a politics of self-interest, ignoring justice for the Other or using the Other instrumentally for one’s own self-interest. Taylor rigorously challenges this radical individualism and over-emphasis on the creativity side of self-interpretation in Foucault’s third project:

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order that matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 40-41)

Trivialization of self and one’s lifeworld is en route to nihilism. We should now be alert to the fact that the language of values and the language of aesthetics are closely entwined (Weber and Foucault are philosophically close here). The language of values emerges out of an intellectual outlook of nihilism (Nietzsche via Weber in America), and therefore should be managed circumspectly. It can be dangerous or explosive, even self-destructive. From whence comes a value? Why is compassion better or worse than violence or cruelty? Value, according to Foucault, is what the creator of self values, that is, the self and no one else. This is a highly questionable stance towards society and seems quite egoistic, even possibly anarchistic.

With Foucault, the individual self as agent has an awesome (possibly crushing) responsibility as creator of all values. The individual self’s will to choose, the will to become, is of paramount importance.

Once human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to see that these higher authorities were their own fictions, and they realized they had to establish their norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story …. The dramatic claim to establish our own standards comes down to the thought that we no longer receive those norms from an authority outside us, but rather from our own scientific investigations…. Struck by the sense that we stand before a normative abyss, that this blind, deaf, silent universe offers no guidance whatever; we can experience an exhilarating challenge, which inspires us, which can even awaken a sense of strange beauty of this alien universe, in the face of which we stake our claim as legislators of meaning.  (Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 580-581)

The condition of the self in Foucault works off the assumption of moral nihilism, and yet also assumes a strong will to self-empowerment, sentiments that are often contradictory. It is nihilism with a strong quest for freedom and creativity in its radical subjectivity. Unfortunately, it fails to meet Taylor’s criteria of the higher versions of the authentic quest for self-construction, as shown in the previous blog post concerning the larger horizons of the self. It entails vulnerability to loss of meaning. We propose with Taylor that the quest for meaning requires that we pay attention to the larger context of our lives; this is a way to dig deeper and build sustainability into the meaning of our fragile lives.

~Gord Carkner

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, ON: Anansi.

McNay, L. (1992). Foucault and Feminism: Power, gender and the self. Cambridge: Polity.

McNay, L. (1994). Foucault: A critical reader. Cambridge: Polity.

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