Critique of Foucault’s Aesthetic Self: the Danger of Narcissism
Higher forms of authenticity, in Taylor’s language, means a self that is connected to a moral horizon larger than that entailed by radical self-determination. The higher form is more concerned for its recognition by, and resonance with, other people, including external accountability and social interdependence. Foucault seems to lack a concept or structure of non-oppressive mutual accountability and life-promoting communal interdependent moral dialogue. By overplaying his hand on the aesthetic and the creative in his ethics, he has stripped morality down to the minimalist free self-articulation of the individual.
He has reduced morality to a single component, its beauty. In speaking of Foucault’s emphasis on the aesthetic, Taylor (1991) writes:
The notion that each of us has an original way of being human entails that each of us has to discover what it is to be ourselves. But the discovery can’t be made by consulting pre-existing models, by hypothesis. So it can be made only by articulating it afresh. We discover what we have it in us to be by becoming that mode of life, by giving expression in our speech and action to what is original in us. The idea that revelation comes through expression is what I want to capture in speaking of the “expressivism” of the modern notion of the individual. (Taylor, 1991, p. 61)
Discovery of self happens through self-making (projection of a creative self onto the screen of life). The individual self must hold itself in existence: “I am what I am because of what I make of me.” Thus the aesthetic self is in danger of simply evaporating into nothingness. Ironically, nihilism is the perfect philosophical environment for aesthetic self-creation. Is this why Foucault saw self-creation as a continual process, an ongoing labour, a struggle of creation and recreation, a necessary yet treacherous deconstruction and reconstruction process?
Taylor understands that this expressivism is connected to earlier Romantics like Herder:
Artistic creation becomes the paradigm mode in which people can come to self-definition. The artist becomes in some way the paradigm case of the human being, as agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroize the artist, to see in his or her life the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values … Art is understood now as a creation. (Taylor, 1991, p. 62.)
Clearly, this is the tradition in which Foucault follows. Someone who is complementary to Taylor’s argument on the balance of the aesthetic posture, is Foucault’s colleague at Collège de France, ancient world specialist Pierre Hadot. He asks important questions regarding the culture of self and the care of self. Both Hadot and Foucault agree that the ancient world is a good resource and context for understanding ethics.
Hadot however questions whether Foucault’s position on the ancients does not entail an over-emphasis on the reflexive relationship with and love for oneself? He raises similar concerns to those posed by Charles Taylor.
It seems to me … that the description M. Foucault gives of what I have termed “spiritual exercises”, and which he prefers to call “techniques of the self”, is precisely focused too much on the “self”, or at least on a specific conception of the self … In particular, Foucault presents Greco-Roman ethics as an ethics of the pleasure one takes in oneself … It is not the case that the Stoic finds his joy in his “self”; rather as Seneca says, he finds it “in the best portion of the self” in “the true good”. Joy is to be found “in the conscience turned toward the good; in intentions which have no other object than virtue; in just actions” … Seneca does not find joy in “Seneca”, but by transcending “Seneca”; by discovering there is within him—within all human beings, that is, and within the cosmos itself—a reason which is part of universal reason. (Hadot, 1995, p. 206-07),
Hadot rejects the reflexive notion that one took pleasure in oneself as an end in itself, but holds that the ancients experienced a joy in aspiring to a higher moral horizon, and ultimately defined themselves in terms of that horizon. He also rejects the idea that pleasure was an ethical principle among the Stoics. “Happiness does not consist in pleasure but in virtue.” (Hadot, 1995 , p. 207). He finally concludes that, “From an historical point of view, it seems difficult to accept that the philosophical practice of the Stoics and Platonists was nothing but a relationship to one’s self, a culture of self, or a pleasure taken in one’s self” (Hadot, 1995, p. 208). The Stoic often strove to go beyond, higher than self, to rise to a cosmic whole, an expansion of the self, toward a transcendent source. Hadot questions the way Foucault uses the Stoics, but also questions a self-construction that has the trajectory of self-pleasure, as one finds in Foucault’s concept of care of self called conversion to oneself.
Furthermore, Hadot insists that Foucault’s emphasis over-states the importance of the aesthetic in the ethics of the ancient world. It leads to an over-emphasis on the interior, to the exclusion of a relationship with the exterior horizons of community and an objective moral context.
What I am afraid of is that by focusing his interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of self, and conversion toward the self—M. Foucault is propounding a care of self which is too aesthetic. In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style … What Foucault calls “practices of the self” do indeed correspond for the Platonists as well as for the Stoics, to a movement of conversion toward the self. One frees oneself from exteriority, from personal attachment to exterior objects, and from the pleasures they may provide. One observes oneself, to determine whether one has made progress in this exercise. One seeks to be one’s own master, to possess oneself, and find one’s happiness in freedom and inner independence … I do think however, that this movement of interiorization is inseparably linked to another movement, whereby one rises to a higher psychic level, at which one encounters another kind of exteriorization … This new way of being-in-the-world, which consists of becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature, and a portion of universal reason … In this way, one identifies with an “Other”: nature, or universal reason, as it is present within each individual. This implies a radical transformation of perspective, and contains a universalist and cosmic dimension, upon which, it seems to me, M. Foucault did not sufficiently insist. (Hadot, 1995, p. 211)
Hadot has an important point on the strong bent towards the aesthetic, in sympathy with Taylor’s critique. Foucault’s hermeneutic of the self is too one-sided, focusing perhaps too strongly on the interior, and almost excluding the exterior context of ethics. Perhaps it is true that Hadot’s bias is the more universalist, rationalistic approach, but the point is made that there is a skewing, shall we say twisting of ancient concept of the self, in Foucault’s move towards a reflexive love of self and a bias towards raw individual creativity and self-stylization. He is particularly concerned with the idea of conversion to self, interpreted as a form of self-sufficiency, self-pleasure and self-admiration, a tendency towards narcissism.
There is here a new kind of transcendence of the self, aesthetics and the creative imagination, ending in brazen self-admiration. One finds this kind of sentiment in Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire in the late nineteenth century, models to which Foucault refers as exemplary lives, works of art incarnate. They represent to him the worthy stylized form of existence. This entails a dark side of self-worship and self-isolation. There is a clear distinction between the aesthetic mood of “truth to self and intersubjective justice” (Taylor, 1991, p. 63). Thus, the danger of narcissism is entailed in Foucault’s particular version of aesthetic self-constitution. Foucault’s self-redemption may raise certain red flags.
In the next post, this thought leads to an investigation of another concern, the potential for the aesthetics of self to morph into an aesthetics of violence. Is it possible that the narcissistic self may lead to the violent self?
Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. A. Davidson (Ed.), (M. Chase, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell. (French version published as Exercises Spirituels et Philosophie Antique. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1981).
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.
Carkner, G. (2016). The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. Infocus