Posted by: gcarkner | June 18, 2013

Critique of the Aesthetic Self…4

 Is an Aesthetics of Violence hidden in Foucault’s Re-invented Self?

Foucault believes strongly in aesthetic-freedom and the creative imagination and heartily celebrates a wide spectrum of diverse human expression. In fact, he is unlikely to judge the behaviour of others, unless they claim to be morally right. Sadly, one of the implications of this strong and uncritical embrace of aesthetic-freedom is that it can lead to an embrace of violence, cruelty and death itself as something to be celebrated. Aesthetics can both promote one’s self-discipline and create an open field for ethical practice towards the Other; it entails a spectrum which traverses from benevolence to indifference to hatred to cruelty and violence.

This is one of the controversial implications of Foucault’s moral projectivism (the projection of one’s values onto life), and lived experience as a self-legitimating entity. Taylor (1991, pp. 65-68) notes that one of the darker implications of aesthetic self-making is the draw towards violence. Referring back to Taylor’s criteria of self-making, Foucault elevates the impulses of category A (Creativity) over category B (Accountability), and even excludes category B.

There is an insensitivity to the larger context of self within moral praxis. This can lead the self to a sense of severe autonomy and strident power, power that can be dangerous and destructive depending on how it is directed. Is this one of the key elements of ethics that Foucault ignores, that is, to guide and control how power and freedom are used? This can indeed produce a crisis of moral normativity (Horovitz, 1992, pp. 325f; McNay, 1994, pp. 134f) in his ambivalent and undefined notion of the aesthetic. Taylor wants them to be used to promote fairness and justice, and positive treatment of the Other?

Absent moral normativity and accountability, self-disciplined power can indeed be dangerous (Foucault recognized the danger in power). If we follow Foucault’s moral trajectory, hedonism, racism and hatred, even exploitation of the Other are also possible as a social and political praxis. His philosophical hero Nietzsche would agree.

These attitudes are unfortunately also a source of pleasure for certain formations (sado-masochism) of the self. Foucault understands this to some degree, and yet his elevated definition of freedom is so important to aesthetic creativity that he seems to be blind or insensitive to some of its darker possibilities. The gap in this view, as Taylor sees it, involves a refusal of a whole set of demands for genuine authenticity, including accountability and responsibility to other persons as a crucial dimension of ethics.

Oxford’s Lois McNay is particularly concerned here about how the “aesthetics of existence is elaborated through a Baudelairean heroization of the self” (McNay, 1994, p. 147). She also notes a ‘normative confusion’ in the unproblematized notion of practice “which reduces ethics to the act of aesthetic self-assertion” (McNay, 1994, p. 158). Why should the aesthetic become the default normative? Is this not an unadmitted essentailism in Foucault?

Taylor questions this hermetic concept of self-care as a conversion to oneself. Foucault’s moral self lacks the appropriate sense of balance of interdependence–connectedness to the Other. It is sceptical of the prospect of relational harmony, assuming that one will be continuously trying to manipulate the Other, and will also attempt to avoid being manipulated. The protection of self can lead to deprivation of dignity for the Other, devaluation of the import of the polis and the public good. The political implications seem to be negative as well as positive. There are inherent dangers in this type of strong version of aesthetic-freedom and self- creation.

In order to explain this concern, Taylor notes that Foucault’s self-making refuses the discovery dimension of self-constitution, as per Ai, in favour of a more thoroughgoing original self-invention. This can lead to both a threat of uncertainty in the self, and an unhealthy sense that all depends on the power of the individual will and one’s individual choices. It is both a heavy burden to bear and a heady wine. It creates an inflated consciousness of self. This can lead to violence, warns Taylor.

The fascination with violence in the twentieth century has been a love affair with power … even in milder forms neo-Nietzschean theories generate a sense of radical freedom … this connects up in alliance with self-determining freedom … The notion of self-determining freedom pushed to its limit, doesn’t recognize any boundaries, anything given that I have to respect in my exercise of self-determining choice. It can easily tip over into the most extreme forms of anthropocentrism. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 67, 68)

Foucualt’s atheism has led to an aesthetic anthropocentrism (literally, a human-centeredness) which abolishes all transcendent horizons of moral significance, and focuses attention on mere choice and self-expression. History is our witness: this can result in violence or cruelty, which can in turn be aesthetically self-justified. To whom, or to what standard or principle is this renewed sense of power and freedom accountable? Self alone-? That’s the wild card in this posture of transgressive ethics.

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Power of all types (even self-empowerment) needs an accountability structure in order to avoid corruption and abuse. What is missing is any deterrence from evil praxis in Foucault’s post-normative aesthetic-freedom, where freedom to create is the highest principle, the goal of ethics and the ground of ethics. Foucault is keenly aware that power is dangerous, and encourages a careful dance with power relations, and offers solutions to avoid the trap of domination. He himself suggested that the emphasis on freedom and self-mastery would curb the appetite to abuse power. Does he really show how this is the case?

Foucault does seem dangerously naive about the dangers of raw self-creation, for reasons that the Stoics knew well—choices based on will alone without a point of reference that sort pleasures qualitatively can be destructive to the self. A related question to address in his moral self is: For what reason should one care about another person, especially the weak and vulnerable, if one is focused so intensely on stylizing one’s self? Why would someone take responsibility for the Other? An illustration in point is Foucault’s controversial stance on the Iranian Islamic revolution of the late 1970s (see D. Macey, 1993, pp. 407-11).

As Macey points out, Foucault celebrated this uprising as a ‘political spirituality’, a ‘spectacle of collective will’ (D. Macey, 1993, p. 410), but he was unprepared for, and sadly underestimated, the brutal oppression of the Ayatollah Khomeini et al. His report on the events in the Paris press proved very controversial. He was caught out by his philosophical naiveté that led him into this failed analysis in his reporting, revealing a major weakness in his position.

There is another problematic gap of responsibility and accountability in Foucault’s strong self-affirmation or pleasure in self, the conversion to oneself. By focusing his ethics on the reflexive relationship with self, accountability is reduced to oneself and one’s admirers to become the most beautiful life possible. The criteria of this beauty are self-posited, self-interpreted and self-legitimated, making them quite suspect. This may have currency in the land of celebrity, but is found wanting in everyday institutional and family life.

Foucault’s justice, in essence, is interpreted according to the principle of self-love. But social injustice and narcissism are linked; much injustice, and the justification thereof, can be done against others by locating all evil outside of self. The beautiful self registers as the faultless self in Foucault, and this is quite concernng. How can one question the motives of the aesthete on his/her own tautological terms? The position is oblivious to negative motives–almost utopian.

The aesthetic self, in the final analysis is not open to critique by the Other. It is encased in a protective loop, a wall of self-protection and self-reflexivity. The work of art on his terms is to be admired by his audience and contains merit within himself. For example, Oscar Wilde loved and enjoyed himself immensely and revelled in the celebration of his plays by admiring audiences, but he lived this to the exclusion of family responsibility, an ethos that was devastating and destructive to his wife and children. One of the illusive and difficult characteristics of the aesthetic self is that it keeps changing, being re-invented, so that it positions itself beyond the reach of criticism, accountability, and thus responsibility.

Furthermore, Taylor (1991) reveals in starker terms the implication of Nietzsche’s inspiration of Foucault. It is well known that part of Foucault’s thinking about the self is that the instinctual depths of human urges must be released for the sake of human creativity and self-actualization.

Nietzsche who seeks a kind of self-making in the register of the aesthetic, sees this as quite incompatible with the traditional Christian-inspired ethic of benevolence. He has been followed and exceeded by various attempts to champion the instinctual depths, even violence, against the “bourgeois” ethic of order. Twentieth century examples include: Marinetti and the Futurists, Antoine Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty, and Georges Bataille. (Taylor, 1991, pp. 65, 66)

Georges Bataille (2001) was one of Foucault’s intellectual heroes, a French essayist, philosophical theorist and novelist, who was interested in sex, death, degradation, and the power and potentialities of the obscene. He rejected traditional literature and considered that the ultimate aim of all intellectual, artistic, or religious activity should be the annihilation of the rational individual in a violent, transcendental act of communion.

Taylor also exposes this anti-humanist (mis-anthropic) element within Foucault’s ethics, in the discussion called A Catholic Modernity? (Heft (Ed.), 1999, pp. 27f) This draw to violence and cruelty is a dimension of self-making which it would be wrong to overlook. “The Foucault of the 1980s is best understood as finally embracing a more recognizably Nietzschean approach to the subject” (Ransom, 1997, p. 135). Like Nietzsche, one of his key intellectual sources of inspiration, he wishes to affirm all that life brings, which includes violence, cruelty and death as part of a normal life; he often wondered whether there would be some intense pleasure in death.

Foucault longs to hold an unsanitized depiction of existence, one that reveals cruelty. In an atmosphere of nihilism, power is always the dominant language: power trumps love. Foucault’s ethics is not about love; it is about the expansion of freedom and power to the individual self, a very strategic power play, and clearly that is legitimate up to the point that it becomes abusive to others. The further extreme of this trajectory is a concern.

Taylor worries about the potential loss of some of the key gains of modernity. He is saying that, however distasteful the thought, endemic to the aesthetics of existence is an embrace of violence, even possibly terrorism, and the lack of protection of basic human rights. Remember that Foucault’s view of freedom does not support a concept of the worth of each individual or basic human rights. It is deeply suspicious of various humanisms. Taylor’s critique Nietzsche applies to Foucault. There is an entailed celebration of cruelty under the banner of aesthetics, the beauty of it all, a radical embrace, or willingness to see the world as beautiful in order to accept it. Aestheticism naturally endorses a violence which can undercut Foucault’s quest to liberate the self.

This is the revolt from within unbelief … against the primacy of life … from a sense of being confined, diminished by this sense of primacy. This has been an important stream in our culture, something woven into the inspiration of poets and writers—for example Baudelaire and Mallarme. The most influential proponent of this kind of view is undoubtedly Nietzsche, and it is significant that the most important antihumanist thinkers of our time—for example Foucault, Derrida, behind them Bataille—all draw heavily on Nietzsche. Nietzsche rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering. He rejects that both metaphysically and practically. He rejects the egalitarianism underlying this whole affirmation of ordinary life … Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exhuberant affirmation … There is nothing higher than the movement of life itself (the Will to Power). But it chafes at the benevolence, the universalism, the harmony, the order. It wants to rehabilitate destruction and chaos, the infliction of suffering and exploitation, as part of the life to be affirmed. Life properly affirmed affirms death and destruction. To pretend otherwise is to try to restrict it, hem it in, deprive it of its highest manifestations, which are precisely what makes it something you can say yes to. (Taylor, 1991, p. 27)

This quote is powerful, provocative and revealing, especially for those who might simply accept Foucault’s ethics as a stream of progress, a mandate for freedom of speech and self-expression. Of course, Foucault finds oppression distasteful, but there is no force in his ethics to stop it or call it to account.

From his moral position, a philosophy of life that would proscribe death-dealing or the infliction of suffering, is seen to be confining and demeaning; he assumes this state of attempted domination as part of social life. He is willing to sacrifice the public good for freedom and the free flow of relations. He does offer a defensive position (resistance) for the self who is victimized by abuses, but to be consistent, he cannot condemn them as wrong, because abuses of power can in themselves be articulated as free and creative expressions of a self. Thus, modern secular and Christian humanisms (both distasteful to Foucault) would seem to prevent the affirmation of the primacy of the unedited self, the radically experimental lifestyle.

In an important note, Taylor points out something significant regarding the difference between the American and Continental European reception of Foucault (Taylor, 1994, p. 232). In America, Foucault is appreciated by those on the Left, those of a more egalitarian perspective (for example, pragmatic neo-liberal Richard Rorty at Berkeley) as a critique of power relations and the ubiquity of attempts to dominate, plus exposure of societal inequalities, or the liberation of women. Taylor balances this view, “But, saying that all human beings are equally worthy of respect is part of a different moral universe from Bataille. The somewhat darker, more problematical, anti-humanist side of Foucault is better understood in France.” (Taylor, 1994, p. 32) This is part of the revolutionary story of the aesthetics of power relations and truth games that would be wrong to hide or ignore.

Taylor fears that this denial of the primacy of life, and its substitution with the will to choose one’s own style as a way of life, could prove perilous and damaging. It can produce a counter-belief to modern philanthropy—which strives to feed the poor and aid the disenfranchised—with the possibilities for turning concern for the other into contempt, hatred, even aggression. Foucault is resistant to the “metaphysical primacy of life and inherent value of the human being, in favour of the practical primacy of life, as it is lived—which involves the instinctual depths of cruelty and domination as well as free self- articulation.” (Taylor, 1999, p. 28) Many individuals articulate self as a terrorist, freedom fighter or suicide bomber. Foucault ultimately fails to separate ethics from praxisphilosophically, he melts down ethics and pours it into the mould of human praxis and aesthetic self-construction. This approach begins to show some significant weaknesses.

Intellectual Emmanuel Lévinas is a French Lithuanian Jew who lived through the Holocaust. In 1948, he published an article called, ‘Reality and its Shadow’ which is a devastating critique of aestheticism. He argued that,

Art is not reality, but its shadow, and further, he argued that confusion in the realm of aesthetics leads to confusion in morals and ethics. In his own words: ‘Art for art’s sake … is false inasmuch as it situates art above reality and recognizes no master for it; and it is immoral inasmuch as it liberates the artist from his duties as a man and assures him of a pretentious and false nobility. (E. Lévinas (1987, pp. 1-14))

Art can work this way by substituting an image of reality for reality itself. This is a very astute insight and one shared by Terry Eagleton (1990, pp. 367f) in his critique of the ideology of the aesthetic in Foucault. Every revolution red with blood in the streets, exploitation of the innocent, its gulags has its poets, singers, artists and writers who legitimize it and praise its glory. For Robespierre, enough was never enough.

In this same vein of missing accountability, Taylor has an insightful dialogue with Jean Bethke Elshtain’s critical review of his book Sources of the Self (1989). He admits that there are other problems with the idea of self-making as a quest for control (the blind ideal of self-making), problems which could lead to the sanction or embrace of violence. In response to Elshtain’s concern that self-making can move one in negative directions, Taylor claims that he has been reading, or at least attempting to read “ideals of self-making which are blind to dependence” as aberrations. (Taylor, 1994, p. 231). Aberrations to Taylor means both that “something is wrong, and that it is a twisted form of something good” (1994, p. 231), in this case, the virtue of self-control or moderation within a will to take responsibility for the Other. Foucault, on the other hand, believes in a self-controlled freedom with malleable, even porous, limits on self-expression, limits that can and should be surpassed. Taylor writes:

I consider the blind ideals of self-making to be (at least partly) aberrations in relation to the aspiration to take responsibility, because these ideals arise from an occlusion of the context which gives the aspiration its sense. Taking responsibility can be seen to be a good given what human beings are, their powers, their potentials, their way of being. Taking responsibility specifically for our environment is a good in the context of the natural world, of its place in our lives, and in those of our descendants, and of the respect we owe it. To exult in the fact of control outside of both these contexts, human and natural, is to take joy in power for itself, a kind of joy which can easily tip over into a love of violence, because nothing manifests raw power so completely and convincingly as violence. (Charles Taylor, 1994, p. 231)

Unfortunately, the culture of responsibility is trumped by a culture of choice, expressivism, and stylization in Foucault. For him, there would seem to be no braking point between self-control as self-design, and control over others, even though he himself would often claim this or any other form of domination an offensive and undesirable (but not wrong) form of self-expression.

~Gord Carkner

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

Taylor, C. (1994). Charles Taylor Replies. In J. Tully (Ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (pp. 213-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eagleton, T. (1990). The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Horovitz, L.M. (1992). Substance Metaphysics and Theories of the Moral Agent: Heidegger and Foucault on ethics. Doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University, Chicago.

Macey, D. (1993). The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Vintage.

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

See also Gordon Carkner’s paper:  Radical Individualism Examined


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