Posted by: gcarkner | June 20, 2013

Critique of the Aesthetic Self…5

Final Reflections on the Critique of the Aesthetic Self

This five part discussion has been a deeper look at Foucault’s theme of the aesthetic component of the constitution of the moral self. It is now clear that the hermeneutic of the aesthetic is the determinative interpretive concept in Foucault’s ethics: aesthetics goes all the way down. Ethics for Foucault is a sign language of the aesthetic. The return to the subject is a return to the subject as a function of interpretation, as opposed to a subject as a metaphysical or epistemological starting point. The place of freedom as ontology is  a basic working assumption within self-constitution or construction.  The discussion so far captures the contours, the impact and consequences of dissolving the boundaries between ethics, art and everyday life into an aesthetics of existence, a life as a work of art. The series has also begun to reveal some of the shortcomings and problems with this approach through a critical dialogue with Charles Taylor.

As discovered in this investigation, there is a positive, robust edge to this hermeneutic of self. It is the self taken seriously as a site for creativity, imagination and self-respect and even a site to resist forms of social and political oppression, towards the empowerment of the individual. The self is the frontier of freedom and of the invention of new forms of life and lifestyle (the entrepreneurial self). Foucault is right to encourage the individual to be more circumspect about her moral self and how it has or is being shaped, and to realize that one has a significant part to play in this shaping process.

One’s chosen actions (habituses) does contribute to the shaping of one’s character, which in turn creates a lifestyle, which creates the unity of this eclectic process. One is to some degree the author or the reflective architect and engineer of oneself in Foucault’s ethics. It has been his goal to intensify the awareness of this process, to make it more central to one’s consciousness. He has offered tools as found in the ancient world to inspire imaginative self-creation, a creatio continua. He also holds out promise that a few (not many) will be able to remain in the archives as a fine exemplum, as a work of art to be admired by the masses.

The language of aesthetic shaping can make a useful contribution to goals for one’s future. There is a very meaningful artistic side to life, something important that transcends the science of physical survival. The aesthetic can help the self transcend the scientific facts of bodies. Foucault is also astute to understand the ubiquity and dynamics of power relations and the need to negotiate these power relations. He has shown that it is a struggle to form one’s self amidst the various forces at work in society (governmentality). The project of the moral self offers hope at some level for at least a temporary break out of a fatalism, out of a form of subject that is controlled and victimized by the power/knowledge of the regime (helpless and docile), a subject that is not conscious of the abilities of agency.

The understanding which emerges from the exposition of the dynamics of the triangular relationship between power, truth and self is quite striking. It adds much to the academic conversation about the self. But Foucault intentionally excludes the dimension of the good in the dialectic of self-making, which Taylor has worked hard to retrieve from the history of philosophy. This will make for interesting dialogue (see the whole series on the Quality of the Will in this blog).

The concepts of style and care of self as part of self-creation in the register of the aesthetic are also fascinating, provocative and challenging. These categories open up fresh discussion, interesting questions and debate to help us think differently and use  our imagination. The relationship between care of self and knowledge of self is worth examining further in the field of history of Western identity. Has self-care become a lost art as Foucault claims? Or is the culture of self-worth, self-esteem overplayed? Should one pay more attention to the style of one’s life as a statement on what one actually believes, or do a closer examination of the values one holds dearly? Does care of others have a place in self-care?

Should one pay more attention to the nuances of a relationship between the moral self and truth commitments? Perhaps there has been an over-emphasis on principle, and too little focus on the integral principle-praxis interface in ethics. Certainly Foucault would disallow any ethics legitimacy that did not have a strong dimension of praxis. He has also spotted a loss of holism in the thought of early scientistic modernity that needs to be addressed. Overall, it is quite a bold and sophisticated proposal for ethics in an age of nihilism, an attempt to rescue the subject and agency from moral frozenness, and to redeem meaning at some level through applying an aesthetics of existence to one’s life (compare Sartre on ‘existential choice’). This nihilism can be partially laid at the doorstep of the early Enlightenment, where science and philosophical materialism was the dominant culture sphere and marker.

There remains, however, a one-sided extremism and reductionism in the aesthetics of self. It has been important to critically examine some of the key concepts, in order to see what is on the other side of the celebration of a culture of self, and life or lifestyle as art. Does Foucault expect too much of the aesthetic? Is the aesthetic impulse too much of a totalizing and dominating emphasis in his ethics–an idolatry of sorts? Does it offer an appropriate and robust normativity? If one’s life and behaviour have a beautiful form, will it also automatically be good and praiseworthy, a noble life? Not necessarily we think.

Does every aesthetic judgment necessarily imply an ethical judgment? Probably not. Is not the aesthetic used too broadly when it is seen as an ethics, demonstrating a blurring of categories? Kierkegaard wisely worried about the damage caused by the implosion of the ethical down into the aesthetic. Foucault fights hard both for the autonomy of the aesthetic as a reigning impulse, and also fights for the application of this impulse to ethics and a horizontal transformation of self–continual re-invention. He wants the aesthetic to dominate and to interpret the ethical and the spiritual/religious, to bypass moral principle and ultimately to deconstruct normativity (ethics is transgressive and an agonisme). This requires some serious reflection before we buy in naively.

His constitution of the self fights hard against the sovereignty of moral norms and codes, religion, science, and law, refusing them determinative control over the self. One should be circumspect and query at this point: Are there potential distasteful and harmful consequences of such an ethics? With Taylor, the cautions begin to show problems and incoherence as his diagnostics is applied to aesthetic self-making. It is precisely what Foucault excludes that gives one pause to consider again what is at stake, and the potential extremes and pitfalls inherent in his system.

Creativity and freedom are strongly emphasized to the exclusion of accountability to, and moral dialogue with, other individuals and society. With such a strong emphasis on the individual, the consequences for the Other are largely ignored and this will prove problematic as it is applied to lived situations. The groundless play of one’s own imaginative powers are no substitute for justice for the community (the common good), and provide no solace for the possible anti-humanist element (the narcissism, cruelty and violence). Does he wish to be above the law or be the law itself? Foucault never claimed to have a program for society, and this is at the core of his inconsistency, a significant philosophical blinder or narrowness of mind. The radical autonomy of the self in fact works against the promotion of the common good; it devalues the polis.

The autonomy that is desired by Foucault has the real potential to become destructive of community and relationships, especially if the conversion to self is taken seriously as the apogee of ethics as aesthetics, as the care of self. Care of self and taking pleasure in oneself is a weak first principle; it promotes narcissism (a complete antithesis to classic Christian spirituality). After all, is not ethics fundamentally about the just and fair relationships between people towards peace, reconciliation of hostile relationships? The covenant with oneself (protecting one’s pleasures and self-harmony) must also include a covenant with the Other (the world), an I-I as well as an I-Thou relationship, in order to discover balance.

We question whether ethics, at its best, can be defined as a quest for one’s own self-fulfilment. The emphasis is far too heavily weighted on the side of choice and the decision of the individual self, too strong on self-invention as opposed to self-discovery and accountability within a community. Autonomy has a mature side of independence and confidence, but it can also mean never having to say you are sorry, or running roughshod over the feelings and rights of others. The struggle to avoid the grasp of governmentality and normalization can lead to a destructive anarchy, if taken to its opposite extreme. Prior to the anarchic level of intensity, it can produce a lot of pain and destruction of important relationships.

Foucault’s distaste for limits on the self do not allow for healthy boundaries either; moral self-editing is not his strong point. The loss of restrictions on  self-expression and his celebration of transgression is part of his extremism. This reveals a darker side to the art of living. For example, politicians and especially dictators often tend to stylize their existence (spin their own image) as positive, and that of their opponent as negative, hiding their own death-dealing slander and intentions. Policies that exploit the poor and favour the wealthy can be used to get one elected to power. There can be a perverted beauty in this injustice.

Aesthetics (also know as optics) are often used to cover immorality or amorality. Lies about accounting irregularities in business are aestheicized as a positive protection of stockholders interest. De-regulation of banks in the interest of stockholders can lead to egregious abuse by bankers (2008 Great Recession). Many a greedy exploitation is spun in terms of socially redemptive categories. Foucault has worked hard to expose and deconstruct these corporate or regime-driven forms of abuse, but has left a gaping hole open for abuse by the individual ‘liberated’ self who is a position of power and leadership. The beautiful self can act out a fantasy, an illusion like Reality TV or an intentional deception. There clearly needs to be checks and balances on Foucault’s proposal of creativity of the self. It is far too open-ended and ill-defined, essentially solipsistic. Ethics as aesthetics is a mixed blessing.

The major concern regarding imbalance with this approach is the forceful emphasis on praxis and the triumph of style, without normative principle, virtue or commitment to any sort of objective good. Practice trumps principle in Foucault’s ethics of freedom. Without moral content in the ontology of freedom, it promotes the reduction of ethics to valorization of one’s individual values, and entails conflict between people who hold different values. We question whether this assumption of will to power of one’s individual values is either morally adequate or helpful.

When style (without moral content) is sovereign, life can be very uncertain and treacherous. Style apart from accountability is truly risky. There is much potential for self-justification, self-legitimization, of dysfunctional and destructive behaviour. Noble self-empowerment can implode into public spin-doctoring of self as mere image or surface, without reliable expectations. This practice will eventually promote a breakdown in trust. The aesthetic is not sufficient to define and transform the self; it is exposed as a not fully adequate hermeneutic of moral self-constitution. Style must be joined by moral content; one ought to say yes to style and yes to moral accountability. Ethics cannot be reduced to an individual’s self-experiment without moral hazard (think white collar criminal Bernie Madoff). It can lead to human hubris and corruption.

Failure to separate ethics from praxis causes a moral short circuit because there exists no proper reflective distance between one’s ethics and one’s self. Thereby ethics implodes into a politics of having it my way, through making my choice an absolute. This is a return to nihilism of a different sort. Oxford philosopher Iris Murdoch (mentor to Charles Taylor) in her famous article ‘God and the Good’ (Hauerwas & MacIntyre (Eds.), p. 69) speaks profoundly to the point:

Our picture of ourselves has become too grand, we have isolated and identified ourselves with an unrealistic conception of the will, we have lost the vision of reality separate from ourselves, and we have no adequate conception of original sin.

Ethics becomes a continual battleground and self is the site of endless conflict. Perhaps there is room for a bit more wisdom, perspective and discernment.

Finally, there is the strong concern that the view will implode back into nihilism. Nihilism is a possibility on two fronts: First, according to Foucault, if one does nothing and capitulates to the oppressor, one remains a victim or puppet of the regime (power-knowledge), subjugated and in chains. Secondly, if one goes the route of extreme self-creation as Foucault articulates it, one is also vulnerable to nihilism. The self still lacks grounding outside itself (the loop of self-creation and self-admiration) as a self-posited form without substance–self can become trivialized.

Identity is in a precarious situation of possibly imploding in on itself, or sliding into dangerous greed,  violence or narcissism. If one as an individual is the only one who recognizes and puts value on one’s self, how does this value indeed remain sustainable? What about weaker members of society such as new citizens, who cannot fight for their values and identity in the same way? It could be an exhausting effort to keep oneself in existence under this scheme of ethics, and to keep one’s life meaningful and significant without the larger horizons of meaning (the interwoven nature of morality-spirituality-identity that Taylor speaks of) and a larger story or narrative in which to find one’s self. Foucault’s project of the aesthetic self is suspect, tending towards the dandy: the Other could easily be victimized under his scheme. The liberation aspect of this ethics as aesthetics is hijacked by a mythology of the aesthetic-freedom.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD

This discussion is part of a larger riveting book which argues against contemporary ethical relativism and and moral subjectivism (aka nihilism). The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity.

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