Lecture Zero: Theme 0.4

0.4 Subjectivization


In the second volume of his History of Sexuality, entitled The Use of Pleasure (1984), Michel Foucault focuses on how sexuality became an object of moral reflection in classical Greek culture during the fourth century BCE. From a methodological point of view, his notion of ‘problematization’ is worth emphasizing. Problematization is the interest for observing how a certain phenomenon emerges as a topic for moral reflection and raises the problem of identifying the right way of engaging with that topic. Foucault’s research focuses on

the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought—and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed. The archaeological dimension of the analysis made it possible to examine the forms themselves; its genealogical dimension enabled me to analyze their formation out of the practices and the modifications undergone by the latter. […] I would like to show how, in classical antiquity, sexual activity and sexual pleasures were problematized through practices of the self, bringing into play the criteria of an ‘aesthetics of existence.’ (Foucault 1985, 11-12)

Notice the two dimensions, archeological and genealogical. The first consists in recovering the most salient aspects concerned with the topic that is problematized, while the second uncovers the way in which the problematization itself evolved over time. The underpinning assumption is that problematizations are always historically situated and change over time. At some point, a specific way of being, living, interacting becomes a problem. It constitutes a situation with respect to which established habits seem no longer entirely sufficient to interpret it or guide individuals in their dealing with it. More reflection is needed. The situation must be scrutinized, its assumptions and implications unpacked. It is in this process that the self emerges as a subject of renewed scrutiny, its agency is investigated more carefully, and its meaningful engagement with a domain of reality is explicitly put under discussion. This brings us to a second general aspect of Foucault’s investigation that is relevant for our purposes, namely, his idea of subjectivization. To be a subject is not an ontological pregiven a priori condition, but rather a process that arises and evolves. Rather than ‘subjects’ we should talk about how certain forms of interaction give rise to the emergence of specific forms of subjectivity. This ties in with the constructed and relational nature of the self already evoked in our departing theme.

Foucault explains:

for an action to be ‘moral,’ it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply ‘self-awareness’ but self-formation as an ‘ethical subject,’ a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. There is no specific moral action that does not refer to a unified moral conduct; no moral conduct that does not call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without ‘modes of subjectivation’ and an ‘ascetics’ or ‘practices of the self’ that support them. Moral action is indissociable from these forms of self-activity, and they do not differ any less from one morality to another than do the systems of values, rules, and interdictions. (Foucault 1985, 28)

This provides an illustration of the claim that the self is not just an unfolding cognitive process, but also an ethical process in which selfhood is established in the effort and struggle for self-mastery. Foucault’s discussion illustrates this general point by investigating various ways that classical Greek authors reflected on the use of pleasures associated with sexual activity. One core aspect that emerges from this ‘archeological’ reconstruction is an emphasis on temperance (Greek sophrosyne) and self-mastery (Greek enkrateia).

Self-mastery is the virtue being able to discern various passionate drives (in this case, sexual impulses), and their potential threats (in this case, the tendency for sexual drives to become obsessive and excessive and enslave the person subject to them). One endowed with self-mastery is able to withstand the power of these drives and overrule them. The opposite of self-mastery is weakness of will (Greek akrasia), where one sees the need of resisting impulses, but nonetheless does not manage to do so. Self-mastery eventually leads to temperance, which is the condition in which excessive drives no longer arise and one has fully mastered passions to such an extent that they are completely under control. In this sense, temperance is the achievement and fulfilment of self-mastery. Intemperance, meanwhile, is a condition of complete lack of restraint and deliberate indulgence.

Greek moralists extol temperance and self-mastery, and they consider weakness of will and intemperance as vices. Behind this judgment, Foucault identifies a powerful dichotomy that shapes Greek thought, namely, the divide between activity and passivity. Activity is associated with a moral sublimation of warrior ethics. The active one is the one able to subjugate enemies, shows his strength against them, and win battles. Activity is thus valued as a key attitude of the Greek ‘free man’ and temperance transposes this ideal of activity in the domain of emotional life and sexual conduct. One’s sexual drives become yet another domain in which one is called to show one’s own strength, by imposing one’s will upon them, and by thus showing one’s control and mastery over them. The main concern that leads to the problematization of sexual pleasures is their potential for threatening the activity of the free man. How can one be genuinely free and active in the public space, if one is not able to command one’s own impulses?

This whole reflection comes with powerful gender overtones and stereotypes, as Foucault stresses:

What was affirmed through this conception of mastery as active freedom was the ‘virile’ character of moderation. Just as in the household it was the man who ruled, and in the city it was right that only men should exercise power, and not slaves, children, or women, so each man was supposed to make his manly qualities prevail within himself. Self-mastery was a way of being a man with respect to oneself; that is, a way of commanding what needed commanding, of coercing what was not capable of self-direction, of imposing principles of reason on what was wanting in reason; in short, it was a way of being active in relation to what was by nature passive and ought to remain so. In this ethics of men made for men, the development of the self as an ethical subject consisted in setting up a structure of virility that related oneself to oneself. It was by being a man with respect to oneself that one would be able to control and master the manly activity that one directed toward others in sexual practice. What one must aim for in the agonistic contest with oneself and in the struggle to control the desires was the point where the relationship with oneself would become isomorphic with the relationship of domination, hierarchy, and authority that one expected, as a man, a free man, to establish over his inferiors; and it was this prior condition of ‘ethical virility’ that provided one with the right sense of proportion for the exercise of ‘sexual virility,’ according to a model of ‘social virility.’ In the use of male pleasures, one had to be virile with regard to oneself, just as one was masculine in one’s social role. In the full meaning of the word, moderation was a man’s virtue. (Foucault 1985, 82-83)

In this passage we can find a number of elements we have already touched upon. The self is relationally constructed. Given a certain historical situation (in this case, Greek culture in the fourth century BCE), the self emerges as the hermeneutic device to face a certain problem. On the background of Foucault’s analysis, we see the problem of domination and control, which characterizes the warrior ethics of the Greek ‘free man.’ This ideal is further spelled out and applied in various domains, including one’s relation with one’s own emotions, drives and pleasures. In each case, there is a potential source of uncertainty, the ever-present possibility of conflict or war. In each case, the model of activity is applied in order to impose a certain form of order upon experience. This form of order is rather simple, it is based on the asymmetrical relation between a dominant principle (which becomes associated with the self) and its object of domination.

Notice the paradox of this view. By introducing a sharp difference between dominator and dominated, this form of order creates a space in experience that is directly interpreted as something that could potentially overthrow the dominator. By constructing sexual drives as potential enemies capable of establishing a tyranny in oneself, the interpretation actively empowers these drives and somehow preserves the possibility for their rebellion. If one has to gain dominion over an enemy, the enemy must be real, and the stronger the enemy, the greater the glory that follows from defeating it. But this also entails that the enemy—and in turn, the uncertainty—real,. This particular way of constructing the self also reveals its own fragility; a fragility generated from within the form of order that it enacts. Self-mastery evokes in its own structure the possibility of self-slavery.

Notice also how much this conception of the self is embedded in the specific historical circumstances from which it emerges. Classical Greek culture was heavily unequal. Only a relatively small minority of male population enjoyed rights and freedom, while women and slaves were aligned with the ‘passive’ side of reality; that which has to be dominated. From a point of view internal to this culture, the situation might appear entirely normal, and the view of the self that comes with it just an objective feature of reality. However, from today’s point of view we can perhaps more easily spot the problems inherent in this way of structuring social relationships, and thus also selfhood. More importantly, historical retrospective allows us to debunk the impression of ‘naturalness’ associated with this view of the self. And if this can be done with classical Greek conceptions of the self, there seems to be no reason why this could and should not be equally done for any conception thereof. As Foucault remarks in his conclusions:

The sexual austerity that was prematurely recommended by Greek philosophy is not rooted in the timelessness of a law that would take the historically diverse forms of repression, one after the other. It belongs to a history that is more decisive for comprehending the transformations of moral experience than the history of codes: a history of ‘ethics,’ understood as the elaboration of a form of relation to self that enables an individual to fashion himself into a subject of ethical conduct. (Foucault 1985, 251)

The way the self is constructed in classical Greek culture in relation to sexual pleasures is somehow different from the way it was constructed in the Hellenistic period. This is something that Foucault himself acknowledges and explores further in the third volume of his History of Sexuality, The Care of the Self (first French edition 1984). For present purposes, we can stress just two general points. First, in conceiving of the self in terms of the dichotomy between activity and passivity, the model discussed so far does not primarily aim at relinquishment or unyoking (contrary to the Hellenistic view). In struggling to be fully active and dominating, one’s aim is not to escape a certain situation, but rather to shape and maintain it in a certain form, within certain parameters. Second, this same model is inherently social, in the sense that it is built on a thorough circulation between social standards and stereotypes and their internalization by the individual in his own inner life (which leads the individual to enact certain social behaviors, which in turn reinforce the current standards, and so on). The self discussed in The Use of Pleasure is the self of a male householder, of a free man, a political citizen, someone whose concerns include establishing, maintaining, and expanding his fortune and possessions, which include one’s family, wealth, prestige.

Compare this model with the one Hadot detected in Hellenistic schools. Certainly, the Stoics emphasized the need for personal commitment in political life. Exhibit one: Marcus Aurelius. Exhibit two: Seneca. Nonetheless, their ideal of transcending of the self (and the accompanying more stringent rigorism in the practice of sexual pleasures) does not seem to be prominent in (actually, it is at odds with) the model based on the active-passive dichotomy. In transcending the world of the senses, in merging into the universal nature, that dichotomy is no longer so relevant and one does not have to worry about his role remaining that of the free dominator. Foucault seems to think that the two models progress diachronically, with the Hellenistic one following the classical.[1] This might not be the case, since hints at transcendence are clearly present in Greek culture from very archaic times (as we shall discuss in Lectures Seven and Eight). But the two models are genuinely different, even if they have some relation with each other, nor they can be subsumed under a unified and more coherent model. They are two points on the same spectrum: the Hellenistic model verging more towards the extreme poles of transcendence (Stoics, Platonist) or immanence (Epicureans, Cynics), and the classical model remaining more within the middle range of the spectrum. Why and how one might opt for one or the other is something that remains to be investigated further.

What is clear is that in exploring the perpetual struggle to impose an order upon the uncertainty of experience, the self emerges as a tragic character, and history as its stage. In fact, historicity is one way that the relational nature of the self is best exposed and discerned. We can then expand the focus of our discussion, by looking at one way of narrating the long-term evolution of Western conceptions of selfhood.

  1. Hadot had some qualms with Foucault’s idea of the ‘care for the self’ (cf. Hadot 1995, 206-212) but here we shall pass over this debate between the two philosophers. For an engaging critical discussion with Foucault’s theory of the self, especially in the context of today’s feminist and poststructuralist debates, see Lois McNay, Foucault and Feminism (1992).


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.