From Askēsis to Resistance as ‘Care of the Self’: technologies of the self – Part Six

Fortunately, contemporary regimes of subjectification are not all consuming. Foucault held open a conception of the subject that maintains the possibility of resisting or exercising choices that might be partially severed from a dominant ethic or the neoliberal enterprise culture (Shankar et. al. 2006:1019). Shankar (2006:1019) adds:

If this is the case, technologies of the self may also transform individuals and partially liberate them from previous cultural circuits. With this notion, Foucault observes the possibility to create new privileged spaces, and indeed, he infers that the result of such practice may endow the individual with happiness, purity, wisdom, and perfection.

Just as the contradictions of ecological constraints have begun to make themselves felt in debates on macroeconomic concepts of ‘growth’ and the meaning of ‘prosperity’, so we can expect reflective individuals and communities to increasingly transform their experience of ‘freedom’ – reduced to calculable market choice – into a more far-reaching set of choices and refusals in response to a proliferation of forms of discontent with the by-products of affluence and a growing awareness that the realisation of important intrinsic values are not in the gift of the market. In response to more and more choice, a growing number of people are choosing to simplify, consume less and differently, and to bring their expenditure and their experience of self under control, recognising that while choice is beneficial up to a point,  limitations, restrictions and boundaries can also have a strangely liberating effect (Sigman 2004).[i]

From a Foucauldian technology of self perspective, I want to extend the notion of empowerment to the possibility of a more radical shift than the one envisaged by Shankar (2006), to one that includes a withdrawal or distancing from the governmentalized practices of consumption. This refusal and resistance would amount to an expression of life and being ‘at the frontier’ as Foucault (1984:46) described it. The challenge of climate change forces States and their citizens to a new frontier of critical reflection on the viability of our current socio-economic structures and leading concepts such as ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity’. The experience of individuals and communities engaged in contemporary practices of askēsis suggests that such a step can be supported by certain forms of knowledge pursued alongside mental and physical disciplines. Foucault’s (1988) interest in the work we do on ourselves – effecting operations on our bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being, so as to transform ourselves – in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality, has a particular resonance in the context of debates on sustainable consumption. Just as we spontaneously attend the gym to maintain our health and well being in the face of societal lifestyle trends that carry risk, so attendance to our subjective responses is also possible, including the adoption of mental and physical techniques designed to enhance both our physical, mental, even spiritual resilience[ii].

The work

Sustainable consumption occupies the frontiers of the sustainable development agenda, posing some of the most profound questions for contemporary citizens in their relation to both the State and the capitalist complex, as climate change confronts both with an – as yet – unanswerable demand: is the social logic that binds the advanced industrialised state, capitalism and dominant modes of consumption/prosperity capable of adaptation to a sustainable path? Part of the test lies in the gap between what we know and what we are willing to do to translate our knowledge and volition into action. Few reports on public attitudes to the adoption of sustainable or ethical forms of consumption and investment fail to note the fact-value gap, wherein individuals consistently declare aspirations that are not followed up in practice[iii].

Sustainable consumption as biopolitics invites a reconsideration of the role of ‘training’ or ‘practice’ in preparation for the exercise of a richer notion of freedom and ‘self care’ and self knowledge that is compatible with a vision of human flourishing, within ecological limits. Kissack (2004) recalls how  Foucault’s focus on the exercise of power through the constraints of language led him to consider the meaning of contemporary freedom. Foucault was prompted to examine the work of Greek and Roman philosophers on how the subject, inevitably immersed within a nexus of linguistic and cultural influences, reflected upon and modified their heritage, refashioning themselves according to the conclusions of their philosophical deliberations. In one of his last interviews, Foucault referred to this deliberative and transformative activity as ‘techniques of the self’. In Foucault’s work on ‘techniques of the self’ or askésis, we may also find cues for strategies consistent with the contemporary demand for sustainable consumption and resistance to unchecked consumerism, which has as its animating ethos a ‘joyless compulsiveness’ (Christopher Lash 1979). Within Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics – and the deployment of disciplinary, normalizing institutions in pursuit of a secure, healthy and productive population – techniques for the mass production of individuality do not simply free us and allow us to realize our truth. They free us to be true only by fabricating a certain truth and arranging the spatial-temporal world to direct individuals toward truth. Moreover, with advances in neuroscience and neurology, we are coming to appreciate the formative impacts of mental operations on the structures of the brain, with lasting consequences for the individual. Just as individuals can undertake mental and physical activity with a view to altering their mind-body state, so the influences of the vast media complex that acts as an extension of the circuits of production and consumption, also leave a lasting impression. McGushin adds:

A completely biopolitical interpretation of life is a political project. In this way, discipline, biopolitics, and normalization paradoxically institute a powerful self-neglect, a pervasive thoughtlessness about the fundamental political and ethical question – How will I live? – precisely by saturating space and time, our bodies and desires, with techniques, discourses, and relationships which have the goal of taking care of us and making us happy. (McGushin 2008:xx)

Foucault links the rise of biopolitics – power over life – to the decline of the age of Empire, when a new problematic took hold: that of organising and securing states from within in an emerging era of competition between states. Biopower, specifically, seeks to bring life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations (Foucault 1988:143). This is a process of objectifying the forces of life, quantifying them, measuring them, and on the basis of this knowledge, setting them into productive coordination. From the end of the 17th century onwards, there was an explosion of productive technologies of power, focused on the ‘the body as object and target of power’ (Foucault 1977: 136). This was a political anatomy that was also to become a mechanics of power. These developments would, ultimately, call forth the role of the psy-sciences in helping to construct experiences of interiority (of the subject) conditioned by, and conditioning, the imperatives of the new objects of ‘economy’ and ‘state’.

[i] A. Sigman, The Explosion of Choice: Tyranny or Freedom? (2004) cited in the report I will if you will: Towards sustainable consumption (Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council, London, 2006). <> (accessed 6 October 2008)

[ii] Larry Glover, on his wild resilence blog, writes: ‘Wild Resiliency will not be understood or confined certainly by any models that do not also take into account the human spirit in the wholeness of who we are, which also includes our propensity to accommodate ourselves to our shadowed resilience, our affinity for comfort and denial, our domesticity. Our wild resilience can in truth no more be contained or modeled than can words describe the Tao; we can only point at it with such tools, which accounts for the human incorporation of poetry, mythology and the arts to help us more fully appreciate and experience the entangled complexity and mystery of who we are.’ <> (Accessed 26 November 2009).

[iii] A McKinsey survey of consumers in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, UK and the US found that 53% were concerned about environmental and social issues, but not willing to take action at the shops; a further 13% were willing to pay more, but currently did not do so. Cited in Sustainable Consumption Facts and Trends – From a Business Perspective, 2008, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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