The Cartesian Moment, The Individual, The Point of Opposition – Part Seven

The individual is a relation of opposition

Foucault recognized that the convergence of power-knowledge-subjectivity suggested an alternative model of political ethics, ‘or an ethics of resistance to the proliferation of power’ (McGushin 2007:14), a resistance to political power established in the relation of the self to itself[i]. For if it is true that modern disciplinary power, normalizataion, and biopower function by producing individualities, then the practices of the self must represent an experience of ethical life that potentially resists those forces. Foucault determined if we are to take governmentality to mean a field of strategic relations of power, in the sense of relations that are mobile, transformable, reversible, then reflection on this operation of power cannot avoid operating, theoretically and practically, with the notion of a subject who would be defined by the rapport of the self to the self. While the theory of political power as institution ordinarily refers to a juridical conception of the subject of rights, it seemed to Foucault that any analysis of governmentality must refer to an ethic of the subject defined by the rapport of the self to itself. He saw relations of power, governmentality of self and others, and rapport of self to self, in a chain of relations to be articulated in the question of politics and the question of ethics (CdF82:241-242). The individual is a relation of opposition.

For Foucault, ‘Care of the self’ (epimēleia heautou) is an attitude of mind that combines one’s comportment within the world, with others and with the self. Most importantly in this context is the dimension of epimēleia, which refers to activities, practices and techniques. Care in the ancient context does not simply refer to a state of being. It is an activity: watching over, cultivating, protecting, improving. Foucault catalogued a number of these practices:

  • Techniques for concentrating the soul; and
  • The retreat or withdrawal, which entails both physical and mental withdrawal.

The relationship between the subject and truth in ‘care of the self’ is not dealt with as a question of how the subject is able to know the truth, including the truth about itself. Foucault, rather, sought to show that the relationship takes place within an experience he described as a form of ‘spirituality’ or ‘a transformation necessary in order to have access to the truth’ (CdF82: 16-17). Spirituality refers here to a particular form of care of the self which transforms one in the necessary way to gain access to the truth. The truth is available to the subject at a price that puts into play the very being of the subject itself. Other dimensions of spirituality are the resulting self-modification of the subject; and an uncovering of truth as a fulfilment or saving experience (McGushin 2007:39). Looking back from the time of modernity, Foucault acknowledged that it is difficult now for us to appreciate the experience of truth as a spiritual practice. McGushin (2007:41) notes:

For “modernity” – and this is what is most definitive of modernity according to Foucault – knowledge is understood as “access to a domain of objects”. Knowledge is objectivity. In order to acquire knowledge, even knowledge of oneself, one must apply the proper methods of thought, logic, analysis, and so on. The experience of knowledge as spiritual work, as the struggle to win access to truth which requires not simply method but self-transformation, and the experience of truth as fulfilment of the subject illuminated by it, no longer have any meaning.

The scapegoat for this modern shortcoming – if that is how we view it – is Descartes or what Foucault himself described as the Cartesian moment.

The Cartesian Moment

Descartes’ work marks a fundamental break between the ancient philosophy practised as a mode of spiritual inquiry and ‘knowledge’, and the detachment of the subject from spiritual practice as the ground of its access to truth. As a result of this event (McGushin 2007:192), access to the truth no longer requires ascetic self-transformation; rather it requires employing the proper method of reasoning. According to this new way of thinking, this new mode of perceiving oneself as a thinking being and of perceiving the world as something to be known, self-transformation no longer appears to be necessary in order for one to have access to the truth. McGushin summarises the nature of this vital break with the tradition of askēsis:

 The cogito is a mode of subjectivity that does not appear to be linked to any particular way of living. Truth for the cogito is grounded in “evidence”, not in an ēthos produced through askēsis; one arrives at knowledge by following the proper method of thought, not by living the proper kind of life. Finally, the truth that the cogito discovers does not take the form of salvation, of fulfilment. Instead of truth, what one acquires is knowledge, an accumulation of true statements about reality. Knowing does not lead to the saving experience of truth/being; rather, it is the infinite accumulation of knowledge about things/beings. (McGushin 2007:193)

At the same moment, political power took on a new function: its new operation is no longer to impose the law on abstract juridical subjects. Rather, it will invest individual bodies, controlling them by nurturing them, taking care of them, making them healthy and ‘happy’. McGushin (2007:238) explains:

In other words, politics itself, once it comes to be defined as biopolitics, is pastoral in nature. Biopower takes over the activity of care of the self.

The modern subject of care perceives itself through the biopolitical grid. The main function of biopolitics is to institute this mode of care of the self: it is through this definition of care of the self that individuals are able to be produced and controlled. Power functions by investing, defining, and caring for the body understood as a bio-economic entity. Freedom is defined in biological and economic terms.

We have now turned full circle and crashed through to another age of limits. In fifth century Athens, self-neglect lay at the foundation of political domination, spurring Plato and Socrates to initiate a resistance in the form of a philosophical art of the self. Thinking and living have become two distinct domains. The proper conduct of the mind has been reduced to a methodological problem. The question we now face is this: Is this a sufficient basis for the challenge of rethinking (reworking) our subjective (mind/body) responses to our biopolitical enclosure in the culture and politics of consumerism?


The work of Richard Shusterman suggests that Foucault’s insights on the importance of the subject (work on the self) as a departure point for our understanding of the formative role of power (and resistance) continues to speak to our political condition. He has set himself the heroic task of setting out a new disciplinary path that reopens the door of reason and restores the body and the ‘art of living’ to a central position in philosophical consideration. His ‘somaesthetics’ is premised on the observation that since we live, think, and act through our bodies – their study, care, and improvement should be at the core of philosophy, ‘especially when philosophy is conceived (as it used to be) as a distinctive way of life, a critical, disciplined care of the self that involves a self-knowledge and cultivation’ (Shusterman 2008:15). He provisionally defined his Somaesthetics as the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It would, therefore, also entail the pursuit of knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or improve it, thus correcting the functional performance of our senses by an improved direction of the body and senses. Shusterman (1999) also appeals to a continuity in the ancient philosophical tradition, citing Socrates’ (who engaged in regular dance training and simple living, and linked clear thinking to physical fitness), Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic School (who insisted that bodily training contributes to the acquisition of virtue), and Zeno, founder of Stoicism (who claimed that proper care of health and one’s organs of sense were unconditional duties). He also recognises the role of somatic training in contemporary practices associated with the pursuit of philosophical enlightenment, including Hatha Yoga, Zen meditation, and T’ai chi ch’uan, and cites the Japanese philosopher, Yuasa Yusuo, who insisted that the concept of ‘personal cultivation’ or shugyo is presupposed in Eastern thought as ‘the philosophical foundation’ (Shusterman 1999:3). In these traditions shugyo training is regarded as an essential bodily component on the path to ‘true knowledge’, which cannot be obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking. More recent Western body disciplines such as the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method also seek to improve the acuity, health, and control of our senses by cultivating heightened attention to and mastery of the somatic functioning, while also freeing practitioners from bodily habits and defects that impair sensory performance.

Shusterman (2008:37) wants to call our attention to everyday somatic pleasures such as breathing, stretching, and walking, and the possibility that these can be developed to produce experiences of great power and exaltation, as seen in the familiar yoga methods of pranayama and asana or in Buddhist disciplines of meditative sitting, walking, and dancing. He reminds us that the psychology of sensory perception means that the intensification of pleasure cannot simply be achieved by intensity of sensation. Sensory appreciation is typically dulled when blasted with extreme sensations:

Pleasure has a complicated logic; ascetics know how to get it by rejecting it. Yogis find its highest intensities not from the sensory explosions of narrow orgasms but rather from an emptiness that reveals its own empowering intensity and fullness.(Shusterman 2008:37)

He poses the question: In proposing an ‘ethics of pleasure’ doesn’t Foucault need a more careful ‘logic’ and ‘logistic’ of its central concept, a more refined and delicate appreciation of the diversities and subtleties of pleasure, including its more tender, gentle, and mild varieties? The question, of course, can also apply to the model of hedonism that lies at the heart of our consumer culture, fuelled by a media and advertising complex that can undermine our appreciation (attention to, appreciation of) ordinary pleasures and spur a demand for more intense stimulation, thus raising the threshold of what can be felt as satisfying, thus condemning too much of everyday life to joyless tedium. Citing the Weber-Fechner law[ii], Shusterman laments Western culture’s lust for ever greater intensities of somatic stimulation in the quest for happiness noting that it is a recipe for increasing dissatisfaction and difficulty in achieving pleasure, while our submission to such intensities dulls our somatic perception and consciousness. He believes that the culture’s sensationalist extremism both reflects and reinforces a deep somatic discontent that relentlessly drives us, yet is felt only vaguely, by our underdeveloped, insufficiently sensitive, and thus unsatisfied body consciousness. (Shusterman 2008:38-39) Perhaps with some irony, Shusterman concludes that while some regard Foucault’s bodily pursuits as dreadfully deviant, his ahedonia and extremism clearly express a common trend in late-capitalist Western culture… ‘whose unquestioned economic imperative of ever-increasing of ever-increasing growth also promotes an unquestioned demand for constantly greater stimulation, ever more speed and information, ever stronger sensations and louder music’ (Shusterman 2008:39). The result is:

…a pathological yet all too common need for hyperstimulation in order to feel that one is really alive, a problem that is expressed not only in substance addiction but also in a host of other increasingly psychosomatic ills that range from the violence of self-mortification (such as cutting) to the passive nightly torture of insomnia. (Shusterman 2008:39-40)

Western modernity has essentially confined the philosophical project to the analysis and critique of sensory propositional judgements that defines traditional epistemology. The complementary route offered by somaesthetics is to correct the actual performance of our senses by an improved direction of one’s body, since the senses belong to and are conditioned by the soma. If the body is our primordial instrument in grasping the world, then we can learn more of the world by improving the conditions and use of this instrument. Shusterman agrees that Foucault’s seminal vision of the body as a malleable site for inscribing social power reveals the crucial role the soma can play in political philosophy and the question of justice. It offers a way of understanding how complex hierarchies of power can be widely exercised and reproduced without any need to make them explicit in laws or to enforce them officially; they are implicitly observed and enforced simply through our bodily habits of feeling that have bodily roots. Entire ideologies of domination can thus be covertly materialized and preserved by enclosing them in somatic social norms that, as bodily habits, are typically taken for granted and so escape critical consciousness. (Raúl Quiñone Rosado’s 2007)

[i] CDF82, p.241.

[ii] The Weber-Fechner law of psychophysics holds that a smaller stimulus can be noticed more clearly and easily if the already pre-existing stimulation experienced by the stimulated organ is small. Conversely, the threshold for noticing a sensation will be so much the larger, the greater the pre-existing stimulation is.

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