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Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence

Foucault’s Aesthetics of
Existence
Andrew Thacker

To become a work of art is the object of living
– Oscar Wilde

What role has aesthetics in the later work of Mic heI Foucault?

In the final completed volumes of his History of Sexuality
(translated as Vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure and Vol. 3, The
Care of the Self) aesthetic activity becomes a key to his
understanding of the vagaries of sexuality in the Greek and
Greco-Roman periods. 1 Sexuality in Antiquity is understood
by reference to what Foucault variously calls ‘the care ofthe
self’, ‘practices of the self’, ‘techniques of the self’ or ‘an
aesthetics of existence’. As Peter Dews has noted, Foucault
here shifts from the seemingly subject-less world encapsulated in the ‘death of man’ in The Order of Things (1966),
to a world of ‘self-constituting subjects’ busily creating
themselves according to aesthetic criteria. 2 I want to argue
that Foucault’s later work vacillates between recommending some form of aestheticisation of everyday life and a
‘problematisation’ of the role of the aesthetic in contemporary
social and political life. Whereas the latter makes a positive
contribution to recent philosophical debates, the former
runs into serious theoretical difficulties already encountered
in Foucault’s earlier work. In order to show the persistence
of certain theoretical problems in his work I will consider
three aspects of Foucault’ s use of a concept of the aesthetic.

First, it is important to get clear about the way in which
Foucault uses the term ‘aesthetic’. Foucault shows two
ambiguities in his use of this term. Historically, the concept
of the aesthetic varies greatly, whether one is considering
Ancient Greek texts on Ars Erotica, Kantian philosophy or
B audelaire ‘s account of the dandy in the nineteenth century.

Foucault seems insufficiently attentive to these distinctions.

This raises the problematic status of Foucault’ s discussion
of aesthetics in relation to the present day. How far does he
advocate – implicitly since he clearly denies the point
explicitly – an ‘aesthetics of existence’ as a contemporary
strategy? And what are the consequences of such a position?

The second aspect I will consider is F oucault’ s difficulty
with questions of normativity. Numerous critics have stated
that in his earlier work, for example on prisons or asylums,
Foucault’s descriptions of various regimes of powerknowledge contrive to be both politically engaged and yet
normatively neutral, calling for resistance to certain forms
of power but unable, as Nancy Fraser puts it, to say why

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

‘struggle is preferable to submission’.3 Foucault thus lacks
the normative criteria for distinguishing between’ good’ or
‘bad’ forms of power or social practice. 4 Does the later
Foucault’s use of aesthetics, if it can be shown to be
historically specific and of contemporary relevance, avoid
the dilemmas of this normative neutrality or does it merely
compound them?

Finally, the relation Foucault proposes between aesthetics
and power is in need of clarification. If Foucault eschews
explicit avowal of normative criteria for distinguishing
forms of power, it is nevertheless true that he often covertly
prefers certain relations of power. This appears the case if
we interpret the ‘aesthetics of existence’ as strategies designed to practise power over the self by the self. Whereas
the ‘disciplinary power’ over the body dissected in Discipline and Punish is a regime ripe for what wt; might term
Foucault’s non-normative disapproval, the self-control over
the body discussed in the volumes on Greek sexuality is
presented in a much more positive light. s Why this oscillation on power and the body? Is aesthetics here used to
distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ forms of power over the
body? If so, then are these sufficient conditions to enable the
formation of such judgements?

There are close links between these questions, and
separating them merely aims to provide a principle of
structure. The scope of the term’ aesthetic’ and its ability or
inability to bear the burden of normativity results, I want to
argue, is revealed in Foucault’s need to distinguish his
account of power from that of a theory of domination. This,
in turn, requires a concept of freedom which could underpin
his notion of power. However, the aestheticisation of the
notion of freedom employed by Foucault raises severe
problems if we are to take these final texts as composed not
‘for, but in terms of, a contemporary situation’. 6

Aesthetics as established since the mid-eighteenth century
has dissociated art from practical ends: for Kant aesthetic
judgements are characterised by their ‘pure disinterested
delight’ .7 Aesthetic objects should serve no ends other than
their own. Judgements over the actions of human beings
(traditionally the realm of the ethical) must broach this
formula since they are judgements with an interest (what

13

should I do? what is the right action for me?). For Kant such
moral judgements are also distinguished from aesthetics by
their rule-bound nature.

There have been many critiques of this doctrine of the
autonomy of the aesthetic. s However, it is unclear whether
Foucault’s work on Greek sexuality is a critique or an
endorsement of this post -Kantian heritage. This is because
he confuses a Greek and post-Kantian sense of the term
‘aesthetic’. In an interview in 1983 Foucault was asked
about the shift in his studies of sexuality from sex per se, to
‘techniques of the self’.9 Foucault argues that the most
striking fact about the Greeks is that these ‘techniques of the
self’, the self-fashioning of one’s own subjectivity, involve
linking ethics with aesthetics: ‘Greek ethics is centered on
a problem of personal choice, of aesthetics of existence. ’10
The principal concern of, for example, Stoic ethics is
described as an ‘aesthetic one’ . 11 This is clearly a sense of
‘aesthetic’ that is not recognisably Kantian: the autonomy
of the aesthetic is negated, and ethics is to be informed not
by universal moral codes but by the subjective aspect, the
‘personal choice’ of aesthetic judgement. Indeed, as Dews
notes, it would be anachronistic to apply the post-Kantian
meaning of ‘aesthetic’ to the Greek term, where aesthetics
is intermeshed with social and ethical practices. 12 However,
this is an error Foucault commits at the very start of The Use

…… .

,

/

of Pleasure when, in initially defending the Greek aesthetics of existence, he states that they ‘no doubt lost some of
their importance and autonomy’ (2: 11; my emphasis) with
the rise of Christianity.

Ambiguity over the historical meanings of key terms is
evident in other statements by Foucault on the supposed
identification of ethics with aesthetics. One example is
found in Foucault’ s comments on the differences between
two senses of morality: ‘codes of behaviour and forms of
subjectivation’ (2: 29). It is the second sense that Foucault
is primarily interested in, a study of the ethics or ‘practices
of the self’ which form one as a moral subject, rather than
the moral codes or norms to which one must conform.

Foucault is interested in the way in which morality as ‘forms
of subjectivation’ in Greek and Greco-Roman writing is
displaced by the more codified morality of the early Christian period. Christianity did not borrow certain moral codes,
and reject others, from Greek moral discourse upon sexuality. Rather Christianity modified or transformed the ethical

14

practices of the self found in Greek discourses (2: 31-32).13
Greek texts upon the ethical dimension of sexuality did not
present the’ care of the self’ as a universal rule all must obey,
but rather as ‘a principle of stylization of conduct for those
who wished to give their existence the most graceful and
accomplished form possible’ (2: 250-51). Greco-Roman
sexual acts were not codified and sifted according to the
norms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; instead they were judged by
aesthetic criteria of beauty and style.

To illustrate this point Foucault discusses Plutarch on
married life. In Plutarch, Foucault comments, moral regulation of permitted and forbidden acts, along the lines of
moral norms or rules of conduct, are not to be found. Instead
Plutarch recommends’ a mode of being, a sty le of relations’

(3: 184). Foucault then states: ‘The ethics of marriage and
the advice on conjugal life are at the same time universally
valid principles and rules for those who wish to give their
existence an honorable and noble form. It is the lawless
universality of an aesthetics of existence’ (3: 184-85; my
emphasis). Thus it is a set of principles that are recognisably
Kantian in form: conjugal rules are universal in scope but
are only created by the judgement of the individual subject.

Foucault writes that Greek morality was one in which ‘the
individual did not make himself into an ethical subject by
universalizing the principles that informed his action’ (2:

62), thus distancing it from a Kantian
categorical imperative. 14 On the contrary,
to be a moral person was to act ‘by means of
an attitude and a quest that individualised
his action, modulated it, and perhaps even
gave him a special brilliance by virtue of
the rational and deliberate structure his
action manifested’ (2: 62). Such an act
could conform to the rational structure of
the aesthetic only by reaching out to others
to become, in Kant’s terms, ‘subjectively
universal’.IS An act of ‘personal choice’ is
thus integrated into a ‘lawless universality’.

For some act to possess ‘structure’ relies
upon a universal recognition of the nature
of objects and acts to be described as
structured. So Foucault’ s description of the Greek version
of aesthetics seems to owe much to a Kantian notion of art
as universal and yet simultaneously subjective.

Foucault’s description of ancient ‘practices of the self’

therefore displays a certain semantic slipperiness in relation
to the use of the term aesthetic. More substantial difficulties
appear when his work is related to the present. If the Greeks
had an undissociated sense of the aesthetic and the ethical
life can we really look back to them as exemplars when our
senses of the ethical and aesthetic are so clearly divorced?

In a number of places Foucault explicitly denies that he is
valorising and offering Greek practices as a contemporary
strategy. 16 But in the 1983 ‘Genealogy of Ethics’ interview
Foucault does admit an affinity between Greek ethics and
contemporary political projects: ‘Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principles on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They
need an ethics, but they cannot find any other ethics than an
ethics founded on so-called scientific knowledge of what
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

1

the self is. ’17 Kantian morals, rooted in rational obedience to
the universal law, are once again the target of Foucault’s
critique. Liberatory movements cannot base their ethics
upon old-style norms due to the break-up of Enlightenment
universalism. Any new ethics informing politics, for
Foucault, must involve a new form of aestheticised ethics.

In response to a question in the same interview asking,
‘What kind of ethics can we build now?’, Foucault answers:

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has
become something which is related only to objects
and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something
which is specialized or which is done by experts who
are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a
work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an
art object, but not our life?’8
Clearly this is a definition of aesthetic autonomy and its
negation in a classic sense: art is separated from both
‘individuals’ and ‘life’. But in proposing that one’s life
should become a work of art it is unclear which sense of
aestheticisation is implied. On the one hand it might refer to
the project of the twentieth-century avant-garde described
by Peter Burger, whereby art is severed from its autonomous position, and re-integrated into everyday life in order
to become the organising principle of a new life praxis. ‘9
However, as Burger argues, this project failed, due to lack
of attention to the institutional foundations of art. 20 Art as
institutionalised autonomy thwarts any attempt to produce
an aestheticisation of one’s life. So Foucault’s recommendation here might entail a Greek sense of the term aesthetic.

But here there has been no separation of art and everyday
life; rather aesthetics is already bonded to an ethical realm
of praxis. If Foucault is advocating something like the
Greek version of aesthetics/ethics, then turning one’s life
into an art object in the present cannot capture this Greek
concept, for the simple fact that art objects as presently
constituted contain no intrinsic ethical dimension. Creating
the self in the present according to contemporary aesthetic
principles, the only ones currently available to us, could not
produce an ethical art object only an autonomous one. But
that would be to ignore the powerful institutional pressure
preventing the channelling of autonomy from lamps or
houses towards human lives.

11
In another interview Foucault states the case for the contemporary relevance of Greek aesthetics with some vigour.

From Antiquity to Christianity, we pass from a morality that was essentially the search for a personal
ethics to a morality as obedience to a system of rules.

And if I was interested in Antiquity it was because,
for a whole series of reasons, the idea of morality as
obedience to a code of rules is now disappearing, has
already disappeared. And to this absence of morality
corresponds, must correspond, the search for an
aesthetics of existence. 21
What is striking here is the normative force of the ‘must’.

Why, we might ask, must aesthetics replace some reformulated version of ethics?22
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

L

Foucault’s normative endorsement of an aesthetics of
existence is striking given the common understanding and
critique of his work as neutral in respect of such judgements. 23 It is clear that, as Nikolinakos argues, there is ‘a
substantial normative dimension’ to Foucault’s later work,
a change designed in part to overcome the contradictions of
advocating resistance alongside a stance of neutrality. 24 His
use of a concept of aesthetics is central to his attempt to
avoid this impasse. Two interpretations of this use of the
aesthetic can be outlined. Foucault might be claiming that
a contemporary aesthetics of existence, that which will help
decide between various courses of action, will be modelled
on Greek lines. Normative guidelines are thus implied in
any description of an act as aesthetically pleasing, beautiful
or stylish because of the coalescence of aesthetics and
ethics. To say some action is beautiful is to imply that it is
also a good act. Alternatively, Foucault’s contemporary
aesthetics of existence might be a Kantian version, ruled by
the concept of autonomy. In this case, any action has the
virtue of being self-justifying and self-regulating. As Kant
puts it, ‘Taste lays claim simply to autonomy. ’25
The difficulty with a ‘Greek’ interpretation ofFoucault’s
position is one already indicated, of whether we can reconfigure aesthetic and ethical realms in a contemporary
world where they are so clearly distinct. Foucault’ s normative
‘must’, that aesthetics of existence should replace moral
codes, might point towards some future rearrangement of
the spheres of the cognitive, the ethical and the aesthetic, in
which the specific values of each realm intermingle and
temper the other. This would bring Foucault closer to the
views of Habermas on the negation of the autonomy of the
aesthetic. For Habermas, a ‘reified everyday praxis can be
cured only by creating unconstrained interaction of the
cognitive with the moral-practical and the aesthetic-expressive elements’. 26 Some similarity with the Greek interaction of ethical with aesthetical realms might then be a
consequence. But it would certainly not be identical to the
Greek version of an aesthetics of existence. Looking back
to the Greeks could only be as an historical reminder that our
present configuration of these various realms is not set in
stone, but is capable of rearrangement.

A more critical interpretation of Foucault’s ‘Greek’

position is that it is, in Richard Wolin’s phrase, a ‘panaestheticism’ , whereby the term’ aesthetic’ becomes unruly,
and wantonly spreads its terms of reference over other
realms of life. 27 For W olin, this means’ art loses its aesthetic
specificity’ as a realm of social critique and utopian promise. 28 The corollary of this is that aestheticism, as it rules
over other life-spheres, ultimately leads to praise for actions
which are ‘manipulative and predatory vis-a.-vis other persons’.29 Other people are simply the springboards for
exercises in self-fashioning. But Wolin’s argument imputes
a content to Foucault’ s aesthetics of existence which does
not necessarily follow from the merely formal principle of
trying to stylise one’s actions in an aesthetic manner.

Aestheticisation might lead to a ‘predatory’ relation to
others, but it might equally lead to an imaginative and
sympathetic relation to them via intersubjective discussion
of what actions are to be regarded as beautiful, stylish and
good. Foucault himself writes that the art of existence was

15

‘a question of knowing how to govern one’s own life in
order to give it the most beautiful possible form (in the eyes
of others, of oneself, and of the future generations ‘.30 What
is wrong, we might say, with wishing to see the other lifespheres infused with the best qualities that, traditionally,
another life-sphere has possessed? Ultimately Wolin’s argument seems to require a status quo approach to the
relation of cognitive, moral and aesthetic realms, shown in
his desire for the separate realms to display ‘balance’ and
have ‘boundaries well-defined’ .31
The problem with the ‘Kantian’ interpretation of
Foucauldian aesthetics is that it is, as Terry Eagleton puts it,
‘troublingly formalistic’ Y If an aesthetics of existence is
autonomous with respect to other spheres it can specify no
normative judgements over the worth of specific actions. It
can say that, formally, some action is aesthetically carried
out, but it cannot add to this judgement that the content of
the action is one to be approved or disapproved. As Eagleton
rhetoric all y argues: ‘What would a sty lish rape look like? ’33
The only way Foucault can avoid this charge, another
version of the accusation of normative neutrality, would be
by shifting his definition of the aesthetic back to the ‘Greek’

version, arguing that the normative content of actions
formally judged to be aesthetic would have to be derived
from the social world in which the action occurred. The
autonomy of the aesthetic would have to be surrendered in
order to grant some normative force to judgements. Foucault
clearly acknowledges that an aesthetics of existence must,
in some way, be socially and historically determined. He
writes that the’ care of the self’ , as the Romans called their
aesthetics of existence, was’ not an exercise in solitude, but
a true social practice’ (3: 51). Elsewhere Foucault notes
‘practices ofthe self’ are not invented by the individual, but
are ‘patterns that he finds in his culture and which are
proposed, suggested and imposed on him by his culture, his
society and his social group’. 34 The normative element of
the aesthetics of existence thus forms a sort of social
backdrop to actions termed stylish, ruling out a priori
certain actions from being worthy of this description. Again,
such a situation would require a considerable rearrangement
of the cognitive, moral and aesthetic realms as presently
constituted. And it requires Foucault to surrender entirely
the notion of autonomy as applied to aesthetic judgements.

III
Foucault is best known for the theory of power found in his
earlier works. Power is everywhere, power is productive
more than repressive, and the modem form of power is a
‘disciplinary’ one, an invisible capillary apparatus that
produces truth, knowledge and individuals themselves.

Disciplinary power, to borrow from Althusser, makes us
‘work by ourselves’ and has no distinct point of origin. 35 In
volumes 2 and 3 of the History a/Sexuality we encounter a
similar account of power in the definition of the’ care of the
self’ . The way the Greek male subject formed a relationship
to the self involved exercising power over himself.36 Repeatedly this care is figured as a battle for control: it is ‘an
agonistic relationship with oneself’ (2: 67); itis ‘a domination
of oneself by oneself’ (2: 65); the relation to self required

16

was of a ‘command-obedience, mastery-docility’ type (2:

70). Finally, in the conclusion to volume 2, Foucaultdescribes
how strategies for proper sexual conduct required ‘the
constitution of [a] self-disciplined subject’ (2: 250). This is
a subject not dissimilar from the self-disciplining prisoner
in Discipline and Punish, watched by the gaze of the empty
Panopticon. The question I want to pose here is simply this:

why has Foucault’ s attitude to this form of ‘disciplinary
power’ shifted, from a normatively neutral condemnation
in Discipline and Punish, to a vague celebration of ‘selfdisciplining’ as a rich source of aesthetic activity? Why is
a type of power which insidiously disciplines individuals
into making their lives works of art a practice now approved
of by Foucault?

The reason for such a change in attitude can be located
within a distinction Foucault draws between power and
domination in an interview, ‘The Ethic of Care for the Self
as a Practice of Freedom’. This is a normative distinction
relying upon a sense of the autonomy of the aesthetic.

Foucault argues ‘relations of power are not something bad
in themselves’ and that he cannot imagine a society without
relations of power. 37 Granted this is so, the individual must
aim to ‘give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of
management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of
self, which would allow these games of power to be played
with a minimum of domination’ .38 The freedom to conduct
power over one’s self (and others) is integral to Foucault’ s
sense of power: ‘there cannot be relations of power unless
the subjects are free’ and ‘there are relations of power
throughout every social field … because there is freedom
everywhere. ’39 Domination, for Foucault, is a state where
power relations are reified: ‘the relations of power are fixed
in such a way that they are perpetually asymmetrical and the
margin ofliberty is extremely limited. ’40 If this definition of
domination always offers a glimmer of hope, in another
definition Foucault states the case more starkly:

When an individual or a social group manages to
block a field of relations of power, to render them
impassive and invariable and to prevent all reversibility of movement – by means of instruments which
can be economic as well as political or military – we
are facing what can be called a state of domination. 41
This stronger definition must be the one Foucault should
uphold, since the weaker version, where liberty is only
marginalised rather than ‘blocked’, blurs the distinction
between power and domination. The distinction is already
a tenuous one. Power is the ‘means by which individuals try
to conduct, to determine the behaviour of others’. 42 ‘Determination’ of the conduct of others is alleged to differ from
‘domination’ of others. This difference could only be an
absolute one and not one of degrees. For if it were the latter,
there would always be the possibility of ‘determination’

slipping into ‘domination’. One person’s ‘domination’ is
another person’s ‘determination’.

It is the concept of freedom which allows Foucault to
make such a distinction, for relations of power, unlike
relations of domination, are governed by the idea of freedom. This answers Charles Taylor’s accusation that Foucault
lacks a sense of freedom which would grant his theory of

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

power coherence. 43 It is clear from this interview with
Foucault, however, that his definition of power-freedom
derives from the Greco-Roman idea of the care ofthe self as
an aesthetic/ethical practice. Care of the self, he argues, was
the way individual liberty was seen as ethica1. 44 This aesthetics of existence was ‘the purposeful art of a freedom
perceived as a power game’ (2: 253). In this ‘game’,
freedom ‘was a power that one brought to bear on oneself’

(2:80) as a contribution to the overall well-being of the
Greek polis. This type of individual freedom is identified
with the power to care for one’s self: ‘it was an enslavement
– the enslavement ofthe self by oneself’ (2: 79). But,just as
there are problems in collapsing any contemporary ethics/
aesthetics distinction in the light of the Greeks, so there are
problems with what appears to be a collapsing of power into
freedom. Our senses of these terms mean something more
than freedom equals the ability to police oneself with
vigour. Identifying power with aesthetics, and freedom
with ethics, does not entail that we accept power to be
identical with freedom.

Again we encounter the problem of reading the Greeks
with reference to our own situation. How far is it possible to
import the notion of ‘freedom’ from a society based on
slavery to any contemporary society? If slaves were thought
not to possess ethics then perhaps this meant they existed in
states of domination. 45 Equally problematic is the gendering
of the notion of freedom in the Greeks: ‘mastery as active
freedom’ was attributed to a ‘virile’ character (2: 82). The
Greek sense of power-freedom developed a male ethical
subject whose aesthetics of existence was ruled by ‘a
structure of virility that related oneself to oneself’ (2: 83).

It could be argued that the Greek notions of freedom and
care of self as ethical relied upon a clear separation of such
selves from those social groups who were totally dominated.

Freedom as care of self thus relied upon being distinguished
from the practices of a group of dominated individuals. The
theoretical distinction Foucault wishes to uphold between
power and domination might only make sense in a Greek
world. But Foucault’s absolute approval of a spirit of
‘freedom’ seems haunted by the modem liberal ghost of
autonomy. As with the confusion over the aesthetic, Foucault
seems unable to clarify which sense of freedom he wants to
endorse. Perhaps Foucault would wish to reject the Greek
definition of freedom as ‘self-enslavement’, but retain the
sense of freedom as an aesthetics of existence. But surely
this would involve importing the Kantian notion of the
autonomy ofthe aesthetic back into the definition. Foucault
seems to transfer the idea of autonomy as applied to the
aesthetic over into the notion of freedom or liberty that he
finds in the Greeks. But this would make no sense to the
undissociated aesthetics/ethics of the Greeks.

Power, for Foucault, seems to become the freedom to
dominate oneself in an aesthetic manner. 46 This coalition of
power and aesthetics raises two issues: 1. If Tayloris correct
to assert that ‘power needs targets’47 to be a coherent concept, then what is the target for the aestheticisation of the
self? 2. Is there a normative dimension to aesthetic power
over the self, or rather how can we recognise when power
over the self becomes domination over the self? The answer
to the first question is the body, and by examining the

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

relation of power to the body we raise some possible
answers to the second question.

The body is the privileged locus of the operations of
power for Foucault. Discipline and Punish proposes an
intrinsic connection between the rise of disciplinary power
and a new ‘political investment of the body’ in areas such
as prisons, schooling and diet. 48 Power informs bodily
features such as gestures, economies of movement and the
overall exercise of the body. Power was aimed not so much
at the result of bodily activities, but at ‘the processes of the
activity’ . This results in ‘an art of the human body’ ,designed
to produce ‘docile’ but ‘useful’ bodies. 49 Critics have indicated various problems with Foucault’s privileging ofthe
body as the object of political critique: his tendency to unify
different bodies under the notion of ‘the body’; the way he
sees the body in almost metaphysical terms; and the loss
incurred in reducing the complexities of human experiences
to the crudely physiologica1. 50 However, Foucault’s work
has prompted much interesting work by others upon the
relation of power to the body.

The corollary of Foucault’s insistence on the disciplining of the body is that it becomes the privileged site of
resistance to the operations of power, and it is this argument
which comes to dominate in the later work. At the close of
The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Foucault proposes ‘bodies and pleasures’ as sources of resistance to the
discourses of sex-desire, agents of disciplinary powerY
Volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality often focuses
upon those aesthetics of existence – diet, digestion, exercise
and bathing – which exemplify self-imposed acts of power
over the body. These are no longer docile bodies, but
exhaustingly active ones, engaged in the askesis of Greek
ethical training (2: 72-77). Greek and Greco-Roman conceptions of the soul are subordinate to the body when
Foucault discusses care of the self. Attitudes towards homosexuality were ruled by ‘a whole moral aesthetics of the
boy’s body’ (2: 200). The entire regime surrounding sexual
pleasures, argues Foucault, ‘seems to be centered entirely

17

.1

on the body …. It is as if the body dictated to the body’ (3:

133). The soul did not fight the desires of the body, rather
it controlled itself so as to guide the body, but only’ according
to a law which is that of the body itself’ (3: 134). The soul
usurps this role only with the rise of Christianity in the
fourth century (3: 239).

Power as Foucault theorises it in relation to the Greeks
is the principle of a free self-aestheticisation, directed
primarily at the body. Could this principle be utilised as part
of the resistance to the contemporary disciplining of the
body?52 Again, I want to argue that such a tactic involves
normative problems for Foucault’s version of an aesthetics
of existence. This can be shown by considering some
feminist appropriations of Foucauldian theory.

A number of feminist theorists have developed Foucault’ s
political analysis ofthe body to produce accounts of how the
female body is ‘disciplined’ in contemporary Western societiesY Writers such as Susan Bordo, Sandra Lee Bartkey
and Moya Lloyd have focused upon phenomena such as
regimes of diet, exercise and eating disorders as examples
of disciplines self-imposed on the female body.54 Inspection
and regulation of the body for size, shape, appetite, posture
and gesture offers the opportunity, argues Bordo, for women
to experience the feeling of being in control of their bodies.

Such body-disciplines as body-building offer ‘a fantasy of
self-mastery’ .55 Care of the self for women in relation to
their bodies clearly resembles Foucault’s Greek aesthetics
of existence. Bordo quotes from one fitness magazine
exhorting women: ‘Create a masterpiece. Sculpt your body
contours into a work of art. ‘ Or from another: ‘It’s up to you
to do the chiselling; you become the master sculptress. ’56
In this feminist work on the gendered body there is no
sense of the cool endorsement of such practices of the self
found in Foucault’s work on the Greeks. If aerobics or
dieting are examples of contemporary aesthetic self-fashioning, displaying the rigours of self-disciplining, then
there are good reasons, grounded in normative judgements
about the social position of women, for why feminists have
wanted to be critical of these freely-chosen exercises of
aesthetic power. Self-aestheticisation of the female body
might be described as ‘a principle of stylization of conduct
for those who wished to give their existence the most
graceful and accomplished form possible’ (2: 250-1). But it
could also be the case, as Bartkey argues, that this ‘selfsurveillance is a form of obedience to patriarchy’ .57 To choose
between these interpretations would presuppose some set of
normative criteria. For, as Roy Boyne argues, Foucault’s
notion of the care of the self is a ‘mechanism without a rule
for its application’ and, furthermore, ‘Without a normative
regime, we cannot determine the essential parameters of
self-discipline. ’58 Female practices of the self carried out on
the body might be described, in Foucault’s terms, not as
operations of power, but as closer to states of domination.

For practices such as dieting to be described as power, not
domination, it must be possible to employ what Foucault
terms ‘strategic reversals’ of the prevailing relations of
power. 59 It is formally possible to envisage that dieting
could be strategically reversed, and the exercise of powerful
self-fashioning be one of eating and aestheticising one’s
body size as a sort of ‘controlled expansion’. But this would

18

be to ignore the social networks of power-relations which
effectively block and disallow such a project. This is because
of the normative judgements, grounded in social institutions, cultural values and gender inequalities, which only, at
present, applaud certain aestheticisations ofthe body: those
in line with the so-called ‘tyranny of slenderness’. 60 An
aesthetic of power, just as much as the power of aesthetics,
requires more than simply a principle of absolute freedom
or the rule of an empty autonomy.

IV
Recent discussions of the fate of the project of Enlightenment have seemed to return to one of the founding concerns
of Enlightenment rationality: the establishment of a corpus
of knowledge around questions of aesthetics. Lyotard allies
himself with Kant’s Critique ofJudgement: ‘the Kantofthe
imagination, the one who recovered from the sickness of
knowledge and rules and converted to the paganism of art
and nature’ .61 Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and
Solidarity (1989) maps out a ‘liberal utopia’, in terms of a
world where poetry as ‘self-creation’ is triumphant over
philosophy as ‘discovery’. 62 For Rorty, Enlightenment rationality impedes rather than underpins democratic societies and only by utilising a language drawn from the
aesthetic realm of metaphor and self-creation can democracy be guaranteed. A ‘liberal utopia’, argues Rorty, ‘would
be a poeticized culture’. 63 From a rather different position
on the political spectrum, Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of
the Aesthetic (1990) traces the development of modem
aesthetic theory from the eighteenth century to the present.

Eagleton argues for a rigorously dialectical analysis of
aesthetics: ‘The aesthetic is … a vision of human energies as
radical ends in themselves …. it offers a generous utopian
image of reconciliation between men and women at present
divided from one another, [but] it also blocks and mystifies
the real political movement towards such historical community. ’64 The aesthetic has a radically ambiguous but
important relation to political projects.

Foucault’s late work on Greco-Roman sexuality fits into
this rediscovery of the question of aesthetics by contemporary
thinkers. As I have argued, if such work simply tries to
substitute a concept of aesthetics, whether Greek or Kantian,
for Enlightenment rationality, then there are grave problems with such a manoeuvre. 65 However, if the aim and
result is a rethinking of the relation between the spheres of
knowledge, morals and aesthetics, then Foucault’s work
may usefully contribute, with qualifications, to such a
debate. His work might function as what he terms a
‘problematization’ of the question of the aesthetic. 66 Read in
this light, Foucault’ s texts would contain no programmatic
description of an aesthetically tempered ethical and rational
realm. It would differ in this respect from Lyotard’s endorsement of a politics devoted to narrative pragmatics. 67
Foucault’s work thus becomes’ empty’ , devoid of a content
which would specify what’ the aesthetic’ means today. The
only currently possible contents for the term, those of either
the Greeks or of Kant, are clearly unacceptable.

Foucault’s attention to Greek aesthetics of existence
then becomes part of his ‘historical ontology of ourselves’. 68

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

We reconsider the question of the contemporary scope and
role ofthe aesthetic by examining the ‘limits’ of ‘the events
that have led us to constitute ourselves’ today.69 That is, the
conceptual limits of our present arrangement of cognitive,
moral and aesthetic realms. This historical inquiry then has
to be hauled into the present-day, it must ‘put itself to the test
of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points
where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the
precise form this change should take’ .70 It is at this point that
Foucault’s pronouncements leave the detached
problematization of the limits of our forms of thought, a
gesture akin to an aesthetic’ disinterested delight’ , and enter
the more problematic realm of specifying a contemporary
content and role for the aesthetic. Foucault’s aesthetics of
existence contains, as I have shown, a number of ambiguities
and difficulties. This aestheticisation of life ignores – and
this is one point where precise change in the present might
start – an initial stage of transformation. The call for
‘everyone’s life to become a work of art’ contains a crucial
ambiguity. Either making one’s life into a work of art could
mean a reification: art and life as an aesthetic object. Or,
aestheticising one’s life could refer to a process: living and
acting according to some set of aesthetic criteria. The first
possibility indicates the current state of most objects termed
aesthetic. Its values are those of the commodity. However,
the present task facing the aesthetic is to disengage itself
from commodified values. One’s life could only be termed
‘aesthetic’ if there was a prior freeing of art objects from the
values of the commodity. In other words, it would be
difficult to imagine living a fulfilling and ‘aesthetic’ life,
unless art objects themselves sustained such an existence.

Putting the notion of the aesthetic to the test of contemporary reality should involve a truer recognition of the current
status of art and aesthetics. This Foucault fails to provide.

But such a project has much to learn from his revelation of
a world, that of the Greeks, with a very different role for
aesthetic judgements.

Foucault welcomes the prospect of returning aesthetics
from the autonomy of art-objects to the self-creative capacities of individuals. The problem with this, which he
sometimes ignores in the golden glow of Greek culture, is
a question he himself poses: ‘How can the growth of
capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of
power relations? ’71 Oddly enough, aesthetics for Foucault
functions in a utopian manner, paralleling Rorty and
Eagleton, proleptically indicating a world of human capacities ‘disconnected’ from power (or domination), or at least
a world where human subjects have become reconnected to
power in a more positive and fulfilling fashion. There are,
as I have suggested, many difficulties with Foucault on
aesthetics, but this is not to dismiss it for utopianism. As
Oscar Wilde once remarked: ‘A map of the world that does
not include Utopia is not worth glancing at. ’72 Perhaps the
main problem with Foucault’ s map is that it is a Greek one.

Notes
1

Michel Foucault, L’ Usage des plaisirs (1984); The Use of
Pleasure: The History ofSexuality Volume 2, trans. Robert Hurley
(London: Penguin, 1986), and Le souci de soi (1984); The Care
oftheSel/: The History ofSexuality Volume 3, trans. RobertHurley
(London: Penguin, 1988). Future references will be to the

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

English versions and given in the main body of the text, by
volume and page number.

2

Peter Dews, ‘The Return of the Subject in Late Foucault’,
Radical Philosophy, No. 51 (Spring 1989), p. 37.

3

Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender
in Contemporary Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989),
p.29.

4

Ibid., pp. 32-33.

5

Michel Foucault,Discipline and Punish: The Birth ofthe Prison,
trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 135169.

6

Michel Foucault, ‘The Concern for Truth’, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed.

Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York and London: Routledge,
1988), p. 263.

7

Immanuel Kant, The Critique ofJudgement, trans. lames Creed
Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), Part 1, #2, pp. 43-44.

8

For a good survey see Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde,
trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1984), specifically pp. 47-54, for the failure of the avantgarde in the twentieth century to heal the divide between society
and the aesthetic.

9

Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work
in Progress’ , in The F oucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 341.

10

Ibid., p. 348.

11

Ibid., p. 341.

12

Dews, ‘Late Foucault’, p. 40.

13

Foucault thus disagrees with Nietzsche’s argument about the
rise of Christian asceticism in The Genealogy of Morals, as he
makes clear in ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics’, p. 366.

14

Roy Boyne has an interesting – although not entirely convincing
– argument that Foucault’ s later work shows a commitment to a
version of a Kantian categorical imperative. See Boyne, F oucault
andDerrida: The Other Side ofReason (London: Unwin Hyman,
1990), pp. 2,166-168.

15

Kant, Critique, #22, p. 84.

16

Foucault, ‘Genealogy of Ethics’, p. 343 and ‘The Ethic of Care
for the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, interview in The Final
Foucault, ed. lames Bernauer and David Rasmussen (London/
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), p. 14.

17

Foucault, ‘Genealogy of Ethics’ , p. 343.

18

Ibid., p. 350.

19

Burger, Avant-Garde, p. 49.

20

Ibid., p. 57. Also see Burger, ‘Aporias of Modem Aesthetics’,
New Left Review, No. 184 (Nov/Dec 1990), pp. 55-56.

21

Foucault, ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’, Politics, Philosophy,
Culture, p. 49. lulia Kristeva makes similar claims about the
disintegration of older forms of morality and the need for a new
ethics. See The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1986), pp. 211,185.

22

Foucault’s point here is something of anon-sequitur. If he is
drawing parallels between the transition from a personal ethics
(Antiquity) to moral codes (Christianity), and a contemporary
shift away from moral codes, then there is no reason to believe
that the next stage will be a reinstatement of personalised Greek
ethical/aesthetic principles.

23

For a clear argument against Foucault’ s normative neutrality see
Charles Taylor, ‘Foucault on Freedom and Truth’, Political
Theory, 12: 2 (May 1984), pp. 152-183. Fora similar critique see
Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices, chapter 1.

24

Derek D. Nikolinakos, ‘Foucault’ s Ethical Quandary’ , T elos, No.

83 (Spring 1990), p. 125.

25

Kant, Critique, #32, p. 137. On this aspect of the aesthetic see
Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil

19

26

27

Blackwell, 1990), pp. 9, 367.

Jiirgen Habermas, ‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’, in
Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (London: Pluto, 1985), pp.

11-12. For a comparison of Habermas and Foucault on aesthetics see Stephen K. White, The Recent Work ofJiirgen Habermas
Reason, Justice and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 144-54. White argues that, while
Habermas’s work on aesthetics is underdeveloped, Foucault’s
aesthetics of existence has some merits but prevents access to
‘intersubjective otherness’ (p. 151) and is thus too solipsistic.

This, as I argue, is not entirely true of Foucault’s account of an
aesthetics of existence which contains an important social dimension.

Richard Wolin, ‘Foucault’s Aesthetic Decisionism’, Telos, No.

67 (Spring 1986), pp. 71-110.

28
29

Ibid., p. 79.

30
31
32

Foucault, ‘The Concern for Truth’, p. 259.

Wolin, ‘Foucault’s Aesthetic Decisionism’, pp. 85, 84.

33
34

35

36

37
38
39
40
41
42
43

44
45
46
47

51
52

Foucault, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, p. 157.

One problem with Foucault’s insistence on defining aesthetics
of existence in relation to the body is whether, once more, this
is appropriate for a contemporary situation. This intimate link of
body and aesthetic, as Eagleton has comprehensively shown, is
one which, since the eighteenth century, we have learned to live
without as part of the post-Kantian arrangement of cognitive
realms. Reuniting them is no simple task, and would certainly
involve more than merely reviving their Greek heritage. See
Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic, p. 7 and passim.

53

For feminist appropriations of Foucault see Feminism and
Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, eds. Irene Diamond and
Lee Quinby (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988);
Jana Sawicki,Disciplining F oucault: Feminism, Power, and the
Body (New York/London: Routledge, 1991) and Terry K.

Aladjem, ‘The Philosopher’s Prism: Foucault, Feminism and
Critique’, Political Theory, 19: 2 (May 1991), pp. 277-291. For
a more critical assessment see Isaac D. Balbus, ‘Disciplining
Women: Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse’, Praxis International, 5: 4 (1985), pp. 466-83; and
NancyHarstock, ‘FoucaultonPower: A TheoryforWomen?’ in
FeminismlPostmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York
and London: Routledge, 1990).

54

Susan Bordo, ‘Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture’ and Sandra Lee Bartkey, ‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in Feminism
and Foucault, eds. Diamond and Quinby; Moya Lloyd, ‘Disciplinary Power: Foucault, Feminism and the Female Body’,
paper presented at the Feminist Theory Conference: An International Debate, University of Glasgow, July 1991.

Bordo, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, p. 100.

Ibid., p. 84. Foucault rejects the accusation that his aesthetics
would necessarily lead to this sort of gross egoism. See Foucault,
‘The Ethic of Care for the Self’, Final F oucault, p. 8.

Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, p. 393. A similar
point about the contentless nature of Foucault’s ethics is made
by Roy Boyne, F oucault and Derrida, p. 149 and Charles Taylor,
‘Foucault on Freedom and Truth’, p. 168. Foucault seems to
have distinguished his position from his earlier assertion that,
‘For modem thought, no morality is possible.’ See The Order of
Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London:

Tavistock, 1970), p. 328.

Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic, p. 394.

Foucault, ‘The Ethic of Care for the Self’, p. 11. The socially
determined nature of supposedly autonomous acts of self-creation is commented on by Stephen Greenblatt in his Renaissance
Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago/London:

University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 256. Foucault acknowledges Greenblatt’ s work as a recent version of a history of the
aesthetics of existence (2: 11).

For an elaboration of disciplinary power see Foucault, Discipline
and Punish, pp. 170-228 and The History ofSexuality Volume 1:

An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), passim. For a critical summary of the notion see
Fraser, Unruly Practices, p. 18.

Deleuze comments that Foucault’ s idea of care of the self is ‘a
dimension of subjectivity derived from power and knowledge
without being dependent on them’. Gilles Deleuze, F oucault,
trans. Sean Hand (London: Athlone Press, 1988), p. 101.

Foucault, ‘The Ethic of Care for the Self’, p. 18.

Ibid.

55
56

Ibid.

Bartkey, ‘Foucault, Femininity and Patriarchal. Power’ , p. 81.

Foucault would, I believe, reject the notion of patriarchy as a
structure which underlies and guarantees disciplinary power as
a false universalism. This seems one issue to which some
feminist writers on Foucault have not paid sufficient attention.

58
59
60

Boyne, Foucault and Derrida, pp. 167,149.

Foucault, ‘The Ethic of Care for the Self’, pp. 12, 3.

The title of a book by Kim Chemin, Womansize: The Tyranny of
Slenderness (London: Women’s Press, 1983). For this reason
Sawicki calls for a feminist use of Foucault which retains
traditional types of normative criteria. See Sawicki, Disciplining F oucault, pp. 100-102.

Jean-Fran<;ois Lyotard, 'Lessons in Paganism', The Lyotard
Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989),
p.133.

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 40.

61

62

Ibid., p. 3.

Ibid., p. 18.

Taylor, ‘Foucault on Freedom and Truth’, pp. 172-73. For a
positive assessment of the concept of freedom in Foucault’s
philosophy see John Rajchman, Michel Foucault The Freedom
of Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

63
64

Foucault, ‘The Ethic of Care for the Self’, p. 4.

66

65

Ibid., p. 6.

A point made by Eagleton,ldeology of the Aesthetic, pp. 388-90.

Taylor, ‘Foucault on Freedom and Truth’, p. 172.

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 139.

49

Ibid., p. 138.

See Jeffrey Minson, Genealogies ofMorals Nietzsche, F oucault,
Donzelot and the Eccentricity of Ethics (London: Macmillan,
1985), pp. 76-97; Fraser, Unruly Practices, p. 61; Gillian Rose,

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

Ibid., p. 99.

57

Ibid., p. 12.

48
50

Dialectic ofNihilism: Post-Structuralism and the Law (Oxford:

Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 180; Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic, p. 395.

67
68

Ibid., p. 65.

Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic, p. 9.

Indeed Foucault points to the dangers of an element in postmodern
thought which views ‘Reason’ as an enemy. See Foucault,
‘Space, Knowledge, and Power’, Foucault Reader, pp. 248-49.

For this notion see Foucault, ‘Polemics, Politics, and
Problematizations’, F oucault Reader, pp. 388-90.

See Lyotard, ‘Lessons in Paganism’.

Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault Reader, p. 45.

69
70
71

Ibid., p. 46.

72

Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, Complete
Works (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1966), p. 1089.

Ibid.

Ibid., p. 48.

21

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