From: John Ransom <ransom@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 21 Apr 1997 21:39:39 -0400 (EDT)
On Sun, 20 Apr 1997, malgosia askanas wrote:
> Now that Steve D'Arcy's posts seduced me into reading _What is Enlightment_,
> I would love to discuss it.
> Maybe this is a wacky approach, but let me start by quoting from another piece
> in the _Foucault Reader_, namely the piece called _On the Genealogy of Ethics:
> An Overview of Work in Progress_. In it, F discusses his interest in Greek
> ethics, and says (in particular about Stoic ethics):
> "[...] the principal aim, the principal target of this kind of ethics
> was an aesthetic one. First, this kind of ethics was only a problem of
> personal choice. Second, it was reserved for a few people in the
> population; it was not a question of giving a pattern of behavior for
> everybody. It was a personal choice for a small elite. The reason for
> making this choice was to live a beautiful life, and to leave to others
> memories of a beautiful existence. I don't think that we can say that
> this kind of ethics was an attempt to normalize the population."
> "The idea of the _bios_ as material for an aesthetic piece of art is
> something that fascinates me. The idea also that ethics can be a very
> strong structure of existence, without any relation with the juridical
> per se, with an authoritarian system, with a disciplinary structure.
> All that is very interesting."
> Then he's asked:
> "Q: So what kind of ethics can we build now, when we know that between
> ethics and other structures there are only historical coagulations and not
> a necessary relation?
> And replies:
> MF: 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?"
> So now, _What is Enlightment_. First F discusses Kant's reply to the
> questionnaire in _Berlinische Monatschrift_, and says:
> "Thinking back on Kant's text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity
> rather as an attitude than as a period in history. And by 'attitude', I mean
> a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by
> certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of
> acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of
> belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what
> the Greeks called an _ethos_."
> Then, to characterize this attitude of modernity, F takes Baudelaire as his
> example, and begins by saying that Baudelaire defines modernity in terms
> of "the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent".
> "But, for him, being modern does not lie in recognizing and accepting this
> perpetual movement; on the contrary, it lies in adopting a certain attitude
> with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult attitude
> consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present
> instant, nor behind it, but within it. [...] Modernity is the attitude
> that makes it possible to grasp the 'heroic' aspect of the present moment.
> Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it
> is the will to 'heroize' the present."
This point about the need to heroize the present can also be found in
Nietzsche's _Zarathustra_, though of course N uses a different vocabulary
in the Preface, Section 3:
Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God
died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the
earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the
unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth! (_Zar_)
> Then F says:
> "This heroization is ironical, needless to say. The attitude of modernity
> does not treat the passing moment as sacred in order to try to maintain
> and perpetuate it. It certainly does not involve harvesting it as a fleeting
> and intersting curiosity. That would be what Baudelaire would call the
> spectator's posture. [...] Baudelaire's modernity is an exercise in which
> extreme attention to what is real is confronted with a practice of a liberty
> that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it."
The happy positivist!
> "However, modernity for Baudelaire is not simply a form of relationship
> to the present; it is also a mode of relationship that has to be established
> with oneself. [...] To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is
> in the flux of the passing moments; it is to take oneself as object of
> a complex and difficult elaboration. [...] Modern man, for Baudelaire,
> is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his
> hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity
> does not 'liberate man in his own being'; it compels him to face the task
> of producing himself."
The last sentence above as a specification of the phrase "heroization of
> "Let me add just one final word. This ironic heroization of the present,
> this transfiguring play of freedom with reality, this ascetic elaboration
> of the self -- Baudelaire does not imagine that these have any place in
> society itself, or in the body politic. They can only be produced in
> another, a different place, which Baudelaire calls art."
> So there are a number of things here that I am very curious about. First, the
> emergence, somewhere between Kant and Baudelaire, of the "ironic" aspect
> of what Foucault proposes as the attitude of modernity. Secondly, the
> question of whether treating one's life as a work of art is somehow
> inherently linked to seeing oneself as a member of "a small elite".
I think the same basic idea can apply on different levels. Above, you're
right, F emphasizes the the aesthetic and elite features of
self-fashioning. But in other places he speaks more broadly of the need
for "specific intellectuals" who I think can take up some of the same
practices on a more "popular" level.
> This is connected to the whole question of the relationship between art
> and life; whether art is (or is not) necessarily "another, different place"
> as it was for Baudelaire (but did not want to be for Cage, some of the
> Fluxites, Beuys, Warhol, Kaprow, Deleuze). And to what extent the "ironic"
> aspect of modernity is linked to the perception of art as separate from
There's certainly a long tradition of critical thought that sees art as
one of the most important barometers of the presence or absence of
critical thought in society. And this is due in large part to art's sort
of ontologically required distance from the world.
> And what it is that is being sought, and why, when one looks for
> "a principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics", as Foucault
> says is the case with "recent liberation movements".
What's being sought is a reconceptualization of the transgression/limit
> And what it means
> to posit, or deny, a gap between ethics and aesthetics, or to bridge it
> through an effort of "ironic heroization". And whether F's postulated ethos
> of modernity is something that is indeed part of our lives. And who it is
> that is the Foucauldian "we", or at least the "we" of WiE.
I always read the "we" as those who are still interested in thinking when
most of the cognitive maps we were used to stopped accurately reflecting
the terrain. That same elite he mentioned earlier?