From: darcy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Stephen D'Arcy)
Date: Tue, 22 Apr 1997 13:44:15 -0400 (EDT)
> >> whether treating one's life as a work of art is somehow
> >> inherently linked to seeing oneself as a member of "a small elite".
And I replied:
> > This strikes me as an important question, but not necessarily a
> > difficult one.
Malgosia then wrote:
> Heh heh, to me it seems utterly excruciating, which will undoubtedly
> manifest itself in the inchoateness (to say the least) of my
treatment of it.
I enjoyed your post, and I genuinely appreciated your subtle analysis
of art and aesthetics. However, I am still not convinced that there
is any need for subtlety in this area.
The art/life analogy is just that: an analogy. So the question is:
what is it about art that is supposed to be analogous to living? If
the answer were "everything," then we would have to ask, among other
things, should we be thinking about the "art world" of the prehistoric
caves? of New York in the 1950's? of Paris in the 1920's? of the
Middle Ages? of Russian Revolutionary poster art? or what? We could
not proceed to "unpack" the analogy until we had a more informative
specification of what is meant by "art." Moreover, we would even then
have to ask the sort of quasi-sociological questions raised in your
But I think that we would be barking up the wrong tree if we took the
analogy in this sort of direction. In context, I believe Foucault's
remarks -- like so much else in his work -- refer us directly to the
question about the relation between "truth" and "the subject."
Foucault's late research on "the relation to oneself" (rapport a soi)
taught him that people are not only the "agents" of their lives, but
also the "objects" of those lives. That is, people "make lives for
themselves." For example, they try to improve their public speaking
skills, or they try to make friends, or they try to lose an annoying
habit, and so on. Thus, they try to transform themselves in various
ways. (Presumably, other species don't do this; perhaps some do, I
don't know; either way, it is not important for _that_ reason).
Foucault proceeds to relate this fact -- that people act on themselves
-- to a contemporary political problem:
"Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot
find any principle 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 the self is,
what desire is, what the unconscious is, and so on" (F.R. p. 343).
Here, in my view, is where the art analogy comes in. If
self-invention/transformation is like building a bridge, then you
cannot proceed without a qualified engineer to tell you how to build
it. But if self invention/transformation is more like producing a
work of art, then one needs materials, of course, and one will benefit
enormously from access to exemplary models etc., but in principle
everyone can do it, and they can each do it differently. No one
thinks that there is something troubling about the fact that a
Kandinsky painting is so different from a Renoir painting. Some
prefer Kandinsky, some prefer Renoir. But no one expects them to
paint in the same way because -- and here is where we recognize the
systematic role of the idea of "life as art" in Foucault's thought --
because there is no "fact of the matter", no truth, no correct answer
to the question, what sort of person should I become?
I think, in short, that the role of the art-analogy is to help us
imagine in a more vivid way how attractive it might be to try severing
the ethics of self-transformation from the practice of appealing to
scienctific or medical knowledge of the self. His targets are, as
always, scientistic versions of Marxism, psychoanalysis, the
psychology or sociology of the "normal", essentialist forms of
"identity politics" and other modes of appealing to alleged truths
about the subject that, in his view, have played a pernicious role in
"recent liberation movements" and an even more pernicious role in
institutions like hospitals, schools, prisons and courts.
It is a simple analogy, and Foucault spends so little time elaborating
on the analogy precisely because we don't need to know much about art
to get the simple idea: self-invention does not need the guidance of