Thursday, September 13, 2012

Foucault: "Writing the Self" (1984?)

This brief and very well-written text, reprinted in Foucault and His Interlocutors, is a case-study in the culture of writing and reading which, according to Foucault, emerged in the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D.

It focuses mainly on a number of texts by the two philosopher-politicians Marcus Aurelius and Foucault's favourite, Seneca. Both of these writes also play a central role in Care of the Self, the third volume of his History of Sexuality.

The hypothesis that Foucault proposes in the text is that writing and reading in this period began to be considered as a kind of spiritual or ethical exercise that could help a (male, Roman) person constitute himself as a good, ethical subject. This meant using writing and reading as tool for reflecting on one's own life and training oneself in the discipline of independence from wealth and health. The main inspiration for this approach was Pierre Hadot.

Exercise or Confession?

Apparently, a part of the function of all this ceaseless writing was a kind of benevolent self-surveillance. Foucault quotes Seneca as saying
we must regulate our lives as though the whole world were looking at them (p. 243; originally in Letter 40)
However, Foucault insists that this practice should not (yet) be taken as a kind of confession;
it is not a matter of pursuing the unsayable, nor of revealing the hidden, nor of saying the unsaid, but on the contrary of capturing the already-said, of reassembling what one could hear or read, and this for an end that is nothing less than the constitution of the self. (p. 237)
It is not completely clear that this claim is true, though. The introductory quote from the Christian writer Athanasius clearly shows that a couple of hundred years down the line, the purpose of writing had certainly become "to ensure that one does not sin" (p. 234).

The rest of Foucault's text can perhaps be read as a prolonged attempt to justify that this is not the philosophy that we find in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Why We Write

One strand of evidence in support of Foucault's claim comes from the ancient sources themselves. At least sometimes, they seem to consider the practice of writing diaries or letters explicitly as a kind of mental exercise:
Seneca recalls that when one writes, one reads what one writes just as in saying something one hears what one says (p. 241; reference to Seneca's Letter 84)
Whoever teaches, educates himself. (p. 237; quoted from Letter 7)
The point of writing a letter is thus not to air your flaws, but to give a friend advice about how to live a good, philosophical life, and thus indirectly benefit yourself.

Reflections On the Day Gone By

Another argument comes from the fact that some of the exercises simply seem to be ill-suited as acts of confession. For instance, the practice of silently and privately meditating on the day gone by can hardly be construed as a kind of confession (pp. 245-47).

This is further supported by the fact that when such reflections are actually written down, they often look more like attentive descriptions of daily details than like catalogues of sins and errors. Thus, Seneca describes a day in which "nothing happened" (Foucault's words) by meticulously recording its events in a letter. Foucault lists the contents:
A bit of physical training, racing with a young slave, a bath in barely tepid water, a simple meal of bread, a very brief nap. But the essential part of the letter---and it is that which occupies the longest part of the letter---had been devoted to meditation on a theme suggested by a sophisticated syllogism of Zeno apropos drunkenness. (p. 245; he is talking about Letter 83)
Marcus Aurelius tells a similar story, equally filled with tiny details, and with reasons for happiness rather than shame. Quoting him:
Then we went to eat. On what do you think I dined? On a bit of bread, while I watched many others devouring oysters, onions, and very fat sardines. Afterwards, we set ourselves harvesting the grapes; we sweated a lot, shouted a lot. [...] Having returned home, before turning on my side to sleep, I go through my task; I make an account of my day to my sweetest of masters, whom, were I to be consumed by it [i.e., were I to die on this day?], I would love still more. (p. 247; quoted after Marcus Aurelius' Letter 6 to Fronto)
Indeed, this looks more like an account of small successes and failures than an account of good and bad deeds. If recounting such events is beneficial for the soul, it cannot be as a disinfectant.

Reading As an Spiritual Exercise

Of course, the least confession-like of all literary practices is that of reading. However, this is also considered a valuable tool for moulding and training the self (pp. 238-40). Seneca thus recommends daily reading as well as slow and careful digestion of what one reads:
From all that you have skimmed, extract one thought to digest well that day. This is also what I do. (p. 239; quoted after his Letter 2)
The fact that such study and meditation is a tool for improving the soul on a general level is suggested by a statement by Epictetus that Foucault quotes:
It is of little importance that one has or has not read all of Zeno or Chrysippus; it is of little importance that one has seized exactly what they meant, and that one is capable of reconstructing the unity of their reasoning. (p. 239; quoted from Epictetus: Entritiens (the Discourses?), 2:65)
What is of importance, presumably, is that one goes through the trouble of meditating one some edifying prose, perhaps like the many religious cultures have emphasized ritually reading and re-reading sacred texts, both in private and in public.

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