James Bernauer on Foucault and Christian Technologies of Confession

I have recently been introduced to James Bernauer’s excellent work on Foucault and want to share the following passage from Bernauer’s essay, “Confessions of the Soul:  Foucault and Theological Culture.”Image of Confession

“Christian practices produced an interiorization or a subjectivization of the human being as the outcome of two processes.  The first is the constitution of the self as a hermeneutical reality, namely, the recognition that there is a truth in the subject, that the soul is the place where this truth resides, and that true discourses can be articulated concerning it.  The Christian self is an obscure text demanding permanent interpretation through ever more sophisticated practices of attentiveness, decipherment, and verbalization.  The second process is both paradoxical and yet essential for appreciating the unique mode of Christian subjectivity.  The deciphering of one’s soul is but one dimension of the subjectivity that relates the self to the self.  While it involves ‘indeterminate objectivization of the self by the self-indeterminate in the sense that one must be extending as far as possible the range of one’s thoughts, however insignificant and innocent they may appear to be’, the point of such objectivization is not to assemble a progressive knowledge of oneself for the sake of achieving the self-mastery that classical pagan thought advanced as an ideal.

The purpose of the Christian hermeneutic of the self is to foster renunciation of the self who has been objectified.  The individual’s relation to the self imitates both the baptismal turning from the old self to a new-found otherness, and also the ceremony of public penance that was depicted as a form of martyrdom proclaiming the symbolic death an everyday event.  All truth about the self is tied to the sacrifice of that same self, and the Christian experience of subjectivity declares itself most clearly in the sounds of a rupture with oneself, of an admission that ‘I am not who I am’” (p. 561).

Although in other writings Foucault is critical of Christian confessional practices and highlights certain dangers in these “technologies,” his archeological findings have unearthed certain truths to which Christians ought to be attentive and develop further.  For example, could not the Christian, whose identity is in Christ, agree that engaging in confessional practices is an (on-going) acknowledgment that s/he is not who s/he is?  In other words, unlike the Cartesian view of the self which demands a self-transparency and full grasp of the self, the Christian self  is in a very real sense always ahead of itself, always in process, always striving to live harmoniously and authentically the life of new creation—an in Christo existence.  Yet, we are aware of how unlike Christ we are, and this unconformity to His image is experienced as both existential and eschatological dissonance—or as Bernauer put its, “the Christian experience of subjectivity declares itself most clearly in the sounds of a rupture with oneself, of an admission that ‘I am not who I am.’”

Frederick Douglass on Imagining Otherwise

Below is Frederick Douglass’s elegant description of how he often looked across the Chesapeake Bay, which was full of sailboats, and imagined that he was sailing away to live as a freeman.Frederick Douglass

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully…with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint… ‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas! Betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go!  Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?[1]


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, p. 59.

The Samaritan Other, the Practice of Mercy, Living in Gratitude and Being a Neighbor

Good SamaritanIn the Gospel of St. Luke 17.11-19, we read of Jesus’ healing of ten lepers.  Of the ten lepers, only one took the time to thank Jesus for his healing.  In fact, the text says that this man expressed his gratitude vocally and bodily.  “[O]ne of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17.15-16).  Notice that we are told that the man was a Samaritan.  During Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were more or less considered Gentiles, which of course means that they were despised by Jews.  Samaritans claimed that the focal place of worship was Gerizim rather than Jerusalem (cf. John 4.20) and that the holy books consisted of the Pentateuch alone.  In light of these significant religious differences, one can readily see that relations between Jews and Samaritans, whom the Jews considered “half-breeds,” were strained and at times hostile and violent.  St. Luke takes particular interest in the Samaritans—the others, the foreigners, the social outcasts.  His Gospel account, as well as the theological history he crafts in Acts, highlights several stories in which Samaritan others are central figures or topics of discussion (Luke 9:51–56; 10:30–37; 17:11–19; Ac. 1:8; 8:1–25; 9:31; 15:3).   Though Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and engage in works of healing among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” forbidding them to enter the “way of the Gentiles” and “any city of the Samaritans” (Matt 10.5), when He Himself encountered Gentiles and Samaritans, He neither turned them away nor refused to heal them.   Rather, he treated them with respect (see John 4 and the exchange with the Samaritan woman), which often involved transgressing established social and religious norms and customs.  In Luke 17.18-19, Jesus praises the Samaritan leper’s response—a faith response marked by gratitude and thanksgiving. “‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner [ἀλλογενής]?’  Then he said to him, ‘Get up [ἀναστὰς] and go on your way; your faith has made you well [σέσωκεν].’”  As N.T. Wright observes, the Greek word, ἀναστὰς (translated here as, “get up”) is the same word which is translated as “resurrection” in other contexts.    Early Christians would not have missed this connection with resurrection, nor should we.

The famous parable of the Good Samaritan is also worth considering.  Here Jesus, in response to a lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” replies with a parable which presents a Samaritan as the moral hero (in contrast to the villains—a priest and a Levite).

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (NRSV, Lk 10:30-37).Good Samaritan

It is highly likely that the man who fell into the hands of robbers was a Jew.  He was after all, “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  So the Samaritan is not only helping some stranger in need, he is showing mercy to an “enemy.”  The priest and the Levite in order to avoid becoming unclean choose to ignore the man in need.  As N.T. Wright puts it, “it was better that they remain aloof, preserving their purity at the cost of obedience to God’s law of love”—a law which was, by the way, an OT law and not simply something that emerged with the NT (Luke for Everyone, p. 127).

The lawyer in the story is disingenuous and poses his question in order to test Jesus.  The lawyer wants to know whom he should consider as his neighbor.  Again, Wright offers helpful commentary on the exchange.  Pointing out that the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer don’t exactly correspond, Wright goes on to say,

For him [the lawyer], God is the  God of Israel, and neighbours are Jewish neighbours.  For Jesus (and for Luke, who highlights this theme), Israel’s God is the God of grace for the whole world, and a neighbour is anybody in need.  Jesus’ telling question at the end isn’t asking who the Samaritan regarded as his neighbour.  He asked, instead, who turned out to be the neighbour of the half-dead Jew lying in the road.  Underneath the apparently straightforward moral lesson […], we find a much sterner challenge, exactly fitting in with the emphasis of Luke’s story so far.  Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbour? (Ibid., pp. 127-28).

I suppose the question to ask is, can you, can I, can we recognize ____________ as our neighbor/s?

Foucault on Relations of Power and Relations of Constraint: Is Chattel Slavery the Former, the Latter or Both?

Foucault In his essay, “The Subject and Power,” Foucault defines the exercise of power as “a mode of action upon the actions of others.”  The exercise of power can be either positive or negative.  Considered from a positive point of view, it involves the “governing”—understood in the broadest sense as training, shaping, or directing toward a goal or set of goals—of human beings.  In these types of power relations, Foucault insists that we are dealing with relations among free subjects.  For example, he says,

Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free.  By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments, may be realized.  Where the determining factors saturate the whole, there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains.  (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint) (“The Subject and Power,” 790).

Power relations presuppose relations among free subjects.  One cannot have a power relation with an inanimate object or with a non-human animal.  Thus, it seems that power relations can obtain only among human beings because they possess volitional and rational capacities that set them apart from other animals.  However, Foucault recognizes that certain social configurations (e.g., chattel slavery) create a situation in which human freedom is so constrained that for all practical purposes it does not exist.  However, because Foucault qualifies the kind of slavery he has in view, his position on slavery and power relations is more complicated than it appears on the surface.  Foucault’s claim is that “slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains.”  When a slave’s body is bound, and the possibilities for basic physical mobility much less resistance and creative responses are so restricted, he is no longer considered free.  Since the (physical) freedom of the slave has been annulled, the relationship is not one of power but of physical constraint.  If this is correct, the description does not seem to correspond to historical instances of slavery.  Slaves in the antebellum period were of no use to their masters unless they were “free” to work.  That is, the slaves were not confined to prison cells or bound in chains for the duration of their enslavement; rather, they were forced to work in the fields for sixteen hours days, to manage the master’s household, and to do numerous other tasks that required physical mobility.  Thus, it seems that American slaves were involved at least intermittently in something like a power relation with their masters.  This is not to deny that they were at times bound physically (e.g. for beatings); however, the majority of their service for the master necessitated an unbound (physical) existence.  In addition, as many slave narratives attest, various forms of resistance were possible within these the constraints of the slave system.  For example, slaves often interrupted work routines, stole from their masters, had love affairs with the mistress, attempted to escape, and even physically confronted their masters.  Though these and other forms of resistance and response were incredibly risky and could cost the slave his or her life, they were genuine possibilities of action which the slave could choose.  One wonders, however, how effective the majority of actions were in terms of social (racialized) structure as a whole.  Did interrupting work routines really change the way a slave was viewed in the society?  No.  These actions, though no doubt important for the slave’s psychological well-being, did not overturn the racial and other mechanisms embedded within the society.  These kinds of actions and responses for the most part seem analogous to what Foucault describes in “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” as “tricks which never brought about a reversal of the situation” (12).

Continuing the passage above and having just described a physical relation of constraint, Foucault says,

Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay.  In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination (“The Subject and Power,” 790).

What is unclear to me about this passage is why Foucault says that “freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised.”  His conclusion seems to apply to the situation of the slave in chains.  That is, power and freedom have no possibility for confrontation because the bound slave is not free; there is no freedom to confront.  But why then does he add that freedom and power are “mutually exclusive” and that “freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised”?  Repeatedly, he emphasizes that both sides of a power relation must be free (at least to some degree).  Thus, freedom is the condition for the possibility of power relations to obtain; freedom makes possible the maintenance of power relations.  Perhaps what he means is that in power relationships, e.g., a pedagogical relationship, one side has to willingly take the subordinate role (the student).  The student is not forced to learn from the professor, but places himself willing under the professor’s direction.  Thus, from the student’s side, when the professor has the “lead” role, the student’s freedom is necessarily limited—but limited by choice.  Such a relationship, if it remains positive and productive, does not translate into a dominating relationship, as the student could at any time decide not to listen to the professor’s advice, or s/he could choose to stop attending the professor’s lectures.  Also, it seems that the professor must be open to correction by the student.  When the professor accepts the correction or challenge to his/her argument, thesis, etc., the student then exerts power (in the Foucauldian sense), which results in a reduction of the professor’s freedom.  If this is what Foucault is saying, are we then dealing with a kind of zero-sum game between power and freedom?  Foucault does describe the reciprocal relationship between power and freedom as a kind of ongoing provocation and struggle.

The relationship between power and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot, therefore, be separated.  The crucial problem of power is not that of voluntary servitude (how could we seek to be slaves?).  At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.  Rather than speaking of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of an ‘agonism’[1]—of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, less of a face-to-face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation (790).


[1] “Foucault’s neologism is based on the Greek meaning ‘a combat.’  The term would hence imply a physical contest in which the opponents develop a strategy of reaction and of mutual taunting, as in a wrestling match.—Translator’s note” (p. 790).

Part II: Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault

In this post, I revisit (by way of Heller’s essay) Foucault’s articulation of a power-diagram and discuss the differences between tactics and strategies.  Heller provides a helpful explanation of Foucault’s seemingly paradoxical claim, “power relations are both intentional and non-subjective.”  First, Heller reminds us that a pre-existing power-diagram must be in place in order for power to be exercised.  With this in view, Heller adds,

While the decision to exercise power is always intentional, the mechanisms of power that individuals use to exercise power are inherently non-subjective, because they do not depend on the existence of those individuals for their own existence.  Power mechanisms, because they are structured and reproduced by a multiplicity of power-relations that are not reducible to the individuals who exercise them, are necessarily incapable of being controlled by any particular individual (“Power, Subjectification, and Resistance in Foucault,” 85).Michel Foucault

Because the complex interplay of power relations which form power mechanisms cannot be reduced to the individual subjects who exercise power through them, they in effect take on a life of their own.  In this sense, we are all caught in the power-diagram machine and no one individual (or group) can possibility control or direct the flow of power in a particular power-diagram.  This state of affairs, however, does not rule out the fact that some individuals and groups within a power-diagram do “control more of a diagram’s mechanisms of power than others.”  Nor is it the case that subjects, because they are “located” within the machine, are unable to execute intentional and volitional actions.  In light of their function and weight within a particular societal formation, certain groups do occupy more influential positions within the whole.[1] Thus, it is incorrect to label Foucault’s theory of power “pluralist.”  As Heller observes, “[p]ower may indeed be everywhere, but that does not mean power is equally distributed—it means only that absolute power (economic, political, cultural, etc.) is a structural and thus a practical impossibility” (86).  In short, Foucault claims that power is “the value-natural medium of social-change” (Heller, 87).  The exercise of power can of course be oppressive, but it can also be utilized for social reformation and to achieve other positive collective goals.

Non-subjectivity arises not only as a result of the irreducibility of the various mechanisms of power to the individuals within a society, but an “individual’s use of power can be non-subjective” as well due to the “inevitable disjunction between an action’s intention and its actual effect” (87).  For example, I may have a clear understand of my own intentions in connection with a particular action—supporting an international humanitarian group which aids the poor.  However, I have no control whatsoever over how this organization applies my gift and how their actions “on the ground” impact the community as a whole, as well as how the recipients’ perception of Western humanitarian endeavors are affected by the activities carried out by this particular organization.  In short, my intentional action—giving money to an organization to help the poor—bears within itself a number of potentially positive or negative unintentional social and political consequences.  According to Heller, Foucault uses the terms “tactics” and “strategies” to highlight whether or not an action is intentional.

“[T]actics” are the intentional actions carried out in determinate political contexts by individuals and groups; “strategies” are the unintentional—but institutionally and socially regularized—effects produced by the non-subjective articulation of different individual and group tactics.  Both tactics and strategies involve power, because both create social change; only strategies, however, involve non-subjective power (87-88).

So why do certain institutions whose unintentional effects are clearly out of sync with the original intentional aims continue to exist (e.g., the modern prison system)?  Foucault’s answer:  because certain groups within a particular diagram benefit (economically and otherwise) from the institution.


[1] See Foucault’s, “The Eye of Power,” p. 156.