Part III: Selections from Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love

Having discussed Augustine’s ethics of humility and wisdom of sorrow, Schuld turns to consider how Foucault can be used to “broaden Augustine’s analysis of the desires for an illusory human perfection” (Reconsidering Power and Love, 124).Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

Foucault, like Augustine, focuses on human finitude, making the reader aware of the “ever-shifting ground of contingencies on which they build expectations of certitude and perfection” (125).  In addition, Foucault finds the idea of the modern, autonomous subject unsustainable and thus deconstructs the “myth of personhood as self-originating being,” highlighting the inevitability of historical and social fragility (125).  Though Foucault’s emphasis on human finitude shares certain similarities with Augustine’s, there are also significant differences.  For instance, Augustine’s account is cast in relation to God, whereas Foucault’s is not.

A second area of overlap between these two thinkers surfaces in their desire to challenge cultural norms and values.  As Schuld observes, in the Confessions Augustine describes how he underwent a process of socio-political “naturalization” in which various accepted “norms” conditioned him, both and body and soul.  “Like Augustine, much of [Foucault’s] own self-emptying involves taking the ‘natural’ and making it seem strange” (127).  Here again we find continuities and discontinuities in their respective accounts. Both thinkers emphasize the need for a “self-emptying” and even training of our desires; however, what they believe this self-emptying will accomplish differs significantly.  “For Foucault, decentering the self opens unexplored terrain for artistic self-creation” (128).  Whereas for Augustine, “deconstruction is always in preparation for a relational self-identity that is given, not made.  He understands himself as participating in a co-creation, but this is a graced process” (128).

Next, Schuld focuses on Foucault’s rejection of so-called “neutral” and “disinterested modes of knowledge.  Given the inescapability of our social conditioning, we simply cannot come to any subject—science or otherwise—as if we were a blank slate.  Our socio-historical context always already implicates us, and there is no transcendental perch upon which we can stand in order to secure a purely “objective,” non-implicated perspective.  “On Foucault’s view, modern arrogant modes of knowledge secure their own refuge of power by defining themselves with certitude as ‘purely’ neutral and disinterested…Anyone assaulting their shielding tactics is thereby attacking a consecrated sanctuary…To question, then, how particular truths socially and historically function becomes an act of blasphemy” (128-129). The specific discourses that Foucault has in mind are those “that associate themselves with scientific or pseudo-scientific language and practices” (129).  One of Foucault’s greatest concerns is what happens “when such presumptuous modes of knowledge take as their task examining, classifying, and eradicating the frailties and imperfections of human lives” (129).  Ironically, however, these discourses have gained power through the desires of those who want to be free of “blemishes” and “defects.”  So it seems that modern attempts to flee one’s fragility actually makes one more vulnerable (129).

In contrast with Augustine’s Christocentric perspective, for Foucault, “humbled modes of knowledge … are … those that make room for knowledges that have been judged inadequate and dismissed as of no account” (129).  Such a “chastened perspective recognizes its own contingency” and refrains from making universal “normative assessments and judgments” of others (129).

Lastly, Foucault has a special interest in providing a voice for the marginalized or what Schuld refers to as the “low-ranking” knowledges (e.g., the psychiatric patient, the infirm, the criminal, the deviant, or the defective), i.e., those groups and individuals that have been devalued by the privileged discourses (130). Here Schuld encourages the Church heed Foucault’s call to listen to the “disqualified voices” and “open itself to the advice and labors that arise from the ‘untrained’ in specific locales” (130).  Through an appreciation of the difficulties that “subjugated knowledges” experience in the attempt to compete with “culturally privileged discourses,” the Church can benefit from Foucault’s insights and be emboldened to offer their own distinctive social critiques (131).