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

Next, Schuld discusses the second theme structuring her analysis:  Foucault’s interpretations of “infirmity” as the new hermeneutical lens through which we, “enlightened” (post)moderns, decipher human difference, deviation, and deficiency.  With the shift from the medieval emphasis upon salvation and the soul to the modern emphasis on science and mechanized matter-in-motion, we likewise have a shift in governing metaphors.  As Schuld explains,  “[t]ransformations of the self are no longer interpreted in terms of the movement from sin to salvation, but from pathology to well-being” (148).  Instead of pursing purity in a Cassian ethic of chastity, we now strive for “physical vigor and mental health.”  Salvation, now defined as health, well-being and security is not sought after in the next world but in this world.Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

The “modern scientific-medicalized paradigms” claim to offer a neutral, “objective” account.  They “presume to stand at a safe remove from traditional disputes over what constitutes the good…Such discourses tend to ignore the moral and social biases of those who decipher information and the moral and social consequences of their determinations.  Because knowledge is always put to use by fallible human beings in a practical world of competing interests and visions, we are deluding ourselves…if we believe that questions of truth can be disentangled from questions of normative worth and value.  Even what appears to be most self-evidently natural is inevitably situated in a cultural context, and thus, shot through with social meanings and moral ambiguities” (149).  In other words, scientists too are human beings, shaped by specific cultures, language games, and personal proclivities—all of which influence their scientific pursuits and findings.

According to Foucault, with the shift from a religious frame to a scientific frame, the categories of “normal” and “abnormal” not only replace but alter in significant ways what was formerly understood as sin and a fallen state in need not of medical correction but of grace.  “Once moral and religious discourses are transposed into a scientific key, a whole range of human frailties and fallibilities … are ‘placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological’” (149).  Of those classified as “abnormal,” Foucault is particularly interested in “children, women, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and the condemned.” For example, in his book, Birth of the Clinic, he provides vivid descriptions of what a mentally ill person undergoes in a mental hospital in order to impress upon us the extreme lengths to which our culture is willing to go in order to try and “eliminate disorder and clean up social messes” (150).

In place of exile or physical torture for illicit acts, the new modes of societal exclusion and punishment, or rather rehabilitation, involve updated, scientifically compatible differentiating techniques.  For example, in contrast to “commemorative accounts” and “genealogies,” one now “becomes known by scientifically defined variances and anomalies” (151).  Instead of legends of brave saints, we produce “distinctively modern epic genres—the psychological autobiography and the carefully monitored and charted case study” (151).  In sum, Schuld states, “No longer moral transgressions and guilt, no longer honor and shame, no longer action and social consequence, but nature and defect analyzed through rational quantitative study govern the relations of power of those falling outside expected norms, values and behaviors” (151).

With these things in view, some of Foucault’s passions and concerns come into focus.  For instance, he wants us to be acutely aware of how an “uncompromising passion for clarity about and control over our frailties and infirmities suffuses our culture” (151). Its presence can be felt in self-help bookstores, in gyms with their personal trainers, counselors etc.  We are all “vulnerable to becoming scientifically normalized subjects and scientifically normalizing judges” (151).

In our modern “confessional” techniques, we, like the ancients and the medievals, dwell on selected personal experiences, and by applying socially constructed interpretations to them, we establish individualized identities” (152).  We have turned everything, sex included, into a discourse. “We have culturally created as modern ‘confessing animals’ a new field of pleasure, the pleasure of analysis, and an unexamined devotion to the self-knowledge and bliss that it promises” (152).  In this modern myth, not only those regarded as “abnormal” but also the “seemingly normal are haunted by dark yearnings that must be brought out into the light and liberated” (152).  But isn’t this, after all, very similar to the medieval practice of confession?  Didn’t Christians back then and even those today who practice some form of confession, formally or otherwise, attempt to bring to light those shadowy places of the soul?  According to Schuld, “[i]n some ways, this mirrors Augustine’s conception of the universality of sin and the need for continual confession.  But here, ‘fragments of darkness’ are countered not through confessing our fallibility and need for mercy and sanctifying grace but through bold exercises of autonomy.  Not self-forgetting love and self-surrender but self-assertion frees one from all such dangerous impulses” (153)