Part III: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

As we have seen, with the old categories of sin and salvation transmuted into the language of pathology and cure, the role of experts in our everyday lives becomes increasingly common and (seemingly) “natural.” As the new discourse of normalization gains ground, playing on “our fears of pathology” and “entic[ing] us with visions of unending health,” it seems all the more “natural” to turn to these highly trained experts when our lives begin to fissure, whether physically or mentally.[1] Consonant with Foucault’s analyses, consider the ways that we today entrust ourselves with the utmost faith to medical experts. For example, we allow them to inquire into the most intimate details of our lives, both past and present; in fact, in a most unreflective casual manner, we willingly hand over our souls and bodies so that they may poke, prod, cut, inject, and anesthetize us, assuming in an act of faith that they have our best interests in view. Because now our seemingly natural yet socially created impulse is to turn to specialists of various kinds—specialists with particular knowledge of which we have little or no access apart from submitting ourselves to their care—, our relation to these experts is one-sidedly stacked in their favor.

With the psychiatrist/patient relation a new power-knowledge complex is formed.  This asymmetrical relationship shares certain similarities with the power-knowledge differential which constituted the confessor/confessee relationship. However, having been translated into a scientific and secular key, the ailing person is not instructed to confess sins and cry out for divine mercy and grace; rather, he or she is encouraged throw off such guilt-ridden, constricting thoughts in order to develop a positive, autonomous self.[2] Although speaking of sex and the “repressive hypothesis,” Foucault sees rightly how the new narratives—as he puts it, the “preaching” of the new physician-priests—have conditioned us to believe in their version of salvation now, evermore feeding our “longing for the garden of earthly delights.”[3] On the final page of his book, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault pens a noteworthy paragraph, summarizing how our embrace of these modern discourses, particularly the discourse about sex, ought to make us pause and consider how, when all is said and done, we may have been duped. Having discussed Freud’s place in this grand narrative about sex and its secrets, Foucault then states:

We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious. Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth, and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long. These devices are what ought to make us wonder today.[4]

Whether we focus on discourses about sex or the claims of contemporary biotechnologies, this scientized,[5] enlightened “good news” holds out promises that both Foucault and Augustine call into question. Given what we have seen of Augustine’s embrace of our finitude and fallibility, he too would take issue with these and any narratives proclaiming hope in a utopian existence now. For Augustine, human solidarity began with Adam and finds its fulfillment in Christ. Our present salvation in Christ will not reach its final perfection in this life; consequently, given our solidarity with Adam and thus, as Schuld puts it, our “solidarity in sin,” our present existence is one of eschatological tension and existential struggle in which our hope and joy coexist continually with disappointment and pain. Though starting from very different perspectives and fundamental assumptions, both Foucault and Augustine speak in this instance with one voice, warning us to be weary of embracing claims, scientific or otherwise, promising to free us from “relational fragility, ambiguity, and finitude.”[6] Rather, than certitude based on so-called “scientific objectivity,” they point us toward a more humble approach to knowledge, urging us to reject a sovereign, autonomous self, and to embrace a decentered, ever-enigmatic self “on the way” (in via).


[1] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 154.

[2] As Schuld puts it, our in modern rituals, “’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 surrender but self-assertion frees one from all such dangerous impulses” (ibid., 153).

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 7. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Schuld suggests that certain instantiations of biogenetics may be replacing discourses about sex and thus serving as the new hermeneutical key to human existence. For her discussion of the “science of genetics, see Foucault and Augustine, 155-6.

[6] Ibid., 156-7. As Schuld points out, and I agree, Augustine’s view “would require of us not the rejection of contemporary science or the denial of its manifest contributions to personal and social well-being but a clear-eyed vigilance concerning the way s in which it is applied, especially with regard to those who are most vulnerable” (ibid., 157). I take Foucault’s view to be similar, namely, he is not advocating a full-scale rejection of science, psychiatry, or medicine; rather, he wants us to be aware of the dangers of embracing their respective claims uncritically, especially given the unequal and potentially harmful power-knowledge differential involved.


Part II: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

Having spent several pages offering critical analyses of his failed education, Augustine highlights a specific event in which he comments on his own misdirected love while also calling into question the values of the educated Roman elite. Similar to the passage in book four where Augustine characterizes his weeping as misguided, here too we read of a weeping Augustine—this time; however, he weeps not over the loss of a dear friend but over a fictive literary character, Dido. As he explains, his having acquired the skills of reading and writing were “far more useful” than the stories he

was forced to memorize the wanderings of some fellow called Aeneas, while forgetting my own waywardness, and to weep over Dido, who killed herself for love, when all the while in my intense misery I put up with myself with never a tear, as I died away from you, O God, who are my life.[1]

Here Augustine, no doubt, discusses his personal shortcomings, primarily his failure to care for his own moral and spiritual development. Yet, in the passage just mentioned and the paragraphs which follow, Augustine simultaneously chides the elite, educated class and those aspiring for membership in this group. After all, the Aeneid had an almost canonical status in Augustine’s day, and Aeneas—the great founder of Rome—was heralded as the hero extraordinaire. In stark contrast, Augustine refers to him rather casually as “some fellow called Aeneas,” thus demoting him of his hero status and calling into question Roman constructions of virility, honor, and pride. Again, Augustine’s retelling of his own wanderings manifest theological and socio-political aims.  That is, just as Augustine through his own self-questioning had come to value humility and a proper assessment of our frailty over the self-aggrandizing narratives inculcated through the Roman educational system, he wants his readers to put themselves and their own socially constructed narratives into question.

Like Augustine, Foucault also values a more humble view of ourselves and our claims to knowledge.  As Schuld observes, Foucault offers critical analyses of how, with the ushering in of modernity, “scientific or pseudo-scientific” discourses and practices come to be seen as definitive, unassailable,[2] or to utilize a Bakhtinian grammar, a negative instantiation of authoritative discourse. 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.”[3] As he traces the transformation of Christian confessional technologies whose emphasis had become fixated increasingly on sexual sins, categorizing and defining them ad infinitum, Foucault traces how confessional technologies are transposed into a scientific key. In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault provides a lucid account of this transformation:

The obtaining of the confession and its effects were recodified as therapeutic operations. Which meant first of all that the sexual domain was no longer accounted for simply by the notions of error or sin, excess or transgression, but was placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological (which, for that matter, were the transposition of the former categories); […] sex appeared as an extremely unstable pathological field: a surface of repercussion for other ailments, but also the focus of a specific nosography, that of instincts, tendencies, images, pleasure, and conduct. This implied furthermore that sex would derive its meaning and its necessity from medical interventions: it would be required by the doctor, necessary for diagnosis, and effective by nature in the cure. Spoken in time, to the proper party, and by the person who was both the bearer of it and the one responsible for it, the truth healed.[4]

In the modern episteme where the discourse of medical science and its truth games predominate as opposed to the theological discourses of the Middle Ages, not only sexual acts but sexuality itself becomes an object for medical experts to diagnose, treat, and allegedly “cure.” Whereas the Christian tradition—and Augustine expresses this repeatedly in his narrative—understood certain sexual desires and acts as sins, which like all other sins must be bring into the light and dealt with, it in no way claimed to heal or cure the person in this life.  Rather, it recognized sin as an ongoing struggle of our earthly pilgrimage requiring a constant renunciation of self and dependent reliance on divine grace, as well as the help of likeminded others—others, who were also in need of grace.

In contrast, with the birth of the scientia sexualis and sexuality as a medical category and thus open to “normal” and “pathological” instantiations, an entire discourse and set of discursive practices likewise emerged, infiltrating society at large and promising definitive cures for its ailing patients. Thus, the history of sexuality quickly thrusts us into the history of discourses wherein sex becomes a discourse reverberating throughout the body politic, bidding us to engage in our own sex-talk. “As if it suspected sex of harboring a fundamental secret. […] As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.”[5] Sex was now the secret to human identity—if only we could get to reach this truth buried deep within, we could at last realize the Socratic imperative, “know thyself.” We demand, as Foucault explains, that sex “tell us our truth, […] that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness. We tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us.”[6] As this mutually shaping dialogue formed over time, it produced “a knowledge of the subject; […] of that which divided him, determines him perhaps, but above all causes him to be ignorant of himself.”[7] This ignorance about our sexual desires and sexual “identity” requires the help of medical and psychological experts, those who have helped to create the “scientific” categories into which they now place us. As we trace the transmutations of Christian confessional technologies through modernity, we become increasingly aware of the reduction of human beings to (essentially) sexual beings.

[T]he project of a science of the subject has gravitated, in ever narrowing circles, around the question of sex. Causality in the subject, the unconscious of the subject, the truth of the subject in the other who knows, the knowledge he holds unbeknown to him, all this found an opportunity to deploy itself in the discourse of sex. Not, however, by reason of some natural property inherent in sex itself, but by virtue of the tactics of power immanent in this discourse.[8]

Moreover, as these newly reconfigured secular practices migrated into the broader social domain—the family, pedagogical relations, psychiatry, medicine, the legal system, prisons, and so forth—a complex machinery was established. This newly opened field of truth had little place for religious or theological answers for our human condition; modern discourses of truth must be spoken using a scientific grammar, as this, rather than God’s “sweet truth” [dulcis veritas],[9] was the language, the new melody that had become pleasing to the ear. As human history attests, because our lives are all too often interspersed with suffering, injustices, and disappointments, myriad opportunities exist for the “new priests,” the specialized experts, to proclaim their gospel of health and happiness, wholeness and self-fulfillment now rather than in some other-worldly “heaven.” Thus, Schuld notes the irony of how these discourses have gained power, not through external compulsion or violent force, but through our own socially conditioned desires and beliefs that we can achieve—whether through a finely-tuned exercise regime, a nutritionally balanced diet, regular medical examinations, and the list goes on—a more stable, secure, defect-free existence.[10] “In an attempt to flee [our] fragility, however, [we] have made [ourselves] more vulnerable.”[11]

As we have seen, with the old categories of sin and salvation transmuted into the language of pathology and cure, the role of experts in our everyday lives becomes increasingly common and (seemingly) “natural.”


[1] Augutine’s Confessions, 1.13.20; 53 (Boulding trans.).

[2] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69–70.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 4.15.27; my translation.

[10] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[11] Ibid.


Part I: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

In my first post of this series, I focus on Augustine. Then in my subsequent posts, I bring in Foucault as a dialogue partner. In chapter eight of the Confessions, Augustine tells us that he had come to a place where he was both convinced of Christianity’s truth yet released from a previous need for certainty of a mathematical sort. That is, his desire was no longer to attain a “greater certainty” about God “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him.[1] Embracing at this point in his life what Schuld calls an “ethic of humility,” Augustine accepts his creaturely limitations, which in this life include not only finitude but fallibility. Thus, even with the ever-present open-endedness and amenability to change of his faith-discourse—or to use Bakhtin’s language, his own internally persuasive word—Augustine, nonetheless, has found an abode in God whose self-giving love surpassing human reason transforms the silence of Augustine’s soul into prayerful wonder.

Augustine’s ethic of humility flows out of his having embraced what, according to Augustine, the Platonists could not—the incarnate, crucified “humble Jesus.” Commenting upon his own pride, which, given his appraisal of what was lacking in the Platonists’ writings,[2] is likewise a fitting description of their condition, he writes, “[n]ot yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach.”[3] Augustine adds that Jesus receives those who, having been brought low, turn to Him.

He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even further away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up.[4]

Repeatedly we see Augustine the narrator’s emphasis on the dependent, heteronomous self—the self as antihero whose weakness paradoxically becomes strength when it passes through the cross.

Here I want to bring to fore, by way of Schuld’s work, how Foucault “can be constructively used to broaden Augustine’s analysis of the desires for an illusory human perfection.”[5] Foucault, like Augustine, is acutely aware of human finitude and regularly confronts his readers with the reality of our frailty, the contingency and historical specificity of our personal and social identities and founding myths, and the vanity of our attempts to build a utopian society. Although Foucault’s embrace of human finitude shares certain similarities with Augustine’s, there are, of course, significant differences, namely, Augustine’s position is radically theocentric, whereas Foucault’s is not. Even so, both thinkers are aware of the many ways our social milieu shapes us and how difficult, though not impossible, it is to resist these social forces. Perhaps in a future post, I shall discuss in more detail Augustine’s socio-political critique of Roman narratives. For the time being, I want to briefly comment upon some of the ways in which both thinkers analyze and critically engage cultural norms and how these norms feed into socio-political narratives, institutional structures, and the body politic at large.

As Schuld observes, in the Confessions Augustine recounts his own process of socio-political “naturalization” in which various accepted norms of what it meant to be a successful adult conditioned him.  For example, Augustine characterizes his education as a mis-education given the lack of concern on behalf of his teachers and parents for his moral development. For instance, Augustine criticizes his father, Patricius, for failing to guide him in matters of sexual intimacy and for having a misguided, instrumentalized view of education as a mere means on the way to the real end, namely, a prestigious political career.[6] Neither Patricius, nor his teachers viewed education as an ongoing conversion of the soul to the good; rather, Augustine’s education was geared toward making him “successful” as defined by cultural norms of Roman society. He was to obey his schoolmasters in order to “get on in this world and excel in the skills of the tongue” so that he might become wealthy and attain a position of “high repute.”[7] To learn to speak elegantly, irrespective of the content, became one of the chief goals of his instruction. For the rhetorician, style was everything; in fact without it, one could not ascend the Roman social ladder.[8]

Along with his parents, teachers, and the “success” narrative circulating in the Roman culture of his day, Augustine speaks against certain ecclesial practices that had become social norms. For example, Augustine laments the fact that his baptism was postponed until later in life. As he explain, his baptism was “deferred on the pretext that if I lived I would inevitably soil myself again, for it was held that the guilt of sinful defilement incurred after the laver of baptism was graver and more perilous.”[9] Reflecting on this as a mature Christian, Augustine the narrator believes that it would have been to his benefit to have been baptized, as he was his wish at the time, when he was a young boy.[10] Augustine reasons that just as we do not put off medical treatment when one is ill, how much more should we not delay spiritual healing for the soul. “How much better it would have been if I had been healed at once, and if everything had been done by my own efforts and those of my family to ensure that the good health my soul had received should be kept safe.”[11] Although Augustine adds the caveat that God’s providence was at work in these and other wrong turns, nevertheless, he is aware and readily acknowledges that the trajectory of his life was shaped and molded by familial, social, and institutional practices and decisions made on his behalf which were outside of his control. “Woe, woe to you, you flood of human custom! Who can keep his footing against you? Will you never run dry? How long will you toss the children of Eve into a vast, terrifying sea, which even those afloat on the saving wood can scarcely cross?”[12]


[1] Ibid.,; 184. For a more detailed and decidedly theological discussion of this topic, see Nielsen, St. Augustine on Text and Reality.

[2] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions, 7.9,13–14; 169–70.

[3] Ibid., 7.18.24; 178.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 124.

[6] Monica, Augustine’s mother, receives some criticism; however, he is generally speaking less severe with her because of the positive role her faith played in his life.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, 1.9.14; 48.

[8] See, for example, Confessions 1.18.28; 57–8.  Here Augustine’s criticizes the textual content used for his Latin instruction, which he claimed incited his sexual desires. (This is not unlike Foucault’s critique of the confessional manuals and confessional technologies used by priests which actually worked to incite their sexual longings). The content, however, was not the focus of his teachers’ evaluation; rather, he was praised for proper diction and elegant delivery. For a detailed analyses of the genealogy of confession, see Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the ‘Confessing Animal’.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 1.11.17; 51.

[10] In his childhood, Augustine had fallen ill and nearly died.  As a result, he asked to be baptized; however, because he recovered more rapidly than had been expected, his mother decided to postpone his baptism given the commonly held practice to defer baptism as long as possible so that one might “sow one’s wild oats” and not commit a “graver” offense (ibid.).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 1.16.25; 55–6.

* The image used in the post is by Craig Smallish and is entitled, “Patient & Therapist.” More details of his work can be found at


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

Foucault is interested in how “technologies” of confession shape one’s personal and communal identity.  He understands, for example, the emergence of monastic practices of self-examination as “power technologies that enabled persons to navigate themselves and others” through common perils (136).  These “self-examining and [self-]renunciating practices” are likewise structured by various “relational rules” (137).  Though such practices were a significant part of the Christian Middle Ages (and of course are still operative today), Foucault is interested in the ways that the modern State alters, incorporates, and puts them to use for secular purposes.  Augustine, like Foucault, recognized that the Christian Schuld on Augustine and Foucaultpractice of confession whether spoken or written was “never simply an act of expression; it was an act of making or constructing”; it was an act of remaking the individual (137). As the self turns inward, it discovers various hidden places and “encircling shadows,” and this leads the self to an understanding that it will not be abandoned, but retrieved by the Good Shepherd.  “The biblical images of the good shepherd establish the basic social expectations in early Christian monastic culture and shape…a complex field of social power within which persons search for self-knowledge, truth and perfection” (139).  The confessor-confessee relationship does involve an assymetrical dynamic; that is, each partner has a definite role and must play by certain “rules.”  As Schuld explains, “[s]tructuring the social relations of this narrative…are…on one side, a selfless kindness whose only concern is the welfare of those who need tending…On the other side, being looked after in such a way calls for and exemplifies a social response that is grateful, humble and obedient.  Ever-present care can only be assured by renouncing the self in ‘a kind of everyday death’ and thereby becoming utterly trusting of and reliant on the devoted other” (139).  For Foucault, this asymmetrical dynamic, lays the ground rules for “a strange game” whose success can only be achieved by a “detachment with respect to oneself and the establishing of a relationship with oneself which tends toward a destruction of the form of the self” (140).  However, as he warms to the idea of “monastic technologies,” Foucault comes to see it more as a “chastity-oriented asceticism” in which renunciation works on the self as a whole (140).  This new perspective comes via Cassian’s insight that vices and virtues have an inherent interconnection (140).  “To reform one, they must be reformed together.  Purity, therefore, is always a labor involving the whole, even though it works on particulars as it strives for a harmonious self-identity.  Yet, the individual cannot reach the truth on his own and thus must labor “by way of submission to the wise mediation of another” (140).

Given that power relations can be both positive and negative, formative and de-forming, Foucault highlights some possible dangers in confessional technologies.   It’s not that relation is asymmetrical that makes it problematic—for Foucault, asymmetry is not a social evil in and of itself (141).  Nonetheless, he takes issue with such relationships on two fronts:  (1) “it inhibits a fluid and reversible flow of power among participants”; (2) “It increases the opportunities to manipulate and exploit others without their being sufficiently aware or sufficiently empowered to resist” (141).  Moreover, Foucault’s suspicions and concerns regarding asymmetrical power relations grow as such relations take on new forms and are instantiated in modern institutions (for example, hospitals, schools, prisons etc.)  As Schuld observes,

[b]y examining fractures and shifts that surface as ancient monastic practices of confession become institutionalized for medieval and Tridentine purposes, we begin to see the lay of geography that modernity builds itself on and adapts to its own secular ends. […] Foucault … signals that something important has occurred, changing how these cultures comprehend and respond to the dangers of the desiring person  (141).

Next, Schuld traces two conceptions of the self that lead up to our situation of a “scientized self.” Both involve practices of the self and of sex.  In the early monastic attitude, the focus was not on a list of forbidden or permitted actions.  Rather, in Cassian’s ethic of chastity, changes were made to a “moving whole, not to isolated fragments” (143).  In contrast, the later medieval and early modern developments, created a rigid systematic codification in which “compilations of rules, acts, and satisfactions could be classified in unambiguous categories of kind and degree, making it easier for persons to sort, identify, evaluate, and effectively make reparations for explicitly detailed transgressions” (142).  Thus, uncertainties and apprehensions could be controlled with exactitude.  With regard to the second more rigid and codified approach, Foucault highlights a two-fold danger:  (1) Rather than desexualize the self, the intense concentration on specific details would have actually sexualized one’s religious identity (144). (2) “In analytically breaking down the subject into fragments and privileging sexual vices and virtues over other formative desires, there is a dual danger of neglecting valuable aspects of the self while marginalizing and hounding others” (144).

Part of Foucault’s project involves a genealogical retrieval of the changes occuring in specific cultural practices from one epoch to another. The modern era, according to Foucault, has been formed significantly by incorporating their own secular version of Christian confessional techniques.  In other words, our present story is built on many older ones.  In important ways our drama is similar to the ancient ascetics; however, we have translated former religious practices into a scientized realm replete with its experts as to what is best for our de-souled bodies.

[W]e exercise powerful practices on our desiring selves and submit ourselves to the wise counsel of others as we pursue promises of truth and perfection. Even in the most secular corners of the world, the story of the good shepherd still generally governs our expectations…we [still] set our hopes on living under some protective knowledge that is shielded from error (145).

Our modern drama, however, is different from the former drama in that we refuse “to acknowledge that we in fact live storied lives” (145).  We desire a security that drama with its contingencies cannot provide.  “For Foucault this change in sentiment is the principal reason that our particular story has proven so compelling. It is a story that promises to alleviate such fears and clean out all dangerous spaces, and it claims to have the power to do precisely that because it is no longer a story” (146-7). 

Lastly, our search for the purity of truth and the safety of certitude becomes validated scientifically (147).  The modern version of confession employs a variety of techniques that claim to yield an “unclouded knowledge of ourselves and others through the rarified and neutral viewpoint of science” (147). However, the presuppositions of the modern drama, despite its efforts to “withdraw itself from the messiness of the drama…traditions and rituals…manifests elements of them all” (for example, Foucault’s description of the “carefully staged” regimens of a hospital, 147).  Though the modern drama has different costumes, props and stages, it “still has privileged players and spaces and ritualized patterns of interaction with coded contents” (147).  Its claim to objectivity, precision and cool disinterest … “bolsters our confidence that finally we have managed to leave behind fallibility, contingency, uncertainty and disorder” (147). 

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

Modern Transformations of Sin and Salvation

Both Foucault and Augustine understand that the “search for knowledge, truth, and ultimate fulfillment orients all of one’s relations” (131).  Likewise, both thinkers discern “that the truths we pursue and the perfection and happiness we anticipate” involve costs (131).  As Schuld observes, Foucault pens his work in a largely anthropocentric, rather than theocentric cultural context.  Consequently, “his questioning about the personal and communal costs of our peculiarly modern appetites for knowledge, truth, emancipation, and perfection refers to how these have come to be grounded exclusively in the human subject” (132).  Over the course of his studies, Foucault concludes that the basic desire to know who we are, the risks involved and how to best attain fulfillment, still have the same all-encompassing focus as was the case in antiquity.  “What has changed is where we look for that essential truth and how we bring others into our search” (132).  The new turn is to seek answers from those who offer themselves as “experts”—psychiatrists, physicians, scientists of various sorts.Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

Part of Schuld’s project is an attempt to analyze “from Foucault’s perspective the cultural transformations involved in modern aspirations for a “redeeming” self-knowledge and truth” (132).  The following three theological and sociohistorical themes provide a basic structure for her analysis of Foucault’s account:  (1) interpretations of “confession” in shaping personal and communal identity; (2)  interpretations of “infirmity” in sanctioning cultural responses to human differences, deviations, and imperfections; and (3)  interpretations of “healing” as a process of convalescence or transfiguring cure requiring critical intervention by specialists (133).  Foucault claims that in various ways, all of the above “have been appropriated from early Christian practices and tailored for secular purposes so that the social desires attending each have shifted significantly from a paradigm of sin and salvation to one of ‘pseudo-scientific’ pathology and well-being” (133).

Before discussing the first theme (i.e., interpretations of “confession”), Schuld acknowledges that Foucault’s work as a historian has been criticized, and his investigation of early Christian culture is both limited and unbalanced. Nonetheless, Schuld’s interests lie in “[Foucault’s] broader strokes that give shape to a central modern transformation that has great import for theology” (135). As to his views of Christian practices, Schuld opts to focus on his later writings, which are more sympathetic in his examination of monastic texts, particularly the works of John Cassian.

Foucault uncovers the “bare cultural beams” upon which the new social superstructure will be built and used for new purposes as the culture shifts from its privileging of truth in theology and philosophy to science (136).  This superstructure appears to Foucault to be grounded in what were understood as four religious dangers:  (1) “the endlessly desiring person who cannot control his intentions, thoughts, whims, fantasies, and dreams;” (2) “the hidden and ingenious nature of concupiscence that can only be seized and eradicated through painstaking coercion;” (3) “the ease with which evil can be made to appear good so that one can never know the real root of desire or trust even the most fleeting and innocuous-seeming images and sensations;” (4) “the inability of individuals to decipher adequately the spiritual temptations and struggles taking place within them so that for salvation they have to seek the aid of a human intermediary” (136).

The subsequent posts will be devoted to Schuld’s three theological and sociohistorical themes that structure her investigation.  Thus, part V will focus Foucault’s interpretations of “confession.”

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).