Foucault on Christian Technologies of the Self: Toward the Non-Identity of Christianity Subjectivity

In several of his late essays and interviews Foucault describes two discourses employed by early Christian communities to disclose or reveal the self: exomologēsis and exagoreusis.[1] First, in exomologesis (“recognition of fact”), a believer recognizes his or her condition as both a Christian and a sinner. In the latter expression—recognition as a sinner— exomologesis becomes increasingly connected with one’s status in the Church as a penitent which involved various obligations, abstinences, self-punishment, and public ceremonial gestures such as prostration and wearing ashes as a sign of mourning one’s spiritual condition.[2] Exomologesis was not, however, primarily a verbal activity;Many Selvesrather, it was a dramatic showing of one’s sinful being. As a willing act of public humility—an inversion of Adam and Eve’s hidden, autonomous and prideful acts—penance has a purifying function, restoring one’s condition bestowed at baptism. Exomologesis was not, as Foucault stresses several times, characterized by verbal confession of one’s inner secrets or desires. Rather, “[t]he greater part of the act of penitence was not in telling the truth of sin but in showing the true sinful being of the sinner; it was not a way for the sinner to explain his sins but a way to present himself as a sinner.”[3] It was, as James Bernauer puts it, “Christianity’s ontological confession.”[4]

Paradoxically, the act of exomologesis via a dramatic showing of one’s sins both did away with particular sins yet revealed the person as sinner. Christians theologians of the first centuries, as Foucault explains, made sense of this paradox by appealing to three models:  the medical model where one must show his or her wounds to be healed, the “tribunal model of judgment” where “one always appeases one’s judge by confessing faults,” and lastly and most importantly, the “model of death, of torture, or of martyrdom.”[5] The martyr who would rather endure excruciating torture culminating in death than compromise his or her faith is the paradigm informing the penitent rituals.

For the relapsed to be reintegrated into the Church, he must expose himself voluntarily to ritual martyrdom. Penance is the affect of change, of rupture with the self, past, and world. It is a way to show that you are able to renounce life and self, to show that you can face and accept death. Penitence of sin does not have as its target the establishing of an identity but, instead, serves to mark the refusal of the self, the breaking away from self; ego non sum, ego. This formula is at the heart of publicatio sui. It represents a break with one’s past identity. These ostentatious gestures have the function of showing the truth of the state of being of the sinner. Self-revelation is at the same time self-destruction.[6]

Thus, the symbolic expressions, the exposé of oneself as sinner, as one who is not what or who he is reveals a fragmented temporally dispersed self whose present has been deeply affected by the past (original sin and one’s own choices and actions) and whose future is at least potentially hopeful if he continues to live under the rubric of daily dying to the self, or as St. Paul puts it, he continually presents himself to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1).

Although Foucault himself does not develop the following theme, a Christian reflecting on Foucault’s analyses and bringing them back into conversation with the tradition, could highlight that Christian identity or subjectivity cannot be found in the self alone. This is the case not only as a result of the present sinful, disintegrated human condition, but because the Christian narrative proclaims humans to be image bearers of God. To be an image of something or someone suggests a something or someone at minimum in addition to or more strongly distinct from the image, which in this case is the self. Moreover, the word “image” connotes some sort of genuine similitude between the two entities in view. Bringing these ideas together, we may say relational, dependent heteronomy, rather than atomistic, self-sufficient autonomy constitutes Christian identity. With the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus Christ, humanity is given a dramatic presentation, an exposé of what it is to be imago Dei perfectly, for in Him image and likeness coincide. Moreover, the Christian’s identity is no longer characterized as Adamic or in Adam but as Christotelic or in Christo. Although not at present fully what they will be, Christians have a positive telos for which to aim. Through divine assistance, obedience, spiritual disciplines both private and communal (sacraments), and a continual renunciation not of self per se, as Foucault at times suggests, but of self-sufficiency and God-annulling autonomy, the Christian puts to death the Adamic-Evean old self (and selves) as symbolized in baptism and strives to live evermore fully his or her in Christ identity. Given our present dislocated disintegrated condition and our finitude—a finitude which is not eradicated in the final state—conformity to the image of Christ is an ongoing, unending process. Bernauer sums up this idea nicely—“[a]ll 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,”[7] in the affirmation I am not myself/selves solely; I am myself/selves when I live in conformity with Christ, the “image [εἰκὼν] of the invisible God”[8] who has interpreted (ἐξηγήσατο) God to us.[9]


[1] After the first instance of exomologēsis in its transliterated form, Foucault’s translator does not italicize the word and simply employs the form, “exomologesis.” I have mirrored this practice in my text.

[2] Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” 243.

[3] Ibid., 244.

[4] Bernauer, “Confessions of the Soul,” 564.

[5] Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,”244–45.

[6] Ibid., 245.

[7] Bernauer, “Confessions of the Soul,” 561.

[8] See, 1 Cor 1:15.

[9] See, John 1:18.