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

The final theme of chapter four is Schuld’s analysis of a Foucauldian interpretation of modern “healing” as a “transfiguring cure requiring critical intervention by specialists” (154). On Foucault’s account, “the potential danger of these dynamics of normalization—those that feed off our fears of pathology as well as those that entice us with visions of self-affirming health—is that the seeming naturalness of this ‘matrix of individualization’ is warranted by a host of expensively trained and licensed experts” (154).  Because we now turn for our every need 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 unbalanced.  As Schuld explains, “many of the normalizing power relations operating within our … culture are asymmetrical and nonreciprocal.  These ‘canonical bits of knowledge’ are the privileged possession of an elite few … as such, they are beyond the grasp of those for and on whom they are applied.  Although self-knowledge supposedly resides within persons who are confessing, it nevertheless lies beyond their grasp. Thus, those who are pursuing the truth do not control this relationship” (154). The psychiatrist-patient relationship is a perfect example of an asymmetrical power relation.Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

Next, Schuld turns to biotechnologies and the science of genetics, which she believes function as a hermeneutical key of sorts in our culture.  To unpack her claim, she contrasts the new biogenetics paradigm with an Augustinian paradigm.  In the latter view, one is engaged generation after generation in an on-going struggle with sin and evil, whereas in the biogenetic (or biopower) framework, a utopian theme of final victory over our maladies surfaces.  That is, we begin to believe that “by manipulating our malleable bodies down to their tiniest micro-dynamics of power,” we can at last “be liberated from imperfection and fallibility, and along with this, the myth of the good shepherd that has governed our relations in various ways for so long” (155-156).  Though Schuld sees the confidence of the new paradigm as illusory, she points out that “such hopes create social realities” and argues that “hand in hand with this desire to be free of imperfections and guidance is the desire to be free of the obligations, burdens, and risks of caring for others and allow ourselves to be cared for.  Trying to insulate ourselves from the exposure of being influenced by others does not, … necessarily increase our safety; it inevitably opens us to new and potentially more pernicious (because less examined) vulnerabilities” (156).

As we have become accustomed to and completely comfortable with the new paradigm, we have transferred our faith to a new god, placed our hope in a telos-less progress, and we continue to search feverishly for something, anything that might resemble love.  We have replaced the old narratives with new ones and a new magisterium guards with dogmatic zeal its sacred scientific discourses, shielding them from critique with shouts of “objectivity.”

By placing so much hope…in an illusionary promise that we can liberate ourselves from relational fragility, ambiguity, and finitude, we have culturally invested, through the fervency of our faith, scientific discourses with hallowed power and given them sanctuary from historical and political critiques.  Ironically, we have made ourselves more rather than less susceptible to the uncertainties we sought to escape…By giving ourselves over uncritically to an invasive power of our own making, we have intimately exposed ourselves not only to socially exploitable technologies of personal formation and control but also to devastating disappointments when we realize it is not liberating and redemptive (157).

Schuld ends by saying that on her reading, “Augustine would agree with Foucault that such efforts are fueled by arrogance, a deluded sense of self-importance, and a refusal to acknowledge the limitations of finitude” (157).

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)

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 II: Selections from Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love

According to St. Augustine, the cross disturbs all shallow optimisms—whether that of the wise (i.e. St. Augustine of Hippophilosophers) or of the hoi polloi—and challenges us with the reality of suffering and affliction that so characterizes life in this world.  Thus, the cross is a constant reminder that this world is out of joint, dislocated, and we too are disfigured, permeated with this dislocation.  When confronted with the reality of the cross, our futile attempts to construct a world of unassailable happiness are laid bare, uncovered, and exposed as delusional.    As Schuld explains,

on Augustine’s view, coming face-to-face with the harshness, the stark corporeality of the crucifixion is imperative for grasping the relational significance of Christ as mediator.  As Christ is pierced with the implacable realities of finitude, the faithful have pressed upon them their own limits as creatures…Christ must reach to the faithful in their weakness; they cannot reach him (120).

The way in which the en-fleshed, crucified-as-a-slave Christ gives himself for the turned-in-on-themselves fallen ones wreaks havoc on the classical mind.  Why?  Because God-become-Man enters fully into the messiness of life, knowing full well that his destiny involves suffering, loss, betrayal and separation from His most intimate (Trinitarian) love.  “He does not minister to and transform the lowliness of suffering from the heights of heaven; he fully descends into it.  He participates in humanity’s lowliness by becoming lowly himself” (122).  We do not ascend to God, he (con)descends to us, clothed in our frailty, stooping and lisping that we might hear, touch and feel something of his divine reality.

Unlike earthly glory, association with Christ’s glory involves entering into Christ’s humility and accepting the “shame of the cross.”  Paradoxically, the person who embraces the “shame of the cross” is transformed—ever so slowly, often imperceptibly, and always peppered with periods of repeated regressivity—and begins to sense the significance of an other-focused existence.  Unlike the knowledge of the philosophers, the resulting cross-produced self-knowledge is tempered with humility.  “The wisdom and virtues that are re-formed in light of the cross are…from the standpoint a successful world, tragic virtues:  they are shaped and moved by the painful awareness of human frailties, shortfalls, dependencies, and finitude” (121).  The cross yields wisdom, but it is a wisdom birthed through sorrow and brokenness—a non-solipsistic wisdom that awakens a desire within the transformed person to act compassionately toward others.

Embracing the “shame of the cross” moves one from the “hollowness of naïve optimism to the hope of sacrificial love” (122). As Schuld explains, the life of sacrificial love is motivated by two beliefs: (1) “God loves without reserve,” and (2) his “boundless love is founded on sheer mercy rather than human merit” (122).  When these two beliefs grip the heart, they protect the believer from the twin threats of self-deceptive arrogance and the downward spiral of hopelessness.  Our need for others once again comes to the fore—to be is to be in relation to an Other and others. “The solidarity of the community, Augustine reminds his followers, depends on individual and collective remembrances of these relational insights and on their reenactment in the concrete deeds of mercy.  The constant interweaving of sacrifice and compassion knits the entire community together” (122). The solidarity created through sacrificial love among the believing community does not override the solidarity of all human beings in Adam; the latter, though fallen, still retain their status as bearers of the divine image.

Next, Schuld discusses the role of confession in the believing community.  Augustine’s own confessions and reflections can be seen as a form of “sacrifice” that is “meant to nourish … bonds of social solidarity” (123).   When confession is understood in a “self-emptying” way, it fulfills two functions for the community:  First, it keeps one thankful and mindful of his/her need for God’s mercy and sustaining power, thus encouraging a mindset that protects one from both despair and arrogance. Second, “[a]s a public activity, it disturbs the pride of others” (123).  Confession marks Augustine as an anti-(Greek) hero.  Augustine’s own (ongoing) confessions reveal his continued moral, spiritual, and cognitive struggles not simply prior to but also following his radical embrace of Christ as narrated in book VIII of the Confessions.  Augustine’s honesty and open confession of his own failings help to remind the community of their finitude and relational dependence.  In this way, Augustine’s life of non-glorification serves as an anti-heroic model, which “punctures the pretensions of his fellow Christians” (124).

Rather than repeat common (post)modern (mis)interpretations of Augustine and Foucault—interpretations that tend to flatten Augustine through caricature and reduce Foucault to a spokesperson for a social determinism—Schuld takes seriously Augustine’s ethic of humility, believing that this will enable one to better understand Foucault’s critical value (124). Schuld is not advocating an uncritical acceptance of either figure; however, she believes that we must evaluate the personal successes and failures of each thinker, as well as the socio-cultural trends and thought patterns that shaped them by engaging and analyzing their own critical reflections (124).

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

In Foucault and Augustine:  Reconsidering Power and Love, Joyce Schuld brings together two seemingly unlikely dialogue partners: St. Augustine and Michel Foucault.  In chapter four, “Fragile Relations and the Price of Perfection:  The Lust for Certitude,” Schuld examines how human pride influences cultural patterns. Augustine and Foucault analyze our obsessive quest for certitude in knowledge and morals, as well as the socio-political dangers that accompany our (de-humanized) attempts to secure an unobtainable, unrealizable, utopian existence.  Surprisingly, although they operate within radically different historico-religious and cultural epestemai and begin from more or less opposed starting points, both thinkers believe that our social and individual maladies in some way correspond to our failure to acknowledge human fragility and finitude.St. Augustine of Hippo

Schuld begins with Augustine, who denies the so-called Socratic claim that genuine self-knowledge precludes moral failure.  That is, if one truly knows what one ought to do and knows that some action is wrong, s/he will do what is right and avoid what is wrong.  Ignorance is the cause of wrong-doing; thus, we must do everything we can to eradicate ignorance so that we will act in accord with our knowledge.  Augustine agrees that self-knowledge is important and should be pursued; however, its possession in and of itself does not remove moral fallibility.  Attempts to secure personal certitude, which for Augustine are manifestations of pride, should be abandoned. Instead we must embrace the “constraining limits of finitude” (112) and acknowledge our need for others.  Contra Kant, acceptance of our heteronomous, rather than autonomous existence, will deliver us from our self-incurred immaturity.

Anyone with a basic acquaintance with Augustine’s work is familiar with his analyses of pride.  Schuld takes up the topic of pride and emphasizes its interpersonal character.  That is, pride “can be exercised only in relation to others” (112); it involves a “relational act of turning away” (113) in which, paradoxically, the desire for autonomy results in the loss of certitude and control.  For Augustine, our “pride problem” began in the Garden when the first pair, dissatisfied with their status as image-bears, attempted to be what they were supposed to reflect.  Rather than freedom, the quest for autonomy and the rejection of finitude resulted in alienation (from God and one another), dis-integration (within their own persons) and oppression (both internally and externally).  Human (postlapsarian) existence is now transposed into a dissonant key.  Sometimes the dissonance is barely audible, faintly perceived; yet, it is never silenced completely.

Next, Schuld cites examples from Augustine which reveal the ways various groups interpret relations between power, wisdom and truth.  The Stoics, for example, so desired “certitude and self-perfection” that they were willing to relinquish their affections, the chief of which was of course love (114).   The Stoics’ obsession to obtain complete intellectual control over their affections and passions results in significant social and relational failures:  lack of compassion for others, a life characterized by non-involvement, a failure to recognize how “power relations unjustly harm the less socially secure” (116), naïve optimism, and an inability to understand that virtue must “engage vices within the constrictions and entanglements of finitude” (116).  According to Schuld, because the Stoics were “unable to grasp this basic reality about embodied existence,” they “deny their own creaturely limits and ‘fabricate for themselves an utterly delusive happiness’[City of God, 19.4] that can never be achieved ‘for all our wishing’ [City of God, 19.4]” (116).

In contrast to the Stoics and Manichees who promote human optimism by denigrating certain dimensions of the self (emotional or corporeal), the Romans rely “on the created capacities of the entire person to attain excellence in the pursuit of glory” (116).  Here Augustine’s primary concern is that the Roman vision of glory competes with the glory of God and thus causes confusion as to one’s ultimate allegiance. Likewise, whatever honor one might achieve in the Roman system is transient and can devolve into an unhealthy desire for praise, as well as a passion for domination. In short, for Augustine, the Romans sought an earthly glory that fosters self-reliance and self-sufficiency; consequently, it is false glory that is incompatible with the Heavenly City.

Lastly, we have the Platonist who represent the closest approximation to Augustine’s Christian position.  Augustine admires the Platonists for their “appreciation for relationality and dependence and their corresponding recognition that human creatures are utterly indebted in both being and action to a transcendent glory not of their own making” (119).  However, in spite of seeming commonalities, Augustine highlights the discontinuities between the two positions, of which the chief stumbling block is the Platonists’ pride.  Had they had the opportunity, the pride embedded in their philosophical system would not allow them to embrace the “shame of the cross.” Because Augustine knows that for classical thinkers the shame of the cross overturns cultural traditions about wisdom, truth and virtue, his aim is to show how such unseemly paradoxes actually bestow dignity, power, and even transforming wisdom. He attempts to do this by highlighting the contrast between mere human optimism and genuine God-given hope (120).