Ethics as an Ascetic Experience - Power, Language and the Ambiguity of the Visible in Michel Foucault

Essay, 2011

18 Pages


Abhilash G Nath

P hD Synopsis

Ethics as an Ascetic Experience: Power, Language and the Ambiguity of the Visible in Michel Foucault


Scope and Objectives: the directions often and repeatedly taken in most of the works that have been undertaken on Foucault are to place him within the general continental philosophy; to examine the theoretical and methodological breaks and continuities within his work and between his work and other major figures in the discipline; to examine the nature of his work, that is, to say whether he can be placed part on the thesis, the accepted “classics” of Continental Thought, or with the postmodern, post-structural antithesis; to examine the outcome of his work or what impacts his work has had on Western culture. The present study rather asks a very simple and straightforward question and, that is, how did the way Foucault use historical archaeology allowed him, as an analyst, to change himself from within? Or how Foucault’s usage of language constantly changed himself from within? Or what is there in language, if it comes from outside, that transforms the reader from within?


Literature Review: it is, actually, a monotonous job, to structure everything that is already said, in few pages, about a major figure in one discipline, precisely of the reason, that his name itself is multiplying, both in time and space, with the multiplication of studies and statements made on or referring to him. The following section, therefore, reviews a few relevant literatures to explain very generally what has been going on within the field of studies on Foucault, to distinguish the present study’s reproblematization. Since the present study intents to examine Foucault’s theories of freedom and subjectivity at the level of his methodology of analyzing language, that is, the historical archeology or genealogy, it starts with a review of few relevant works on Foucault’s methodology.

To start with: Major-Poetzl, for instance, in her work, Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Western Culture, has attacked Foucault’s archaeology by relating it to scientific method, often find in modern physics, where an abstract model imposes an order on an experience of disorder.[1] When we encounter Foucault in Dreyfus and Rabinow, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, we realize that giving order to an experienced disorder was never a concern for him. For them, Foucault is neither structuralist nor he belongs to hermeneutic tradition. One of the interesting theme that the book develops is, though it analyses Foucault’s writings chronologically to show how he refined his tools of analysis, over time, the authors reject a dialectical progression of his methods with time. They give the impression that the seeds of the future development of a genealogical approach is always-already there in Foucault’s earlier writings. In their own words, “[t]here is no pre – and post – archaeology or genealogy in Foucault.”[2]

The article, “On Visibility and Power,” tries to expose how the development of disciplinary techniques reverses the visibility of power. Gordon argues that the distinct modes of visibilities that constitutive power produced during different historical periods itself is the condition of possibility of power relations.[3] Tom Eyers in his article, “Rethinking the Dialectic: Hegel with Derrida, Lacan with Foucault, and the Question of Dialectical Ethics,” introduces a debate on the very ideas of “thesis” and “antithesis,” or “inside” and “outside.” Besides its theoretical and methodological claims, one can notice a reproblematization of the very idea of “power” that Foucault developed since the publication of Discipline and Punish – constitutive power as the very possibly of freedom.[4]

Read my Desire: Lacan against the Historicists opens an indirect evaluation of Foucault’s panoptic gaze, as it develops a criticism of film theory. Joan Copjec launches an ambitious criticism, as she argues that film theory misinterprets the Lacanian gaze with Foucault’s panoptic gaze. She argues that with ‘its structure of the look’ the panoptic gaze localizes the eye of the authority, leaving no space for resistance. On the other hand, Lacanian gaze precipitates anxiety, as it surprises and disturbs the viewer.[5] Copjec’s reading of panoptic gaze, ironically, rejects any possible space for resistance in Foucault’s thought. It seems that she has missed the point, when Foucault statements that the target of power, that is, the body itself is the site of resistance.

One of the interesting questions that develop in Deleuze’s work, Foucault, is: “if power is constitutive of truth, how can we conceive of a ‘power of truth’ which would no longer be the truth of power, a truth that would release transversal lines of resistance and not integral lines of power? Or how can we ‘cross the line’?”[6] Is the line a fixed limit? Or then ‘is there an inside that lies deeper than any internal world, just as the outside is farther away than any external world?’[7] Referring The Order of Things, Deleuze suggests that outside flooding into inside is a common theme in Foucault. He asks, ‘if thought comes from outside and remains attached to the outside, how come the outside does not flood into the inside, as the element that thought does not and cannot think of? In other words, the point he is trying to make is that the truth that we never realized through words is there at the very heart of our enunciation? This is implicit when Lacan says that what we always miss is not the truth, but words to express it. The point Deleuze establishes here is: the unthought lies at the very heart of thought, and not exterior to it.[8]

Doubling up, an idea that Foucault identified and developed in one of the earlier works, Raymond Roussel becomes a permanent theme through out his writings. Deleuze argues that double is not a project of interior, rather an interiorisation of the outside. It is not a doubling of the same; and not even the reproduction of the same, but a redoubling of the Other. He writes, and I quote, “it is not the emanation of an ‘I’ but something that places in immanence an always other or a Non-self. It is never the other who is a double in the doubling process, it is a self that lives me as the double of the other: I do not encounter myself on the outside, I find the other in me.”[9] The idea of self transformation through the care of the self, a process of redoubling of the Other, is the object of study in Foucault: The Art of Ethics.[10]


The Present Study and its Direction of Problematization: by visibility or discursive formation, what Foucault means is not a mere product of power, since he has argued that every epoch produced its own visibility. Rather it also means to him the very condition of possibility of power itself. It means to him not just the tool of normalization of bodies but also the condition of the possibility of freedom and subjectification. Here by visibility or discursive formation, “what one is concerned with is the fact of language (langage)”[11] itself, that is, the established system of law and order, “the system of power relations” in a Foucaultian sense or “the symbolic order” in Lacan. The question that the present study asks is: does historical archeology open a condition of possibility of practicing freedom in language analysis? Or does the mode of existence of language, system of law and order, itself offer the possibility of practicing freedom in its analysis? Or what is the mode of existence of language in historical archeology that allows us to play with it? Or what mode of existence of an analyst can constitute in oneself an immanent ethics? It would be quite interesting to begin with what Lacan’s teaching can suggest on the matter of vision. He says that “there is not…a single one of the double sides of that the function of vision presents, that is not manifested to us as a labyrinth. As we begin to distinguish its various fields, we always perceive more and more the extent to which they intersect.”[12]

The statement is neither visible nor hidden[13]

Ontological Status of Statement in Foucault’s Historical Archaeology: a statement, like the one I have just sited from Foucault and also quoted by Deleuze, only shows what is in fact said, and for that reason, Deleuze insists that “even the blanks or gaps it contains must not be confused with hidden meanings [signification] since they indicate only the statement’s presence in the space of dispersion that constitutes the ‘family.’”[14] In a similar formulation of Lacanian gaze, Zizek has argued that “the real secret [of the gaze] is that there is no secret.” With “neither-visible-nor-hidden,” both Foucault and Deleuze direct our attention to the panopticon structure inherent in every statement – the hollowness inherent to every statement as a singular entity in Foucaultian schema. Foucault states that statement perhaps “is like the over-familiar that constantly eludes [my italic] one; those familiar transparencies, which, although they conceal nothing in their density, are nevertheless not entirely clear.”[15]


[1] Pamela Major-Poetzl, Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Western Culture, (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983)

[2] Hubert L Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982), p. no: 104

[3] Neve Gordon, “On Visibility and Power: An Arenditian Corrective of Foucault,” Human Studies, Vol. 25: No. 2, 2002, p no: 125 – 145

[4] Tom Eyers, “Rethinking the Dialectic: Hegel with Derrida, Lacan with Foucault, and the Question of Dialectical Ethics, Studies in social and Political Thought, p no: 3 - 21

[5] Joan Copjec, Read my Desire: Lacan against the Historicists, (Harvard: MIT Press, 1994)

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), pp no: 94 - 95

[7] Ibid, p no: 96

[8] Ibid, p no: 97

[9] Ibid, p no: 98

[10] Timothy O’leary, Foucault: The Art of Ethics, (London: Continuum, 2002).

[11] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse of Language, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), p no: 109

[12] Jacques Lacan, “The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze,” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis: The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, (New York: W. W Norton & Company, 1998), p no - 93

[13] Michel Foucault, op cit., p no: 109

[14] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, op cit., p no: 16

[15] Michel Foucault, op cit., p no: 111

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Ethics as an Ascetic Experience - Power, Language and the Ambiguity of the Visible in Michel Foucault
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Foucault on Ethics and Aesthetics
ethics, ascetic, experience, power, language, ambiguity, visible, michel, foucault
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Abhilash G Nath (Author), 2011, Ethics as an Ascetic Experience - Power, Language and the Ambiguity of the Visible in Michel Foucault, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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