Discourse, Documents, and Counter-Discipline: Michel Foucault's Ethics and the Practice of Writing

Strand Sheldahl-Thomason, Purdue University


Michel Foucault spent the last years of his life in an investigation of ancient ethical practices. The practices can be summarized in one phrase: the care of the self. Although this investigation grows out of Foucault's interest in biopolitics and sexuality, and is ostensibly a continuation of his History of Sexuality project, it nonetheless reconfigures that project and adds to it the dimension of subjectivity. It therefore presents a challenge to Foucault scholarship. Broadly speaking, critics have taken Foucault's ethical turn to signify either a retreat from politics or a historical investigation of how ancient people internalized social possibilities. I argue that Foucault's ethics ought to be understood as ethical and not merely historical. That is, in writing about ancient ethics, Foucault hoped to suggest ways in which we might live in modernity. Yet I argue that his ethics do not amount to a solipsistic retreat from the social. Rather, the care of the self, or how the subject relates to itself, is intimately bound up with the workings of power and discourse. Subjective transformation brings about discursive and institutional transformation as well. To make my case, I focus on the practice of writing. Foucault made the practice of writing, its effects and possibilities, a theme throughout his career. Writing is obviously discursive insofar as it forms and transforms statements. In the form of documentation, writing is also an important technology of power. Where the care of the self is concerned, writing plays an important role in opening the self to knowledge of itself and in working toward ethical goals with others. I argue that something like ancient self-writing is possible in modernity, and that it would effectively turn a technology of power against itself. For this reason, self-writing is counter-disciplinary. Taking the self as it emerges from discourse and power, self-writing works toward new social possibilities.




Smith, Purdue University.

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