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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


OLIVIER, Bert. Foucault and the question concerning enlightenment. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.3, pp.314-330. ISSN 2224-7912.

The work of the French thinker, Michel Foucault, is an inexhaustible source of insight regarding the way in which one enters into a relationship with history - something that is not self-evident, but requires careful consideration of the contingent factors which have contributed to the present state of affairs. Such a consideration also opens the way for a critique of current social practices, which may otherwise seem self-justifying and necessary. With this in mind, the present article addresses the theme of "enlightenment" in the work of Foucault, with a view to articulating what such "enlightenment" would amount to in contemporary society. One soon learns from Foucault's own writings on enlightenment that there is a fundamental difference between "enlightenment" in the Kantian sense of the 18th-century "present" - that is, ofhumanity coming of age in what became known as the historical Enlightenment, on the one hand, and "enlightenment" in the sense of a philosophy of the (contemporary) present, which would do justice to both the (Kantian) universal as well as what is contingent and particular, on the other. More specifically, Foucault contends that Kant's emphasis on the universal should be amplified by Baudelaire's characterization of the modern in terms of a tension between being and becoming (or the universal and the particular), in this way finding the "eternal" (or enduringly valuable) in the fleeting, historically contingent moment. For Baudelaire, this would amount to a kind of self-invention. For Foucault, such self-invention would enable one to turn Kant's critique into one that is pertinent for the present time, namely to ask what there is, in what we have been led to accept as being necessary and universal, which we no longer are, or want to be, thus practising a kind of transgressive enlightenment. The question, what specific contingent practices ofthe present would have to be transgressed, and how this could be done, may be answered by first turning to Foucault's genealogies, Discipline and punish and The history of sexuality (Vol. 1), which afford one a scrutiny of contemporary practices that reduce human beings to disciplined, docile bodies, on the one hand, and exercise control through "bio-power" over individuals and populations, on the other. In the former book, Foucault distinguishes three chief disciplinary mechanisms, all of which contribute to shaping individuals into economically productive, but politically impotent, entities. These are "hierarchical observation", "normalizing judgment" and the "examination" (in which the first two are combined). Together, they are said to comprise the mainstay of a "panoptical" society which takes its name from Bentham's 19th-century idea of an optimal-surveillance prison, or "Panopticon ", which Foucault demonstrates to have become pervasive in contemporary society through the micro-operation of the mechanisms referred to. In short: today's societies are pervasively carceral, where the body is no longer the prison of the soul or mind, but vice versa. In the first volume of The history of sexuality Foucault argues that the bio-power characteristically wielded by modern states over populations is founded on the twin principles of what he calls the "anatomo-politics of the human body" and the "bio-politics of the population", where the latter denotes the control of the "social body" (or corpus) in its entirety, on the one hand, and of the "species-body", according to which the many biological functions of the human body are scrutinized, on the other. These include the circumstances which determine the differences regarding reproduction, births and deaths, health levels, longevity and life-expectancy. The "anatomo-politics of the body", in its turn, concerns disciplinary power over the body-as-machine, which entails the optimalization of somatic potential for purposes of utility, correlative to the docility which guarantees economic efficacy. Clearly, bio-power and discipline converge here. Turning to the manner in which these contemporary practices may be transgressed in the name of an enlightenment for the present, one of the clearest indications by Foucault is encountered in the The care of the self, the third volume in his history of sexuality, where, focussing on the ethical practices on the part ofindividuals during the Hellenistic era ofancient Rome, he articulates the requirements for what was known as epimeleia heautou, or the care of the self. Far from resembling contemporary narcissism as embodied in Reiki or reflexology for the idle rich, the "care of the self"among the Romans entailed, as Foucault shows through his interpretive analysis of relevant texts, a decidedly difficult set ofpractices aimed at gaining mastery over one's soul, whatever the circumstances which may threaten to overwhelm one. The ultimate goal appears to have been ethical autonomy, although it should be added that such autonomy - which nevertheless contrasts sharply with the heteronomy of contemporary subjects of discipline and bio-power - is never "complete", but at best "relative" autonomy, considering every individual's insertedness in social and linguistic structures that antedate and surpass him- or herself. In this work, it is argued here, Foucault has provided one with a worthy example of what enlightenment would entail in terms of autonomy. But importantly this would require that, as the Hellenistic Romans did, one would have to "problematize " existing disciplinary mechanismsfirst. The paper also draws from Hardt and Negri's reflections on what they call the revolutionary "minor Kant", and from the work of Jacques Ranciére as an instance of taking Foucault's work on enlightenment further, in the direction of a resuscitation of what "democracy" implies, specifically in terms of a radical notion of "equality" and "dissensus", both ofwhich periodically disrupt the hierarchically structured domain ofwhat Ranciére calls (punning on the ancient Greek concept of "polis") the "police". In the final analysis the paper is an attempt to foreground the radical potential of Foucault's work for an enlightened practice of autonomy.

Palabras clave : autonomy; Baudelaire; bio-power; care of the self; discipline; enlightenment; Foucault; Kant; panopticism; problematization.

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