What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Do you know, Foucault?

Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”

Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who  refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.

There are thus two moves to the Enlightenment mentioned in the piece. On the one hand, the critical historicization of the self discussed early on, via Kant. On the other, the adoption of this aesthetic attitude towards oneself, which is the chief concern of the piece’s latter paragraphs. Curiously, however, it seems that Foucault feels this aesthetic attitude is not itself necessarily good or bad. On the one hand, it is sort of implied that he agrees with Baudelaire. That is, and “[h]ere I shall not recall in detail,” that the whole regime constituted by such an attitude forces its inhabitants to live in a fairly intolerable manner. The man of modernity is always “hurrying,” “searching,” “solitary,” “ceaselessly journeying.” To wit, it is an existentially harassed state of existence (conscious echoes of Heidegger?). On the other, however, there is a clear sense that, however harassing it might be, it is better to be repeating this artful attitude towards the self then to be encumbered with the dreadful and sanctimonious spirit of humanism! (Where the nature of the man who must be free is always somehow a given).

In this sense, Foucault wishes that we should eschew the “blackmail” of being for or against the enlightenment. Instead, he would have us return to some extent to Kant himself, and to the idea of critique. In Kant’s 1784 ‘Was ist Aufklärung?,’ a small essay published in the Berlinische Monatschrift, he sets out a sense of the time he believes he is living in. He appraises this time in a hermeneutic fashion, and in so doing spies the potential for something radically new. A political maturation of some sort, a becoming self-led or self-managed, is underway. There is no guarantee that it will emerge, but as the individual capacity for reason is developing, there is no reason not to let it have a greater voice in the public realm. Kant’s concern in relation to this transition is to nurture it, but also to establish sense of its necessary limits. Self-leadership is not appropriate, for example, in contexts where one’s views might better be kept to oneself, as in the case of a soldier in the military or someone who has to pay their taxes. For this reason, Kant argues that the most stable concrete configuration for furthering the cause of political maturity is that of “rational despotism.” 

Such a position is hardly viable to the contemporary mind. Foucault cannot dismiss the piece on this basis, however. To the contrary, Kant has hitched freedom to a certain critical self-awareness or self-reflection about where the self should and should not be able to use reason, and for this reason Foucault takes the piece as figurative of a kind of emerging awareness of the need for individual responsibility, and responsibilizationAnd while in Kant’s hands the specific content of that responsibility is prescribed, for Foucault it is the form which is interesting, suggesting something essential about the political terrain upon which we live today. For at the centre of the contract Kant is proposing is precisely this ever-reflexive subject. Modernity is essentially an ethos, a way of life, predicated on an understanding that the essential condition of its own possibility is its unique way of relating to reality. That is, in Foucault’s terms, modernity is made possible only by the “ontology of ourselves.”

Now, we might find this a bit of a surprise. Many of us, conservatives and liberals alike, are used to thinking of modernity as a complete and utter catastrophe. Nevertheless, says Foucault, we should pay attention. For what can it mean to live like this? The modern life, as we have said, is one predicated on the relentless critique of the self. Kant suggested that the proper place of such critique was the public sphere. But what if no such limit were posited? What if, in fact, we embraced a mode of critical thinking that was not hitched to any sort of universalized rationality? What if we embraced one that was, instead, fully “genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method.” One that would see the ‘necessary’ limits of reason as merely “historical events”? For Foucault, we find in this mode “the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think.” That is, the possibility of taking the energy of that harassed and restlessly entrepreneurial subject, and turning it towards the “undefined work of freedom.”

Is this a simple proposition? Foucault issues a strict warning:

“this means that the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions.”

At first glimpse, this appears to strike a rather reactionary tone. Like Edmund Burke perhaps, Foucault is advocating a gradualist approach, of “partial transformations.” But it is not clear that Foucault himself believes this to be a conservative position. As the above quote makes clear, we avoid the pursuit of radical revolution not so much to prevent or delay radical change per se but, rather, in the hope that such change might come about in a manner that does not also produce the intensified power relations and constraints on freedom that we find traditionally accompanying revolutionary programs.

For Foucault then, the only real path forward is the aesthetic one, a “work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.” He well understands that there is a question of the sort of “practical system” that might produce this. But he sidesteps this question, reaffirming once again that the only viable method is one of relentless engagement with the historic “modes of problematization” that yield who we are: the relations between people and things; people and other people; and people and their own selves.

The question then is how to work towards freedom, within the space of the Enlightenment, but without a totalizing ethos of transformation? But what might such work look like? Is Foucault advising us, for example, not to pursue grand transformative strategy at all? Or is it not more plausible he thinks that the slow, gradualist approach might have some sort of positive net cumulative effect? I think the latter far more plausible. And, reading this piece again, one wonders the extent to which this argument about critique has shaped the agenda of movements like Occupy Wall Street (OWS). David Graeber, one of the key intellectuals behind OWS, has argued that horizontal movements are only possible in societies that are already to some extent liberal. The affinity with Foucault’s argument is, for me, quite strong here. For in the commitment of such movements to prefigurative politics and piecemeal cultural change, they exhibit precisely the sort of experimental attitude that Foucault is endorsing.

So, in the piece we see Foucault offering neither an endorsement nor an outright criticism of modernity. In this sense, the piece gives us perhaps a valuable insight into his work, and his tendency to take ambiguous stances (in his discussion of neoliberalism, for example). Perhaps the point is simply to say, and here echoing Marx’s famous comment on capitalism, that while the modern ethos is far from ideal, its the best we have developed yet. For, at the very least, it affords us this margin of freedom where we can start to countenance this question of ontology, and our intimate relationship to power. And in this I feel Foucault would not be opposed to the kind of thinking that seems to have inspired the movements. If we look at key ‘Occupy’-relevant thinkers like Graeber, or Hardt and Negri, their advice to the movements all seems to rotate around this idea of a slow, patient program of self-transformation, of a certain withdrawal, or exodus, and of becoming the change we want to see. Indeed, here I am drawn to Gene Holland’s recently-coined term, the ‘slow-motion general strike.’  Precisely!

Each of these approaches is inspired by the idea that we can step back from the world, create our own time, and engage in a form of personal and collective transformation that will hopefully spillover into the lifeworld, and create the possibility of that other world we all hope is still somehow possible. That the stakes are high is quite clear. Alarmingly, however, the gap of freedom is narrowing. Foucault’s hope for critique holds good only so long as we can identify some semblance of the intellectual space enlightened order affords. But what good can such hopeful thinking do in the context of a general erosion of that space? In a time when we see a general encroachment of the state on civil liberties, and an expansion of corporate power in its project of debt enslavement? These, I think, are critical questions.