Excavating Foucauldian Identity

Scott Roulier*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 1, 1997. © National Humanities Institute]

One of the putative benefits of Foucault's genealogical critique is that it bestows a lightness of being on the self of the present. The restrictive chains of lapsed paradigms and ossified identities are burst. How does genealogy achieve this Houdini-like escape from an inherited past? What kind of self appears with the collapse of historical memory and the advent of countermemory?

Any consideration of Foucault's genealogical histories and his advocacy of what I call a "genealogical identity" immediately confronts a glaring paradox: Foucault's own delighted embrace of an inheritance. In an early essay—"Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History"—Foucault addresses his indebtedness to his teutonic forerunner. The essay, a pensée on Nietzsche's own historical meditations, details the "appropriate" use of history—the "liberation of man by presenting him with other origins than those in which he prefers to see himself" (the "how" of the escape). This genealogical emancipation, in turn, "permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis . . ." 1 (the "form" of subjectivity that emerges).

In the following pages I want to challenge Foucault's genealogical identity, this "empty synthesis." With only a hint of rancor, I will be applying a genealogical critique to Foucault's genealogical self. In other words, an attempt will be made to accent what lies beneath the "anti-mnemonic" surface of his projects. In addition, this article will examine the jarring discontinuities and, equally important, the undeclared (and damaging) continuities that exist between Foucault's vision and more "traditional" genealogical forms.

The Genealogical Method and its Progeny

As its appellation suggests, the genealogical method2 involves the relentless tracking-down of the ancestral heritage of influential ideas and social practices. However, Foucault claims his enquiry radically diverges from traditional uses of historical analysis.3 Following Nietzsche's lead, he repudiates as chimerical the historical quest for meaning. There is no secret to be recovered from mankind's resplendent dawn, no fundamental pattern to be traced that would encompass all human events and chart the trajectory and final end of human history.

Concerning the historical search for "origins," genealogists object to the presuppositions that underlie it, namely, that certain essences or "immobile forms"—primordial truths which antedate accident and chance—can be apprehended (NGH, 78). Such Ur-occurrences as the Golden Age, spoken of by the philosophers, or the Garden of Eden, the space of intimate fellowship between humans and their creator depicted in the book of Genesis, provide images of perfection—intimations of the spiritual purposes that humans were designed to fulfill, standards of virtue and rational achievement by which human progress can be measured. Instead of disclosing an "original identity," however, Foucault says the genealogist discovers "something altogether different" (NGH, 78). For example, Reason, as Nietzsche pugnaciously suggests, was borne of the "passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition" (NGH, 78). What one finds at the historical inception of things, Foucault concludes, is not an inviolable identity but "the dissension of other things . . . disparity" (NGH, 79).

Foucault, as mentioned, ardently dismisses a teleological view of history as well. Over against the progressive, "evolutionary" paradigms of the Enlightenment and dialectical materialism, he sets the genealogist's "single drama"—the endless play of dominations. In other words, Foucault shares Nietzsche's suspicion of Hegelian forms of history—histories "whose function is to compose the finally reduced diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself" (NGH, 86). Rationalistic and theological histories which evoke an "end of time" rankle genealogists because they dissolve the singularity of events in a larger metanarrative. By contrast, "effective" history—one possessed of a genealogical sensitivity—is faithful to the uniqueness, peculiarity, and scandalous contingency of historical happenings.4

In its confrontation with history as telos and origin, the faint outlines of genealogical history have emerged. To fill out this picture, I want to consider the Foucauldian-Nietzschean analogy between the genealogist and physician. Unlike the metaphysician, the genealogist does not plunge and probe the annals of history to find a soul, a teleological or aboriginal meaning. Rather, more akin to the medical doctor, the genealogist examines a historical body—a "concrete body of a development with its moments of intensity, its lapses, its extended periods of feverish agitation, its fainting spells" (NGH, 80). Genealogical diagnostics, then, reveal an episodic history characterized by jolts, ruptures, and fissures—the appropriate object of historical study.

In his own genealogical investigations, Foucault chronicles the changes that occur within various discourses, the ways in which shifts in "knowledge" (and by association, power) constantly re-order and re-organize beliefs, practices, and desires. Consider, for example, the intriguing results from his analysis of discourses relating to punishment—one of the better known of his main triad of studies.5

Foucault commences Discipline and Punish by relaying gruesome eyewitness accounts of the drawing and quartering of the regicide, Damiens. With this beginning, Foucault scores an emotional coup d'état, for most readers, repulsed by the graphic details of the torture, are already patting themselves on the back, counting their blessings that such spectacles have receded into the penumbra of a more enlightened, humane age. This response—a steady progression from revulsion to self-congratulation—is exactly what Foucault intends to elicit. For in order to deflate the presumption of our own civility, to expose the machinations of disciplinary techniques, Foucault must demonstrate how unreflectively we inhabit the reigning episteme.

Consonant with the method and strategy he pursues in his other works, Foucault sets out to explore the changes in the way we punish.6 Foucault argues that, since the late eighteenth century, our disciplinary practices—both our social goals and the actual objects upon which force is brought to bear—have been transformed. Increasingly, what the law lays hold of is not the body but the "juridical subject." Consequently, the rack, pillory, and thumbscrew—mere instruments of bodily torture—are replaced. In their stead, various therapeutic techniques are applied which discipline "in depth"—in the "heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations." 7 How does one gain entry to this interior realm? Insidiously, via the subject herself. Through panoptic technologies,8 argues Foucault, individuals are conditioned to internalize discipline, to police themselves.

The social aim of punishment is no longer retribution or mere deterrence but to reform or "normalize": "to supervise the individual, to neutralize his dangerous state of mind, to alter his criminal tendencies, and to continue even when this change has been achieved" (DP, 18). And it is the claim of "continuance" that marks the most original and discomfiting aspect of Foucault's penal history. For disciplinary technologies, he argues, spread to other institutions—hospitals, factories, and schools—until they became nearly ubiquitous. Foucault observes that these disciplinary mechanisms are co-opted by the most productive sectors of societies: "factory production, the transmission of knowledge, the diffusion of aptitudes and skills, the war-machine" (DP, 211). Thus he uncovers a disciplinary operation in which bodies and minds are harnessed—made healthy and productive—for the modern economy.

When Foucault's observations in Discipline and Punish are combined with his studies on madness and sexuality, an odd harmonic convergence appears. It seems Foucault has substituted his own teleology for the Enlightenment version—a process of ever-increasing normalization for the inevitability of human progress. This point aside, Foucault has undoubtedly made an important contribution to our understanding of the social operations of power. Even if many of the specifics of his interpretations can be challenged, his conclusions are imaginative and have opened up new avenues for social research.

I take a very different view when it comes to the "genealogical identity" which accompanies his genealogical investigations. The self he advocates is much less hospitable to appropriation than his insights regarding power and practice.9 Foucault observes, for example, that historians often prostituted themselves by peddling idealized identities—e.g., Roman prototypes for the French Revolutionaries, knights in shining armor for the German Romantics—for the "confused and anonymous European, who no longer knows himself or what name he should adopt" (NGH, 93). The "new historians" (genealogists), aware that our personas are mere markers for a spiritual void, perfidiously enter the fray,

push[ing] the masquerade to its limit and prepar[ing] the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing. No longer the identification of our faint individuality with the solid identities of the past, but our 'unrealization' through excessive choice of identities—Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Caesar, Jesus, Dionysus, and possibly Zarathustra (NGH, 94).

History, tradition—these are common sources for selfhood, discourses which have helped people find fixed coordinates in a shifting world. But genealogical history, as we have seen, contests narratives of continuity; it dredges up a multitude of incommensurable human forms and models, begetting a self with no prospects for synthesis, only a piercing consciousness of the discontinuities which cross it (NGH, 93-95).

So far I have highlighted the correspondence between Foucault's genealogical method and his genealogical self. Earlier, I stressed that many of the results of Foucault's critical interpretations of various social practices could be appreciated by a diverse range of thinkers. With this in mind, I believe it is reasonable to positively assess the value of Foucault's social histories and still reject or be highly suspicious of his genealogical identity. In what follows, I attempt to articulate these reservations.

Of Monads and Morbidity

One way of registering my concern about Foucault's preferred notion of selfhood is to underline, once more, the conceptual inversion that has occurred within his genealogical identity. Traditionally, genealogies were used as location devices. Genealogies excavated human "roots"—ethnic relations, kinship ties. In large measure, what was being sought by way of genealogical inquiry was a sense of belonging, community, solidarity. By contrast, Foucault's inquiries seek to dislodge subjects, enabling them to strike out on their own. On its face, I do not object to the pursuit of critical distance; I do, however, oppose the posture of "transgression" that it often assumes in Foucault.

To underscore this anti-communal sentiment, it is necessary to do some excavation of my own. In a Kantian sequel—"What is Enlightenment?"—Foucault describes the relationship of his thinking to the Enlightenment. A key component of Foucault's analysis is his disentangling of the Enlightenment and "humanism"—two distinct concepts Foucault believes are often mistakenly conflated. The "humanistic thematic," Foucault points out, has recurred throughout Western history and is "in itself too supple, too diverse, too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection."10 It may be fairly said that what the disparate forms of humanism do have in common is a search for an accurate account of "humanity." Such an enterprise has always been "obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion, science, or politics" (WIE, 44). Foucault, of course, repudiates the notion that there is a human nature to be "discovered."

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, is a "historical event." And what Foucault salvages from the Enlightenment is an attitude, "a philosophical ethos . . . [which entails] a permanent critique of our historical era" (WIE, 42). In Foucault's appropriation of this attitude, however, the shape of critique is metamorphosed. Whereas Kant's First Critique attempted to delineate the limits of theoretical reason, the question today, Foucault proposes, "has to be turned back into a positive one":

[I]n what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point, in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression (WIE, 45).

In other words, Enlightenment critique becomes genealogical investigation, which in due course engenders a new identity—"the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think" (WIE, 46). This "historical ontology" will not spawn novel "global" projects; instead, it will be experimental, a work conducted at the boundaries of the self, upon the self (WIE, 46-47).

Yet, one must interject, the relationship between Foucault's Enlightenment project (self-experimentation, the substitution of one way of being, doing, or thinking for another) and certain political vestiges of the older Enlightenment vision (the liberal state, its attendant notions of equality and natural rights) is acutely strained. Consider for a moment that Foucault's championing of a "permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy" seems to presuppose a liberal model of government and society—a model that establishes explicit zones of privacy (which allow for self-experimentation) and public control. On this reading, Foucault could presumably endorse Rorty's liberal utopia. Grounded in nothing more than a serendipitous (contingent) confluence of events and vocabularies, Rorty's ideal polity would permit "its citizens to be as privatistic, 'irrationalist,' and aestheticist as they please so long as they do it on their own time—causing no harm to others and using no resources needed by those less advantaged." 11 But surely this Foucault-Rorty partnership—a "Foucauldian liberalism"—is difficult to maintain. 

Foucault, for instance, has often painted a much less sanguine portrait of the freedom afforded by liberal societies. He suggests that the egalitarian juridical framework which accompanied the bourgeoisie's rise to power in the eighteenth century simultaneously laid the foundation for the development and distribution of disciplinary mechanisms: "[A]lthough the universal juridicism of modern society seems to fix limits on the exercise of power, its universally widespread panopticism enables it to operate, on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law" (DP, 223). Alarmingly, Foucault claims, the "limited" liberal state has magnified and multiplied forms of micro-power; and the discourse of public-private conceals the colonization of the private domain.12

Given the antinomy of Foucault's "historical ontology" and the liberal state, one must ask whether there is an alternative, a more auspicious socio-political milieu for self-creation. Foucault drops a few hints. In one of his interviews ("Truth and Power") Foucault submits that the monarchies which rose out of the feudal chaos of private quarrels cast themselves as "referees" capable of putting an end to the terrorizing duo of pillage and plunder. In short, the monarchs became sovereigns. Subsequent theories of right, he avers, simply "extended" sovereignty: "political theory has never ceased to be obsessed with the person of the sovereign." 13 What is needed, Foucault proclaims, "is a political philosophy that isn't erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the king's head. . . ." 14 The question is whether decapitating the sovereign would also entail pruning back the "Hobbesian hedges" (the matrix of civil rights and protections) the sovereign erected.

Such an antinomian posture, considered in light of Foucault's politics of transgression, would be paradoxical: If law and sovereignty recede, what would be left to "transgress"? Then again, there may be no riddle at all. Surely social conventions (not dependent on the existence of a network of statutes) are of great concern. This gratuitous reading nevertheless cuts close to the anti-social bone. No doubt this new regime (for Foucault appears to believe there is no escape from "regimes of truth") would have its own alliance of power/knowledge. More than likely, however, it would be sanitized of the liberal (J. S. Millian) discourse of "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" acts—i.e., purged of timorous, bourgeois hand-wringing over "harm." We should, Foucault once urged, "make of man a negative experience, lived in the form of hate and aggression." 15

Foucauldian politics, I propose, incline toward Zarathustra; there are sonorous echoes of Nietzsche in Foucault's advocacy of a "limit attitude"—both in its incitement to overcome the "given" limits of the self and in its contestation of social and moral boundaries. "Society," Nietzsche remarked, "must not exist for society's sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being. . . ." 16 A Kantian morality of ends and its concomitant egalitarian republicanism is supplanted by a new table of values; self-creation and experimentation tend to overshadow liberal concerns about human rights and dignity. What is great in man, declares Zarathustra, "is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under." 17

In an attempt over the last several pages to fill out Foucault's genealogical identity—its limit-attitude, its exploration of the possible transgression of the boundaries of the self (and community)—I have brought us to the feet of Zarathustra. What can be gleaned from this connection? One way to frame an answer would be to suggest that Foucault's opposition to "humanism" may be more than "philosophical"; that is, beyond an innocuous critique of Cartesianism lies a kind of subtle misanthropy.18 Hence the shift from a traditional genealogical identity (one focused on family, race, kinship) to Foucault's is jarring. In Foucault, the horizon of human solidarity evasively retreats.19

It is true that Foucault, at the end of his career, spoke often and quite eloquently about "friendship"—arguably one of the most meaningful forms of solidarity. But this too, I contend, must be viewed in a Nietzschean context, as part and parcel of the Zarathustrian "pathos of distance":

I teach you not the neighbor, but the friend. The friend should be the festival of the earth to you and an anticipation of the overman. . . . I teach you the friend in whom the world stands completed, a bowl of goodness—the creating friend who always has a completed world to give away. . . . My brothers, love of neighbor I do not recommend to you: I recommend to you love of the farthest.20

In the case of Foucault's own life, one could say that his companion Daniel Defert and some others were "friends"; but for "neighbors" the true genealogist has little use.

The plot, however, thickens. For the irony of Foucault's own appropriation of genealogy runs much deeper (and "colder") than a rejection of human solidarity. As is well known, Foucault was fascinated by death. "Teach people," he proclaimed, "that there is not a piece of conduct more beautiful or, consequently, more worthy of careful thought than suicide. One should work on one's suicide throughout one's life."21 The discrepancy between Foucault's endorsement of suicidal preparations and the forging of a genealogical identity is poignant; there is something incongruous about linking a celebration of death with genos.22 Simply referring to a tension between etymology and usage, of course, is not a forceful argument against Foucault. Nonetheless, I believe there is more here than meets the eye: there is a profound "logic of demise" that informs his genealogical identity.

To explore this claim, I turn to his observations on the "Right of Death and Power over Life" in his history of sexuality. As described earlier, in his studies on madness, punishment, and sexuality Foucault uncovered an insidious process of normalization and control that ramifies throughout modern institutions and social practices. Of special concern for Foucault is "bio-power"—the mechanisms of power that generate life forces, make them grow, and order them for social use (HOS, 136). Whereas the early modern sovereign had the power of "deduction," to "take life or to let live," the modern state establishes its dominion over life's unfolding (HOS, 138).

But according to Foucault, at precisely this juncture—the manifestation of the state's gargantuan power over life—the "power of death" is revealed. For "death is power's limit, the moment that escapes it" (HOS, 138). Foucault notes that it is no accident that suicide, in the course of the nineteenth century, became

one of the first conducts to enter into the sphere of sociological analysis; it testified to the individual and private right to die, at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life. This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent . . . was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life (HOS, 139).

Taking one's own life, as Foucault sees it, is empowering—an act of defiance, a glorious gesture of resistance. Foucault seems to propose that there is a measured proportionality between the "power" of death and the "power" of bio-power; as the latter increases, so does the former.

I want to claim, however, that apart from the limit mortality imposes on power, there may be, in addition, a logic of death intrinsic to genealogy as Foucault interprets it. Foucault, again following Nietzsche's lead, mocks the notion that "things are most precious" at the moment of birth. "We tend to think," he remarks, "that this is the moment of their greatest perfection, when they emerged dazzling from the hands of a creator or in the shadowless light of a first morning" (NGH, 79). Similarly, notions of providence or a final cause are a sham—Condorcet's "Sketch," Marx's "Manifesto," and the book of "Revelation" must be discarded. And what is the case of the species is reenacted in the life of the individual. One's birth, one's ancestry, is of no consequence; there are no embedded ends to be realized—no zoon politikon, no beatific visions.

The horizons of past and future rapidly and violently contract upon a perishable present. On such a Foucauldian stage, where naissance and (all forms of) immortality have faded to black, the spotlight casts its brilliant and excruciating light on the only "end" remaining.

Beyond Either/Or: The 'Revaluation' of Traditional Genealogy

There are, then, at least two characteristics of Foucault's genealogical identity that hoist a red flag—the rejection of human "connectedness" and a glorification of death. As a way of foregrounding these tendencies, I have tried to indicate how Foucault's notion of genealogy drastically veers from more conventional understandings. But there are still reasons to resist putting aside the Foucauldian model. For example, there is the Foucauldian worry about the restrictions traditional uses of genealogy impose on the self—the burden of an inherited script. This is a legitimate concern. I am convinced, however, that there are alternative ways of addressing the problem.

Having analyzed the classical period and its subsequent unfolding in books ranging from The Order of Things to volume I of The History of Sexuality, Foucault, at the end of his career, turned his sights on antiquity. In The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (volumes II and III of his history of sexuality), Foucault examines the way we constitute ourselves as moral agents by employing various "technologies" of self-creation.23 In order to show how the value of traditional genealogical thinking is severely underestimated in Foucault's philosophy, I will take his cue, step back into antiquity, and consider, as he did, the Greeks and early Christians. Specifically, I want to look at two examples of genealogy, one from the genre of Greek tragedy and one from the genre of gospel.

As we have seen, the Foucauldian "purpose" of history, directed by genealogy, is not "to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation" (NGH, 95). Foucault reminds us that Nietzsche objected to "antiquarian history" (more or less what I have referred to as "traditional" genealogy) because it tended to block creativity in the name of fidelity (NGH, 95). But is this not a false dichotomy, to force a person to choose between creativity and fidelity? It seems to me that such a dichotomization is a convenient exaggeration: one of Foucault's (and Nietzsche's) stock rhetorical strategies to cast aspersions on competing "perspectives." If one attends to concrete examples of genealogical thinking, this facile division cannot be sustained.

In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, for example, the poet relates the story of Agamemnon's homecoming, how the king, having razed the city of Troy in retribution for Paris's abduction of Helen, is warmly received by a net of ropes and robes, slaughtered by the "architect of vengeance" dwelling in his palace—his wife Clytaemnestra (and her accomplice, his cousin Aegisthus). What precipitated this act of revenge was Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the goddess Artemis. Artemis, grieved by the almost certain doom of the children of Troy, demands blood as "the price" for the Greeks' anticipated devastation.

For my purposes, what is relevant is the context Aeschylus provides for the audience, the genealogical backdrop against which Aeschylus implies we should comprehend Agamemnon's behavior. As Iphigeneia is hoisted over the altar, Agamemnon instructs his henchmen to "slip a strap in her gentle curving lips" lest her wailing "curse the house" (lines 235-236).24 Agamemnon's trepidation is deeply ironic, for the "House of Atreus," one of the most infamous in Greek mythology, is already cursed: a lineage that produces figures who tragically reenact the impiety of their forebears.

The genealogy starts with Tantalus who, in an egregious act of hubris, chops up his son Pelops and serves his dismembered body to the gods. For this hideous crime, Tantalus is bound in tartarus; Pelops, after a divine "reassembling," wins the hand of Hippodamia (by engineering the death of her father) and sires several children, including Thyestes and Atreus. Incensed when he discovers his wife's infidelity—a tryst with his own brother—Atreus invites Thyestes to a banquet at which the flesh of his three young sons is the main entree. In the next generation, as noted above, Agamemnon (son of Atreus) murders his own daughter, a gruesome emulation of earlier progeny mutilations. Aegisthus (son of Thyestes) then avenges his father by aiding Clytaemnestra in the assassination of his brother's son. The dead perpetually rise up to slay the living; the terror, as Aeschylus describes it, "raging back and back in the future."

Near the end of the play, the "seer" Cassandra (one of the few Trojan survivors and daughter of King Priam) displays her extrasensory powers by detailing the transgressions of the House of Atreus: "No . . . the house that hates god, an echoing womb of guilt, kinsmen torturing kinsmen, severed heads, slaughterhouse of heroes, soil streaming blood" (lines 1088-1091). A fundamental question raised by the play is whether Necessity thoroughly determines the actions of the characters or whether the "echoing womb of guilt" can be eluded. Aeschylus's own answer is shot through with ambiguity; each life, he seems to suggest, is composed of varying amounts of both ingredients—freedom and necessity. As Aeschylus recounts the immolation, Agamemnon "slipped his neck in the strap of Fate . . ." (line 218). Commenting on this passage, Peter Euben argues that while Agamemnon is "predisposed" to evil because of hereditary pollution, he is not "predestined": "The choice may be harder for him than for others; in some sense it may even be an impossible one. Yet he does the deed and cannot escape responsibility for it or for how he lives with its aftermath." 25

To remove Aeschylus's genealogical context in favor of Foucauldian-memory-dissolution would no doubt impoverish the story and the identity of one of its main protagonists, Agamemnon. Like Agamemnon we are all ensconced in histories, laden with peculiar inheritances.26 Our character is formed in a process of coming to terms with a richly textured past; even if we reject large elements of that past, we are—as the Greek tragedians consistently remind us—no less indelibly marked by it. In its one-sided aim to "counter" memory, to break with the past, Foucault's genealogical identity is reductionist.

It is also crucial to observe that Aeschylus incorporates Foucauldian concerns into his trilogy. While poignantly acknowledging the interconnectedness of the characters—the miasma, responsibility, suffering they share—genealogical Fate and Necessity are contested. In the very framework of traditional genealogy, "Foucauldian questions" about the possibility of interrupting cycles (systems) of human violence, about "being and doing something other than one is," are confronted.

Another familiar example of ancient genealogy is found in the New Testament. The author of the gospel of Matthew, for instance, provides a genealogy of Jesus. Doubtless, this family history is designed to perform the function Foucault spurns—shoring-up, solidifying Jesus's messianic identity via genealogical grounding. But without needing to take a "Nietzschean hammer" to the text, a reader is struck by certain curious entries in the ancestral list. All the women—Tamar, Ruth, "the wife of Uriah" (Bathsheba), and Mary—are linked to (or had been accused of) sexual aberrance: rape (Tamar), seduction (Ruth), adultery (Bathsheba), and fornication/infidelity (Mary).27 The presence of these figures, as would have been clear to any first-century Jew, has serious implications for Jesus's identity.

In Luke's gospel, the writer relays a conversation between Jesus and some disciples of John the Baptist. Responding to the queries of John's followers—"Are you the expected One, or do we look for someone else?"—Jesus retorts: "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Luke 7:22). Jesus's response, in brief, is 'test my words and actions against our prophets.' Indeed one expectation (e.g., see Isaiah 61:1) was that the messiah would be a "liberator," would save his people from all sorts of physical, emotional, and spiritual oppression. And this portrait is definitely in evidence in the gospel of Matthew.

But the Matthewan genealogy also, with its entourage of "questionable" women, foreshadows another Jesus (also represented in the other three gospels)—the one who not only lends a helping hand to the sick but who is "a friend of publicans and sinners." This Jesus disconcerts and disturbs the religious establishment. What this and the previous example demonstrate is that traditional genealogies (and presumably other historical narratives) are not, even in their own "self-understandings," monolithic and transparent determinants of identity. They subvert and contest as much as they locate.28 But they do locate. Genealogical inquiry, with its sometimes painful probing, does not detract from but enriches identity, affirms that we really are historical (as opposed to fictional) beings. In these antique genealogies, the horizon of human entwinement does not retreat, but surrounds and helps to "center" identities of grand complexity.


Finally, I want to outline two other rebuttals to Foucault's genealogical identity. First, it betrays oppressed persons and groups who are striving, as Foucault would urge them, to mount "resistance." Even a cursory glance at the African-American experience bears this out. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell, former Harvard Law professor, soberly culls inspiration and a resolve for meaningfulness from his shackled ancestors:

I am reminded that our forebears—though betrayed into bondage—survived the slavery in which they were reduced to things, property, entitled neither to rights nor to respect as human beings. Somehow, as the legacy of our spirituals makes clear, our enslaved ancestors managed to retain their humanity as well as their faith that evil and suffering were not the extent of their destiny—or of the destiny of those who would follow them. Indeed, we owe our existence to their perseverance, their faith. In these perilous times, we must do no less than they did: fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face, and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.29

Like their captive progenitors, Bell argues, African-Americans today confront an inveterately racist society. He believes accepting this fact will enable people of color to cast off the "stifling rigidity of relying unthinkingly on the slogan 'we shall overcome,' " to critically evaluate traditional civil rights remedies, and to search for more viable strategies to ease the burdens of racism.30

Now I believe it would be a mistake to join Nietzsche and Foucault in jeering at this "traditional" use of genealogy for bolstering identity (NGH, 80-81). No one would deny that racial and ethnic genealogy have been used for the basest and most nefarious of political purposes. This "abuse" of history, however, should not be allowed to obscure the emancipatory content of traditional genealogical reflection—its strategic role in combating the "forgetfulness" enjoined by oppressors.

Undoubtedly there is a multiplicity of ways in which African-Americans have appropriated their history. Bell is just one example; many stand to his political left and right. In a sense, Bell provides what Foucault could extol as "countermemory"—a "subjugated knowledge" that emerges to compete with interpretations of American society that minimize the presence of racism. But the fact that a plethora of narratives and interpretations can be spun from the materials of history does not imply that history has no substance, that all attempts at plumbing the depths of our past to better understand our present yield nothing more than "fictions." This plays into the hands of those who claim the ovens at Auschwitz were built to bake bread.

A final question: Is personal development along Foucault's genealogical lines truly sustainable? Asked differently, is genealogical self-effacement not a form of self-deception? Foucault recessed his monumental book The Order of Things with the prediction that "man" would imminently disappear, "like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." But can this be said of the prophet himself? Was Foucault swallowed up in a Dionysian revelry of multiple selves? A few observations suggest otherwise.

Discussing his philosophical oeuvre with Paul Rabinow and Hubert Dreyfus, Foucault argues that there are three general domains of genealogy: a historical ontology of humans in their relations to truth (how they are constituted as subjects of knowledge), to power (how they create themselves by acting on each other in various fields of power), and to ethics (how they are constituted as moral agents).31 Although all three axes intersect, each, Foucault says, is highlighted in different works—the truth axis in Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things; the power axis in Discipline and Punish; and the ethical axis in The History of Sexuality.32

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think I detect an "author" within this corpus.33 That is, there appears to be a systematic unity to Foucault's investigations; an incisive, designing mind skulks behind and radiates through these historical studies. And, ultimately, this author even posits a telos—an "aesthetics of existence."34 Foucault believes that various moral codes, which once successfully subjugated (and by extension, "subjectified") individuals, have been so thoroughly discredited as to be in decline. What must fill the void, he argues, is a return to the normative approach of the ancient Hellenes who sought a personal ethics, who sought to make of themselves a work of art.35

Foucault's late "subjective turn" is well documented. One is compelled to ask, however, what happened to genealogical identity. In Foucault's own case, the absence of a "carnival of masks" speaks volumes. At the end of his life, in his own quest to shape himself into a thing of beauty, he accepted the (suffocating) title "philosopher."36 In other words, he created a self—in rather conventional genealogical fashion—from the materials of the past, by harvesting the riches of Cynic and Stoic philosophical traditions, by tying his own identity to forerunners such as Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, and of course Nietzsche. James Miller observes that, "when the philosopher confided on his deathbed in Herv‚ Guibert . . . just as when he delivered his last lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault, in effect, was conceding his own inability, when all was said and done, to escape from the duty to tell the truth—above all, the truth about who he was, and what he had become." 37

Foucault's own story does not, I readily admit, represent an absolute refutation of genealogical identity. Others may indeed succeed where Foucault "failed." But therein resides a problem—how to recount a "success." Could one give narrative form—at least something more than a chronological list of experiments—to the life of a "genuine" genealogist? Maybe one of Foucault's most important legacies is this lingering tension, the alterity between genealogical identity and "the need to tell the truth."


*Scott Roulier is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dowling College. Portions of this article were presented at the Conference for the International Study of European Ideas in Utrecht, The Netherlands, in August 1996. [Back]

1 Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History," in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 96 and 81. Hereafter cited as "NGH." [Back]

2 For cogent accounts of Foucault's genealogical method see Arnold I. Davidson, "Archaeology, Genealogy, Ethics," in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Couzens Hoy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 221-234; Jürgen Habermas, The Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987), 248-254. On the differences between Nietzschean and Foucauldian genealogy see Michael Mahon, Foucault's Nietzschean Genealogy: Truth, Power, and the Subject (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992). [Back]

3 As Foucault uses the term, "genealogy" is a type of historical inquiry. Genealogists are, in Foucault's mind, historians who have not been hoodwinked by metaphysics. What I refer to as "traditional" genealogy is a kind of historical inquiry that still presupposes that some sense (and thus some use) may be made of origins or teleologies. [Back]

4 Charles Taylor believes this view of history is as simplistic as the view it disavows: "The problem is that Foucault tidies it up too much, makes it into a series of hermetically sealed, monolithic truth-regimes, a picture which is as far from reality as the blandest Whig perspective of smoothly broadening freedom." Charles Taylor, "Foucault on Freedom and Truth," in Hoy, 98. [Back]

5 Madness and sexuality comprise the other main studies. In Madness and Civilization (1965), Foucault provides the larger social and historical context out of which the asylum and its unique set of practices and relations emerged. According to Foucault, a European-wide project of "confinement"—evidenced by the founding of the great hospitals and houses of confinement, by the massive coordination of public institutions of social order and welfare—was launched in the seventeenth century (43). Intriguingly, it was not just the insane but the poor and unemployed who were targeted and herded into "hospitals" and other public institutions. Besides being a preventative measure, reabsorbing a mass of economically dislocated and disgruntled people, the strategy of internment had a "curative" dimension as well: "It was no longer merely a question of confining those out of work, but of giving work to those who had been confined and thus making them contribute to the prosperity of all" (51).

Foucault claims that recognizing the ethical status assigned to these facilities is crucial, for it is here in the "space invented by a society which had derived an ethical transcendence from the law of work, that madness would appear and soon expand until [in the nineteenth century] it had annexed them" (57). The asylums of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Foucault argues, were designed to address precisely this moral dereliction. Stated more provocatively, beneath the mythic images of liberation—the legends about how the "philanthropists" Tuke and Pinel courageously unshackled maniacs and raging psychopaths—Foucault's genealogical investigations turn up insidious forms of oppression. Typically, what interests Foucault is a shift in the economy of guilt. In the asylum the lunatic is no longer guilty of being mad (this was the "obscured" form of guilt implicit in the program of confinement); rather, the madman was made to feel morally responsible for disrupting social conventions (246). In other words, the "free terror of madness" was supplanted by a "stifling anguish of responsibility" (247). Madness and Civilization: History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965).

In Volume I of his History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault calls the "repressive hypothesis" into question. It is commonly assumed that while lurid speech and actions were openly tolerated in the sixteenth century, as the seventeenth, eighteenth, and (especially the Victorian) nineteenth centuries unfurled, sex was driven into the bedroom/closet. Foucault contends, however, that far from undergoing a process of restriction, "sex talk" has been "subjected to a mechanism of increasing incitement" (12). What he finds most intriguing is that discourses on sex did not "multiply apart from or against power, but in the very space and as the means of its exercise" (32). The economy, pedagogy, medicine, and justice—each absorbed sexuality and organized it for its own purposes. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978). Hereafter cited as "HOS." [Back]

6 Michel Foucault, "Truth, Power, Self: An Interview," in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: UMass Press, 1988), 14. [Back]

7 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 16. Hereafter cited as "DP." [Back]

8 Bentham's Panopticon, envisioned as a correctional facility, was an ingenious architectural scheme. Designed in the shape of a pentagon, the prisoners' cells, each theatrically "backlit" by a high window, faced an open space dominated by an observation tower. The tower windows had shades which could be drawn in such a way that the detainees did not know whether they were being watched at a particular time or not. Since the prisoners were constantly subjected to this field of total visibility, they would internalize the prison guard (DP, 200-203). [Back]

9 I am of course aware that my choice of terms—genealogical identity—is ironic, even oxymoronic, for the intention of the genealogist is to call into question the possibility of an integrated self. [Back]

10 Michel Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?" in Rabinow, 44. Hereafter cited as "WIE." [Back]

11 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xiv. [Back]

12 Michael Walzer, while agreeing with Foucault that we live in a "more disciplined society," protests that Foucault depreciates the ways in which liberal society "maintains the limits of its constituent disciplines and disciplinary institutions. . . ." By contrast, he argues, authoritarian and totalitarian states override limits, "turning education into indoctrination, punishment into repression, asylums into prisons, and prisons into concentration camps." See Michael Walzer, "The Politics of Michel Foucault," in Hoy, 66. [Back]

13 Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power," in Rabinow, 63. [Back]

14 Ibid. [Back]

15 Michel Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 83. Quoted in James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 17. [Back]

16 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 201-202. [Back]

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1978), 15. [Back]

18 William Connolly provides a much more sympathetic interpretation of Foucault's politics and ethics. In so far as Foucault's genealogical critiques subject conventional morality to "a strip search," Connolly says, they are "cruel"—destabilizing and upsetting to people who are attached to the outmoded codes. "But they also take a precarious step toward a social ethic of generosity in relations among alternative, problematic, and (often) rival identities" (366). According to Connolly, one of the main components of Foucault's "ethical sensibility" is what he calls "agonistic respect": ". . . a social relation of respect for the opponent against whom you define yourself even while you resist its imperatives and strive to delimit its spaces of hegemony" (381).

As Connolly concedes, however, his version may be more his gloss on Foucault—a "Fou-connism"—than a reliable account of Foucault's own sentiments (368). "Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel Foucault," Political Theory 21 (August 1993). [Back]

19 Foucault came to reject revolutionary praxis and was highly suspicious of any intellectual who assumed the role of ideology "demystifier" or who deigned to speak on behalf of the oppressed masses. But that does not logically rule out other signs of solidarity.

Certainly Foucault believed he developed useful tools of analysis ("strategic knowledge") for those who were waging small-scale struggles against specific mechanisms of power. He was an advocate of prison reform and was identified with several socio-political causes which sought to improve the situation of marginalized groups (i.e., mental patients, homosexuals, immigrants, conscripted soldiers). Regarding this activism Lawrence Kritzman cautions that "the goal of his [Foucault's] quest was not based on an abstract moral imperative; it was less a question of speaking on behalf of the downtrodden than of carrying out documentary investigation." Still, Kritzman sees this critical analysis of specific sectors of society as an important form of political activism and engagement. See Lawrence Kritzman's introductory essay, "Foucault and the Politics of Experience," in Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Routledge, 1988), xviii.

The interpretation of Foucault I am offering would lead us to emphasize the "documentary investigation" dimension of his political activism, that is, documentary investigation primarily focused on complex networks of power dispersed throughout society and employed more as a critique than a gesture of solidarity—prying open a tiny space for self-creation.

One of Foucault's biographers, James Miller, does speculate about a kind of "bathhouse solidarity" in which Foucault may have participated. Miller for one dismisses rumors that Foucault, who died of AIDS, deliberately tried in the fall of 1983 to infect innocent people with the virus: "Given the circumstances in San Francisco in the fall of 1983, as best I could reconstruct them, to have taken AIDS as a 'limit-experience,' it seemed to me, would have involved engaging in potentially suicidal acts of passion with consenting partners, most of them likely to be infected already; deliberately throwing caution to the wind, Foucault and these men were wagering their lives together; that, at least, is how I came to understand what may have happened" (Miller, 381). [Back]

20 Zarathustra, 61. [Back]

21 Miller, 351. [Back]

22 The Greek word genos refers to race and kin. It can also denote "birth"—the bursting forth, not the extinguishing of life. Genos is derived from the verb gignomal, which means "to be or to become"; again, the emphasis is on existence. Finally, for the Greeks genos has its roots in theogony—the birth of the gods—the immortals. See A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddel, Scott, and Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). [Back]

23 "On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress," interview with Michel Foucault, in Rabinow, 351. [Back]

24 Aeschylus, The Oresteia, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1977), lines 235-236. [Back]

25 J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 70. [Back]

26 Foucault does not dispute this: we are always caught up in some discourse and our projects of disengagement are always partial (WIE, 47). What Foucault disavows is that identity shaping should be primarily a task of "discovery." All attempts at historical self-grounding are illusory—based on fugitive beginnings and contingent discourses and social practices. In place of a fixed, unitary identity, Foucault's genealogy celebrates and explores the plurality of conflicting voices that dwell in the psyche, constantly combining, re-combining, and altering those voices in a fluid self-composition. [Back]

27 I want to thank David Barrett-Johnson for bringing these issues to my attention. Johnson speculates that there was a Jewish polemic against the circumstances of Jesus's birth. In the Talmud, for example, Jesus is often referred to as "Ben Panthera [son of Panthera], suggesting his illegitimacy. See Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 48-54.

Matthew, then, could be suggesting that women who stand outside the sexual mores of the tradition are, despite the aura of impropriety, redemptively used in God's sovereign plan for his people. The fact that Matthew lumps Mary together with other "promiscuous" women, however, does not mean that the author had doubts about the virgin birth. Whatever he is doing, Johnson believes, it is something more interesting than merely saying "No, you are not telling the truth" to the accusers of Jesus/Mary. [Back]

28 Communities of memory, institutions, and individuals—as Alasdair MacIntyre points out—discuss, debate, and contest the ends they pursue. "[B]earer[s] of tradition . . . in a centrally important way, [are] constituted by a continuous argument as to what . . . [they] ought to be. . . . Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict." See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222. [Back]

29 Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 195. [Back]

30 Ibid., 199. [Back]

31 "Genealogy of Ethics," 351. [Back]

32 Ibid., 352. [Back]

33 For an account of the death or disappearance of the author see Foucault's essay "What is an Author?" in the Rabinow reader. MacIntyre, in his most recent book, deftly "uncovers" the author: "Yet now the question arises as to whether what even Foucault's partial implementation of that program may not have revealed is that the successive strategies of the genealogist may not inescapably after all involve him or her in commitments to standards at odds with the central theses of the genealogical stance. For in making his or her sequence of strategies of masking and unmasking intelligible to him or herself, the genealogist has to ascribe to a self not to be dissolved into masks and moments, a self which cannot but be conceived as more and other than its disguises and concealments and negotiations, a self which just insofar as it can adopt alternative perspectives is itself not perspectival, but persistent and substantial." Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind: Notre Dame Press, 1990), 54. [Back]

34 Michel Foucault, "An Aesthetics of Existence," in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. with an introduction by Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988). [Back]

35 Ibid., 49. Charles Taylor complains that Foucault's use of critique to open up this new path betrays his desire to "distance" himself from "truth and freedom," the key terms for a view he rejects—the notion that there is a "deep self" to be brought to light: "Indeed, in offering us a new way of re-appropriating our history, and in rescuing us from the supposed illusion that the issues of the deep self are somehow inescapable, what is Foucault laying open for us, if not a truth which frees us for self-making?" (Taylor, 99). [Back]

36 Miller, 358. Also see Thomas Flynn, "Foucault as Parrhesiast: His Last Course at the Collège de France," in The Final Foucault, ed. James Bernauer and David Rasmussen (Cambridge, Mass: 1988), 102-118. [Back]

37 Miller, 358. [Back]

Updated 29 July 2010