TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Foucault and the Genealogy of Obedience

Each Tuesday in the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Marcus Michelson looks at Jean-Michel Landry’s ” Confession, Obedience, and Subjectivity: Michel Foucault’s Unpublished Lectures On the Government of the Living,” from Telos 146 (Spring 2009).

Why do we obey? Even when people rebel, it seems they simply reconstitute a form of obedience. We all know the old cliché “they aren’t rebels, they’re just following a ‘rebellious’ social code.” The way people dress, their hairstyle, tattoos, earrings, piercings, etc., only seem to reinforce our belief in their obedience to well-defined social practices. Even if we aren’t all playing by the same rules, we are all playing by rules. Do we even know what it would mean anymore to rebel? In the meantime, cultural critics admonish our decline, criticizing us for adhering to more philistine, insipid, or self-defeating values. But doesn’t this criticism amount to saying that we are just obeying the wrong thing, whereas obedience itself is simply presupposed? Could obedience really be ubiquitous, and if so, how did we get this way? On the other hand, how can we describe a legitimate form of autonomy?

In “Confession, Obedience, and Subjectivity: Michel Foucault’s Unpublished Lectures On the Government of the Living,” Jean-Michel Landry proposes to “map out the points of articulation needed to appreciate the political reach of the statement that ends [Foucault’s] 1980 course: to confess, to seek to know, and to produce the truth concerning oneself, amounts to submission.” Rather than “Why do we obey?” the question “How do we submit?” comes to the fore. The latter requires a historical analysis focusing on practices of obedience, which in turn sheds light on contemporary forms of obedience. According to Foucault’s genealogical analysis, obedience is something that we do, and we can investigate the circumstances through which the techniques of obedience were invented and developed. These circumstances were local, historically situated, and specific, hence the focus on the practices of confession in the monastery. The genealogical analysis theorizes that such techniques are first formed in a special context, such as the monastery, and then they are spread. Depending on the ability of given techniques to facilitate or otherwise become incorporated into more diverse social practices, they may become increasingly widespread, localized in specific communities, or simply die out.

Consider the following passage, in which Landry addresses Foucault’s research into this matter:

Behind the doors of the first monasteries, Foucault sees a major displacement: the act of confession became linked to a requirement of permanent obedience. “Obeying in all things” and “keeping no secret thoughts”: from that point on, these two principles would form a single requirement. Furthermore, this dual imperative introduced a fundamental break between the direction of Christian conscience and its ancestor, ancient philosophical direction. Unlike Christian direction, ancient direction remained provisional. Its role was limited to accompanying the person being directed until he became independent. The obedience required from the subject in the ancient world was instrumental: it was limited in time and subordinated to the objective of autonomy. In Foucault’s view, monasticism inverted in every respect the ways in which ancient techniques of direction functioned. The Christian direction of conscience would be ongoing and would consider obedience no longer as a means, but as an end in itself (obedience generated obedience). Obedience, within monasticism, sought only to root obedience ever more deeply within the subject.

In his article, Landry explains the connections in Foucault’s argument that the techniques of submission created by the practices of confession underpin our experience of knowledge of the self. Although the Western focus on subjectivity may be traced to many different origins, both Greek and Christian, Foucault attempts to uncover specific behavioral practices for the presentation of self- knowledge through which a focus on subjectivity may be elaborated. We may wonder whether he is right, and additionally, whether these techniques still linger and have effects today.

Read the full version of Jean-Michel Landry’s ” Confession, Obedience, and Subjectivity: Michel Foucault’s Unpublished Lectures On the Government of the Living,” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

Comments are closed.