In his extended research on Roman Stoicism, in his published and unpublished writing, and in his lectures at the Collège de France on “the hermeneutics of the subject,” and “the government of the self and others,” Michel Foucault began to sketch out a notion of the governmentality of ethical distance. For the source of this phrase and the best discussion of Foucault’s unpublished dossiers, including “Government of the self and others,” see the “Course Context” by Frédéric Gros, in Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982, translated by Graham Burchell (Picador, New York, 2005). These notes are deeply indebted to Gros’ reading.
At this current moment, in the midst of what has been classified as a global pandemic of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus, and the ensuing state-mandated practices of “social distancing” (along with self-quarantine and self-isolation), it might be a good time to return to Foucault in order to ask what lessons might be learned, including about how our present retreat from the world—while difficult and problematic for a whole variety of reasons—might not also be an opportunity to radically rethink and undertake new ways of living. Ways of living that are ethical, both in relation to one self and one’s life, and the lives of others. And that would also reside a great distance from the current statutory measures under which millions of people around the world, are now finding themselves living.
The first thing to note is that governmentality of ethical distance is entirely opposed to the logic of the state and its production of both the solitary individual and universal notions of community. Production that takes the form of policing (in all of its many permutations and manifestations), the welfare state, and bio-political regimes. This also includes the forms of pastoral power that we are witnessing right now, in which individuals as vectors of contagion are gently being forced to sequester themselves at home in the interest of protecting the greater populace, now figured as entirely vulnerable, and no longer allowed to gather in groups larger than 10 (this number varies depending upon specific context and is adjusted on nearly a daily basis).
In his reading the Roman Stoics, Foucault finds in an ethics of distance a social practice, in which the distance involved is not a separation from the world, nor does it consist of a cessation of activity. Instead, it is the means by which each self can rediscover itself as a member of a community or communities, yet in ways that are not determined or circumscribed by demographic, economic, or other such social political divisions.
Most importantly, certainly within the current context in which many people have been asked or told to stay away from their place(s) of employment for 2-3 weeks, this self relates to itself in ways not reducible to its job, work, or career. This is a self that, while occupying a role at work, does not allow that role to determine its sense of self, and with which it does not overly identify. Which means that one has not lost oneself in one’s work; has not forgotten oneself (and others) in one’s seemingly inextricable attachment to one’s job.
It is this detachment that, in part, Foucault points to when he speaks of “distance.” The latter of which is to be understood as “ethical” because the self whose life is structured by this distance, is not self-alienated but instead is in vigorous rapport with itself—and others. As Foucault emphasizes and makes clear, the kind of distance, withdrawal, and exercises of abstinence entailed in this new ethical ascesis, is not equivalent nor in any way related to the Christian renunciation of wealth. Instead, it is a mode of relating to one’s own material wealth in ways that, as Gros notes, ensures “that we will not be seriously disturbed if one day this wealth is lacking.” As Gros goes on to explain, “So it is not a matter of shedding all material goods, but of enjoying them with sufficient detachment for us not to feel deprived of their loss…We must learn again to bear wealth as one bears poverty” (539). To which we might add: we must also learn again to bear poverty as one bears wealth. This is what Agamben has brought to our attention, in his study of the Franciscans and their “highest poverty,” and why he has been so drawn to Foucault’s thinking on form-of-life (a notion that originates with and that we inherit from the Stoics), an aesthetics of existence, and friendship as a way of life.
At the end of his essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Leo Bersani arrived at the stunning conclusion that jouissance is its own mode of ascesis, a joyousness that transpires in and as “the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self.” Without in any way negating or opposing this insight, we might imagine that Foucault might have found the reverse equally valid: namely, that ascesis is its own form of jouissance. Indeed, this is exactly what is to be found in that dossier “Government of the self and others,” where Foucault writes of this ascetic conversion to the self:
…it is an ethical form which is characterized both by independence from everything that does not depend on us, and by the fullness of a relationship to the self in which sovereignty is not exercised as a struggle, but as an enjoyment (jouissance) (533).
As we find ourselves detached, willfully or not, from those things that suddenly prove that they do not entirely depend upon us, let us find in this abstinence from our routine functions, our proper and inalienable vocation or calling, by means of which we might retreat (ethically) back into the world.