Archive

Michel Foucault

Published in the latest issue of the online journal Alienocene (journal of the first outernational), edited by Frédéric Neyrat.

Ca’ Rezzonico – Camerino del falchetto – Giandomenico Tiepolo

This issue or more properly, Stratum 7, also features essays by Alain Baidou, Bruce Clarke, Priscilla Wald, and many others. It also includes fiction, music, and sound works.

Through a reading of Agamben, Foucault, Heidegger, and Marcus Aurelius, I argue for the virtue and value of disappearance, and the ways in which the force of extinction is the provocation for thought, itself. Taking disappearance as other than negative, and finding its ecological correlate in extinction, I am interested in instances of being attuned to, and inspired by, the sonorous sound of the invisible flight of the birds, as moments when ecology becomes muse-ecology.

Ricco COVID poster

Join the Centre for Ethics for The Ethics of COVID, an interdisciplinary series of online events featuring short video takes on the ethical dimensions of the COVID crisis.

Isolation, Loneliness, Solitude:

The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Brought Us Too Close Together

In this brief talk I discuss how distance is the spacing of the ethical, isolation is the evacuation of that space, loneliness is the deprivation of the self, and solitude is what we need to reclaim as the only means by which an ethical sense of the common might take place. Drawing upon the work of Arendt, Agamben, Blanchot, and Foucault, I proceed to explicate how it is that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually brought us too close together.

This is an online event. It will be live streamed on the Centre for Ethics YouTube Channel at 3pm, Friday, May 29. Channel subscribers will receive a notification at the start of the live stream.

For registration: https://ethics.utoronto.ca/events/667/john-ricco-the-ethics-of-covid/

 

 

View to the U: An eye on UTM research · John Paul Ricco

I was recently interviewed by Carla DeMarco for “View to the U,” the podcast that she produces and hosts out of the Research Office at UTM. In our conversation, framed in terms of “the value of art in times of social upheaval,” we talked about my research, and “how past health crises have shaped art movements” and artistic practice. As Carla goes on to describe: “We also talk[ed] about some of the ways in which this current pandemic may influence artists now and in creations to come, and what kinds of things [I have been] doing in this time of solitude.”

If you are curious about social distancing as an aesthetic proposition, or how walking in the city today has taken on a whole new choreographic quality, have a listen.

Here is a link to The New Yorker article that I mention toward the end of the interview:

A New Doctor Faces the Coronavirus in Queens

The title of this post comes from the research project that I embarked on five years ago, with generous support from a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). I recently returned to my grant application, partly because the funding period for the grant is set to expire this week, and with that ending comes a need to look back and to assess. Yet given the current moment in which this retrospective gaze is being cast, I am inclined not only to try to measure the distance between the beginning of 2015 and the present, but also the degree of proximity between the terms I had used to frame the research project, and my present thinking and writing about the COVID-19 and the latter’s tremendous impact on public health, sociability, and autonomy. Here’s the opening paragraph of my “Summary of Research,” excerpted from the SSHRC application:

What if security is not the means of assuring freedom but of losing it altogether? What if fixed, enclosed, and secured grounds and ends are what we must abandon if the condition of freedom, as unconstrained, open-ended experience, is to be preserved? In the contemporary global context of curtailments of civil rights and liberties, the fortification of borders, and the militarization of society—all in the name of securing freedom—this question is of tremendous consequence and deserves to be addressed in new ways. In my project “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” I argue that the space of freedom is a spacing or spaciousness that is “outside yet not beyond.” Which is to say that freedom does not belong to a transcendent or abstract realm, and also to argue that our experience of freedom has a thoroughly corporeal basis. In its physical corporeal reality, however, freedom is not absolutely immanent, which makes it imperative to develop an understanding of bodies not as enclosed entities but rather in terms of exorbitant extremities, exceeding corporeal limits. Such excess renders bodily limits as always-unfinished edges rather than as definitive ends. Following the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work has been central to the development of my own thinking, I regard the experience of exorbitant corporeal openness as one of both pleasure and risk, up to and including joyous, passionate abandon to the outside and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.


Johann Peter Frank, M.D. System einer medizinische Polizei, 1779.

 

The Risk of Health

As Michel Foucault outlines in an interview that took place in 1983, one of the primary risks of security is the risk of dependence upon the State and the system and attendant institutions of social security (public health, unemployment compensation, housing provisions, etc.). Security breeds dependency, and dependency in turn demands greater levels of security. This feedback loop is, at the same time, in tension with the demand for independence (autonomy) from the very systems that are meant to provide security. (Foucault, “The Risks of Security,” in The Essential Works of Foucault, volume on “Power,” edited by James Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley and others; The New Press, 2000: 365-381).

The space of this tension between dependence and independence is quite narrow, and as Foucault emphasizes, this “calls for as subtle an analysis as possible of the actual situation” (367). The latter of which he goes on to define not as the large-scale system of economic and social mechanisms, but the “interface between, on the one hand, people’s sensibilities, their moral choices, their relations to themselves and, on the other, the institutions that surround them” (ibid.). In other words, such analysis of the “microphysics” of power, knowledge, and freedom, is less that of politics in the traditional sense (dare I say, even of “bio-politics”), and more so one of ethics; it is also less about spaces of enclosure than environmental openings. For Foucault, this is the distinction between what he calls “sociologism,” and an attention to ethical problems.

Even further and of particular interest in the current context of the global viral pandemic, is the way in which Foucault understands “health,” specifically not as a “right” but only as something that must be understood in terms of “means:” “means of health.” Before I explain what Foucault meant by this notion, it is necessary to foreground one of the most essential insights he puts forth in this interview. Namely, that the need and demand for health is, by definition, an infinite demand, according to which the problem then immediately arises, as to how this infinite demand inevitably finds itself within a finite system of means (373-74). Given that this is always the case, Foucault says that limits cannot be set theoretically and once and for all, but only established ethically, and in terms of each particular case. Yet such ethical decision would occur, as he goes on to describe it, within a collectively agreed upon framework of decision-making and “ethical consensus,” involving the users as well as the practitioners. This process creates and sustains what Foucault refers to as “a cloud of decisions”—one that in terms of the issue of “health,” need not be entirely determined and dictated by medical reason.

Foucault then asks the question: “must a society endeavour to satisfy by collective means the need for health of individuals?” (374). To which, from the perspective of actual practice, is a question that would need to be answered in the negative, simply because satisfying these innumerable and infinite needs and demands of health, is not feasible. Here’s how Foucault expresses this inevitable conundrum:

I do not see and nobody can explain to me, how technically it would be possible to satisfy all the needs of health along the infinite line on which they develop” (375). The problem raised is therefore that of reconciling an infinite demand with a finite system” (377).

Current public health care systems and its practitioners are always weighing this infinite demand against infinite means; just as users are always weighing their dependence on, and independence from, these systems. There are a variety of ways in which people come to accept that their health and their lives will be protected and assured, and that they will, at some point, be allowed to die. One example that Foucault provides, is military service, especially in wartime. Others include those people whose diets are high in salt (risk of hypertension) or sugar (risk of diabetes), and those who are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. We are fully aware of the negative effects of each of these, which are tremendous not only in terms of physical health, but also in terms of economic cost and mortality rates. Nonetheless, these are practices, risks, and costs that neoliberal reason of public health has been willing to countenance, to absorb, to insure against, to pay for. Eight million people die from tobacco use each year; with 1.2 of those being non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. And yet, what we might now be inclined to describe as “smoking distancing,” typically takes the form of smokers standing little more than a few feet from entrances to buildings and the like. Without providing a response, I will simply ask: what makes the COVID-19 novel coronavirus different, and an exceptional exception?

Means of Health (not Right to Health)

There is much more than can be said about the conjuncture of the political economic, the bio-political, and the social-moral, that constitutes neoliberal rationality, of which social security and public health is one major strand. But perhaps I will bring this post to a close by briefly discussing three things that Foucault advocates when it comes to these issues.

  1. A system of social security that will “free us from dangers and from situations that tend to debase and or subjugate us” (366). Which means a system that first and foremost protects us from the subjugating effects of safety and security—those risks.
  2. A system of social security, or what I have called elsewhere, “a government of the commons,” that operates by way of the current activist motto, “nothing about us, without us.” Meaning: users are decision-makers, and decisions are made from the ground up.
  3. A system of social security that offers means of health (distinct from “right to health” which as such does not exist). For Foucault, means of health is a mobile line traced according to technical-medical + economic-collective + social decision-ethics practices, and that always confronts questions of access and its necessary and inevitable limits and exclusions, yet does so collectively, ethically, and not theoretically-programmatically (i.e. not “once and for all”).

To this I would add that any ethical-collective means to health, while never losing sight of the conundrum of infinite demand and finite means discussed above, nonetheless must seek to find ways to operate as “pure means” (Benjamin, Agamben), which is to say, without instrumental, economized, techno-managerial, rationalized, and generally-equivalent ends.

Virology of the Common

This would require ways of thinking the ontology of the common as a shared exposure to contagion, and to the infiltration and intrusion of unknown forms of alterity into the heart of the self and its rapport with others. This would be to speak and think and write in terms of our common virality, contagion, and collective contamination—those “vectors” that are the forms and modes of undetectable or anonymous commerce and communication. This would, at the same time, not lose sight of the incommunicable that always persists at the limits (but, again, perhaps also at the heart) of the known and the communicable. It is this that makes any community worth living, unbecoming. It is to this that Jean-Luc Nancy recently gave the name “commonovirus.”

Multiple home symbols made by human hands.

 

The University of Toronto Press and its journal, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, have just published a collection of essays that address the current COVID-19 global pandemic.

COVID-19 Essays

As Greg Bird and Penelope Ironstone describe in the opening of their Editorial Introduction, “This is a rapid response collection of essays. In the evening on Sunday, March 15 we began contacting Canadian-based scholars working in the field of biopolitics to write a short, biopolitically-inspired essay that critically interrogates some aspect of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

I am pleased to have my “three brief meditations” on friendship, intrusion, boredom, ethical distance, and sabbatical, included in this wonderful collection of incredibly astute  critical voices.

Here’s the Table of Contents

1. Being in Common at a Distance by Elettra Stimilli

2. In the Distance by Philippe Theophanidis

3. Biopolitical Economies of the COVID-19 Pandemic by Jon Short

4. On Ways of Living in the Midst of the COVID-19 Global Pandemic (Three Brief Meditations) by John Paul Ricco

5. Crisis, Critique, and the Limits of What We Can Hear by Stuart J. Murray

6. The Pandemic is (Extra) Ordinary by Penelope Ironstone

7. The Biopolitics of Numbers by Victor Li

8. Uncanny Convergences: Mobility and Containment in the Time of Coronavirus by Roberta Buiani

9. Biomedical Apparatuses or Conviviality? by Greg Bird

10. Government-in-a-Box, or Understanding Pandemic Measures as Biopolitics by Neil Balan

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.

 

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