Telos reaches back

But not that far back

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 Today, Marcus Michelson looks at Jean-Michel Landry’s ” Confession, Obedience, and Subjectivity: Michel Foucault’s Unpublished Lectures On the Government of the Living,” from Telos 146 (Spring 2009).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?

If you want to know the answers to these questions, it’ll cost you $5 for a day’s access (cheap).

Telos offers a free taster. Landry:

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.


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