In March 2023 appeared the special issue “Around Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh” (Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte 115/1). A nice result for for Heman Westerink and myself (Steven Dorrestijn) as guest editors. And for all co-authors: Jeanne Holierhoek, Danny Praet, Liesbeth Schoonheim, Machiel Karskens, Michiel Leezenberg, Marli Huijer and Marc De Kesel.
Focus of the special issue is the 2018 posthumous publication of Michel Foucault’s book manuscript Confessions of the Flesh: History of Sexuality, Volume 4 (Dutch transl. Jeanne Holierhoek, 2020). This study by Foucault examines pastoral care, ethics and sexual desire in early Christianity. Compared to his work on power and knowledge in modernity this meant a shift of period and topic. At a Symposium in 2021, Foucault experts from the Netherlands and Flanders discussed the book from the broad variety of perspectives and disciplines relevant for the book: from philosophy, sexual ethics, feminism and psychoanalysis to the history of religion. Also the importance for present day questions was discussed: for sexuality and gender, ethics as an art of living, and coping with the temptations of technology. The lectures were elaborated into the texts which can now be read in this special issue. The articles are all in Dutch language, with abstracts in English (reproduced here below).
(This message is also featured on the Foucault-News blog by Clare O’Farell)
- Around Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh
Rondom Foucaults Bekentenissen van het vlees (open access)
Steven Dorrestijn & Herman Westerink (guest editors)
Introduction to the special issue.
- The unachieved
A reflection by the Dutch translator on developments in the style of writing of Foucault.
- Pastoral power and techniques of the self: Foucault and the asceticism of the Desert Fathers
Pastorale macht en zelf-technieken: Foucault en de ascese van de woestijnvaders
This article argues that Foucault would probably have wanted to discuss a number of subjects and texts which are now almost completely lacking: the novelistic texts known as the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and some hagiographical sources. The Christian views on sexuality were sometimes less ‘orthodox’ and more extreme than what Foucault presented, probably under the influence of Paul Veyne. The Life of Anthony by Athanasius contains a passage which is not analyzed thoroughly in the volume as it was published but which is a key text for the development of Christian hermeneutics and pastoral power.
- Foucault and the problematics of the will in Cassian and Augustine
Foucault Foucault en het probleem van de wil bij Cassianus en Augustinus
Although John Cassian and Augustine are contemporaries involved in debates on (free) will, sin and grace, Foucault in Confessions of the Flesh closely examines these two authors in different text parts without confronting their positions regarding their conceptualization of the libido and the problem of a sinful will. In this article Augustine’s and Cassian’s view of this problematics is elaborated as two positions in the same debate. It is argued that Foucault, reading Cassian as a monastic author introducing new forms of submission, confession and meticulous hermeneutics of the self, undervalues the act that the demand of mortification of the will through unconditional obedience can be seen as part of self-practices and exercises of the will.
- Resistance and Techniques of Virginity: A Feminist Reading of The Confessions of the Flesh
Verzet en maagdelijkheidstechnieken: Een feministische lezing van Bekentenissen van het vlees
What is the feminist relevance of Foucault’s posthumously published Confessions of the Flesh? This question is part of a larger debate on the usefulness of the later Foucault in conceptualizing resistance against patriarchal power relationships. This paper follows those who argue in favor of the feminist potential of his concepts of freedom and care for the self, in particular the notions of ascesis and askesis. I argue that resistance against gendered norms is explicit in his discussion of counter-conduct (1978), which he links to late-medieval mysticism and to excessive, physical experiences. Both the gender-component and the excessive corporeal experiences disappear, however, from his later concept of askesis, which suggests that Foucault’s omission of women coincides with a displacement of the suffering body as a site of resistance. In the second part of this essay, I argue that this thesis is complicated by the recently published Confessions of the Flesh, and its lengthy discussion of early-Christian virginity. I conclude by commenting on the historiographical limits to recuperate moments of resistance.
- Spirituality and struggle in Foucault. The role of spiritual combat
Wat doet de spirituele strijd in de Bekentenissen van het vlees?
In the first two chapters of Confessions of the Flesh the Christian notion of spiritual combat is presented by Foucault as a double paradoxical self-practice of Christian mortification and pastoral power. It is both, constant negative fight against one-self, and never-ending internal war against the temptations of the soul. This rather negative idea of spiritual combat is contrasted with Foucault’s rather positive ideas of war, fight, power, resistance, revolt and spirituality, and ‘the circle of struggle and truth’. It is argued that spiritual combat is used by Foucault both as an extension of his theory of (self-)discipline and as stepping stone to his presentation of the (late) Stoic ascetism of self-care and truth struggle.
- From Geert Groote to Ignatius of Loyola: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Governmentality in the Later Middle Ages
Van Geert Groote tot Ignatius van Loyola
This contribution discusses late-medieval ‘modern devotion’ in the Low Countries in terms of Foucault’s history of sexuality. This time and area are both historically and theoretically relevant for further refining and elaborating that history: in particular, they invite us to analyze the spirituality of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitatio Christi and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises in terms of pastoral power and anti-pastoral resistance. The theme of power is largely absent from Pierre Hadot’s notion of ‹spiritual exercises›, Foucault›s great source of inspiration; and even Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh hardly discusses the question of resistance in or against early Christian practices of the self in any great detail. Further, the spiritual and sexual history of devotional practices of the self in the Low Countries gains even more relief when confronted with those of pre-modern Islamic mysticism. In both traditions, virginity appears to play a strikingly similar role.
- The happiness of non-identity: Michel Foucault’s search for self-loss beyond modern and Christian confession
Het geluk van de niet-identiteit
This article focuses on Michel Foucault’s notion of a ‘happy limbo of non-identity’, formulated in his epilogue to the diary of the ‘hermaphrodite’ Barbin (1838-1868). From the eighteenth century onwards, the incitement to put sex and gender into discourse has limited this freedom to be indeterminate. Using The Will to Knowledge and Confessions of the Flesh, Part I and IV of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, this article describes five main features of modern and early Christian confessional practices. What similarities and differences are there? What is constituted and lost in these practices? Using Foucault’s suggestions in essays to enjoy sexual and other pleasures without confessing, it shows that he decouples ‘self-loss’ from negative Christian self-denial as well as from positive, modern self-constitution. Self-loss thus becomes the moment in which the self can transcend itself and explore new modes of subjectivation.
- ‘Subject of one’s acts’: Lacanian reflections on a Foucauldian art of living
‘Subject van zijn daden’: Lacaniaanse reflecties bij een foucaultiaanse levenskunst
Marc De Kesel
In Les aveux de la chair, the fourth volume of his Histoire de la sexualité, Foucault explains how the still dominant idea that man is ‘subject of desire’ – and thus subjected to the law of desire – has its origin in the libido theory of Augustine. With this genealogical analysis Foucault targets, among other things, the libido theory of his contemporary, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This essay briefly discusses what makes Lacan and Foucault theoretically opposed to each other. I zoom in on how both conceive the modern ‘subject’. Opposite to the subject as ‘subject to desire’, Foucault puts forward the ‘subject of one’s own actions’, the subject that is itself the ground/base of its own ‘care for oneself’ (epimileia heautou). This essay presents a critical reflection on the possibility of such a subject. It is here that Lacan’s theory of the subject can shed a light on Foucault’s understanding of a modern ‘care of oneself’ or ‘art of living’. Lacanian psychoanalysis can provide a ‘critical theory’, indispensable for what is at stake in a Foucauldian ‘art of living’.
- With Foucault on subjectivation, seduction, and technology
Met Foucault over subjectivering, verleiding en techniek
(download manuscript-versie · excerpt in English about 4 aspects of subjectivation)
What does Confessions of the Flesh add to Foucault’s approach of subjectivation and its application for the ethics of technology? In his late work Foucault focusses on subjectivation following a fourfold framework, without explaining its development. There are good reasons to believe it relates to Aristotle’s four causes and also refers to Heidegger’s philosophy of technology. Foucault’s analysis of early Christian practices of the conduct of souls and of controlling evil seductions is surprisingly relevant with regard to how today’s digital technologies infringe on thinking and willing. Employing the fourfold scheme to apply insights from Confessions of the Flesh to ethics and technology leads to an approach of ethical subjectivation and technology in which:  problematization of seduction and technology  prompts good use of technology  by technologies of the self  realizing a practice of freedom.