Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Rick Elgendy - “Practices of the Self, Reading Across Divides: What Michel Foucault Could Have Said about Gregory of Nyssa”

 As is increasingly well-known, Michel Foucault turned to the ancient world in his late work in order to excavate material for his notion of “practices of the self.” Foucault argues that, in many ways, the ethical imperative of the ancient schools was to “care for the self”, understood not as a form of self-aggrandizement but rather as a determined application of ascetical disciplines to oneself in order to effect self-transformation. In this light, it is striking that Foucault seems to dismiss Christian ascetics, especially Gregory of Nyssa, who (in his De Virginitate) uses the phrase “care for the self” as a normative center of Christian practice.
 In this paper, I argue for a connection between Foucault’s inattention to Gregory of Nyssa and Foucault’s summary judgments about Christian possibilities: specifically, that Christianity is not and has not been a properly “ascetical” tradition. That is, Foucault could have found a much deeper and more significant affinity between his work and Gregory’s account of practices of the self: while the narrative situation of the two authors differs (dramatically), both argue that unreflective participation in the forms of daily life on offer cannot condition one for access to truth and that certain exercises are required in order to become the kind of subject who has such access. In the first section of this paper, I will sketch this vision of “spirituality” that the two figures share.
 In the second section of this paper, I will return to the question of “narrative disparity” in order to raise and address some methodological issues with the resources discussed in the first. The common assumption that might also account for Foucault’s hasty dismissal of Patristic sources – that comparisons across narrative divides (such as “Christian” and “Nietzschean”) are treacherous, likely to fail due to equivocation or excluding implication – can be questioned precisely from the position(s) articulated in the first half of the paper: that the subject must perform certain exercises in order to shape her perception in ways that attain to truth.  I will conclude by showing how this works out in an academic practice – reading a work specifically as a text – in ways that demand the reader to attempt certain forms of imaginative and interpretive charity, which practices might permit us to see how counter-intuitive comparisons can indeed prove fruitful.

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