Gordon Hull, Foucault, Descartes and Monastic Subjectivity, New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science, 07 January 2016
So Descartes is an Augustinian, at least on this point. What I’d like to do here is point out that Foucault further situates Descartes in a traditional Catholic framework of confession. Recall that, in general, On the Government of the Living basically argues that modern, Western subjectivity developed with Christianity and out of its break with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that one of the key breaks was around the topic of confession. Beginning with 4th Century monasticism, Christianity developed a very precise theory of confession as an enumeration of specific faults and failures, a practice of alethurgy (producing the truth of the subject) that was alien to the forward-looking Greeks and Romans.
In the last lecture of GL, Foucault distinguishes between ancient and Christian concepts of discretio. For the ancients, the problem is straightforwardly one of passions. For Christians, on the other hand, the problem was “illusion, the lack of discrimination between the representation of good and the representation of evil between the representation or suggestion coming from God, that coming from Satan, and that coming from oneself” (GL 297). In other words, the focus is “on the subject himself, on the subject insofar as he is inhabited by another principle, by a foreign principle that is at the same time a source of illusions” (GL 297). We need, ultimately, God’s help in sorting this out through “the structure, the examination-confession apparatus” (GL 297). “It is not the question of the truth of what I think, but of the truth of I who things” (GL 303)
Finally, it is not too hard to see why Foucault would see neoliberalism as confessional (and thus reject it. For a more detailed argument, though one that does not take GL into account and which focuses on employee wellness programs, see here): we become known through a permanent data trail of Facebook likes, phone metadata, GPS tracking, Amazon purchases, etc. Confession becomes sufficiently intensified that we no longer have to do anything deliberately confessional at all: mere existence becomes confessional because whatever we do (or don’t do) reveals something about us as compared to others. This isn’t causal knowledge, of course, but it is often enough to justify action, particularly at the population level (this point is made very well in Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s Big Data).