Question: Is Foucault a liberal, albeit an extreme or idiosyncratic one? (No.)
Let’s begin with a dominant American reading of Foucault that paints him as a liberal humanist. Todd May calls this the ‘prodigal son’ view. As the story goes, Foucault’s ‘middle period’ (Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume 1) was characterized by strong anti-humanism that made his concepts of power subjectless and totalizing. Recognizing the error of his ways, Foucault then makes a break from these theories with his later work (History of Sexuality, volumes 2 and 3) and softens his anti-humanist stance to include ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ as form of ethical self-creation that resists the normalizing impulse of subjectivization. For liberals, Foucault’s ‘ethical turn’ acts as a bridge between all of his other work – brokering the seemingly incongruous relationship between archaeology and genealogy, providing a thread to trace through a discontinuous chain of problematizations, and suggesting a mechanism that serves as a foundation for critical scholarship.
On its face, accepting Foucault as a liberal feels like a recuperative move meant to reassure those who don’t want to take seriously the implications of his work. If Foucault couldn’t work through his theories of power and in the last analysis had to recant in favor of the more familiar ground of agency and the liberal subject, it soothes the nerves of liberals who anxiously felt that they were the ones under attack in Foucault’s work on power. On the other hand, however, this shouldn’t be assuring to them at all – Foucault provided little ground to extrapolate a theory of ‘ethico-aesthetic subjectivity’ from. The self-creation in History of Sexuality volumes 2 and 3 are dealing with problematizations unique to context of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity.
If the three volumes of the History of Sexuality are placed beside The Order of Things, carrying the aesthetic self-creation of Greek and Roman antiquity through to other historical and spatial contexts becomes tenuous. The Order of Things is a profoundly disorienting book, its presentation is meant to defamiliarize knowledge and trace the radical discontinuities between eras of scientific thought. Biology, for instance, is not a slight refinement and clarification of Classical Linnaean natural history, but is a specifically Modern invention whose epistemological structure owes much more to the other Modern sciences than previous forms of knowledge (220). The ‘weirdness of the Modern’ that emerges from the Order of Things can be found in Foucault’s other work: the grostesqueness of the spectacle of sovereign torture than opens Discipline and Punish, as well as the alien rules for conduct that organized the sexuality of Greek citizens.
To take the practice of ethical self-creation, which existed as a response to specific problematizations in antiquity – like the proper way for a man to engage in relations with a boy – and project it into the current moment is nothing short of transmutation. It is not simply a question of asking how the practice would change as if it was possible to pluck it from its ancient context and placed within a new set of relations – a strategy Foucault explicitly disavows in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” when he cites the imperative to “shatter the unity of man’s being through which it was thought that he could extend his sovereignty to the events of his past” (151). But rather, like Foucault does with confession, a genealogy traces the “interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function” of an element (in this case, a practice), as it is captured by or escapes from heterogeneous formations of power (cite confessions of the flesh interview). Foucault suggests that genealogy is the process of dredging up elements, forgotten in the archive or part of foreign formation, to be re-mobilized and introduce change (NGH 154).
We should therefore be wary of naïve attempts to re-introduce ethico-aesthetic subjectivity as if it was a forgotten silver-bullet solution to normalization – such a move isn’t adequately genealogical. For instance, Foucault compares each era of ‘ethical’ practices in terms of the subjectivities produced within interactions between four aspects of ethical conduct: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, ethical work, and telos (HOSv2 2-68, “Genealogy of Ethics” 241-2). For the Greeks, an ascetic mastery of the self in relation to the pleasure gleaned from one’s body, wife, or boys was at first unrelated to religion, law, or science, but later signaled specific relations like the ability to rule over others. Christianity intensified limitations placed on the already present ethics of self-care while transforming it into a hermeneutics of desire where divine law mediated for the purpose of saving the soul. It is important to emphasize that these ethical systems weren’t directed by improvements in knowledge, but rather the ethical dimension was a gateway and precondition to truth – “what is the work which I must effect upon myself so as to be capable and worth of acceding to the truth?” (GE 251-2) It takes modernity to shed ascetics, the self no longer needs to be ethical in order to gain access to knowledge and it is then that modern science proliferates. Ethics is left serving a completely different function that it did in antiquity.
Through the careful empirical work Foucault uses to describe these shifts, it becomes apparent that the use of ethics doesn’t serve a universal role regardless of era. Rather, subjectivity is a historically contingent category whose relationship to knowledges and practices that addresses the specific problems of the day. The contemporary relationship of bodies and pleasures don’t provide a window into a hidden trans-historical set of relations that are the basis for practices that resist subjectivation. Instead, ethics is a heterogeneous formation of power that has no essential purpose, captured or set free by a variety of assemblages in order to serve new, intensified, or even opposite roles. For instance, the techniques of self-mastery that provided resistance subjectivation in antiquity “lost some of their importance and autonomy in early Christianity, and later, into educative, medical, and psychological types of practices” (HS2 11). Maybe it’s already painfully obvious, but one of the strongest moments of Nealon’s book is to remind us that ethico-aesthetic subjectivities not only exist today, but have intensified and disseminated the idea of the ‘authentic individual’ everywhere:
“Saab: choose your own Road,” “Outback Steakhouse: No Rules, Just Right.” Or the ad agency’s constant helpful reminders concerning the links between authentic cultural rebels and the products by which we know them: Jack Kerouac wore khakis; Gandhi would have used a Macintosh computer; Cadillacs are all about Rock n Roll, etc. (Nealon conf paper 142)
When placed in the contemporary context, it’s hard not to draw a line of consistency between the liberal reading of Foucault and neo-liberalism – the liberal exploration of the self that negotiates the dangers of modern life might simply be the concrete articulation of subjectivities that inform the theoretical underbelly of neo-liberalism. For me, the recently translated The Birth of Biopolitics lectures ruin any hope to retain a liberal reading of Foucault. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault develops a careful account of the emergence of the neo-liberal subject, homo oeconomicus, in the 20th century. The key shift from liberalism to neo-liberalism is the recognition that the rationality assumed by liberal theorists was bankrupt, an ideal formation that did not exist within the concrete conditions and was too costly to maintain through disciplinary techniques of normalization. Foucault’s lectures trace how neo-liberalism was able to produce a self-entrepreneurial subject that works to maximize human capital – the contemporary equivalent of aesthetic self-creation – not as part of a grand ideological strategy, however, but through strategic interventions that intensified power is a series of urgent needs specific to the historical moment. The neo-liberal subject’s economic nature is not Adam Smith’s “propensity to barter, truck, exchange,” but a drive to economize and compete in all aspects of life; maximizing return on investment in life – in the family with children and reproduction, at work as a manager or a wage-slave, or even in leisure time – the neo-liberal ideal is to extend a rationality of economic calculation completely.
After considering the trajectory of ethics discussed above, ethics and subjectivity must be placed within Foucault’s rich theory of power, not as a corrective to it. The turn to ethics does not introduce agency into a model of power that was otherwise totalizing and all encompassing. The opposite is true, ethics and subjectivity is just as implicated in the play of power as any other form of knowledge and practice. Neo-liberalism in particular demonstrates that the production of the self is not absent from power but is the new horizon for the valorization of capital. This is not to say that subjectivity is a bankrupt when considering resistance, but it provides just as many traps, false leads, and dead ends as any other form of struggle.
 This is an argument developed along different lines, but quite thoroughly by Jeffrey T. Nealon in Foucault Beyond Foucault. May’s remarks are in a book review of Nealon. I like Nealon’s rejoinder to the ‘prodigal son’ label, in which he says the liberal narrative fits better an old Borscht Belt Jewish joke. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to reproduce the joke here.
 Those two needs considered are 1) an anti-statist consensus brokered as response to Nazism, and 2) the need to create rearticulate labor, which becomes the theory human capital. Ref goes here####bk