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Foucault and Transformation: A Genealogy of "Political Spirituality"

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Michel Foucault’s writings exhibit a wide-ranging concern with social and bodily transformation. His archaeological and genealogical methods are well-known for reworking historiography and philosophy to attend to mechanics of social transformation, and he notes that the very process of writing is for him a means of self-transformation (see the 1978 interviews with D. Trombadori in Foucault, 1991). From one perspective, Foucault’s concern for social- and self-transformation forwards a very _un_orthodox Marxism, translating the insights and hopes of Marxism out of its obsessions with Party and the Soviet State and into the micro-dynamics of European social practices. Thus, while archaeology is not historical materialism, it can be seen to deal with historicity, materiality, and language “to change not just what is thought but the terms or conditions in which thought takes place” (Webb, 2012). And while genealogy is not a theory of revolution, it can be seen to burrow into the archival past in search of bodily resistance ‘from below,’ seeking nodal points of emerging _but contingent_ institutional and discursive arrangements and emerging _but unstable_ relations among bodies, practices, and power (cf. Gutting and Oksala, 2022). For Foucault, genealogy illuminates social structures and habits as instruments of an ongoing war between those who push power through institutional norms and practices and those who push power against being governed _so much_, or in _that_ way. Finally, the process of writing to change oneself is not a pedagogy of the oppressed—and yet, in a way it can be viewed as such. The process demonstrates Foucault’s persistent amplification of bodily capacities to resist, to see and speak and act the world differently; it performs his optimism-of-the-will that these capacities for difference (can) add up to lifelong practices of freedom.

Those who view Foucault’s writings as an extended working out and working through an outré Marxism (e.g., Macherey, Bidet), however, do not equally address his dense attention to religion. Foucault mostly engages the Christian writers who become canonical to the Roman Catholic church and then Protestantism. He scours these writings for how and to what effects certain theological thematics such as penitential practices, confession, pastoral power, and criminal ‘reform’ come to embed in political, institutional, and personal practices. A perceived outlier to this decades-long arc of engagement is the rubric of “political spirituality,” used initially in Foucault’s writings about the Iranian Revolution in 1978-1979, and almost never again (cf. Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016), McWhorter (2003), Carrette (1999), and Afary and Anderson (2005)).

This paper offers a schematic genealogy of _political spirituality_ from within Foucault’s own writings. Ghamari-Tabrizi (2106) and Bremner (2020) helpfully situate this phrase as a practical mode of _collective experimentation_ that aims at social transformation; it is an a-teleological technology of self, unmoved by any particular end but imminently attentive to evental possibilities inherent in available cultural and religious sources. Bremner (2020) delimits “the notion of spirituality as a mode of self-transformation, one not necessarily religious in nature” (2020). Foucault develops “political spirituality” out of a specific conjunction of place, time, knowledge (_savoir_) and practice. In seeking its genealogy, this paper disarticulates this conjunction and seeks the emergence of its specific facets through earlier terms in Foucault’s _œuvre_. Specifically, the paper traces this genealogy through a handful of concepts: life, the outside and unthought, experience, and the genealogical method.

Contemporary readers of Foucault often link his use of life (_vie_) to his writings on biopower. But Foucault’s mentor, Georges Canguilhem, proffered the notion of life—the backdrop of his analysis of the normal and the pathological—as that which becomes epistemologically tangible only in its error or failure, moments when the “incompleteness” (_inachévement_) of life cannot be ignored (Macherey, 1990/2009). For Foucault, the sense that life is in persistent tension not with death but with _error_ and _failure_, was crucial.  Foucault attunes to those occluded but inevitable gaps in lived realities and suggests how, in grasping and expanding the _frisson_ of these gaps, a person or group might live the matrices of (spiritual) power (_pouvoir_) differently.

The paper then turns to Foucault’s use and reworking of Blanchot’s notion of thought “from outside” (du dehors) and its cousin term, “the unthought” (_l’impensé_) in _The Order of Things_ (1966). Looking back to Foucault’s early 1960s Cérisy essays on the ‘experience’ of reading the _nouveau roman_ and forward to his capacious problematizations of ‘experience’ in _Discipline and Punish_, _HS1_, and his Collège de France lectures—including his long embrace of Bataille’s _expérience limite_ (cf. Gutting, 2002; Jordan, 2015)—the paper aligns the theorization of experience (so key for political spirituality) with subjectivation, as opposed to individualization: the processes of subjectivation tickle life’s incompleteness through practices that relate the self to itself. The processes sometimes vector toward the self from discourses and formations encased in specific institutions (schools, military, prison), and sometimes around and within the self, in practices of confession, care, and freedom. As Lordon (2014) and Heyes (2020) note, pastoral power, disciplinary power, and biopower are not always felt as domineering or exploitative. Sidestepping felt interiority, Foucault valorizes practices that slyly use the subject’s (subjects’) social formation against itself (themselves). The work of self on self is Foucault’s modality of experimentation, pushing toward extant limits and the possibilities hovering outside these limits in the labor of (spiritual) transformation that is the labor of freedom.

Through his interest in social or institutional change Foucault shows up the contingencies of change and, therefore, the contingency of present arrangements of life. His later lecture courses explicitly link contingency to “spirituality,” and connect spirituality to his theorizations of experience (e.g., _Hermeneutics of the Subject_, 15). Genealogy entails a power-sensitive orientation toward historical archives by seeking moments of contestation, fracture, usurpation, or derailment—junctures when many things might have happened, though only some actually did. My conclusion demonstrates how a genealogy of political spirituality matters for religion scholars and clarifies genealogy, that “ethics of _eros_” (Huffer 2009), which recursively turns Foucault’s theorization of experience into a crafted experience _in se_, as a spirituality, or breath of change, for research itself.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Foucault develops “political spirituality” out of the specific conjunction of place, time, knowledge (_savoir_) and practice that was the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. This paper offers a genealogy of political spirituality by disarticulating this conjunction and seeking the emergence of its specific facets through earlier terms within Foucault’s _œuvre_. Specifically, the paper traces a genealogy of “political spirituality” through a handful of concepts: life, the outside and unthought, experience, and the genealogical method.