Worldly Ethics: Democratic Politics and Care for the World

Worldly Ethics: Democratic Politics and Care for the World

by Ella Myers


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What is the spirit that animates collective action? What is the ethos of democracy? Worldly Ethics offers a powerful and original response to these questions, arguing that associative democratic politics, in which citizens join together and struggle to shape shared conditions, requires a world-centered ethos. This distinctive ethos, Ella Myers shows, involves care for "worldly things," which are the common and contentious objects of concern around which democratic actors mobilize. In articulating the meaning of worldly ethics, she reveals the limits of previous modes of ethics, including Michel Foucault's therapeutic model, based on a "care of the self," and Emmanuel Levinas's charitable model, based on care for the Other. Myers contends that these approaches occlude the worldly character of political life and are therefore unlikely to inspire and support collective democratic activity. The alternative ethics she proposes is informed by Hannah Arendt's notion of amor mundi, or love of the world, and it focuses on the ways democratic actors align around issues, goals, or things in the world, practicing collaborative care for them. Myers sees worldly ethics as a resource that can inspire and motivate ordinary citizens to participate in democratic politics, and the book highlights civic organizations that already embody its principles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353997
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/26/2013
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ella Myers is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies at the University of Utah.

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Democratic Politics and Care for the World


Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5399-7

Chapter One


The Foucauldian Ethics of Self-Care

Care for others should not be put before the care of oneself. The care of the self is ethically prior in that the relationship with oneself is ontologically prior.


Change the World. Start with Yourself.


The oft-heard complaint about contemporary Americans' political apathy, their apparent disinterest in the basic activities of citizenship, is coupled with another, seemingly distinct objection: that those who do participate, particularly in public debates and protests, do so in ways that are aggressive, close-minded, and unlikely to contribute to meaningful discussion or reflection. The so-called decline in civility, though arguably a characteristic of political actors on the right and the left, was especially evident early in President Barack Obama's administration, as citizens opposing his health care proposals commandeered town hall meetings with Democratic officials, yelling angrily over one another while frequently likening Obama to Hitler.1 Tea Party protesters challenging big government drew national attention in late 2009 with vitriolic and racist words and images of the president. In these instances, citizens are far from withdrawn and indifferent; yet the form and style of their engagement are disconcerting to many. Indeed, this version of active citizenship threatens to give apathy a good name.

While citizen inaction, on the one hand, and the confrontational, angry demeanor of some citizen groups, on the other, may seem to pose wholly separate problems, these phenomena actually raise some similar questions about democratic subjectivity. What kinds of selves are apt to venture into and are capable of enduring the demands and frustrations of contemporary political life? What proclivities or sensibilities inspire ordinary individuals not only to vote but also to attend meetings, organize protests, form associations, and speak publicly when many others turn away in exhaustion or disgust? Moreover, what habits, dispositions, and character traits encourage individuals to pursue forms of public involvement that are impassioned yet respectful, oppositional without being antagonizing? What allows people to enter into democratic contest in such a way that their convictions do not foreclose other voices and demonize those who disagree? These related questions focus on identifying the personal qualities that equip an individual to participate deeply in democratic politics and to do so in a certain spirit.

This is hardly a new inquiry. Political theorists through the ages have struggled with the question of how to create not only a polity suited to its potential members but also members who are themselves suited to the polity. From the Republic's account of the wide-ranging, exacting techniques required to mold inhabitants so they can assume their proper roles in the ideal city to Rawls's interest in a public culture that inculcates in citizens the desire to be the kind of person that acts in accordance with the principles of justice, the making of citizens is a perennial as well as a fraught concern in political thought. Contemporary inquiries into civic virtue in liberal-democratic contexts address not only the means by which the cultivation of virtue might occur, but also the abiding tension between projects of citizen formation and ideals of liberty, individuality, and diversity.

As I suggested in the introduction, the quest for a democratic ethos is similarly motivated by the insight that political institutions and practices depend for their vitality and endurance on the attitudes, emotions, and habits of thought of citizens. The inquiry into ethos aims to address the affective and normative dimensions of democratic subjectivity while rejecting the idea of a single, universal morality that would ground collective life. Revived interest in ethics among postfoundational thinkers reflects a desire to consider the connections between character and democratic activity, while remaining cautious about the imposition of uniform ways of being.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a conception of ethics centered on care for the self holds such appeal. The idea, drawn from Foucault's intriguing unfinished work on ancient Greco-Roman culture, holds out the hope that people can transform who they are, that is, develop certain qualities of character that allow them to conduct themselves differently, through reflexive relations with themselves. An ethics defined in terms of arts of the self emphasizes the individual's capacity to consciously shape or reshape herself and acquire an admirable style of existence largely detached from the enforcement of a general moral code. As we will see, Foucault's work invites us to explore the possibilities of a reworked ethics of self-care in the present and gestures toward its potential political significance, yet it is ultimately ambiguous about the purpose and effects of such an ethics. Contemporary political theorists, however, captivated by the idea of self-care, have placed great, arguably disproportionate, weight on this facet of Foucault's work. Drawing on his evocative discussions of self-care, Foucault's readers have insisted that techniques of the self have an important role to play today in preparing individuals for the challenges of democratic struggle. The cultivation of citizenly desires and dispositions, it is suggested, can be a self-guided "practice of freedom" rather than the task of large-scale social and political institutions intent on making good subjects.

This chapter offers a critical analysis of care for the self (le souci de soi) as an ethics for democratic politics. Beginning with an examination of Foucault's writings, lectures, and interviews on the topic, I assess the appeal of and the difficulties posed by his account of care for the self. In particular, although Foucault implies that arts of the self can provide the basis for a contemporary ethics and even avers that such a reflexive ethics, focused on the self's relationship to itself, can alter the broader field of intersubjective power relations, the connection between self-care and sociopolitical dynamics is only weakly and inconsistently articulated. In light of this gap in Foucault's thinking, the work of William Connolly is intriguing. He argues that Foucauldian techniques of the self, or "micropolitics," are crucially important for enabling and guiding collective democratic action, or "macropolitics," and he seeks to articulate the relation between the two.

I argue here that the care for the self is a flawed basis for elaborating a democratic ethics. Although the notion that purposeful work on the self can contribute to collective citizen action is no doubt appealing, an ethics capable of animating associative democratic activity, I show, cannot take the self's relationship to itself as its starting point. The therapeutic ethics that emerges from Foucault's and Connolly's work tends to treat democratic activity as a consequence or extension of self-care, a view that overlooks the unique orientation toward shared conditions that associative democracy requires. Unless the self's reflexive relationship to itself is driven from the start by concern for a worldly problem, there is no reason to believe that self-intervention will lead in an activist, democratic direction. Any reflexive relationship that might enhance democratic subjectivity depends upon collective political mobilizations that both inspire and continually guide work on the self. A viable democratic ethos should focus less on inciting and enriching individual care for oneself than on activating collaborative concern for social conditions. Only in tandem with such world-centered practices of care can arts of the self acquire democratic significance.

"Man is one and the other at the same time": foucault's ancient Ethics

Foucault locates in antiquity a very particular understanding of ethics, conceptualized as rapport à soi, or, more specifically, as "the kind of relationship you ought to have with yourself." The self was regarded as both subject and object of ethical action in Greco-Roman culture, according to Foucault, and this is the central idea that captured his attention and subsequently his readers' as well. But what exactly is the reflexive relation at the heart of this ethics? And what possible connection could exist between that uniquely ancient perspective and the present time and place?

Foucault's work on ancient ethics is often quite dense, consisting of detailed analysis of sometimes obscure texts. It is nonetheless possible to identity four distinguishing features of Foucault's account of ancient ethics that merit scrutiny: the emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of the care of the self, the significance of askesis (exercise, training) in order to achieve self-control, the identification of care for oneself with the practice of freedom, and the distinction drawn between ethics and morality. Grappling with these elements is a necessary prelude to consideration of whether such an ethics, reimagined and reinvented, might serve to support associative democracy today. Because the larger question of democratic ethos guides this encounter, my analysis is less concerned with judging the historical veracity of Foucault's account than with exploring the connections between the (admittedly partial and creative) story he tells about ancient ethics and the conditions of the present. While valid objections have been made to inaccuracies in Foucault's treatment of Greco-Roman ethics, his "unabashed contemporary orientation" gives one reason to approach this work as a narrative constructed at least partly in relation to present-day concerns.

The first feature of ancient ethics that Foucault stresses is the aesthetic character of epimeleia heautou, the injunction to "take care of yourself." This principle, traceable from classical Greece through the imperial era, despite undergoing important changes during that period, called for treating "one's own life as a personal work of art." The practice of self-care Foucault explores in texts ranging from the first Platonic dialogues to the major texts of late Stoicism is a project of self-creation. Care consists not in the nurturing of an already constituted self but in the efforts by which a self is brought into existence as a distinctive entity to be recognized by others. This "aesthetics of existence," involving concerted attention and ongoing work directed at cultivating the self, stands as a striking alternative to the later Christian hermeneutic tradition of confession and self-renunciation. Timothy O'Leary argues that, for Foucault, "The modern hermeneutics of the self is both historically preceded and normatively surpassed by the ancient aesthetics of the self." But if this is so, what is normatively compelling about this aesthetic pursuit? What does it mean to regard the self as a creative production elaborated through form-giving activity?

Foucault elaborates: "What I mean by the phrase [arts of existence] are those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria." This passage is striking in several ways. First, it depicts the arts of the self as intentional, voluntary, and guided by self-set rules of conduct. These arts, Foucault contends, are undertaken freely and in accordance with standards that are not simply imposed from without but taken up and endorsed by the individual who seeks to meet them. I want to focus here on the specifically aesthetic qualities ascribed to the care for the self. This passage is marked by an ambiguity that runs throughout Foucault's account, an ambiguity born of two competing understandings of aesthetic. On the one hand, the activities of self-care seem to be aesthetic because they aim to create a life that is beautiful, a work of art, or, as Foucault says above, an oeuvre that realizes certain stylistic criteria. On the other hand, he depicts caring for the self as aesthetic largely because the self is related to as a site of work and transformation; here the emphasis is on travail rather than oeuvre. So does the aesthetic quality of the practice of self-care primarily concern a process or an outcome? Is caring for the self aesthetic because the self is treated as material in an ongoing project, susceptible to lifelong form-giving and alteration, or because the self is likened to a finished art object, modeled in accordance with certain standards of beauty?

The latter possibility, most pronounced when Foucault explains, for example, that one's life, no less than a lamp or a house, might be seen as an art object, has elicited charges of dandyism. Richard Bernstein and Pierre Hadot, for example, worry that the care for the self pursues stylization for its own sake and therefore cannot serve to inspire an ethics worthy of consideration today. Art for art's sake as it applies to the formation of the self, the argument goes, is a superficial, even normatively bankrupt pursuit.

Yet as Thomas Flynn and O'Leary have pointed out, the implied opposition between beauty and substantive, moral ends is troubled by the identification of the beautiful with the morally good in ancient thought, as evidenced by the term kalos, which referred to both beauty and moral worth. This indicates that even if beauty was sometimes the aim of the care of the self in antiquity, this need not be interpreted in superficial or amoral terms. Moreover, Foucault repeatedly insisted—both in his readings of ancient techniques of the care of the self and in his references to a possible reworking of such techniques in the present—that such care is directed at an end distinct from beauty per se: limiting and controlling one's domination over others. Thus the ambivalence of the term kalos, along with Foucault's emphasis on the minimization of domination, directs one away from the assumption that the "aesthetics of existence" is about the pursuit of beauty, at least in any conventional modern sense of the term. Indeed, the stress in Foucault's work on ethics lies on the aesthetic mode of relation, which regards the self as something to be crafted and recrafted over time, rather than on the notion that caring for oneself is synonymous with making the self beautiful.

Second, the activity of self-constitution Foucault identifies with ancient Greek ethics involves not only techne but also askesis, continuous training and exercise. The ancient focus on self-formation was, Foucault writes, a matter of "constant practice" and "regulated occupation," not merely an idea or attitude. This work, though it assumed various forms over time, entailed both mental and physical exercises involving self-examination, "control over representations," and practices of "abstinence, privation, and physical resistance" focused on three domains of the "arts of self-conduct": bodily regimen, household management, and erotics. The array of techniques, though vast, is characterized by a common theme: the establishment of a relation with oneself characterized by "domination," "mastery," "arkhe," and "command." As Foucault explains, "The effort that the individual was urged to bring to bear on himself, the necessary ascesis, had the form of a battle to be fought, a victory to be won in establishing a dominion of self over self, modeled after domestic or political authority." The "domination of oneself by oneself," or enkrateia, requires the constitution of part of oneself as a "vigilant adversary," akin to a fighting soldier or wrestler, who confronts and attempts to subdue the "inferior appetites" that threaten to overtake the self. On Foucault's telling, success within the terms of this ethical struggle was imagined not as the complete expulsion of desires but as the "setting up of a solid and stable state of rule of the self over the self." The desires and pleasures did not need to disappear; what was required was that one "construct a relationship with the self that is of the 'domination-submission,' 'commandobedience,' 'mastery-docility' type."

Third, the aesthetic and ascetic undertaking that Foucault labels care of the self is also framed as a "practice of freedom." This claim is complicated by the fact that the ancient culture Foucault examines was home to more than a single notion of freedom (as he sometimes acknowledges), making it difficult to pin down the exact meaning of this identification of reflexive ethics with freedom. On the one hand, disciplined self-elaboration among the classical Greeks was generally understood to be an activity reserved for a certain class: free citizens, those who were not ruled by others. The ethical practice of self-care was not a universal pursuit but was typically undertaken by those who enjoyed civic freedom, itself defined in opposition to slavery. On the other hand, as Foucault is well aware, this understanding of outer freedom coexisted, somewhat tensely, with a conception of inner freedom, developed most influentially in Plato's philosophy, in which the master–slave relation is installed within the self, in the soul. According to this understanding of freedom, as it was most forcefully articulated by the later Stoic thought of Epictetus, a slave who is master of himself, such that his reason reigns over the passions, may be freer than Alcibiades, who enjoyed a powerful social and political status but was beholden to the tyrannous elements within himself. Foucault does not specify how he is using the term freedom when he declares the care of the self to be an instance of its practice. But his comments indicate that he means to link self-care to some measure of outer freedom, understood as a necessary condition for the exacting project of aesthetic and ascetic self-formation. Such reflexive activity, Foucault seems to believe, requires a degree of outer freedom, such that one is not enslaved or dominated by others. Care of the self amounts to an advanced, rigorous, and by no means automatic enactment of that basic freedom. He writes, "Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics. But ethics is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection." In other words, a measure of civic freedom, or what Foucault elsewhere calls liberation, is required for the ethics of self-care to be a meaningful possibility. But the exercise of self-care, the attempt to form oneself through a demanding reflexive relation, is, to Foucault, an example of what it means to practice freedom actively, that is, to put one's freedom to use and thereby experience it as something other than a static condition: "What is ethics if not the practice of freedom, the conscious practice of freedom?"


Excerpted from WORLDLY ETHICS by ELLA MYERS Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Tracing the Ethical Turn 1

1. Crafting a Democratic Subject? The Foucauldian Ethics of Self-Care 21

2. Levinasian Ethics, Charity, and Democracy 53

3. The Democratic Ethics of Care for Worldly Things 85

4. Partisanship for the World: Tending to the World as Home and In-Between 111

Epilogue. Self/Other/World: Forging Connections and Fostering Democratic Care 139

Notes 153

Bibliography 195

Index 207

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