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Elias and Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’

Posted on by Bradly Nitins

I have, perhaps, tapped the accumulated wisdom of this list far too much of late, nevertheless i venture to test your generosity once again. I have lately been thinking about the relationship between the ‘courtesy’ literature which Elias deploy’s as an empirical source in his Civilizing Process and Foucault’s theory of ‘technologies of self’ found in his lecture On the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self. I have the feeling that what Foucault is referring to here complements, enhances and elaborates Elias’s theoretico-empirical research on the structure of the civilizing process. Recently Anna Bryson in From Courtesy to Civility criticizes Elias’s approach because “there is a gap between experience and articulable norms which must seriously complicate any project of deducing sensibility from prescription”. She thus raises the important point that the empirical sources Elias’s considers may to some degree reflect the construction of personality structures, but that this should be viewed as a dialectic process between the reader and their situation and the interdictions inscribed in these texts. Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’, i think, gets us around this issue nicely. He writes that these technologies “permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, or purity, or supernatural power, and so on”. These technologies of the self, Foucault points out, are interdependent with technologies of domination such as those elaborated in Discipline and Punish. However, what this allows us to appreciate is the Janus-faced nature of ‘courtesy/conduct/etiquette’ literature. That from a certain perspective they operate as exercises in disciplinary control imprinting themselves upon subjectivities and helping to form specific personality structures, but that from another perspective such texts can be seen to be mediated through and appropriated into the life of the historical reader, however partially, within a complex process of self-understanding and self-realization. I wonder, what are the list’s thoughts on this matter, do you agree or disagree?
all the best
Bradley Nitins
University of Queensland