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Prescribing Reflexivity

The idea of self-design is a paradox. Or, to put it more accurately, the idea of self-design will be a paradox if the self involved is understood as either too unified or too heterogeneous. If you want the concept to work, you need to articulate the self into an agent capable of taking on the verb “to design,” a target for her labor, and a relatively coherent object that emerges at the end. Even so, paradox lingers. The self that emerges should merge back into the very agent who is doing the designing. Does self-design mean just going in circles?

If we follow Michel Foucault, the answer is no—for the process just described is nothing other than the formation of the subject. In the introduction to the second volume of the History of Sexuality, he explains that he has had to add a new axis of analysis to his genealogy of sexuality, absent from the first volume published six years earlier; namely, the modes of relating to the self, the “arts of existence,” through which individuals come to recognize themselves as subjects of sexuality. That is, it is through turning back on the self that the subject body comes to recognize herself as such. The site where this pivot is accomplished is what Foucault calls “ethical substance.” Together with the individual who initiates the action and the subject who emerges, ethical substance results from decomposing the “self” into the components of a process that, in essence, creates its own author.

In “The Obligation to Self-Design,” Boris Groys argues that for much of Western history, the ethical substance on which individuals expended their design efforts was the soul, beautified for the benefit of an immortal gaze. It is only after Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God that attention turned towards external avatars of the soul—designed objects and the body itself—which made the design of the modern self at once ethical and political. The right to judge thus shifted from God to an ethico-political community that comes to issue an obligation to self-design. By contrast, Foucault’s genealogy seeks the hermeneutics of the subject in Greek antiquity, to which he turned after determining that he could not tell the history of sexuality from the vantage point of the nineteenth century alone. And whereas Groys emphasizes an imperative imposed from without on a modern subject who pays a high cost for non-compliance, Foucault locates agency within the subject herself, whose care for the self (souci de soi) constitutes a form of freedom.

These accounts appear diametrically opposed. But without downplaying their divergence, it’s not hard to map the difference of perspective between Foucault and Groys onto their respective strategies of historicization. Groys adopts a dystopian tone that clothes the modern and postmodern subject in a perennially grey suit, while the last two published volumes of the History of Sexuality are pretty sunny. With respect to tone, then, both genealogies, taken as stories we tell about modernity, complement one another as much as they seem to contrast. (Nietzsche, tellingly, is a common denominator for both Groys and Foucault.) Ruptured from its past, modernity is born into a state of melancholy and alienation that either calls us back to the Greeks as origin and lost model, or demands an antidote tailored to the historically unprecedented state of the species.

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