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The Power Not to Be (What We Are): The Politics and Ethics of Self-creation in Foucault

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To some extent, Foucault’s later works on ethics provides an opportunity to go beyond some of the controversies generated by his work of the 1970s. It was thought, for example, that Foucault had overstated the extent to which individuals could be ‘subjected’ to the influence of power, leaving them little room to resist. This paper will consider the ‘politics’ of self-creation. We shall attempt to establish to what extent Foucault’s later notion of self-formation does in fact succeed in countering an over determination by power. In the end, though, it would appear as if Foucault’s turn to ethics amounts to a substitution of ethics, understood as an individualized task, for the political task of collective social transformation. What is at stake is whether or not Foucault’s insistence on individual acts of resistance amounts to more than an empty claim that ethics still somehow has political implications whilst having in fact effectively given up on politics. It will be argued that the subject of the later Foucault’s ethics, the individual, can only be understood as political subjectivity, i.e. that the political potential of individual action is not only ‘added on’ as an adjunct, but that individual action is intrinsically invested with political purport.

Affiliations: 1: Radboud University Nijmegen, Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, The Netherlands, Email:


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