29 March – 1 April 2012
American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting
Providence, Rhode Island
Foucault’s Ethical Turn: From khrēsis to catachresis
This paper explores Foucault’s turn to ethics in the last years of his career. In his re/turn to ancient thought, Foucault seeks to overturn modern ethics and politics founded in what he calls the “Cartesian moment.” I believe that Foucault’s ethics offers a rejoinder to the modern ethos and, in particular, to the biopolitical and neoliberal forms of governance that characterize our present. For Foucault, ethics is a turn, the turning of the self upon itself in the care of the self. In my reading, this is a rhetorical turn that reconfigures the subject rhetorically. From Plato’s Alcibiades, the self’s relation to itself is a relation of khrēsis; however, Foucault takes great pains to demonstrate that this is not an instrumental relation, as it is for the neoliberal subject. While khrēsis can be translated simply as “use,” it enjoys a more extended sense: it is an attitude, behavior, or, in the language of phenomenology, a comportment or intensional and directed engagement, perhaps even a being-in-the-world. This sense of khrēsis shares a great deal with the rhetorical figure of catachresis, commonly defined as the misuse or abuse of a word or expression. But the khrēsis, in some sense, relies on the catachresis, for it is in this trope that an abuse gets played precisely so as to expose the context or the scene in which normative use is maintained. This inaugurates a shift in ethical subjectivity towards the responsibility for those conditions (of possibility) within which an “ethical” ethics is upheld.