Foucault & Autoethnography

Foucault’s ideas anchor a bulk of my autoethnographic research. Some may find this union—between Foucault’s poststructuralism and personal narrative— contradictory. Scholars have noted the various ways in which Foucault resisted confession and shied away from autobiographical speech acts (see Butler’s Gender Trouble). Lynne Huffer grounds Foucault’s suspicion of autobiography in poststructural thought, arguing that, “Given Foucault’s lifelong effort to undo the moi—to interrogate the humanist illusion of an unsplit, self-identical, coherent ‘I’—his discomfort with [personal narrative] makes sense” (23).

While Foucault’s writing pre-dates contemporary understandings of personal narrative and autoethnography, he spends a lot of time interrogating judicial and religious acts of self-disclosure. He is careful to point out how, throughout the ages, confession has been used as an instrument of power. Foucault notes that confessions provide the proof of the truth of disciplinary mechanisms. Through acts of self-disclosure, a blasphemer subjects his or her own tongue to torture (e.g., piercing; seeDiscipline and Punish, 45). “Since the Middle Ages,” argues Foucault, “Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth” (History 58). Truth’s fabrication is partially made possible by way of confession and is “thoroughly imbued with relations of power” (History 60), “for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile” (History 61-62). Foucault describes confession as a “ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation” (History 62). Confession’s promises of purification and redemption are precisely what legitimize discourses of objectification. Subjectivity, for Foucault, is nothing more than subjectivation (Huffer).

Alternately, autoethnographic writing that specifically aims to reveal the productive and repressive functions of identity/subjectivity/subjectivation may, in fact, be commensurable with Foucault’s suspicion of the “personal.” Understanding this claim requires a more precise explanation of Foucault’s notion of personnage. In The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, he describes how the nineteenth-century homosexual became un personage. Huffer explains that, when interpreting this oft-quoted passage, many US thinkers have wrongly equated French individualism and an American sense of community-based identity. In other words, un personage is more a character we play than a political or personal “reality,” or identity. Huffer contends that, “The personage is not so different from the social types one might find in a medieval morality play or a Renaissance allegory like Bosch’s painting or Brandt’s narrative verses about the Ship of Fools that Foucault invokes at the beginning of Madness” (71).

It is not that Foucault rallies against theorizing the personal as much as he questions how the personal has been used throughout the course of history to repress and produce particular subjects. If personal narrative is used to expose identity’s performativity, or  shed light on the discursive network that constrains and enables subjectivity, autobiographical theorizing is both consistent with Foucault’s use of tropes (e.g., the ship of fools) and anecdotes (e.g., daily rituals of people in mental hospitals) and commensurate with his research methods. This claim rings especially true in performance studies scholarship, where scholars tend to reveal the imitative, theatrical aspects of identity, and personal narrative regularly calls attention to specific cultural mechanisms that reproduce the “fictive or metaphorical product of a representational order, like a character in a play or the protagonist of a novel or even the ‘face’ acquired through a rhetorical troping” (Huffer 71).

(Yes, this writing is part of a larger project. More to come.)