Is it possible for individuals to be autonomous today, when evidence suggests that the vast majority simply fall in step, like goose-stepping stormtroopers, with the latest techno-fashions which, in turn, function like sugar-coated pills to lull people into passive, Matrix-like, politically impotent behaviour in front of their PCs or with their iPhones in hand?

But why is it important to understand what it means to be autonomous? If all human beings are shaped by discourse — which includes not only the language they use, but the actions they perform, too — the widespread hold that dominant discursive practices (including not only the discourse of neoliberal capitalism, but the supporting ones of state bureaucracies, too) have on people’s actions, can be resisted in only one way: a person has to claim for him or herself a different discourse, one that enables what Foucault (in his study of ancient Hellenistic societies) refers to as “self-mastery”.

Contrary to what people tend to believe, self-mastery does not depend on “information” as much as on the difficult development of the ability to distance oneself from those discourses that constantly tend to “infantilise” people, by treating them as if they are children (sound familiar in South Africa?), incapable of thinking and acting as (relatively) autonomous beings. Such discourses are all around one today, given the “bio-power” that governments, schools, the media, economic institutions like corporations and churches wield over people’s lives.

In his genealogy of punitive practices, Discipline and Punish (1995), Foucault elaborates on the various ways in which individuals, as objects of modern, “panoptical” disciplinary control, are subtly influenced to the point of controlling their own behaviour, rendering them “docile bodies” that perform precisely what is required of them (1995: 138). One could say that the mutually reinforcing practices he identifies in this study have the overall effect of imposing on contemporary society the character of an extended prison.

Unless we try and “change the system from within” (as Leonard Cohen sings), we shall remain imprisoned in this kind of society. And the way to change it is to regain the capacity for acting in a relatively autonomous manner (with a view to modifying or influencing unacceptable developments in extant society), as indicated by Foucault’s investigation into Hellenistic-Roman conceptions of the conditions for such autonomy. It is significant that, in his articulation of the profile of subjects capable of “self-mastery”, Foucault draws on conceptions of the self-dating back to the ancient world, indirectly indicting modern society’s susceptibility to being “controlled”.

So, what are the techniques of self-mastery conducive to the production of relatively autonomous subjects, capable of decisions and actions that surpass the constraints of modern (and postmodern), passivity-inducing “discipline”? There is a superficial emphasis, today, on “lifestyle” and on “personal fulfilment” of a popularly understood, fashion-aware kind, which corresponds with the ancient interest in individuals’ ethical relations with themselves. But there is hardly any sign in the contemporary world of a comparably strong interest in the cultivation of personal autonomy and independence from political and other institutional agencies (for instance the media).

It is in the context of the Roman world of 2000 years ago that Foucault (in The Care of the Self, 1988: 43) alludes to the development of a “cultivation of the self”, which was guided by the precept, that one should “take care of oneself”. Although this is an idea that goes back to the Spartans, and is above all associated with Socrates’s insistence on reminding humans of the priority to be given to the condition of their selves, this topic of cultivating the self was resurrected by Hellenistic philosophy. Moreover, this “cultivation of the self” in antiquity was light years removed from the kind of narcissistic focus on the self in popular media, such as the glossy magazines and social networking sites of today, which assumes the form of sex advice columns and articles on varieties of self-enjoyment, from aromatherapy and reflexology to reiki for the leisurely rich.

By comparison, these practices of self-mastery were austere and demanding by comparison, in so far as they were aimed at a kind of autonomy characterised by the ability to face any of the eventualities, no matter how disruptive or painful, that may befall one in the course of one’s life. With this in mind, it should be clear that the “care of the self” as systematic practice in the Hellenistic-Roman era, was predicated on human finitude and comparative powerlessness regarding forces that vastly exceeded one’s own power, while simultaneously signalling a belief in the capacity of individuals to develop one’s own power in the form of self-mastery. This would enable one to endure whatever sufferings the vagaries of life might inflict on you, and presumably to resist or thwart overwhelming forces to a certain degree.

Foucault refers to, among others, Seneca (1988: 46) who demands of one to dispense with other occupations, and through “varied activity” “develop oneself”, “transform oneself” and “return to oneself” in the quest for the sort of autonomy at stake here. In Foucault’s (1988: 50-54) discussion of the concept, “care of the self”, it becomes clear why such an ethical, psychological and social practice is foreign to most contemporary ways of living. In each of its applications (regarding a household, a ruler’s subjects, a patient, or oneself), it implies a “labour” that is time-consuming, devoted to various exercises, memorisations, self-examinations and practical tasks, including those centring on the care of the body, and on the attainment of peace of mind or tranquillity, regardless of what pain or provocation others or things that cannot be controlled may inflict on one. The goal: to gain mastery over oneself, to be one’s own lawgiver, to gain the strength to resist the attempts of others to manipulate you.

If this was possible during Roman times, is it possible today? Of course it is possible, although different people would probably be motivated by different circumstances and events to get to the point where they start claiming their own autonomy of will. For some, it will be the realisation, long in dawning, that they do not HAVE to go along with the majority of people, who bow to the pressure of what is fashionable (like wasting your time on Facebook — it is encouraging that several students have confided in me that they have left Facebook); for others it may be prompted by the realisation that one does not HAVE to act as if corporate power is necessarily there to stay — it is possible that some of the people who are participating in the worldwide protests against corporate greed today will discover the germ of autonomy in themselves. Foucault summed up this potential for change in his wonderful essay, “What is Enlightenment?”

“In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints?”

That is to say, all existing power relations have developed historically, contingently, reducing the vast majority of people to mere “docile bodies”. But being historical, they can and must be challenged, and changed, for the better. But don’t be fooled — it will happen again, and will have to be changed again … and again. The struggle for justice is never-ending.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment