Elias and Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’

I have, perhaps, tapped the accumulated wisdom of this list far too much of late, nevertheless i venture to test your generosity once again. I have lately been thinking about the relationship between the ‘courtesy’ literature which Elias deploy’s as an empirical source in his Civilizing Process and Foucault’s theory of ‘technologies of self’ found in his lecture On the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self. I have the feeling that what Foucault is referring to here complements, enhances and elaborates Elias’s theoretico-empirical research on the structure of the civilizing process. Recently Anna Bryson in From Courtesy to Civility criticizes Elias’s approach because “there is a gap between experience and articulable norms which must seriously complicate any project of deducing sensibility from prescription”. She thus raises the important point that the empirical sources Elias’s considers may to some degree reflect the construction of personality structures, but that this should be viewed as a dialectic process between the reader and their situation and the interdictions inscribed in these texts. Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’, i think, gets us around this issue nicely. He writes that these technologies “permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, or purity, or supernatural power, and so on”. These technologies of the self, Foucault points out, are interdependent with technologies of domination such as those elaborated in Discipline and Punish. However, what this allows us to appreciate is the Janus-faced nature of ‘courtesy/conduct/etiquette’ literature. That from a certain perspective they operate as exercises in disciplinary control imprinting themselves upon subjectivities and helping to form specific personality structures, but that from another perspective such texts can be seen to be mediated through and appropriated into the life of the historical reader, however partially, within a complex process of self-understanding and self-realization. I wonder, what are the list’s thoughts on this matter, do you agree or disagree?
all the best
Bradley Nitins
University of Queensland

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9 Responses to Elias and Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’

  1. Michael Baker says:

    I just read, with interest enough to leave a reply, the 2004 dialogue initiated (it appears — some of posts referred to are absent), by Bradley Nitins questions comparing Elias and Foucault on “early modern” processes of self and social formation. I am studying the transitional period/processes and interconnections during 15th, 16th, 17th and into the 18th centuries. I have been particularly focused on the 16th century, when new forms of elite European self-understanding began to emerge more widely along the proliferation of conduct manuals and the confessional uses of civilizing practices in the initial formations of territorial states separating from the sovereignty of the Catholic Church, in imperial/colonial competition with one another. As some of you may know better than I do, these civilized conduct manuals were centerpieces in the curriculum and pedagogy of newly forming and reforming schools throughout Western Europe after the Reformation in ongoing confessionalization processes (Heinz Schilling) described by Philip Gorski as a “disciplinary revolution”.

    In large part, due to a persistent Eurocentrism within western scholarship, the world wide and interconnected events and changes occurring during this period are not as yet adequately or relationally understood among historical sociologists (Bhambra, 2007, Rethinking Modernity). In developing my own post-Eurocentric understanding of this transition between two (“medieval” and “modern”) worlds, the pieces I am attempting to connect, and for which both Elias and Foucault have been useful but insufficient, center around the emergence of new forms of self-understanding among Europeans, reflected I think, in the rising uses of civility and its various Latin cognates. The double sidedness (Janus-face) of the uses of civility and the early modern civilizing processes overall is located in the ethnocentric conceptual/narrative framework within which European civilized self-understanding emerged overall — the civilized/barbarian dichotomy. As Elias once wrote, it is not insignificant that West’s colonizing missions were conducted under the banner of “civilizing”. I accept Walter Mignolo’s claim (2005) that there was no European civilization prior to the 16th century. Sovereign state formation, confessionalization processes, and new conceptual/narratives that emerged from the Spanish debates (natural law) over the humanity of the Amerinidans are interrelated with the emergence of Europe as a civilized identity through which the modern Eurocentric worldview and project has been constructed into the present. These and other related changes and processes need to be recognized and understood if the civilizing process is to be understood in relation to the making of modernity. I respectfully suggest the more recent postcolonial and decolonial critiques of modernity (i.e., Gurminder Bhambra, Sylvia Wynter, Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel) contribute to a more interconnected historical-sociological understanding of the civilizing processes and techniques of self-formation that contributed and continue to contribute to the constitution of the modern ethnocentric forms of self-understanding.
    Michael Baker

  2. Pieter Spierenburg says:

    To add a useful reference to the discussion:

    Burke (Peter), The fortunes of the Courtier. The European reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. Cambridge 1995.

    As a good scholar, Burke of course refers to Elias in this work.

  3. Arpad Szakolczai says:

    Dear Cas Wouters,
    it seems to me that the number of points on which we disagree are also quite recognisable. But, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, I’ll take them one by one.

    1. You imply that the fact that you were the only one to respond to the message shows that you were engaged in a serious dialogue. But your original message refused the possibility of any meaningful dialogue between the ideas of Foucault and Elias. The argument that such a refusal is a form of dialogue is, however, a philosophical position indeed, and a very special kind: it is Sophist.

    2. In your original message you argue that ‘major difference between Foucault’s views on ‘expert knowledge’ and ‘discourse’ and mine: changes in the regimes of manners and emotions include changes in discourse, not the other way around.’. I’m not sure I fully understand what your double reversal mean, but took it as the standard misinterpretation of Foucault: that discourse simply creates reality. This I consider a ‘misrepresentation of position’.

    3. You re-state the importance of Elias’s pioneering of ‘good societies’. I have no problem with that. I only claimed, and still claim, that his work was much more important than that.

    4. In your original message you describe the Foucauldian perspective as philosophical and oppose to this the Eliasian as sociological; and the context makes it clear that by simply designating the Foucauldian argument as ‘philosophical’ you imply the untenability of that position. I consider your argument as a classical, Goffmanian example of ‘labelling’. List members might read it for themselves.

    5. Baldassar or Baldassare – this argument makes no sense. Baldassare is the modern Italian name; Baldassar is an archaic version. Most reprints, books and translations use Baldassare. Your argument is like to claim that ‘Shakespeare’ is a misprint, as it really should be ‘Shakspere’. In the 16th century spelling was by no means as established as in our days.

    6. Giovanni Castiglioni [sic] or Baldassare Castiglione – this difference is indeed relevant. So, as you brought up the point, let me clarify. Elias refers to Castiglione twice in CP, but only as one in a list of three names. The other two names, della Casa and especially Erasmus, are discussed in the book extensively. Castiglione isn’t at all. Of course, this by no means questions the validity of the argument. But Castiglione was an important figure, and through him connections become visible between the Renaissance and the Reformation, and between Italian and Northern humanism, that are most relevant to the problems Elias was preoccupied with: the psychogenesis and sociogenesis of our world. Without trying to make too much out of a simple error, it is still in a way revealing that Castiglione has fallen so much outside of the scope of the Elias scholarship that such misprints can occur (as the index misprint was already there in the 1994 edition). And it is in this sense that I referred to the omission of a serious discussion of Castiglione by Elias.

    These are at least six points of disagreement. The important thing, however, is elsewhere. I have no interest in an obsolete replay, at the academic level, of the ‘satisfaction-giving’ or ‘duelling’ society. But if students turn to an academic list for advice, they should not be dismissed simply because they bring into the discussion names which for certain persons are evidently ‘persona non grata’.

    Yours sincerely,
    Arpad Szakolczai

  4. Bradly Nitins says:

    Dear All
    In response to Richard Kilminster’s recent posting. I must say that i’m
    puzzled by his lack of comprehension concerning the quote from Anna Bryson.
    Bryson has definite issues with Elias’ use of courtesy literature as direct evidence of the construction of an affective wall in the development of Western subjectivites, this is why she prefers Goffman’s theoretical framework. I can not see how this is taken out of context, it is very clear to me after my reading of the text, but then i’m assuming that those who answer my query have read this work. In reply to your second point, perhaps an email forum is not the best place to engage in what would inevitably be a lengthy, and contentious, debate, i can only recommend you to read the essay in question as well as Discipline and Punish. Yes ‘technologies of the self’ are not specified, i am again working on the assumption that those who answer will have read the essay, if they have not then i can see very well that people may be puzzled. But to leave on a single note of clarification, Elias uses courtesy literature in his ‘Civilizing Process as his primary empirical source, a source from which he draws conclusions on the ‘sociogenesis’ of the Modern self. The research of Foucault too is concerned with the historical shaping of the Modern Western self, perhaps it would not go astray here to point out that this is empirical research not ‘philosophical’. ‘Technologies of the self’ refer to those strategies and means by which the self can be constructed in time, the formative, productive properties of discourse is important to understand here in relation to Foucault. An affiliation can then be tentatively drawn between both scholars in the way in which they look to the operations and effects of certain discourses on the modern self, for Elias it is etiquette and courtesy literature, for Foucault the self is formed through discourses of the self, his particular interest being the human sciences. But i am no expert on Foucault, this is simply how it seems to me, if any one believes they understand either/or both of these scholars differently i am all too eager to listen, but pure hostility to one, as he is judged apriori as too ‘philosophical’, is not of much value.
    all the best
    Bradley Nitins

  5. Cas Wouters says:

    Dear Arpad Szakolczai,

    You say you ‘must strongly disagree’ with me ‘and on a number of points’. Well, your email is easily recognized as a declaration of disagreement, but the ‘number of points’ you mention is not.

    It is strange to notice that I was the only one who has responded to Bradley’s repeated posting of his contribution to the list, only to hear from you, Arpad Szakolczai, that I have been closing myself into fortresses, and that my motive was to “preclude any dialogue between the ideas of Elias and Foucault”. You jump to this conclusion on the basis of two things. Oneis your perception of my contribution as a “misrepresentation of position (related to the formative powers of discourse)”. I do not know what you mean by this, sincerely, I haven’t the faintest idea. So, please explain.
    The other thing is that I am perceived to “use adjectives considered denigrating (like ‘philosophical’)”. This I do understand but I consider it nonsense, for I had written two paragraphs on why I disagreed with the”Janus-faced nature” of manners books, as Bradley Nitins had characterised them, drawing on Foucault, before I concluded that ‘to me, this “Janus-facednature” perspective is more philosophical than sociological, more Foucauldian than Eliasian’ and I proceeded to explain in further detail what I meant. My conclusion: the denigration is in the eye of beholder Arpad Szakolczai.

    A few details:
    To the best of my knowledge, Elias was the first to integrate the existence and the function of ‘gute Gesellschaften’ or ‘good societies’ into sociology, and he did so in 1939 in “The Civilising Process”. If you or anyone reading this knows of anyone who did this too, or something similar, earlier or later, I would very much like to hear the reference. You may consider to buy the revised edition of 2000 of the CP because it has an index in which you will not only find ‘good society’ but also Castiglione, so you could have deleted that wrong observation about “- horribile dictu! – a strange omission by Elias”. Please note that the index also renders Castiglione’s first name wrongly. It is Baldassar, not Baldassare (you) or Giovanni (the index).

    Best wishes,
    cas wouters

  6. Bradly Nitins says:

    Dear all,
    last week i had serious troubles with my email account and so i missed the message that Cas Wouter’s sent concerning my inquiry on the relevance of Focault’s notion of ‘technologies of the self’ and Elias’ treatment on the psychological/behavioral impact of courtesy literature. I have just now received Arpad Szakolczai’s response to this message and so hope to make a few clarifications concerning this thread. First i thank both scholars for their time and interest, i especially thank Arpad because i believe that he is closer to understanding what i am intimating here. The metaphor of the
    ‘Janus-face’ is simply my own, perhaps clumsy, metaphoric summary of what Foucault was indicating in his notion of ‘technologies of the self’,
    specifically in relation to his essay ‘On the Beginnings of the
    Hermeneutics of the Self’ . I don’t wish to get bogged down in it, jettison it if you wish it does not really matter, what does matter is what Foucault meant by ‘technologies of the self’ . Of course i understand that individuals who read this material, according to Cas, “may or may not change anything in their behaviour”, but that is exactly what i’m getting at! I was invoking Foucault as a way of avoiding just this criticism of Elias approach in ‘The Civilizing Process’, viz that the ideals of individual conduct and social interaction found inscribed in early English courtesy works directly and solely reflect concrete changes in Western personality and affective structures. I believe Foucault’s notion of ‘technologies of the self’ help us to avoid this misplaced (?) objection, i wonder if Cas has read the article i refer to? If he hasn’t then he might want to before criticizing it.
    All this, however, is going over ground already covered in my initial posting and is not enough to warrant another posting alone. What spurs me to comment is that i wish to engage in the argument Cas makes about the role of the “Good Society”. He introduces this concept as a way of undermining the notion that individuals may appropriate the interdictions found in courtesy literature within a personal process of self-realization. If i understand Cas correctly he rejects this account because it elides the social context of courtesy literature in that historically most individuals engaging in this discourse were primarily wishing to emulate and integrate the behaviour, ideals and mental dispositions of those privileged members of their society. Of course i agree that this was, historically, often the case. But wasn’t Cas just arguing against the implications of this position because, in his own words, it “grant[s] an operational effect to this literature that is enormous”. I must admit i find his train of argument confusing, perhaps it is all just a simple misunderstanding of what I am actually saying. But anyway, putting this aside, what i really want to point out here is some potential problems, as i understand them, in the prominence placed upon ‘Good society’ as the one sole locus of the dissemination of codes of conduct. Cas writes:

    Every author of a manners book has to deal somehow with the difficulty of presenting the manners that include to the excluded, the higher-class manners to lower-class people, without ever making this (too) explicit.

    Historically, however this may possibly ignore the antagonistic relationship religious discourse and movements have had vis-a-vis the polished etiquette of aristocratic circles. In short, not every debate on the importance of proper manners took the privileged social elite as its exemplar. The manners of the rich and influential were often denigrated by religious writers and thinkers for their dissimulation and their hypocrisy. This is an important point especially in English culture and especially in the early nineteenth century with the rise of evangelical fervour (on this see an article by Michel Curtin “A Question of Manners”). Good manners are extremely important to the early nineteenth century, as well as to the Victorian, evangelical, but they had little to do with the behaviour of the ‘higher-classes’. Although one can certainly witness a proliferation of etiquette manuals at this time, and this does intimate an increasing movement of members of the middle-class into ‘aristocratic’ circles, nevertheless the connotations that etiquette had garnered by this time of triviality, extravagant gesturing, ostentatious ceremony and safe conventionality remained. In examining the work of Samuel Smiles we see quite clearly how discussions on correct manners were strictly divorced from the life-style of the ‘rich and famous’ in the Victorian period. For Smiles, like many religious/moral thinkers, manners exist in a reciprocal relationship with character, and character is the basis on which civil society turns. He also believed that:

    Artificial rules of politeness are of very little use. What passes by the name of Etiquette is often of the essence of unpoliteness [sic] and untruthfulness. It consists in a great measure of posture-making, and is easily seen through

    All the best
    Bradley Nitins

  7. Arpad Szakolczai says:

    Dear Members,

    Sorry for my delay in picking up this theme. The question, however, is important, and I must – respectfully, but strongly – disagree with Cas Wouters, and on a number of points.

    Let me start with the general tenor of the argument – which is to use adjectives considered denigrating (like ‘philosophical’) and misrepresentation of position (related to the formative powers of discourse) in order to preclude any dialogue between the ideas of Elias and Foucault. In my view, scholarship in the 21st century should not be aiming at closing oneself into fortresses, shooting at whoever is coming close (and especially on those who are evidently close – recalling for e.g. the way in which various Marxist sects each denounced their closest rival as the biggest servant of capitalism), rather in a meaningful dialogue between positions that are mutually challenging, thought-provoking, and of course highly compatible.

    More specifically, related to issues about civilising process and social disciplining, the Protestant Ethic and Court Society, or the links between Weber, Elias and Foucault, the really interesting question is not ‘who is right’, but the extent to which these great thinkers (and others) presented, in substantial sense, complementary accounts (thus, Protestant sects, absolutist courts and disciplinary institutions each contributed to the rise of this unique kind of society in which we are still living; and the real question is the exact relations between them); while even their method of proceeding was highly compatible, often relying on common sources.

    Going into some details – certainly sociology did not have to wait until 1996 to learn that something like the ‘good society’ existed. And while such claims about Elias’s originality are clearly exaggerated, other aspects of Cas Wouters’ message fails to do proper justice to Elias. As the purpose of the Civilizing Process and Court Society was certainly much more than to give a ‘social context’ based study of etiquette books. It was rather to show the ‘psychogenesis’ of the modern individual; furthermore, together with the ‘sociogenesis’ of the modern state; thus, a parallel with Foucault’s work is by no means exaggerated. Who would now care about Elias had he only written a historically sensitive sociology of manner books? The central issue, in both cases, is the way in which certain ‘ideals’ or ‘programmes’ of conduct, once formulated, under certain conditions, through a number of ways and means, stamped and moulded actual conduct, which by today have been taken for granted (‘stamping’ was a technical term used by Weber, and is much present in the earliest layer of Elias’s work). Thus, we are talking about a certain formative impact of ‘texts’ or ‘discourses’. The question, of course, is how and when this might happen – but this requires both a detailed study of the evidence, and a joint reading of Elias, Weber and Foucault, and not general debates and ideological exclusion.

    Brad Nitins is also quite right concerning the importance of a ‘self-reflexive’ component, which Foucault actually traced back to classical Antiquity. Because, as we know again through Pierre Hadot and others, ancient philosophy was actually a way of life, and it is in this context of actively shaping behaviour that many of the techniques that were later picked up both by Renaissance humanists and courtiers first developed, and which were transmitted (for e.g. through the monasteries – Weber, Borkenau, Mumford, …), and then by secular fraternities – where Erasmus gained his own apprenticeship.

    In this context, one might even point out – horribile dictu! – a strange omission by Elias: Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, the single most important 16th century court etiquette manual. The point is not a triviality, as – just as Erasmus was in good terms with Dürer – Castiglione was a close friend of Raphael; and furthermore, while Erasmus was close to Luther, Raphael read Ficino and was close to the Papal reform movement. At this crucial transition moment which was the first decades of the 16th century (and such volatile periods of transition, as Elias knew it well, are exactly when ‘discourses’ can rather easily ‘mould’ reality), there is a dense set of connection between religious and secular developments, courtiers and humanist philosophers, etc.

    Finally, I find the ‘Janus-face’ metaphor particularly illuminating, as – in opposition to dualistic, dialectical and dichotomous models – it allows forcapturing shifts in the interpretation, and impact, of the same texts, or practices. The question, of course, is how the metaphor is actually used in concrete analysis.

    Best wishes,
    Arpad Szakolczai

  8. Cas Wouters says:

    Dear Bradley Nitins,

    In my thinking about manners books as an empirical source I never conceived of them as having a “Janus-faced nature” as you did in your contribution to this list. In it, one side of the Janus face (as presented by you) is the possibility that these manners books operate “as exercises in disciplinary control imprinting themselves upon subjectivities and helping to form specific personality structures.” This is granting an operational effect to this literature that is enormous, and in effect, I think, its effect is far less. These books are bought by people who aspire to acceptance in higher social circles but are insecure about how to achieve this, and from reading them, they may or may not change anything in their behaviour, but I can’t imagine any reader for whom reading this stuff functions “as exercises in disciplinary control imprinting themselves…”

    Seen from the other side of the Janus-face, what is written in manners books appears to be “mediated through and appropriated into the life of the historical reader, however partially, within a complex process of self-understanding and self-realization.” Again, the Janus-eye sees far more than there is to be seen, I think. The social arbiters who write these books present the higher-class manners to lower-class people, who were in the process of orienting themselves to the higher class manners anyway, otherwise they wouldn’t have bought such a book.

    To me, this “Janus-faced nature” perspective is more philosophical than sociological, more Foucauldian than Eliasian, if only because it largely disregards the social context in which these manners books were written, sold and bought, all related to the functioning of “good society”.

    The codes and ideals captured in these books provide important empirical evidence of what is accepted and rejected in the “good society” of every society. The fact that the dominant codes expressed in manners books may reveal a mixture of actual and ideal behaviour differs from the constructed facts by social scientists from questionaires and similar data, because the ideals in manners books are real; that is, they are not constructed by social scientists and, therefore, they do not mirror the ideals of the latter. Manners books provide evidence of changes in the way all kinds of relationships are ideally fashioned among the established who form the good society of every society, that is, those groups who are accepted by and represented into the centres of power. The concept of a good society was used in nineteenth and twentieth-century manners books and it was introduced into sociology by Norbert Elias:

    “‘Good societies’ are a specific type of social formation. They form everywhere as correlates of establishments which are capable of maintaining their monopoly position longer than a single generation, as circles of social acquaintance among people of families who belong to these establishments. … In Britain there is a ‘high society’ with a long tradition, where, until recently, the court was the pinnacle of the hierarchy and at the same time the centrepiece which integrated it … When the integration of a country is incomplete or belated, as was the case in Germany, many local ‘good societies’ develop; none, however, gains undisputed precedence over all the others and becomes the authoritative source for the behavioural code or the criteria of membership for all the others.” (The Germans, 1996: 49)

    As the authors of manners books take their cue from good society and the manners that prevail there, their books reflect changes in the manners and ideals of any society’s ‘minority of the best’ (Elias and Scotson, 1994). It is here, in the centres of power and their good societies, that the dominant social definition of proper ways to establish and maintain relationships is constructed and/or confirmed. Authors of manners books try to capture the sensibilities and practices that reflect these relationships, and to sell this knowledge to insecure social climbers. These authors are not backed up by any profession, in academia or anywhere else, and they neither possess nor produce any expert knowledge other than that based upon participant observation in good society. This knowledge can only become profitably exploited (published and sold) if they know how to address people who aspire to acceptance in higher social circles but are insecure about how to achieve this. Every author of a manners book has to deal somehow with the difficulty of presenting the manners that include to the excluded, the higher-class manners to lower-class people, without ever making this (too) explicit. For these books to be sold, the readers had to be lifted up, not put down.

    [Note: Here lies a(nother) major difference between Foucault’s views on ‘expert knowledge’ and ‘discourse’ and mine: changes in the regimes of manners and emotions include changes in discourse, not the other way around.]

    cas wouters

  9. Kilminster says:

    Dear Brad/Elias-I
    I would love to help if I could understand your message. Sorry to be obtuse, but I just cannot see what the apparent difference between Elias and Foucault is on the issue of courtesy, nor how Foucault seems to offer a supplementary perspective. More specifically:
    1. The quotation from Anne Bryson is very abstract and out of context and makes no sense to me.
    2. The long quotation from Foucault is a cryptic and rather loose mish-mash of psychological, philosophical and theological language. Whatever is the point he is trying to make?
    3. Who are ‘the reader’ and ‘the historical reader’ to whom you refer?
    4. The import of your query is considerably obscured by the fact that ‘technologies of the self’ are not specified either.

    Richard Kilminster.

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