Digitizing Foucault (Part 2 of 2)

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

When Foucault wrote about “technologies of the self” in the 1980s, he wasn’t thinking about technology in terms of the bits or bytes that might first come to mind for us now. However, as our lives and social interactions become more and more mediated by network technology, our digitized lives could indeed become sites of the self-formulation that Foucault was theorizing.

For those who may not be familiar, Foucault’s “technologies of the self” relates to techniques of self-constitution or self-regulation. Also called “care of the self,” these techniques are processes by which individuals work to transform themselves over time. This involves a process of aligning actions with beliefs and ultimately is motivated by a notion of self-improvement in which individuals work out their own notions of truth and their own system of ethics. Thus the concept is inextricably tied to Foucauldian notions of the power that flows throughout society, regulating thoughts, acts and behavior.

In his final complete work on this very topic titled “Care of the Self,” Foucault traces the way that this process has evolved over time. In ancient times, technologies of the self materialized as a cultivation of the soul that was predicated on self-control and self-mastery, whereas in contemporary society, technology of the self is deployed as building one’s own inner character through self-understanding and self-exploration. Foucault used these ideas to theorize a dynamic version of ethics that can only be achieved through practice. For Foucault, there is not a static set of moral rules that exists prior to experience, but ethics are themselves a process of experience.

In “Care of the Self,” Foucault also wrote about the ancient technology of the hypomnema, which is a Greek word meaning reminder or commentary. He talks about the importance in ancient times of writing and note-taking as a means of self-reminder and ultimately self-constitution. These hypomnema, or “notebooks”  should not be seen as diaries which produce truth through confession, Foucault warns, as “the point is not to pursue the indescribable, not to reveal the hidden, not to say the nonsaid, but on the contrary, to collect the already-said, to reassemble that which one could hear or read, and this to an end which is nothing less than the constitution of oneself.” (1) Foucault thus instead relates the hypomnema to self-government or self-care and the construction of a permanent record which mediates a relationship to oneself.

There is an interesting relationship here between the technology of the hypomnema and network technology. Indeed, Foucault himself predicts such a comparison by noting that for ancient civilization the hypomnema, “was as disrupting as the introduction of the computer into private life today.” (1) Had Foucault been writing in the 21st century, when network technology and the digital construction of self have become so invasive to human experience, he most certainly would have seen a connection between the hypomnema and the traces of experience and self-recording that occurs on blogs and social networking sites like facebook. Like the hypomnema, over time these sites become records of experience and collections of self. Perhaps these (web)sites could also be seen as (transformative) sites wherein individuals negotiate their own character or work out self-concept or self-understanding in physically mediated form. Thus, following this logic, we are continually reworking our own concepts of self and negotiating our ethical ideals through personal interaction with our digitally-mediated identities,.

One difference between the hypomnema or personal notebook and something like a blog or a facebook site is the very public and social nature of the web. This gets back to the discussion in my last blog about self-surveillance and the relation of the internet to Foucauldian notions of the panopticon. Clearly this complicates the concept of the digital profile as a site of self-negotiation, as these sites also become regulatory structures predicated on more overarching power structures. However, I think that it may be valuable to view our online personalities as sites of self-construction that we relate to in a dialogical nature and through which we negotiate our ideas of truth. Instead of viewing these sites as revelatory of some inherent truth in the world or truth about ourselves, an experimental approach that moves beyond the Cartesian model of an undisputed interior self to a Deleuzian model of self that is always becoming may open possibilities for digitally-mediated self-creation that maximize the transformative power of the web.

1. From an Interview with Michel Foucault in The Foucault Reader; Paul Rabinow, editor (New York) Pantheon, 1984, p 363-5.