Ungovernable: reassessing Foucault’s ethics in light of Agamben’s Pauline conception of use

International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 77 (3):191-218 (2016)
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ABSTRACTIn the final volume of his Homo Sacer series, The use of bodies, Agamben claims that for Foucault ethics never escapes the horizon of governmentality and therefore his conception of ethics is ‘strategic.’ In light of this criticism, motivated by Agamben’s Pauline conception of ‘use,’ we reassess the status and function of ethics in Foucault’s late lectures. We investigate how Foucault’s approach to ethics develops from his treatment of liberal governmentality and also how its methodological foundation is developed in an interpretation of truth-telling in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Our interpretation emphasizes the ambiguous status of ethics in Foucault’s late work: on the one hand, Agamben is right that Foucault assigns an irreducible strategic function to ethics thereby connecting it intrinsically to governmentality. On the other hand, Agamben overlooks how Foucault’s interpretation of Sophocles implies a conception of governmentality which emphasizes how ethical practices cannot be captured solely in strategic terms. Foucault’s ‘anarcheological’ approach thus articulates a dimension of ethics that remains, using Agamben’s own terms, ‘ungovernable’ and therefore also genuinely creative. Even so, Foucault’s approach to ethics remains in Agamben’s perspective on the deepest level faced with an antinomy that Agamben seeks to mediate with his Pauline conception of ‘inoperativity.’



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Marius Gudmand-Høyer
Copenhagen Business School
Sverre Raffnsøe
Copenhagen Business School

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