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The Body Politic: Foucault and Cynics

Paul Allen Miller

University of South Carolina

In Foucault’s last lectures, he turned to the Cynics (2009).  At a time when he was obviously ill, and increasingly frail, he continued to give his weekly lectures at the Collège de France.  He spoke of these ancient philosophers who, like the Platonists traced their lineage to Socrates, but who refused to accumulate a body of doctrine, who lived their lives in the public square, who begged, ate scraps, and masturbated in public.  The Cynics were the « dogs » of philosophy. They were the street corner preachers who confronted us with our conformity, our petty hypocrisies, our dishonesties. Their bodies themselves were a locus of truth and a challenge to complacency.  Foucault in his penultimate lecture says:

Cynicism was not simply a crude, insolent, and rudimentary reminder of the problem of the philosophic life.  It posed a very important question, or rather, it seems to me, it gave its position on the theme of the philosophic life by posing the following question : life, in order truly to be the life of truth, should it not be an other life, radically and paradoxically other ?  (2009 : 226)

This call for a radical otherness, as defined by the Platonic spark or the Cynic provocation, is at the center of the final Foucault, and it is this same call that I would argue we must heed.   In the end, what is most authentic is not the infinitely reproducible, but the moment of irreducible insight, of queer intelligibility, which makes possible a form of self-relation and of relation to others that is based on curiosity and care, one which opens new possibilities of self-invention and resistance, new forms of truth.  Thus at the end of his lecture notes, though he did not have time to utter these words, Foucault writes, “But to finish what I want to insist on is this: there is no instilling of truth without an essential position of alterity: truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of another world, another life” (2009 : 311). 

He did not have time to deliver these, however.  Instead, of course, the last words his audience heard were simply, « Well then, listen. I had some things to tell you concerning the general framework of these analyses.  But, in the end, it’s too late.  So, thank you » (2009 : 309).  And it is perhaps to this final spirit of care, gratitude, and humility that we owe our greatest debt : his simple but effective and moving commitment to the « courage of truth ».  This essay will offer a reading of his final lectures on the Cynics as a public philosophy of the body, in all its frailty.

Session/Panel Title

Foucault and Antiquity Beyond Sexuality

Session/Paper Number

37.6

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