Confucian Rituals and the Technology of the Self: A Foucaultian Interpretation
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Confucian Rituals and the Technology of the Self:
A Foucaultian Interpretation


Modern political theory is "liberation" theory. Liberalism pivots on the idea of individual liberty, defined largely as freedom from government interference in private lives. All major versions of it, from the Lockian social-contract theory to the Rawlsian theory of justice, focus on protecting the rights of the individual. Marxism and other leftist political theories revolve around the notion of recovering and liberating the original freedom of humanity that has been corrupted or otherwise twisted out of recognition by modern society and its institutions. Rousseau, Marx, and Freud all long for the "total revolution" that will free humanity from the decadence of modern society, capitalism, and even civilization itself.1 In marked contrast to modern Western political theories, Confucianism emphasizes harmony in interpersonal relationships and affirms the role of the family, the community, and the state as essential components of a just and humane society. Civilization is considered both the means and the end of human flourishing, not something to be limited, abolished, or otherwise overcome. In terms of its "micro-theory," Confucianism emphasizes self-discipline, ritual propriety, and moral uprightness, not individual freedom and liberation.

At first sight, the disciplined, proper, and moralistic Confucian might seem a far cry from the free, independent, and spontaneous individual of liberalism. The strong emphasis placed on human-relatedness and social harmony, enforced by elaborate codes of ritual conduct, would seem to encourage "rational adjustment to the world," not revolutionary incitement to change it. Confucianism is thus often regarded as the premodern political theory par excellence by modern political theorists. From the May Fourth Movement through the Great Cultural Revolution to the Asian Values debate, Confucianism has always stood as the symbol of feudalism and as the single greatest obstacle to modernity, hindering the development of a scientific outlook, class consciousness, and liberal democratic values.

In what follows, however, I argue that the Confucian practices of self-discipline and ritual propriety are quite suitable for a democratic society. Indeed, not only is Confucianism suitable for democracy, but it also fills an important lacuna in modern democratic theory. In a liberal-democratic society, citizens are given ever more freedom to exercise their rights. However, theories of negative freedom and other "primacy-of-rights" theories have privileged individual liberty and rights to such an extent that citizens in a modern democracy have little basis for mutual consultation, deliberation, and agreement. As a result, there is very little in liberal theory, or in [End Page 315] theories of the left, for that matter, that deals with concrete ways in which freedom can be exercised. Confucian theories and practices of self-discipline and ritual propriety can fill this gap in liberal theory.

In making this point, I enlist the help of Michel Foucault. Foucault's investigations of ancient Greek and Roman technologies of the self in his later works show that the practices of self-cultivation, self-discipline, and ritual conduct do not necessarily inhibit freedom.2 In fact, such practices are indispensable for the proper practice of freedom. Moreover, Foucault's now-famous investigation of the logic of power, discipline, truth, and knowledge provides a profound insight into the nature of freedom and its practice that is not to be found in currently dominant liberal theories. It provides an important antidote to the common misconception that selfdiscipline and ritual propriety are contrary to individual freedom. Foucault thus provides us with a new perspective from which to investigate and affirm the democratic potential of Confucianism.

The Scrutable Body and Li

In the Western philosophical tradition, the metaphysical, the transcendental, or the purely rational has always been the "real." The Platonic eidos, the Christian soul, the Cartesian cogito, and the Kantian noumena all emphasize the priority and the primacy of the metaphysical over the physical as the repository of truth, beauty, and reality. The physical body, on the other hand, has been viewed as the corrupted shadow of the ideal form, the prison of the soul, a mere physical extension or a passing phenomenon. Modern psychology, Freudian or otherwise, emphasizes the conscious/unconscious as the realm that determines our being and character. In contrast...