- Authenticity and Distantiation from Oneself: An Ethico-Political Problem
Scholars have often taken Foucault by his words and insisted that his philosophy is completely at odds and opposed to Sartre’s—and Beauvoir’s—existentialism. However, it is my contention that Foucault’s own appreciation and intense critique of existentialist philosophy stems from a series of misunderstandings with regards to the notions of the subject, freedom, and historicity. The purpose of my essay will be to explore affinities between Foucauldian and existentialist philosophy as found in Sartre and Beauvoir’s works, focusing particularly on the ethical notions of authenticity and distantiation from oneself. Indeed, if the existentialist ideal of authenticity as offered by Sartre and Beauvoir aims at a fluctuating self that “is what it is not and is not what it is,” it stands close to the Foucauldian subject of the aesthetics of existence who cares for itself as a subject that is none other than the subject of its own desubjectivation (to pick up on Giorgio Agamben’s analysis).1 The aporia is that of a subject that must care for oneself, yet must distantiate oneself from oneself. Tackling this aporia and explaining its mechanism, my essay will show how the existentialist analysis of authenticity can help articulate the ethical and the political in Foucault, given that the caring self is always an ethico-political agent. The subject that emerges from these processes of individuation/un-individuation is an ambiguous fluctuating subject—the only possible actor in an ever-evolving and morphing political arena.
One of the most important ethical questions driving existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is that of authenticity. Authenticity is posited as the good to be pursued by individuals, but what must the human being do or be in order to be authentic? Sartre grounds this ethical ideal in the ontological and phenomenological. Indeed, it is essential for him to be clear on what kind of being the human being is and how it experiences itself in order to tackle the problem of authentic becoming. Sartre conceives of the human being as an embodied, situated, and intentional consciousness. This being for-itself3 is also a being for-others as it encounters other human beings in the world. Being [End Page 55] and Nothingness presents a complex analysis of the different relations the for-itself engages in, with itself as the only being that is self-conscious, with being in-itself, with others, and with the world and its objects.
Sartre’s first dealings with the issue of authenticity are articulated on the ontological plane, in a manner reminiscent of Heidegger.4 He wishes to evacuate all ethical implications from his discussion. In the chapter on bad faith in Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses the terms “bad faith” and “good faith.” However, Sartre is clear: “good faith” is not the same as authenticity. He says: “If it is indifferent whether one is in good or in bad faith, because bad faith re-apprehends good faith and creeps to the very origin of the project of good faith, that does not mean that we can not radically escape bad faith. But this supposes a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted. This self-recovery we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here” (94). In fact, Sartre’s analysis shows that, fundamentally, good faith amounts to the same as bad faith. Authenticity is an ethical concept while bad faith is a phenomenological-existential concept. When one denies one’s being for-itself, i.e., the fact that one is a being that makes itself and that does not have a fixed nature, one is in bad faith. Thus, the waiter of Sartre’s famous example is in bad faith because he fancies he is a waiter in the strong ontological sense of “is.” To conceive of oneself at odds with one’s ontological being is to be in bad faith. However, bad faith is not an ontological concept although it points to the failure of one’s existential being to correspond to one’s ontological being. Bad faith is a phenomenological...