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Archived Comments for: A funny thing happened on the way to the journal: a commentary on Foucault's ethics and Stuart Murray's "Care of the self"

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  1. Something Definitely Not For Everyone: A Reply to Madeleine Murtagh

    Stuart J. Murray, Ryerson University

    19 January 2008

    I am delighted to have lived up to the promise to deliver "something familiar" and "something peculiar," though this was probably something of an accidental accomplishment on my part. I might even embrace the allusion to the Broadway musical, if I could be assured that such an allusion does not trivialise the discourse on ethical responsibility, casting the ethicist in a hackneyed hero's role, to recite lines that are too well-worn, too trite to be true. And yet, accidentally, Madeleine Murtagh nevertheless gestures to a profound ethical truth when she invokes the familiar and the peculiar. Ethics demands both familiarity and peculiarity; there must be a moment of discomfort in ethical decision-making as we experience the peculiar in the midst of the familiar, and we remain unable to assimilate it in a familiar way. In Emmanuel Levinas's terms, this means that we cannot reduce the Other to the Same. And it is this untotalisable alterity, again, for Levinas, that marks the inauguration of the ethical relation, the familiar and yet peculiar call of the Other that alerts me to his or her suffering, and that demands of me an ethical response the terms of which cannot but be discomfiting. We begin to understand the ethical, then, when we stop playing a familiar role and stop rehearsing our well-worn lines. There is such a thing as ethics, according to Jacques Derrida, because "there is no rule.... because I have to invent the rule; and there would be no responsibility if I knew the rule" (Derrida, p. 31). These considerations are too often lost, and what usually passes for ethics is little more than "standard operating procedure."

    If, when the curtain comes down, I have failed to deliver "something for everyone," I make no apologies. I confess, I do not quite understand the terms of Murtagh's final challenge here. Murtagh calls for "something for everyone," and then immediately qualifies this by saying, "just not the universal subject." I think we agree that the universal subject implicates us in a host of ethical problems, and the task of bioethics in the coming years will be to try to imagine an ethics that does not presume as its foundation the autonomous, liberal humanist, universal subject. By calling for "something for everyone," however, I suspect that she ushers in the universal subject by the back door. Either the "everyone" here is already a universal subject, constituted in such a way as to be similarly affected by the universal, or the "something" that is for everyone will have universal appeal, and will succeed in gathering "everyone" under its banner, effectively universalising ethical subjectivity. The universal subject is either presumed or it is a consequence. For this reason, I am happy to offer something that is definitely not for everyone; but in saying this, I must add that this by no means implies that there is nothing for anyone in what I offer. It is, perhaps, a subtle distinction, but not a glibly rhetorical one; on the contrary, it acknowledges social and cultural difference in the interactional and relational dimensions of ethical life. One size does not fit all.

    In the space remaining, I would like very briefly to address Murtagh's three criticisms of my paper. First, Murtagh contends that there is a "voluntarism and individualism inherent in ideas about care of the self," and that I myself am guilty of this charge. In reply, I took pains to distinguish "self care" (which is indeed voluntaristic and individualistic) from Foucault's "care of the self." If Foucault is guilty of endorsing a voluntaristic and individualistic subject, then nobody is safe from such a charge! Foucault's aesthetics does not presume egotism and self-fashioning, nor does it "enjoin the individual to make of themselves a project," as Murtagh writes. While this is always a risk, of course, those who read Foucault in this way misread him, I believe. And to those who read my words in this way, I must apologise for my lack of clarity. I did hope that my discussion of ethical parenthood would demonstrate the ways that the ethical subject is indeed potentially generative and transformative, to use Murtagh's lovely terms. I concur wholeheartedly with her point that we must always be attentive to the symbolic and material dimensions of the social world, though how we do this cannot, again, easily rely on universal principles. Second, I hope I have suggested ways that my work does not negate or neglect an interactional and relational ethics. It's true that this project remains unfulfilled in my paper. I envisage this as a collaborative project whose time is probably yet to come. Instead, I strove in my paper to call attention to emerging biomedical discourses, and how these have begun to inform the social and cultural norms that will shape both a symbolic and materialist ethic. This is the moment for ethicists to "invent the rule," as Derrida says. We must ask: what rules will apply, or more critically still, what are the terms by which we shall understand our emergent biosubjectivities? These terms are still being created and contested; here we have an opportunity to join a debate that very much bears upon the symbolic and material dimensions of human being. Third, and last, I would stress that I did not use the word "coercive" in relation to Foucault's concept of governmentality. The power of technology is neither unilateral nor uni-dimensional, as Murtagh points out. "Persuasion" is a better term than coercion because Foucauldian power is enabling and productive. And "Where there is power, there is resistance," writes Foucault. If my essay is at times pessimistic, it is in the service of a critique that might both empower and sustain us as ethics enters an increasingly peculiar world.


    Derrida, J. Following theory. In life.after.theory. Eds. M. Payne & J. Schad. New York & London: Continuum, 2003.

    Competing interests

    No competing interests.