There are forms of oppression and domination, wrote Michel Foucault, which become invisible – the new normal. Have we normalised oppression today? Are we even aware of it any more?In the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault drew his readers’ attention to the workings of power on the level of one’s sexuality and desire, as both an example and a metaphor of all power relations. He debunked the idea that sex is the locus of the truest form of the self. In fact, this idea turns out to be an invisible mechanism of control. As Foucault put it, it is ‘a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation’. In turn, the ‘stimulation’ cannot do without sex being regulated and monitored, to effectively manage the populace. Still, modern control would not be effective without control being exerted by individuals over themselves, however unknowingly. And the more self-governing our self becomes, the more relevant this becomes.
As such, there is a clear difference between the repressive methods used by the Soviet state to regulate society and the self-discipline of the modern sexually ‘liberated’ generation. The latter has willingly measured and categorised itself through all-encompassing examination and normalisation through beauty standards, nudity and endless discourses on sex. A confessing animal, modern man has made, perhaps, the most intimate part of his self available for mass surveillance. The force of surveillance has significantly increased with the rise of social media, the efficacy of which is not inferior to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: its prisoners are close, yet in isolation from each other; perfectly visible for the watchers, yet unable to see them. In short, the soul is governed by aligning new norms with individual desires and pleasures.
Nevertheless, it is questionable whether such control necessarily has negative implications, as in the case of conventional forms of oppression and domination. It is indeed a hybrid power that does not oppose one’s wishes, but in fact creates them. On the surface of it, Foucault himself seems to take a neutral stance in relation to the new style of governance, rejecting the idea that society can exist without power relations. However, his emphasis on the effects of normalisation on the individual – which ‘attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise’ – reveals a negative attitude. It seems that Foucault confronted the issue of modern governance because of his urge to go beyond the existing perceptions of the self. Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – an ‘attempt to overcome, to bring to oneself, to incorporate’ – may well explain it. It is precisely this ‘instinct for freedom’ that would lead Foucault’s subject to want to become a master in playing these games of power with the strongest possible protection against the abuse of power.
At this point, the connection between freedom and ethics unfolds. Foucault pronounced the nature of freedom to be ethical in itself: ‘Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics’. Yet, he wondered whether it makes sense to say ‘let’s liberate our sexuality’, for the problem of freedom is much more ethical than the rhetoric about desires and pleasures. Thus, it is important, once again to debunk the myth that sexual liberation – or any liberation – is equal to freedom. Indeed, is liberation only about genitals and not about conscience, dignity and self-reflection? Freedom is impossible without self-reflection and the ‘care of the self’. Hence, as ‘taking care of oneself requires knowing oneself’, freedom from imposed knowledge and control becomes a major argument for resistance against modern power.
A bigger question, however, is whether resistance is possible – and here, Foucault led his readers into the labyrinth of philosophical paradoxes. The problem is that the relationship between the self and power is mutually determining. Paradoxically, as the self has essentially become the locus of power today, humans face the challenge of resisting themselves. As a result, the individual is constituted both through the practices of subjection and liberation. Although a fully autonomous self is impossible, those who dare to follow their instinct for freedom inevitably have to overcome these paradoxes on the path of the never-ending process of self-cultivation. As an option, Foucault proposed shaping individual subjectivity through the force of creativity, virtually transforming everyone’s life into a work of art. Metaphorically, ‘why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?’
The questions remain: Who exercises power? Who makes decisions for me? Foucault referred to the notion of ‘governmentality’ to describe modern political reason. Its main characteristic is societies in which governance follows the principle of ‘enterprise’, in which the self is self-sustainable and self-governing, ensuring higher productivity. This is a world in which discipline and control have been internalised by the individuals themselves.