We Other Foucauldians and the Anthropology of Ethics

I had a pretty major epiphany a little over a month ago, one of those intellectual biography milestones that throws you pacing around...

I had a pretty major epiphany a little over a month ago, one of those intellectual biography milestones that throws you pacing around the room. The realization goes something like this: There is a striking continuity between the three independent research projects that I have pursued (with varying degrees of ideation and completion) over the past four years, and this continuity is most legible through the vocabulary of Foucauldian ethics. In what follows, I will try to explain my growing sense that I am a scholar who studies selves in a late Foucauldian way. To do so, I will first clarify my renewed understanding and engagement with Foucault contra a certain facile reading of him in the Anglophone social sciences as a powerphobic theorist of domination. I then sketch out some of the contours of the Foucauldian anthropology of ethics qua James Laidlaw and James Faubion. I conclude by very briefly introducing the three projects I have worked on thus far—my undergraduate thesis on “the STS-informed engineer,” an (auto?)ethnographic project I was working on between October 2017 and May 2018 on the celigay Christians of the Spiritual Friendship movement, and a project on sticky rice politics and racialized sexualities that I pitched to apply to master’s programs in Women and Gender Studies this cycle—and suggest that their candidacy as projects in the anthropology of ethics. In subsequent blog posts, I will consider in much more detail each of these three projects as I continue working out this intellectual autobiography blog series.

We Other Foucauldians

In December of 1976, Foucault published The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (HS1). An extension of his project in Discipline and Punish (1975) (DP) to construct an analytics of power attentive to the omnipresence of power relations from the 18th century onward that constitute—and thus not simply impinge upon—the body in its state of docility, HS1 also argues for a fundamental shift in the operations of power around the same time from that of a juridico-discursive type based on sovereign negation to one centrally concerned with ‘making live’. The remarkable innovation of HS1 is to extend Foucault’s analytics of power beyond the disciplinary site of the body to the regularizing scale of the population. As he states in the March 17th, 1976 lecture of his “Society Must Be Defended” course at the Collège de France: “Sexuality exists at the point where the body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (p. 251-252). Thus, HS1 marks a pivotal development in Foucault’s analytics of power, one that brings together the “anatomo-politics of the human body,” concerned with “the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls,” and the “biopolitics of the population,” concerned with “the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological  processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary” (p. 139).

At least this is the conventional chronological reading of Foucault’s work throughout the 1970s as a progressively sophisticated treatise on power in the modern era. Far from a theory of power whose mechanism of coercion is threat of bodily violence or death, a Foucauldian power analysis draws attention to a distinctively modern form of power that acts pervasively and subtly on the very constitution of the subject qua person and population. Beyond notions of negation and repression, power is first and foremost productive. The historical argument, in Foucault’s own words, goes something like this:

“[B]eggining in the eighteenth century, [new mechanisms of power] took charge of men’s existence, men as living bodies. And if it is true that the juridical system was useful for representing, albeit in a nonexhaustive way, a power that was centered primarily around deduction and death, it is utterly incongruous with the new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.” (HS1, p. 89)

For Foucault, modern power does not operate through negation and repression as in the case of ‘punishment’ and ‘law’, nor is it centralized around ‘right’; instead, modern power is productive and diffuse. A Foucauldian analysis of these “new methods of power” operative in the modern era, then, explores processes of normalization and social control that are not reducible to the Sovereign, run throughout the social body, and realize their efficacy through the disciplinary formation of persons and the management of populations.

Such are the analyses that have proliferated throughout the social sciences and that I have encountered in one form or another through graduate seminars, conferences, and informal conversation with colleagues. The cachet of these analyses, it seems to me, traffics in a simplification of Foucault’s understanding of power as an exercise of domination and hence a certain speaker’s benefit for the analyst, who ‘pulls the curtain’ on every aspect of the social world only to reveal, time and time again, capillary upon capillary of power delivering life itself to mistakenly self-possessed subjects. While the analytics of power have changed in the beheaded era of political theory, the posture of the analyst has not. Freedom, for these Foucauldians, is conceptually ensnared in zero-sum opposition to power qua domination, and hence their posture is unapologetically powerphobic. The problem with this evocation of Foucault is that it smuggles into his ouevre a liberal humanist nostalgia for a predominated humanity, which is to say an originary essence that runs counter to the whole project of Foucauldian genealogy.

The operations of power, while constitutive of subjectivity, nevertheless offend the subject at its core. Ours is a society saturated by power, and thus the dilemma of our self-determination. Or so they say.

We other Foucauldians are a bit bored of the powerphobe Foucault’s headless chicken show.

. . .

In a January 1984 interview published as “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Foucault (1994 [1984]) explicitly responds to the fallacious synechdochal chain—domination≡power≡Foucault, when the proper reading goes something like domination⊂power⊂Foucault—that we other Foucauldians find so egregious. Foucault clarifies the distinction between power and domination that seems so muddled in the social sciences today. To be terse, domination is a subset of power relations. Consider Foucault’s definition of domination—

“The analysis of power relations is an extremely complex area; one sometimes encounters what may be called situations or states of domination in which the power relations, instead of being mobile, allowing the various participants to adopt strategies modifying them, remain blocked, frozen. When an individual or social group succeeds in blocking a field of power relations, immobilizing them and preventing any reversibility of movement by economic, political, or military means, one is faced with what may be called a state of domination.” (Foucault 1994 [1984], p. 283; emphasis mine)

—alongside his definition of power relations—

“[W]hen one speaks of power, people immediately think of a political structure, a government, a dominant social class, the master and the slave, and so on. I am not thinking of this at all when I speak of relations of power. I mean that in human relationships, whether they involve verbal communication such as we are engaged in at this moment, or amorous, institutional, or economic relationships, power is always present: I mean a relationship in which one person tries to control the conduct of the other. So I am speaking of relations that exist at different levels, in different forms; these power relations are mobile, they can be modified, they are not fixed once and for all.” (Foucault 1994 [1984], pp. 291-292; emphasis original)

What these two excerpts make clear is that, while it is true that social life is saturated in power relations “in which one person tries to control the conduct of the other,” power relations analytically exceed states of domination and thus are not exhausted by them. Domination is a specific species of blocked, frozen, immobile relations of power; power relations, which are “mobile, reversible, and unstable” (p. 292), are the genus.

In this same interview, Foucault introduces his notion of freedom to clarify his thinking around power. The mobility and reversibility of power relations inhere in the ubiquity of freedom, or in his own words: “power relations are possible only insofar as the subjects are free [. . .] if there are relations of power in every social field, this is because there is freedom everywhere” (p. 292). Expanding on this point, James Laidlaw (2018) writes that “we influence others as subjects with their own intentions and capacities . . . . and therefore the exercise of power among persons involves reckoning with the freedom of each other” (p. 177). But this begs the question: What exactly does Foucault mean by freedom?  It should be clear from the preceding distinction between power and domination (and of course his critique of the repressive hypothesis) that Foucault has something more in mind than negative liberty. Yet to say that Foucault means positive liberty when he speaks of freedom only gets us a bit farther. While ‘freedom to‘ captures a crucial element of Foucault’s desire for “the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible” (p. 298), it risks dragging behind it a universalized notion of the elective subject of rationale choice and doesn’t adequately account for the primacy of reflection in Foucault’s articulation of freedom alongside ethics.

“[E]thics”, according to Foucault (1994 [1984]), “is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection,” and “[f]reedom is the ontological condition of ethics” (p. 284). To understand what Foucault might mean by this dual statement, we must unpack his use of the term “ethics.” In the most general sense, Foucault has a deeply ascetic conception of ethics as “an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being” (p. 282). Foucauldian ethics revolve around the various techniques of the self—which Foucault defines in an earlier seminar as techniques “which permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault 1994 [1982], p. 225)—operative in the full horizon of historically constituted possibilities spanning the question Who now shall I become? Freedom, then, concerns the fact that the question of becoming is posed as a question and thus requires reflection. To become, in the active sense that pervades Foucault’s later writings, requires a conscious answer to the question of becoming considered amidst many other answers. Without this consideration, becoming is not “ethical” for Foucault and indeed may be legible as a form of domination. Thus he states that freedom is the ontological condition of ethics and ethics is the considered form of freedom.

A fuller understanding of Foucault’s later thought pivots on a proper reading of the relationship between domination, power, freedom, and ethics, a reading that I have attempted to sketch out here. Foucault claims that “[t]he idea that power is a system of domination that controls everything and leaves no room for freedom cannot be attributed to me” (p. 293) because he conceptualizes domination as a subset of power and power (at least in its ideal form) as contingent on the freedom of subjects to both attempt otherwise and cede to relations of power—again, which are not necessarily relations of domination—in their ethical becomings. To be clear, power still plays a central role in Foucault even after his turn to ethics; however, it is not the dystopic powers of DP and HS1, and Foucault’s posture is anything but powerphobic. Instead, he insists that “power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free from” (p. 298) and invites us to consider how practices of freedom proliferate across and through, transform and intensify, configure and are configured by relations of power.

. . .

At least that is my attempt at wriggling out of the caricature of Foucault as powerphobic theorist of domination. I wholly acknowledge that I have built my argument almost exclusively off of a single interview given towards the end of his life; provided a weak discussion of Foucault’s notion of freedom without dealing with his (perhaps ironic, as some have argued) relationship to Sartrean existentialism; need to say more about his insistence elsewhere on the primacy of “agonism” or “combat” instead of “an essential freedom” in the constitution of the subject (Foucault 1982, p. 790) and the associated antinormative reading of Foucault’s ethics taken up in some queer studies scholarship; conducted no bibliometric analyses to empirically substantiate my claims regarding the citational life of an author; and am perhaps being snarky with a title as ostentatious as ‘We Other Foucauldians’. To be sure, I am painting in broad strokes and, as with most things on this blog, writing more for the sake of exorcising my own demons than the pursuit of scholarly excellence. Pulled punches aside, I do hope to name something of substance by identifying as a different kind of Foucauldian than what is mainstream in the Anglophone social sciences—a late Foucauldian, to be exact, one who takes seriously Foucault’s self-narration that “it is not power but the subject which is the general theme of my research” (p. 778) and is intrigued by the implication that “he is best read backwards rather than forwards” (Robinson 2011).

If my characterization of Foucault’s citational life as a powerphobic theorist of domination in the social sciences rings at all true, I still must explain what exactly the later Foucault was up to.. It is to this task I now turn. But let me be clear at the outset: I am working out an understanding of Foucault’s later work focused on its utility for social scientific inquiry, and decidedly not building up to an argument about how to best interpret his ‘turn to ethics’. I leave this latter task of explicating Foucault’s last decade to the actual Foucault scholars.

. . .

“I think that if one wants to analyze the genealogy of the subject in Western civilization, he has to take into account not only techniques of domination but also techniques of the self.” (Foucault 1993 [1980], p. 203)

In the fall of 1980, Foucault gave a series of lectures at various universities in the United States that mark a shift in concern from power to the self. Two lectures, respectively titled “Truth and Subjectivity” and “Christianity and Confession,” were delivered first as the Howison Lectures at Berkeley on October 20th and 21st and then again at Dartmouth on November 17th and 24th. Foucault later insisted that these two lectures could be retitled together as “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self.” Indeed, in conjunction with each other, these two lectures excavate, in characteristically Foucault fashion, a historical shift that illuminates the conditions operative in the present: namely, the transformation of practices of self-examination and confession in ancient Greek philosophy as a part of the gnomic constitution of the self to the gnoseological self of divulged inner truths in early Christianity. The subsequent volumes of Foucault’s History of Sexuality follow this line of argument and deal more in depth with the techniques of the self operative in Greco-Roman civilization (Volumes 2 and 3) and early Christianity (Volume 4). Taken as a whole, then, Foucault’s work towards the end of his life is an attempt to construct a genealogy of the modern subject through an examination of the birth of the hermeneutics of the self, a hermeneutics centered on the discovery and revelation of the self, knowing thyself and confessing thyself—that same hermeneutics underlying Christian monastic John Cassian’s (360-435) exagoreusis, French psychiatrist François Leuret’s (1797-1851) cold showers, and the regime of truth in which we now still live.

At least that is my horrendously succinct summary of Foucault’s project up until his untimely death in 1984. For the purposes of this blog post, I am more interested in examining what Foucault’s later works offer for social scientific inquiry rather than parsing the finer points of his genealogical argument.

“Foucault saw [the object of] ethical analysis as the free relationship to the self,” writes Paul Rabinow in his 1994 edition of Foucault’s Ethics, “—a relationship that can be examined through four basic categories: ethical substance, mode of subjectivation, ethical work, and telos” (p. xxvii). In brief: ethical substance refers to whatever aspect of human experience is thematized as a site of concern and object of work, be it one’s thoughts, sexual desires, etc.; mode of subjectivation refers to the way in which an individual comes to recognize their obligation to a rule, system of conduct, or particular ethical project; ethical work refers to the practices of the self, the ascetic training, required to fulfill said ethical project; and telos refers to end of a given ethical project, the state of being that project holds as its realization. Known within the social sciences for this fourfold schema, Foucault’s later work serves as a template from which to study forms of ethical life on the premise that “in any historical instance, they [the aforementioned four categories] are always found in a specific configuration” (p. xxviii). The task of a genealogy of ethics is to understand how people come to work on specific parts of themselves in an attempt to attain a particular mode of being at various points in time such that we may be loosened from our own understanding of ourselves.

This Foucault, the genealogist of ethics, is the one I am coming to embrace. Notice that while relations of power are surely in the background, they do not take center stage—which puts me in a weird position evoking the name of Foucault in the contemporary social sciences. What’s a late Foucauldian like myself to do? Where might a fascination with the various ways in which people cultivate themselves into particular kinds of persons best be nourished? Who else is thinking with the genealogist of ethics’ fourfold heuristic?

The (Foucauldian) Anthropology of Ethics

While no one could coherently argue that anthropology has never been concerned with ethics and morality, most anthropologists would agree that there has been something of an “ethical turn” in the last two decades (see Throop 2016 and Keane 2016). As Cheryl Mattingly and Jason Throop (2018) put it in a recent article in the Annual Review of Anthropology, this ethical turn attempts “a movement beyond Durkheim’s ‘moral facts’” (p. 478), a movement called for by James Laidlaw in his 2001 Malinowski Memorial Lecture, entitled “For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom.” In this lecture, Laidlaw (2002) criticizes the Durkheimian legacy of equating morality and society in social science scholarship, which collapses moral life into the smooth functioning of social collectivities. Morality, in Laidlaw’s reading of Durkheim, is a question of how well we “obey the dictates of social collectivities” as a result of “how well arranged and integrated those collectivities are, and of how well we are socialized into them” (p. 314). For Laidlaw, along with many in the anthropology of ethics and morality (though not all share this animosity), the Durkheimian blasphemy lies in its dissolution of morality as a dimension of social life unto itself demanding investigation. How might anything approaching a robust set of scholarly conversations around the ethical and moral dimensions of human existence occur when such dimensions are read out as various forms of shadow puppetry (“sometimes ‘culture’, sometimes ‘ideology’, sometimes ‘discourse’” (p. 312)?

Enter Laidlaw’s big claim—”There cannot be a developed and sustained anthropology of ethics without there being also an ethnographic and theoretical interest – hitherto largely absent from anthropology – in freedom” (p. 311)—and his theoretical muse, the late Foucault. Laidlaw finds in Foucault’s later works “a way of studying ethical freedom ethnographically (p. 322). This freedom, Laidlaw (2017) later clarifies, is a “reflective freedom” based on the human capacity “to reflect, to stand back from their own conduct and constitute it as an object of knowledge, and to act so as to change themselves” (p. 8). (Indeed, my discussion of Foucault’s notion of freedom above is heavily influenced by Laidlaw’s reading.) Gesturing towards what an anthropology of ethics premised on a Foucauldian notion of freedom might look like, Laidlaw concludes his Malinowski Lecture:

“Wherever and in so far as people’s conduct is shaped by attempts to make of themselves a certain kind of person, because it is as such a person that, on reflection, they think they ought to live, to that extent their conduct is ethical and free. And to the extent that they do so with reference to ideals, values, models, practices, relationships, and institutions that are amenable to ethnographic study, to that extent their conduct becomes the subject matter for an anthropology of ethics.” (Laidlaw 2002, p. 327)

The same year as Laidlaw’s Malinowski Lecture, James Faubion published an article entitled “Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis,” which also attempts to chart out an anthropology of ethics through Foucault’s later writings. Like Laidlaw, but without specifically pinning Durkheim, Faubion (2001) laments how prior anthropological scholarship “manifest a tendency to dissolve value into obligation, the desirable into the normative” (pp. 83-84) and thus obscure any systematic inquiry into what Faubion calls the “ethical field.” For Faubion, Foucault’s later writings provide a conceptual basis for “a comparative anthropology of […] pedagogies of autopoiesis” (p. 8). Intentionally implicit in this wording is the explicit claim that such an anthropology offers a way of “extricating ourselves from the dilemmas of decisionism and determinism” (pp. 100-101), for autopoiesis is by definition a form of endogenous self-production and pedagogy coheres through an exogenous pedagogue. Thus Faubion notes that the ethical field, which he seems to define in a similar scope as Laidlaw at this point in their writing, “certainly includes choice [but also] reveals an array of human activities that are neither deliberative nor ‘driven’” (p. 84).

Both Laidlaw and Faubion agree that ‘the ethical’ exceeds power. Faubion (2001) resists “the thesis that [Foucault’s] analytics reveals the ethical field to be nothing more than yet another field of ‘subjugation’” (p. 86) and Laidlaw (2014) writes against social scientific research that traffics in invocations of “‘the social’ – or ‘ideological state apparatuses’, ‘the global system’, ‘neo-liberalism’. ‘colonialist discourse’, or whatever (I add: ‘power’) – [which is] supposed directly or straightforwardly to explain why people do one thing rather than another” (pp. 3-4). Accordingly, both Laidlaw and Faubion have a strong sense of the ethical as an irreducible dimension of human experience that demands accommodation within anthropological inquiry. Yet there are striking differences in their respective Foucauldian anthropologies of ethics, which I hope to make clear in how each conceives of ‘problematization’.

Contrasting his work from that of anthropologist of moralities Jarrett Zigon (2007), Laidlaw clarifies his use of problematization as “an aspect of [Foucault’s] genealogical method” (p. 118). Laidlaw elaborates: “For any period or millieu, in any text or discourse, one should look for what it is that is problematized, for what is the subject of concern, reflection, and uncertainty, and for the forms which that concern and reflection take” (ibid). In other words, problematization functions as a part of the Foucauldian Fourfold for Laidlaw, a way of describing how a given project of self-formation ‘selects’ its ethical substance. Things are problematized within an ethical becoming.

This understanding of problematization is consistent with Laidlaw’s larger project for his anthropology of ethics, which he has most recently described as follows:

“This is the genealogist’s task, which is also the anthropologist’s: to describe diverse forms of ethical reflection and practice so as to bring their distinctiveness – together with the contingency of those we take for granted – into focus, in such a way that we might learn not only about but also from them.” (Laidlaw 2014, p. 124)

This most recent mission statement, in conjunction with the statement quoted at length above from his Malinowski Lecture, suggests that Laidlaw, a warm-blooded Geertzian, is advocating for a kind of ‘sheeps-and-valleys‘ revival whereby the intellectual merit of his anthropology of ethics is, at least in part, staked upon adding another shelf to The Ethnographic Record. I will say more about what I think about this project in a bit, but first must turn back to Faubion.

Problematization takes on a wholly different valence in Faubion’s anthropology of ethics. Rather than being a term internal to the Foucauldian Fourfold, for Faubion (2001), “each of these parameters [ethical substance, mode of subjectivation, ethical work, and telos] can itself be the focus of problematization” (p. 98). In other words, problematization occurs one level removed from the genealogist’s fourfold analysis and is not one of the genealogist’s conceptual categories for examining the ethical substance of a given project (i.e. “X is problematized and thus is the materia ethica of project Y”). Entire ethical projects, including their specific parts, can be problematized, that is, brought into the realm of reflection.

Faubion’s conceptualization of problematization is consistent with the larger ambition of his anthropology of ethics to contribute to canonical conversations in social theory. Whereas Laidlaw seems to be content with a Geertzian raison d’être, Faubion (2001) is interested in “ethical homeostasis” and “ethical change,” and the ways in which problematization “occasionally [precipitates] or [incites] the parametric transformation of one ethical field into another, perhaps unprecedented one” (pp. 97-98). Faubion (2011) expresses this concern around broader processes of stasis and change with his “distinction between the ethical domain as a totality, and what is ‘themitical’ within it” (p. 20). By “themitical,” Faubion refers to “the more homeostatic and reproductive aspects of ethical autopoiesis (ibid.) which “belong largely to the order of the reproduction of what at any particular place and point in time constitutes the regnant normative order” (p. 24). The ethical/themitical distinction offers a way of honing in on the inventive and reproductive aspects of ethical projects and their effects on a given sociohistorical millieu. Hence, Faubion’s anthropology of ethics might best be characterized as, in his own words, “[a]n anthropology of ethical homeostasis and change” (Faubion 2001, p. 101).

While I do not have the background to fully contend with the Luhmannian systems theoretics that are braided throughout Faubion’s anthropology of ethics, I am very sympathetic to the ambitions of his project. And, while my rhetoric might have suggested otherwise, I am also very sympathetic to Laidlaw’s Geertzian romanticism. In other words, I carry with me on this foray into the Foucauldian anthropology of ethics a documentary interest in the various ways in which people have attempted to make themselves into certain kinds of persons, but also a broader desire to understand how the social world in which we live is changing, as indexed and precipitated by various ethical projects.

More will have to be said in future blogpost about how my interests may or may not fit within the wider expanse of the anthropology of ethics and morality, including but not limited to authors such as: the late Saba Mahmood and her spouse, Charles Hirschkind; Jarrett Zigon and Jason Throop; Veena Das and Michael Lambek; Cheryl Mattingly; Joel Robbins; Didier Fassin; Webb Keane; and others. For the purposes of this blogpost, I have stayed close to Laidlaw and Faubion’s versions since I am specifically working out of a strong Foucauldian affinity and seeking to write a chapter of intellectual autobiography. It is to this later task I now turn.

STS-Informed Engineers, Celigay Christians, and Sticky Rice

Recall from the beginning of this post that I mentioned three projects. In an attempt to keep manageable an already too busy blog post, I will only briefly introduce these projects here and will write specifically about each of them as I continue reading in the anthropology of ethics and morality.

In chronological order, the first project is my undergraduate thesis, which was a case study of the Department of Engineering and Society (E&S) at the University of Virginia (UVA) completed during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic year. E&S’s primary departmental mandate is to teach a substantive four-course social science and humanities sequence, drawing primarily on scholarship from Science and Technology Studies (STS), to every UVA engineering undergraduate. I was interested in the particular kinds of engineering professional identities that were being cultivated at UVA through E&S. More specifically, I wanted to know what kind of engineer the E&S faculty were hoping to educate through their STS teaching and what kinds of engineers were in fact being formed. Accordingly, the majority of my thesis focused around two interview sets, one with E&S faculty on what they hoped to accomplish through their teaching and the other with UVA engineering students of the Class of 2016 on what they were getting out of their STS coursework. I also did a bit of archival and oral history work on the history of teaching STS to engineers at UVA, but this portion never made it into the actual thesis.

The second project is a bit more difficult to narrate for multiple reasons. First, the question of whether it is ethnographic or autoethnographic is an open question; second, I never formally pursued this project under faculty mentorship or IRB approval, which raises serious questions regarding research ethics; and third, only a select few people within the community I was studying were aware of my research interests (i.e. research ethics questions again). More will definitely be said about all this in the future. The community I was studying, which I negotiated as someone who was “part” (re: reason one above) of, were the celibate sexual minority Christians of the Spiritual Friendship (SF) movement.  Broadly speaking, the SF movement seeks to explore and make possible various forms of lay celibate flourishing for sexual minority Christians who adhere to a traditionalist sexual ethic. This movement is what has emerged in the wake of traditionalist Christian communities coping with the monumental and damaging failures of ex-gay conversion therapy. Rather than condemn homosexuality as a pathology in need of reparative discipline, members of the SF movement instead focus on countercultural practices of friendship, various forms of human intimacy and experience not consummated in genital sexual intercourse, and creating ecclesial communities that support celibate sexual minority Christians in their pursuits. At the time of my involvement in this movement, I was very interested (and still am) in its various paradoxes: doctrinally heteronormative, discursively homopositive; both anti-homophobic and homophobic; a queer kind of queer. I’ll explain everything in due time.

The third project is much easier to narrate because I haven’t actually done much fieldwork, archive work, interview work, etc. It is a project only in ideation at this phase, though I have been doing a lot of reading around it. Last month, I submitted applications to two MA programs in gender studies with a declared interest in racialized seuxalities and sticky rice politics. The phrase “sticky rice politics” refers to a burst of cultural production amongst gay Asian male videoartists in the 1990s who valorized intraracial intimacy as a form of antiracist sexual praxis. In response to the hegemonic desirability of white men and concurrent sexual demotion of Asian men in gay culture, these videoartists conceived of Asian-white pairings as a product of false consciousness, an internalization of white superiority and yellow inferiority, and put forth Asian-Asian pairings as revolutionary, self-loving, and hence desirable. I am interested in exploring what became of sticky rice politics today given the broad proliferation of discourses around sexual racism. To what extent are queer Asian diasporic communities still committed to the project of sticky rice? How have various knowledges and logics around racial and sexual subjectivity that animate sticky rice politics shifted and/or stabilized since the 1990s?

Notice the common thread: these three endeavors are ethical projects of self-formation amenable to a Foucauldian analytics. The telos of each project is a specific state of being: the STS-informed engineer working with an attentiveness towards the social impact of their work; the celigay Christian flourishing within the bounds of sexual orthodoxy; the sticky rice subject embracing himself through his embrace of another like himself. The various ways in which persons may be bound to said projects: professional responsibility, religious commitment, and racial identity; the ethica materia of each project: engineering practice, sexuality, and sexual attractions; and the various kinds of ethical work that must be performed to succeed in each project, which cannot be easily delineated in advanced. The point here is not to analyze in detail each case through the Foucauldian Fourfold (this will perhaps be the subject of the subsequent blog posts), but rather to highlight a continuity in form. It seems that I have intellectually gravitated to a particular genus of social phenomenon across three distinct contexts.

Notice also how each of these cases go beyond constituting another addition to the consultable record of how people have attempted to make themselves into particular kinds of persons (re: Laidlaw). Each case indexes larger sociohistorical movements (re: Faubion): the history of engineering as a profession, engineering education, and the institutionalization of STS in the broader context of how we (ought to) build our contemporary world; how traditionalist Christians are navigating a post-ex-gay landscape in the midst of increasing LGBTQ+ visibility and changing public sentiment; 20th and 21st century antiracist activism, the formation of queer of color communities, the social life of various racial ettiquettes and understandings of sexuality, the conditions for queer Asian diasporic consciousness. Hence my growing sense that these projects, in addition to being amenable to a Foucauldian analytics of ethical formation, are perhaps best situated, at least tangentially if not primarily, within the anthropology of ethics. But I will need to interrogate this last hunch further through future blog posts.

In conclusion, recall that the purpose of this blog series is to attempt a bit of intellectual biography. To that effect, it is worth noting that I thought of myself as an STSer when I completed my undergraduate thesis project; was exploring religious studies and queer studies when I was working on the SF movement project; and thought of myself as an aspiring queer Asian Americanist when I started thinking seriously about sticky rice politics. I am still certain that I am not an STSer and know that my (very brief) foray into religious studies resulted in no durable affiliations. The question of queer studies and Asian American studies remains open. All I know at this point is that the common thread throughout all of these endeavors is a certain late Foucauldian sensibility that is currently being nourished in the anthropology of ethics.

More soon.

One comment

Comments are closed.