requiem for certainty

Michel Foucault’s Ethics of Pleasure

with 11 comments

Today a group of us in the Foucault Research Cluster were discussing some of Foucault’s late interviews and writings on sexuality and pleasure.  Foucault seems to be offering (recommending?) an ethics involving (centered around?) the work of pleasure, the use of pleasure, and the activity of living in and through pleasure.

This prompts in me (and prompted in all of us) a question or series of questions surrounding Foucault’s conception of pleasure and how it is supposed to work in such a fashion as to open us up to the possibilities of transformation.  All I am really left with at this point, though, is a question, rather than any sort of answer.

Michel FoucaultThe main problem we found ourselves facing was conceptualizing the relation between pleasure and transformation in Foucault.  Foucault sometimes seems to present a picture of pleasure as an ‘ethical technique’ which facilitates the ‘ethical telos’ of transformation.  Foucault is interested in pleasure because it helps bring about the transformation of the self (and self relations seem to be the ‘ethical substance’ in these interviews).

Okay, so that sounds great.  But how exactly do pleasures facilitate transformation?  I am, to just put it rather simply, puzzled.

What I definitely like is Foucault’s contrastive conception of pleasure as an alternative to desire.  Desire would be a control-freakish mechanism by which we attempt to fulfill a lack that we find in ourselves.  Pleasure would be a transformative (but how?) mechanism by which we attempt to work on the self in such a way as to open it up to the possibility of taking pleasure in acts and events which would otherwise not strike the self.  Pleasure for Foucault seems to function as a kind of process of receptivity.  It is through pleasure that we are able to receive another into the self.  And this, it seems, is supposed to facilitate transformation.


Written by Colin Koopman

April 14, 2010 at 1:41 am

11 Responses

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  1. In 1977, Gilles Deleuze jotted down some notes on his own and Foucault’s respective conceptions of desire and pleasure; they were published, and now they’re reprinted in “Two Regimes of Madness”, under the title “Desire and Pleasure” (pp122ff in the Semiotext(e) English edition).

    Basically, he says (citing private conversations with Foucault), when Foucault hears “desire”, he thinks either of a lack, or of something being repressed and interrupted; whereas, for Deleuze, there’s no lack, but rather the putting-together of something, and the sustained note of an intensity. But, where Deleuze hears “pleasure”, that’s where he thinks of a lack, the cessation of desire and the termination of the process; whereas, for Foucault, pleasure seems to have to do with exultation.

    Deleuze suggests, in a “ha ha just serious” kind of way, that it’s the difference between a Sadist (Foucault) and a Masochist (Deleuze).

    Maybe this text will help you!

    Jeremy Livingston

    April 14, 2010 at 2:30 am

  2. Yeah I like that. I think they are working toward a very similar conception. Deleuze (in Anti-Oedipus) says that he wants to redefine desire. Plato theorized desire as a lack and a negativity. Deleuze wants to redefine desire as productive. Foucault thinks desire cannot be weaned away from the structure of the lack. So in order to get a structure of practice that is productive he thinks we need to move toward pleasure.

    But I like the way you emphasize the difference here in terms of S & M! We were just reading the essays today in which Foucault talks at length about Sado-Masochist sex acts. Sounds like fun stuff!

    Colin Koopman

    April 14, 2010 at 3:07 am

  3. For Foucault is there any sense of “ordered growth” that we find in Dewey as a key component of ethical transformation? Or is the point of pleasure to achieve an absolute openness to the possibility of transgressing any and all limits? It would seem to me atleast that some pleasures are inherently hemmoragic and would dilute one’s vitality that could otherwise be contributed to critical transformation.

    Joe Harroff

    April 17, 2010 at 12:16 am

  4. My sense is that pragmatism (or critical theory) has normative resources here that Foucault lacks. But perhaps Foucault isn’t looking toward an ethics of pleasure in the sense of an ethics of “reconstruction” (Dewey’s technical term for problem-solving) so much as an ethics of, yeah, disruption or transgression. This runs against the grain of how ethics is usually understood.

    I recently attended a paper by the eminent Foucault (and other things) scholar Charles Scott, in which it was argued (rather convincingly) that Foucault’s ethical conceptual of ‘boundary experiences’ (perhaps the heading under which we should classify pleasure?) is all about beginning, or beginning again, rather than say ‘solving’ or ‘reconstructing’.

    Colin Koopman

    April 17, 2010 at 1:56 am

    • I would think that the folks(like Saito/Lysaker) who are following Cavell/Emerson here have something to offer in how our un-conscious orientations/habits/pre-dispositions (which are no doubt related to pleasure centers in the brain and are novelty seeking) which gift us with various forms of inspiration/orientations can be tuned/sublimated/cultivated. Such that we would be more response-able, including being more capable of speaking truths to power, see how Rabinow inserts himself into various vital institutional exchanges. Such that phenomenologists like Dreyfus on moral ‘expertise’ or Lingis on the power of voice become relevant to criticism in action and not just on the page.

      Click to access Lingis.pdf


      April 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm

      • I agree. The only problem I have is that I remain rather ignorant about how we set about the work of cultivating our unconscious dispositions. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just stating an idiosyncratic blindness. I guess I should just say that I’m doing some reading on this now (starting with Shusterman on Foucault; but yes Emerson would be a good place to start too, especially Cavell’s Emerson). So maybe I can report back later.

        colin koopman

        April 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

      • very good, in addition to the post M-Ponty folks following Rorty in his contingency book on sublimating “blind-impresses” one could look into the psychoanalytic/Peirce types like Colapietro ( and the 3rd wave Wittgenstein crowd, you may like Rupert Read:


        April 26, 2010 at 3:08 am

  5. I like the discussion here. I think a further point in this discussion that I think needs reflection, is that if we put Foucault’s thoughts into the larger story of social transformation and deconstruction; taking it into more of a psycho-national, psycho-social, psycho-justice orientation, it would help. His thoughts come from work with transformative and justice movements, not individual psychological transformation. I think the discussion of pleasure and desire is interesting but it seems that readers — especially in the US and of ‘American-mind’ reflect on his thinking and concepts from an individualistic internal metaphysical view. I think we can severely be puzzled along this route. Also, Foucault’s ouvre points to further questioning, not answers that solidify…….


    September 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    • fredrik, for those of us following rorty/rabinow into the later/demythologized foucault i think that there is little truth/value to talking about “movements” apart from what individuals are doing and how they are or are not response-able. so pace zizek and all except as they provide relevant/moving rhetoric, and no to questioning for questions sake as opposed to reflective practioners, evolution not revolution, and being of service. so perhaps a loose kind of care ethics but no meta-physics per say.


      September 10, 2010 at 8:20 pm

  6. Abnormally well written piece of writing

    online games

    October 6, 2011 at 10:02 am

  7. That was revelatory blog post..


    December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm

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