Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Thistle: Foucault's Care of the Self and Harbin Hot Springs

Foucault's Care of the Self and Harbin Hot Springs

In examining how caring for the self functions, Michel Foucault, in the 'Course Summary' in his "Hermeneutics of the Subject," problematizes how caring works. For Foucault, care of the self - epimeleia heautou and cura sui (491) - refers philosophically to taking care of oneself and being concerned about oneself. For Foucault, this involves a kind of therapeutic practice, and also having free time to further this. For Foucault, even as a philosophical activity, it's “a form of activity, where the term epimeleia itself refers not just to an attitude of awareness or a form of attention focused on oneself; it designates a regular occupation, a work with its methods and objectives" (493). So the questions I'll problematize in this essay are: “How would care of the self 'function' on-the-ground at Harbin Hot Springs?” What does the concept of self-knowledge (494), in caring for the self, refer to for Foucault, using Harbin as a site of inquiry? And what does the concept of askesis (498) refer to, also in relation to Harbin. Lastly, what are examples of practices of care of the self at Harbin? Harbin is significant as a site of inquiry because it's an unique assemblage that may make possible specific ways to care for the self.

Foucault uses the metaphor of a farm as his first example of how caring for the self would function, presumably referring to farming practices - caring for and raising plants and animals, presumably as one would oneself. Engaging this metaphor, the aspect of how caring for the self 'functions' that I'm most interested in, vis-a-vis Foucault, has to do with the flourishing and effortlessness that farms at certain times of the year exhibit, to which the practice of farming as a form of caring would give rise.

Foucault's starting point is the Alcibiades, concerning the care of the self, in relation to politics, pedagogy, and self-knowledge. With regard to pedagogy, engaging the practice of philosophy – thinking as an activity - provides a method for caring of the self at all ages. For Foucault, this consists of three functions: 1) a critical function (unlearning), 2) struggle (engagement) and 3) the culture of the self which is therapeutic and curative (495-496).
For Foucault, care of the self occurs through askesis (self-formation) – training as an athlete would (498). For Foucault this includes 1) listening, 2) writing, and 3) taking stock of oneself (500). These activities of self-formation engage then the activity of thinking – the practice of philosophy. The purpose of these care of the self techniques, through askesis, is to link together the truth and the subject.

So, the problematization that interests me most, in terms of caring for the self, vis-a-vis the metaphor of the farm, and the practices of self-learning and askesis (self-formation), is how one might cultivate this flourishing that a farm exhibits, through pedagogy and askesis, informed by philosophy, as a set of practices, in relation to Harbin.

As a farmer can help a farm to flourish through practices that shape it, caring for the self at Harbin Hot Springs, a hot springs' retreat center in northern California that emerged from counterculture in the early 1970s, occurs in a specific assemblage of practices for caring of the self. Fieldwork is one important approach to understanding this assemblage. In addition to examining Harbin ethnographically as a field site, I'd like to problematize the care of the self vis-a-vis Harbin additionally by creating a virtual Harbin - an interactive assemblage - in the form of a field (farm) or even field site. Creating a virtual Harbin Hot Springs might then even make possible a cultivation of comparable assemblages - actual and virtual Harbins - both of which might lead to an understanding of the care of the self vis-a-vis flourishing, in the ongoing examination of how caring for the self functions.

To further this problematization, and in conclusion, if one constructed a virtual Harbin using OpenSim (using open access virtual world software that engages the Second Life library of resources) as open equipment (Koopman et al 2007), how would care of the self function, in terms of pedagogy and askesis in this context. Both writing (ethnography) and programming (virtual world building) as practices could then contribute to problematizing the care of the self in new ways.


Foucault, Michel. 2001. The Hermeneutics of the Subject. New York, NY: Picador.

Koopman, Colin, Murrell, Mary and Schilling, Tom. 2007. A Diagnostic of Emerging Openness Equipment. Available at SSRN:

McGushin, Edward F. 2006. Foucault's Askesis: An Introduction to the Philosophical Life. Chicago, IL: Northwestern.

Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Essay written for Professor Paul Rabinow's "Modes of Veridiction and Jurisdiction" class at UC Berkeley

Back to the pools soon ~

1 comment:

Colin Koopman said...

Interesting, Scott.

Obviously all the work would go into specifying and elaborating what care of self might be in this context.

One rather quick thought is this. Care of self for Foucault is expressed in the figure of Socrates, Socrates as a midwife of self-care, a teacher of self-care, and a philosophical provocation to self-care.

So in an open virtual world self-care might take the form of practical engagements between a wise lover of self-care and a beginning student of self-care. Indeed a virtual hot springs, while interesting, would be a rather desolate place were it not a site for some sort of interaction and engagement. I wonder if that resonates with your experience at Harbin? Why travel all the distance to Harbin when you have a hot bath tub and salts in the other room? It must have something to do with, among other things, the social milieu of the place and the forms of self-care that are socially established and extended there. Perhaps?

I have such an enormous baggage of reservations about Socrates from my reactions against a certain philosophical establishment that it's hard for me to know what to think of this. But when I can find the courage to read Foucault as trying to rescue Socrates from a certain interpretation of him that has been leveraged by contemporary professionalized philosophy then this all seems easier.

By the way, on open source the thing to cite is certainly not the preliminary study we did at Berkeley last year but rather Chris Kelt's Two Bits.