Thursday, December 18, 2008

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.

I'd like to suggest that reading Foucault's 'Course Summary' in “Hermeneutics of the Subject” provides ways to philosophically analyze how 'care of the self' might 'work,' in the present, at Harbin Hot Springs. Harbin Hot Springs is a hot springs retreat center in northern California. By examining how Foucault develops a reading of the terms 'askesis' and 'pedagogy,' in particular, - terms which both connote learning - I'll develop and articulate a Foucauldian conception of 'care of the self,' as a category with which to interpret Harbin Hot Springs ethnographically. In doing so, I'll engage fieldwork as a key method for this ethnography of the present, thus engaging questions of process and temporality in examining how 'care of the self' at Harbin works. As part of my Harbin Hot Springs' ethnographic project to model Harbin Hot Springs in a virtual world as ethnographic representation, and to create a virtual field site for comparison with actual Harbin, I'll also examine questions of ways in which 'care of the self' as practices may and do emerge in Harbin.

Motivation in Actual and Virtual Harbin

In terms of the question of motivation vis-a-vis Foucault's 'care of the self,' my actual–virtual Harbin project offers ways to engage and represent Harbin discursively in new ways, anthropologically and in the present. With respect to Socrates' offer of friendship and eros, Harbin's milieu – especially people at Harbin {the visitors and residents I'm 'studying'} in the pool area - generates multiple ways to examine and engage these practices. With respect to Socrates' relationship with Alcibiades, the generation of a Harbin discourse, through representing Harbin, makes possible a developing dialog, leading to a reflexive examination of 'care of the self' at Harbin, especially in terms of method, memory and meditation.

The textual representation of Harbin-emerging-from-counterculture, as ethnography, makes possible a discursive engagement, in academic spaces, with questions of friendship and eros. The generation of virtual Harbin (in Second Life / Open Sim), not only makes possible the representation of an ethnographic field and interactive space for avatars as guests to visit Harbin, but also avatar-mediated human communication within the now-virtual Harbin milieu. Improvisational emergence of avatar-friendships and possible avatar-eros as generative discursive practice make possible new opportunities for Harbin residents, as well as guests, and give new form to ethnographic interview. [In an academic space, people who study 'care of the self,' ethnographic discourse, as well as virtual processes, can engage themselves in this developing communication process in new ways - academically. In mediating between both Harbin visitors and residents, actual and virtual (avatars), a wide variety of new 'practices' – including lending a hand, critique, eros, friendship, curiosity, listening, therapy, - in the field may emerge, in addition to those that have already taken form at Harbin.

Entering into a 1) discursive process – so, teaching about Harbin dialogically as site of ethnography, as well as 2) examining philosophically questions of governing – in a positive sense - i.e. care of the self, also emerge in new ways, vis-a-vis this actual-virtual Harbin project.

Problem and Venue in Actual and Virtual Harbin


The site, space, or discourse that is Harbin Hot Springs emerges into the present out of a blockage, difficulty, or breakdown that was the late 1960s and early 1970s, (as well as modernity) where widespread expressions of counterculture found form. Harbin's ongoing expression as site, space, or discourse requires both the conceptual work of understanding this unique assemblage, as well as the narratives that emerge there which inform the Harbin experience. The parallel practical work which my fieldwork as well as my creation of virtual Harbin Hot Springs in Second Life / OpenSim gives rise to, as problem, concerns the disjunctions that develop in the actual-virtual space.

The blockage that is Harbin vis-a-vis modernity, and as an organization - in the present - becomes the platform for the elaboration of tensions, where the people, actors and organizations that are my informants, and Harbin, Heart Consciousness Church, New Age Church of Being, and the Watsu Center, etc., both give rise to breakdowns, as well as shape practices in an ongoing way that make up the 'Harbin experience.' Additionally, in examining these breakdowns that occur 1) in studying actual Harbin ethnographically, 2) in creating a virtual Harbin, and 3) in giving form to these blockages vis-a-vis both the 'actual' and the 'virtual,' the disjunctions that emerge between these two aspects give new form to this study of Harbin.


Two venues, then, emerge from this problem. 'Actual' Harbin becomes the venue that shapes both the narratives and the objects of inquiry, including the pools, the pool area, etc., explicit understandings of the present, questions of embodiment, and the Harbin experience.

And 'virtual' Harbin, as information technology in the form of virtual world building, and then avatar interaction in what will become a comparative in-world, field site, which then gives expression to new forms of narrativity. So, venue includes here a new form of 'textual' generation.

In addition to the venue of actual Harbin, the venue here becomes both literally a kind of informational technological equipment – virtual Harbin, as well as the generation of this as ethnographic practice – in the present.

Venue, Problem, Flourishing

How does venue as 'scene' function to give rise to flourishing, in the present, vis-a-vis Michel Foucault's 'care of the self' in his “Hermeneutic of the Subject”? Flourishing in James' project on meditation may be 'accessible' through meditation, where the integrative and releasing aspects of meditation make possible a basis for flourishing. Scott would like to suggest that the venue (as scene or space), vis-a-vis Harbin, gives expression to practices, in response to the problematic as qualities of 'flow' experiences (Csikszentmihalyi), which are kinds of flourishing.

[Eudaimonia (can be translated from the Greek as 'good spirited,' or 'flourishing,' and literally means “having a good guardian spirit”) brings us to Aristotle's “Nichomachean Ethics.” For Aristotle, Eudaimonia is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Aristotle thought of it as the ultimate goal of life (Nichomachean Ethics: Book I, Ch. 4). Happiness for Aristotle, is not a temporary state or a mood, but a state achieved through virtuous action over lifetime, together with some good fortune (

And Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly's research on enjoyment engages Aristotle explicitly as a basis for conceiving of and empirically studying flow experiences in his book "Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience".]

In Scott's project, ethnography shapes a 1st order interpretation of venue, in the present, which gives rise to forms of flourishing, unique to Harbin. But ethnography, which Foucault's “Course Summary” and his examination of 'care of the self' don't engage, is the method through which he examines and interpret the assemblage of Harbin. In terms of second order questions, Scott sees the venue-problem-flourishing question, in the present, in terms of scene, 'howness,' and then the biology-neurophysiology of bliss (with the drug ecstasy – MDMA as an imaginary, reference experience), which a nuanced ethnographic approach gives shape to, in the unfolding present, but where imagination and neurophysiology are significant. In terms of a kind of third order questions, it's possible to engage the representational qualities of virtual worlds, to shape a related-Harbin venue, and if people got into their bathtubs while they were in the virtual Harbin pool area, I think field work would show (interviews, conversation, and observation} that a related kind of flourishing emerges here, but more research is needed.

Multi-sited projects

In terms of comparison between Scott's and James projects vis-a-vis venue-problem-flourishing, actual~virtual Harbin Hot Springs is a multi-sited / -venued approach for examining questions of flourishing, as is James' project, which incorporates multiple sites where people are getting together in order to practice attention, as a form of meditation. But in Jame's formulation, the mediation practitioners “all do so believing that practicing attention in a certain way will help them to flourish.” So, here site is basically irrelevant, and venue is in people's minds vis-a-vis meditation. [Csikszentmihalyi's research confirms James' view that an absorbed mind is what people report as most enjoyable, so the act of attention or concentration allows for enjoyment, that gives rise to flourishing]. The scene for James, then, is in his project, which is, significantly, a study of meditation. The venue as scene for James is meditation, then. For Scott, however, his examination of flourishing emerges in relation to the assemblage of Harbin, where site is irrelevant for James. But, like James, Scott interprets the qualities of flourishing experienced at Harbin to be in visitors and residents' minds – as kinds of improvisational operas, to use one metaphor, but where site vis-a-vis venue is very significant..


So, for Scott, the problem in terms of how flourishing emerges or functions in relation to the venue of Harbin - its "howness" as problematic – focuses partly on questions of co-constitution. How do people shape flourishing (in themselves) by going into the pools, for example, or by going to Harbin itself, and then how does Harbin, as scene, give rise to the “Harbin Experience” and related flourishing. And, in a related way, how might this function virtually? For James, the venue of the meditator, or his or her mind, may give rise to a problematic to which meditation is a practice. For James, the cultural, social, institutional and other frames within which meditation is practiced becomes less significant. And the "howness" is the practice, where the "scene" is the form or the mode, as meditation is key. For Scott, the venue (Harbin) is the form, and the howness, as problem, has to do with, also, how are qualities of flourishing (meditation is practiced at Harbin, as well) emerging in these contexts. So Scott is asking, why is Harbin constituting this particular form of subjectivity, vis-a-vis James' focus on the generalizability of the meditative practice, regardless of site.

Scott's thesis:

Scott would like to suggest that the venue (as scene or space), vis-a-vis Harbin, gives expression to practices, in response to the problematic as qualities of 'flow' experiences (Csikszentmihalyi), which are kinds of flourishing. Those qualities, which are in the present, have to do with an assemblage that is 'hippiness' or counterculture, which is a response to modernity. And Scott interprets this as happening in three ways, ethnographically,

1st first order observations:

1) Soaking in the clothing-optional Harbin pools emerges as a way of being naked together, and doing what people like and want to do at Harbin.

2) Being (emphasis mine) in the milieu of Harbin offers an experience of freedom, for the people who are on property, which is a form of flourishing.

3) Harbin and people there have developed a whole range of related practices that build on the above and generate new forms of flourishing, over 37 years, and which emerge from counterculture.

In a 2nd order sense, imagination and biology are integrated

1 Something akin to the relaxation response, a physiological response, occurs in relation to the pools, that then is further developed by the Harbin pool's clothing-optionalness, and the snuggling and sitting that occur there.

2 Some people find these Harbin practices to be a kind of invisible improvisational opera (my language), stimulating their imagination in flourishing ways - which generate, in turn, creative practices and freedoms in their own bodyminds (the far-reaching creative expressions and explorations in a countercultural sense – both for individuals and groups at Harbin).

3 These Harbin visitors achieve a kind of care of the self in the present, that is, people find these practices to yield a flourishing, so they return again and again to Harbin, as a kind of coming home.

4 Defining flourishing in terms of imagination vis-a-vis Harbin, in a myriad of ways - potentially without limit - opens further possibilities qualities of freedom at Harbin.

James' Meditation thesis

James' thesis statement: The practice of attention constitutes a venue, that is, a shared "space" that his project creates in order to do concept work, a "space linking multiple sites.” For James, the problem is "how to produce a sense of commensurability, stability, wholeness and belonging ('care of the self') out of a manifest (primarily phenomenological) incommensurability. In this context, a meditator might say "my thoughts are scattered and multi-tracked", "I have anxiety", a sense of "not fitting in," or the vagaries of Israeli history scatter me, or all the other things that my fellow meditators are dealing with are multitracking me. So, in order to resolve this problem and care for themselves, these people turn to meditation.

1st order:

Meditation allows them to do the following:

1. re-unify body and mind in new ways

2. create an "intentional community"

3. meditation allows meditators to develop a certain level of self-consciousness, an applied reflexivity, which gives them more "space" or "distance" on the problem i defined above, so there is already a first-order observation going on in meditation. To some extent, the reflexivity inherent in meditation practice becomes a second-order self-observation.

Scott observes that a different kind of subjectivity, or positionality, or even neurophysiology emerges vis-a-vis mediation.

In a 2nd order observations

In James' examination of meditation and thinking about this in 2nd order terms, James provides another level or order of observation because he is
1. comparing sites that are not in direct contact;
2.contextualizing them with reference to their broader national and cultural spaces;
3. participating in these practices, but as an intentional outsider

Scott: or as a participant observer, so, doing field work (see Cerwonka and Malkki's book "Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork" is helpful in terms of pragmatics of and 'theorizing' field work).

Actual and Virtual

Scott: Similarly,
1 I'll compare sites that don't have direct contact - actual and virtual,
2 contextualized both actually in terms of the 60s and 70s vis a vis modernity, and in terms of digital technologies, and the ability for the user to shape even ongoing building projects in-world and
3 where I can participate in them as ethnographer, and
4 where the virtual world itself generation, is a form of 2nd order representation, relative to the representation of the actual, as 1st order

Scott asks how will ethnographic field work, both actual and virtual, offer ways to understand how the practices that emerge at Harbin in the present, but since 1972, such as soaking, the Harbin Experience, the dances, the films, are shaped by venue/site. Also how do they express a problematic, to which flourishing is one emergence. Also, what blockages make it difficult to assure them?

To conclude, Scott suggests that Harbin's venue shapes the 'howness,' in which people find 'flow,' that is flourish, in unique-to-Harbin ways, but which are site related.

James situates venue apart from his three field sites, in the practice of meditation, which can lead to flourishing.

Foucault, Harbin and the Present

Care of the self occurs through cultivating the present, both in terms of askesis and pedagogy, and in actual and virtual Harbins.


Aristotle. 2003. Nichomachean Ethics. Penguin.

Cerwonka, Allaine, and Liisa Malkki. 2007. "Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork. Chicago.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihalyi. 1991. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper.

Foucault, Michel. 2005. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981—1982. 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.

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