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ENGL 607.81 - Aesthetics of Existence: A Foucauldian Strategy of Resistance to Neoliberal Governmentality

Instructor: Dr. S. Xie
Schedule: R 10:00-12:45

Course Description:

This course explores how Foucault’s aesthetics of existence promotes new forms of subjectivity that enable individuals to break out of the iron cage of the neoliberal present. As Wendy Brown has pointed out, neoliberalism is a governing rationality through which everything is economized and human beings become nothing but market actors. In other words, neoliberal governing rationality subjects all domains of human behavior to the rule of capital and the commodity logic. At the core of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence is the idea of the care of the self, which, as exemplified by the Cynic tradition of aesthetic parrhēsia, promises and leads to a true and beautiful life. The Foucauldian subject of self-care and self-practice, who champions an ethics of freedom and responsibility, emerges as “the unlimited, permanent, unbearable questioner,” speaking truth to power from the perspective of the other world and the other life. Foucault’s aesthetics of existence calls upon us to shape our life as a work of art. The artist of everyday life self-consciously inserts an order into his or her life, which is neither determined by transcendent values nor decreed by external powers or social norms. As such Foucault’s aesthetics of existence can be taken as an effective strategy of resistance to neoliberal governmentality and the forms of individuality it imposes on us. 

In this course students will make a systematic inquiry into Foucault’s notion of aesthetics of existence. The seminar readings and discussions will be structured along the following questions: Why is Foucault’s aesthetics of existence able to offer potential forms of resistance to a neoliberal governmentality? Why does the subject have to undergo self-transformation to have access to the truth? Why is it that the care of the self constitutes the individuals as true subjects of action? What is the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in Foucault’s hermeneutics of the subject? Does the Foucauldian aesthetics of existence prioritize individuality over sociality or promote the individuality of the human and the sociality of humankind at the same time? In what sense is literature one of the major sites of production of new forms of subjectivity against neoliberal governmentality? To what extent do the novels read on the course explicitly or implicitly perform or call for a Foucauldian aesthetics of existence?


Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject

Foucault, The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II

Foucault, The Care of the Self, Vol. 3 of The History of Sexuality

Foucault, The Use of Pleasure

Foucault, “An Aesthetics of Existence,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other writings 1977-1984

Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault.

Foucault, “Subjectivity and Truth,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi, “Parrhesia and Therapeusis: Foucault on and in the World of Contemporary Neoliberalism,” in James D. Faubion, ed., Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies

Heinz Paetzold, “Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence and the Ethics of Authenticity,” in Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter, eds., Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West.

Ha Jin, A Free Life

J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man

Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos

Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome


Review essay                                                              25%

Seminar presentation                                                        25%

Critical essay                                                               40%

Participation                                                                10% 

Each student will make a seminar presentation.  The written assignments will be a review essay of 1500 words and a research paper of 5000 words.