Why is it the case that the life and death of princess Diana, have had
such an impact on people of our time? Numerous articles and papers have
been published on this subject. Was she an icon: today’s archetype of the
Madonna (as Camille Paglia stated)?; was she the ultimate woman-victim,
object of trade between males?; was she only a boulevard-princess, a media-hype
(one could also say a simulacrum in terms of Baudrillard) raising sentiments
and pseudo-emotions ? But why, then, ‘was (she) such an inspiration’ as
women said all over the world? And in which way was she such an inspiration
article on the status of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir does only
slightly deal with the subject Diana. But it also slightly deals
with the autobiography of Beauvoir itself. It mainly deals with philosophical
theories on subject and subjectivity, but it thereby wants
to say something about who we are, people of today, Simone de Beauvoir
and princess Diana among them.
are we at the present moment in history?
phrase is from Michel Foucault’s three times rewritten paper on Kant’s
essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’. In all of his works Foucault tried to find
out about the way Western culture, since 1800, has produced us, people
in the West. Foucault wants philosophy to be situated knowledge one could
say: in his opinion qphilosophy should be a reflection on today as difference
in history. It should not consist of eternal truths about mankind. It should
deal with the present moment in history, with the question of contemporary
reality and especially with the question of who we are today.
other philosophers nowadays ask the same question. To understand human
beings of our time Charles Taylor wrote his impressive book Sources
of the Self, in which he finds out that we in Western culture still
live in the aftermath of three main traditions: a theological one,
a rationalist and a romanticist one. We can only understand ourselves if
we go back to these sources of our subjectivity, and we should value
them as the sources we tap our moral judgements from.
important contemporary philosopher, Jürgen Habermas - working in the
tradition of Critical Theory - sees us as the product of the still unfulfilled
promise of Enlightenment. We are persons who can,and in the end will,
act reasonably with respect to all aspects of our life.
in my view, none of these philosophers tells us exactly who wé are,
women of today. I shall argue here, that in order to understand the project
of Simone de Beauvoir we should take Foucault’s theoretical tools very
seriously, but that we should refine them with the theoretical tools given
by Beauvoir herself, that is, with her philosophy on subject and subjectivity.
In order to understand who wé are, women of today, we certainly
need the theoretical perspective of Simone de Beauvoir and other feminist
thinkers. I shall be very brief on Beauvoir’s own theory. But I will
point out its essence, with which we should refine the theories on subjectivity
of the final Foucault.
Foucault? You might be surprised that my article will for a large part
be on his theories on subject and subjectivity. From his biographies one
gets the impression that Foucault was rather a misogynist, a woman-hater.
And as we learn from Macey’s biography The Lives of Michel Foucault
he was especially a Beauvoir hater - treating her with icy politeness at
most. Nonetheless I think Foucault’s last work offers some crucial clues
to understand today's subjectivity, and I cannot refrain from going into
his theories in order to explain how to read Beauvoir's autobiography.
Especially Foucault’s last two works on sexuality give us some crucial
clues which enable us to understand Beauvoir's project. These works to
my mind, also can shed a new light on the long tradition of diary writing
that we find among girls and women, a question I ccan only allude to in
the scope of this article.
first want to make clear why Beauvoir’s autobiography should not be read
as merely ‘autofíction’ The term 'autofiction' is borrowed from
Nelson Algren, Beauvoir's American lover, who did not agree at all with
her version of their relationship in her autobiography. This is autofiction
he exclaimed, when he commented on it, and he meant that it was wishful
thinking all along. I will go into the first work of Michel Foucault on
sexuality, La volonté de savoir, to show why in my opinion
we should not read Beauvoir's autobiography as 'autofiction' in the sense
of wishful thinking.
I will concentrate on Foucault's last two works on sexuality and explain
the shift he made with respect to his earlier theories on subjectivity
. This will be done in order to clarify the way we should read Beauvoir's
autobiography: namely as a self-technique in the context of a moral project.
Finally I shall argue that
Foucault’s last concepts need some crucial refining. Beauvoir’s own theory
is necessary here to answer the question who we are, we women of today,
Beauvoir and princess Diana among them.
Beauvoir’s autobiography is no ‘autofiction’
One of the most important
themes in contemporary French thinking is the attack on the central notion
of Man in our culture: a creature who is gifted with a will of his own,
his own desires, his own consciousness - the so-called subject. Many French
thinkers, among who Michel Foucault, argued that this subject does not
exist. In Foucault opinion the subject does not exist prior to the roles
in social practices and discourses which have a subject form. There is
no original subject, no essential agency. We are addressed and articulated
differently in different discourses. All that remains are different subject
positions: the subject itself is fragmented. So, to understand who we are,
people in the West today, we should look for the dominant discourses that
construct our subjectivity. Foucault says that the discourse on sexuality
is in this respect the most important one.
his first book on sexuality, La volonté de savoir,
he concentrates on the way in which sexuality in our culture has been talked
about since roughly 1800, that is since the beginning of the nineteenth
century. His reversion of the repression hypothesis is probably well known
by now: sexuality is not repressed but produced! Since the beginning of
the nineteenth century there is an incredible increase in talk and knowledge
about sexuality in the form of the so-called scientia sexualis: discourses
such as psychology, psychiatry, pedagogy, medicine, and all the practices
and technologies surrounding them, force us to talk about our sexual desires.
Everyone is required to speak out about his or her sexual nature, sexual
preferences and desires. And we are categorized according to our
so called sexual identity. Foucault sees this as normalization and discipline:
we are subjected to and judged by the power of the Norm (which determines
what is normal, what is deviant), and held in check through the determination
of our identity.
have given now some reasons for my proposition that we should not read
Beauvoir’s autobiography as 'autofiction'. Beauvoir’s Biographer Deirdre
Bair has stated that Beauvoir in her autobiography hides her true
status as a grass widow, being totally oriented on Sartre. Other
feminist theoreticians, approaching Beauvoir from a feminist-psychoanalytical
point of view, read between the lines of her autobiography and conclude
that she was a victim of culture, who was unable as a woman, to articulate
her true inner feelings and desires.
others - like for instance her American lover Nelson Algren - read
her autobiography as the wishful thinking of the unhappy wife of an adulterous
husband. But if we look only at the sexual life and desires of Simone de
Beauvoir I am afraid we stick to the patterns of dominant culture. Or,
in terms of Foucault: we then merely explain her project in terms of the
scientia sexualis. We then risk to only repeat the sexual stereotypes for
women that we find in our culture, for instance the stereotype of
the intellectual woman as an unhappy creature. We should be suspicious
of this focus on Beauvoir’s sexual life and identity because this approach
repeats the dominant ways women are looked upon in our culture. But how,
then, should we think of Beauvoir's autobiography?
should we interpret Beauvoir’s autobiography?
answer this question we should focus our attention to a shift in Foucault's
final works, a shift that boils down basically to a shift in his thinking
his first work on sexuality Foucault stated that we, people in the West
today, have been produced by the scientia sexualis as subjects with desires,
and that means as persons with an inner life. Through this dominant discourse
we have become 'deep selves', constantly looking for our true inner feelings.
Now Foucault hates the deep self. And what's more, he in this phase,
also hates ethics because it would be based on the deep self, on subjectivity
as inner space, the type of subjectivity Foucault sees as the effect of
contrast, in his last works on sexuality Foucault gives us a much broader
view on today’s subjectivity, that is on the question of who we are at
the present moment in history. We are not only subjugated people, our subjectivity
is not only an effect of normalization and discipline, and, last but not
least: ethics is not bad after all.
two last studies on sexuality, The Use of Pleasure and The Care
of the Self, comprise a revision of his earlier hypothesis that talking
about sexuality dates from the nineteenth century. We find discourses which
question sexual behaviour in Greek and Roman writings, and these are the
topic of the two books just mentioned. In these books, Foucault brings
to our attention the so-called prescriptive discourses on sexuality in
Greek and Roman culture: ( I quote:) ‘that is, texts whose main object
, whatever their form (speech, dialogue, treatise, collection of precepts,
etc.) is to suggest rules of conduct... These texts thus served as functional
devices that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to
watch over and give shape to it , and shape themselves as ethical subjects.’
(end of quote).
mentions ethics here, and he now in his work makes a distinction between
ethics and moral rules. We nowadays only think of ethics as a set of moral
rules that prescribe how we should behave, he says. But in antiquity there
were hardly any rules. Ethics consisted of vocabularies that were aimed
at the concrete shaping of one’s own existence. Foucault calls these Greek
and Hellenist ethical discourse aesthetics of existence, or free self-practices.
He describes them as follows: (I quote) ‘What I mean by the phrase are
those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves
rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves
in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries
certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.’ (end of
goes on to demonstrate how extensive these vocabularies were in antiquity,
who by the way were aimed solely at Greek - free - men and the extent to
which techniques had been worked out in detail to control and style their
sexual behaviour. Among those selftechniques are ways of testing oneself
(for instance trying to pass a beautiful boy in the street and not get
sexually aroused); there are the techniques of daily inventoring one’s
actions, of constant care of the self by all kinds of pratices and strategies,
and of extensive writing practices, the writing of so called hypomnemata,
notebooks to remember things, and letters of course. All these techniques
were aimed at selfmastery, the mastery of one’s sexual life. Because only
when we are master of ourselves we can relate to others without tyrannizing
them. That’s why we deal here with ethics, with ethical vocabularies. The
most important characteristic of these vocabularies was that they offered
the tools to freely CREATE oneself as an ethical subject, something which
in Foucault’s opinion should inspire us again. Western culture has
had a long tradition of these selfpractices, but they have become invisible,
attached and overwhelmed as they are by the discourses of religion or human
sciences, that submit people into docile objects and disciplined subjects
(looking for- and confessing - the truth about their inner feelings). Foucault
thus states that we Western people of today are in fact cocktails of on
the one hand discipline AND on the other free discourses of subjectivity.
Not only has he broadened our view of our type of subjectivity nowadays,
and not only has he done away with the taboo on ethics in postmodernism,
he also offers to my mind a new heuristic view on a lot of writing practices
in history. We should try to find out about many writers if we really find
traces of the type of selfpractices that go back to the Greek and Hellenist
free ethical selfpractices, practices of free creation of an ethical self..
I can now extrapolate this
thinking of the final Foucault to the question how we should interpret
Beauvoir’s autobiographical work.
Sartre, Beauvoir was strongly opposed to moral theory as such. Existential
philosophy states that every human being is free and has to invent his
or her own behaviour and there are no positive maximes or general rules
that we can apply. But unlike the existentialist Sartre, Beauvoir kept
a lifelong interest in ethics. In her philosophical essays, among them
The Ethics of Ambiguity, she tried to work out a type of ethics
that is not Kantian, that does not consist of general moral rules but that
consists of an attitude. We constantly have to freely shape ourselves into
a specific subject in the world. This is an ethical attitude because only
if we dare to shape ourselves into a subject, we do not live through others,
and we do not tyrannize them. Only if we accept our freedom in this way,
we can endorse the freedom of others. With this aim in mind, the aim of
shaping ourselves into a specific, responsible, subject in the world,
we constantly have to carefully style our daily behaviour.
only do we find here a lot of similarities with the selfpractices or the
aesthetics of existence that Foucault detected in history. In The Mandarins
(Beauvoir’s philosophical novel) Beauvoir explicitly launched a term for
such a type of ethic: the term ‘art de vivre’, art of living - a term that
shows much resemblance as well to the one Foucault has chosen.
autobiographical work thus should be seen in the framework of her ethical
theory. It should be conceived of as a selftechnique in a moral sense.
Beauvoir wrote diaries, letters, as well as five volumes autobiography,
all as ways of inventorying and styling her daily behaviour, thereby trying
to create herself as ethical subject that could strive for the freedom
of her fellow human beings. Her writing practices were a means of her to’question
her own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and shape herself
as ethical subject’ (to quote a line of Foucault that I quoted before).
Now, finally I will plea
some refining of Foucault’s concepts by pointing out the essential point
of Beauvoir’s ethics once more.
win an ethical self Beauvoir was convinced that every person has to live
his own life, and has not to live through others, because it is only in
that way that we do not tyrannize other people, and not use them for our
own ends. The consequence of this for her is that men should not oppress
women and use them for their own ends. Another consequence is that women
should strive for a status as ethical self themselves. Her project was,
one could say, the winning of a moral self. Women had to fight their oppression
and had to fight any tendency to cling on other persons. They in other
words had to win an ethical self.
saw her own inclination to cling on Sartre as something she had to combat.
She wanted to create an identity of her own, her project being the winning
of a moral autonomy towards the men in her life. And she used not only
the selftechnique of writing but lots of other selftechniques as well.
Many of you are probably familiar with the famous lines in her autobiography
about her arrival in Marseille, where she started to work and live on her
own, thereby training herself to thrust on her own again. She undertook
long walks on her own, to test her capacity to be alone. Later on she created
her own professional practice by introducing a serious working pattern,
according to fixed rituals. She also travelled extensively on her own,
to force herself to be someone by herself, to keep faithful to her philosophical
project of the constant winning of an ethical self.
has added precisely this dimension to the history of the arts of existence:
the coping with the immediate feelings that drive us to others. Thereby
she emphasizes the importance of emotional life and of our feelings of
symbiosis with other persons, something Foucault and his cold Greeks and
Stoicists never really addressed. They were busy with selfmastery, in the
sense of coping with their own sexual life. Beauvoir’s concern is not selfmastery
but the winning of a self. If we want to find the ethical selfpractices
of girls and women in history I think we need this dimension as a refinement
of Foucault’s concepts.
striving for moral autonomy, the project of the winning of a self, could
for instance be at stake in the tradition of girls' and women’s diaries.
It could well be the case that these writing practices in fact belong to
the tradition of ethical selfpractices goes back to the ethical selfpractices
that Foucault wants us to decipher in history, a tradition we have only
enlarged by a concept of Beauvoir. We have to wait for the publication
of the diaries of the princess of Wales, to see whether hers was really
the project of winning a self in a moral sense.
me it seems that it was the striving for moral autonomy that was - in the
case of Beauvoir - and still is - in the case of Diana - recognized
by women all over the world and the reason why these women were ‘such an
inspiration’ to a lot of them.
Nussbaum in her The Fragility of Goodness demonstrated how the hero
of Greek tragedy is the one that is fragile in his fight against destiny.
It is this fragility that makes human beauty, something we do not find
in the Gods. For the moment we can at least - with respect to Beauvoir
- conclude that she fought with her destiny (being that of living as a
dutiful daughter). We know that her fight was not succesfull in all respects
but I think this is what made her life attractive to a lot of women. It
makes her all the more sympathetic as the heroine in a Greek tragedy.
Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit, 1990
S. de Beauvoir, The Ethics
of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library,
S. de Beauvoir, The Second
Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
S. de Beauvoir, The Mandarins.
Cleveland: World, 1956
M. Foucault. The Use
of Pleasure. London: Penguin, 1986
Foucault. The Care of the Self. London: Penguin, 1986
M. Nussbaum, The Fragility
of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986