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points of the scholarly source on which he bases his remarks, Robert van Gulik™s Sexual
Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. till
1644 A.D. (Leiden: Brill, 1974). I examine the aesthetics of Asian ars erotica (and explain
Foucault™s misinterpretation of them), in “Asian Ars Erotica and the Question of Sexual
Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65, no.1 (2007), 55“68.
Body Consciousness

the means are conventional or even banal, if the results are so intense and
Here, we reach a second objection to Foucault™s pragmatic somaesthet-
ics. By championing only the most intense delights, which he identi¬es
with strong drugs and sex, Foucault once again starkly reduces our range
of pleasures, thus confounding his explicit aim of rendering us “in¬nitely
more susceptible to pleasure” through a greater deployment of its multi-
ple somatic modalities. Revealing a basic anhedonia (“pleasure is a very
dif¬cult behavior . . . and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the
pleasure, the complete total pleasure”), Foucault rejects what he calls
“those middle range of pleasures that make up everyday life” (dismissively
denoted by the conventional American “club sandwich,” “coke,” and “ice
cream” or even a “glass . . . of good wine”). “A pleasure must be some-
thing incredibly intense,” he avows, or it is “nothing for me” (“An Ethics
of Pleasure,” FL, 378). True pleasure is therefore narrowly identi¬ed
with overpowering limit-experiences and thus “related to death,” the ulti-
mate limit-experience, which so fascinated Foucault that he thought long
and seriously about suicide (and even, more than once, attempted it).25
“The kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure,” Foucault
af¬rms, “would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn™t
survive it. I would die . . . [and] some drugs are really important for me
because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys that I am
looking for and that I am not able to experience, to afford by myself ”
(FL, 378).
Because of his avowed “real dif¬culty in experiencing pleasure,” Fou-
cault apparently needs to be overwhelmed by sensorial intensity to enjoy
it. We should not dismiss this anhedonia and need for extreme intensity as
merely Foucault™s personal problem, and he indeed claims “I am not the
only one like that” (FL, 378). It instead re¬‚ects more general and trou-
bling trends with respect to our culture™s somatic consciousness. First is

25 In his plaidoyerfor cultivating the pleasure of suicide, Foucault describes it as “a fathomless
pleasure whose patient and relentless preparation will enlighten all of your life” (FL,
296). On Foucault™s suicide attempts as a student, see Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 26“27. Foucault™s close friend Paul
Veyne testi¬es to Foucault™s personal fascination with suicide in his later years, even
regarding his AIDS-related death as a form of suicide, though this drastic, speculative
conclusion is surely hard to justify. See Paul Veyne, “The Final Foucault and his Ethics,”
Critical Inquiry, 20 (1993): 1“9. If Foucault™s advocacy of suicide as pleasure remains rather
iconoclastic, his emphasis on the close connection between ecstatic self-transcendence
and the passion of bodily death certainly resonates with familiar images of joyous religious
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 37

the pervasive devastating dichotomy drawn between the allegedly mean-
ingless bodily pleasures of everyday life (unimaginatively identi¬ed with
food and drink) and those truly signi¬cant somatic pleasures de¬ned by
their violent intensity and identi¬ed with transgressive drugs and sex.26
But everyday somatic pleasures can also include breathing, stretching,
and walking; and these can even be developed to produce experiences
of great power and exaltation, as we see in the familiar yoga methods
of pranayama and asana or in Buddhist disciplines of meditative sitting,
walking, and dancing.27 Conversely, the experience of strong drugs and
heavy sex can become routinized and meaningless. The psychology of
sensory perception means that intensi¬cation of pleasure cannot sim-
ply be achieved by intensity of sensation. Sensory appreciation is typically
dulled when blasted with extreme sensations. The most intensely enjoyed
music is not the loudest. A gentle grazing touch can provide more potent
pleasure than a thunderous thrust.
Pleasure has a complicated logic; ascetics know how to get it by rejecting
it. Yogis ¬nd its highest intensities not from the sensory explosions of nar-
cotic orgasms but rather from an emptiness that reveals its own empow-
ering intensity and fullness. In proposing an “ethics of pleasure,” doesn™t
Foucault need a more careful “logic” and “logistic” of its central concept,
a more re¬ned and delicate appreciation of the diversities and subtleties
of pleasure, including its more tender, gentle, and mild varieties? Pierre
Hadot has criticized Foucault for hedonistically misreading the ancients
by confusing the sensual pleasure of voluptas with the more spiritual, reli-
gious notion of joy (gaudium).28 Helpful as this distinction may be, it
remains too simple. For there is also delight, satisfaction, grati¬cation,
gladness, contentment, pleasantness, amusement, merriment, elation,
bliss, rapture, exultation, exhilaration, enjoyment, diversion, entertain-
ment, titillation, fun, and so forth. Shouldn™t we more carefully recog-
nize the many different varieties of experience typically grouped under

26 Foucault™s blind rejection of middle-range pleasures is complemented by a parallel failure

to appreciate that, in contemporary culture as well as in ancient Greece, to make one™s
life a work of art does not require a life of radical, transgressive novelty and uniqueness.
For critique of this blindness, which apparently comes from implicitly identifying art with
the intensity, dif¬culty, and originality of avant-garde masterpieces (and which stands in
sharp contrast to Foucault™s acknowledgment of more moderate artful living in ancient
times), see my Practicing Philosophy, ch. 1.
27 For discussion of these Japanese disciplines that are less familiar to us than yoga and zazen

(seated meditation), see Yuasa, The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy, 11“14, 20“36.
28 Pierre Hadot, “Re¬‚ections on the Idea of the ˜Cultivation of the Self ™”, in Philosophy as a

Way of Life, 207.
Body Consciousness

pleasure so as to give each its due appreciation and more fully derive
from each its proper value? If this seems too tedious a task to pursue in
the spirit of hedonism, we must at least recognize (more than Foucault)
that the intensi¬cation of pleasure neither requires a one-sided diet of
sensational limit-experiences nor, in fact, is well served by such a regimen.
If pleasure is so hard for Foucault, both in the sense of dif¬cult to
achieve and as narrowly directed toward the hardest, most violent inten-
sities exempli¬ed by S/M and strong drugs, it is tempting to see these two
forms of hardness as causally connected. Anhedonia may both generate
and result from an ever-escalating demand for stronger sensations. If dis-
satisfaction with ordinary pleasures spurs the demand for more intense
stimulation, then meeting that demand raises the threshold of what can
be felt as satisfying, thus condemning too much of everyday experience
to joyless tedium. Anhedonia™s link to drug abuse (and suicide) is by now
well documented, and the precise neural mechanisms of this causal nexus
are currently being explored.29
The persistent demand for extreme intensities threatens not merely to
reduce the range of our felt pleasures but even to dull our affective acuity,
our very capacity to feel our bodies with real clarity, precision, and power.
For Foucault, vivid somatic consciousness does not arise unless the body is
somehow engaged in violent sensations; and without such consciousness
our bodies become the unwitting docile instruments of social oppression.
The extremism of limit-experiences thus becomes necessary for Foucault
not just to feel somatic pleasure but even to produce the only sort of
heightened body consciousness that can be felt and thus deployed to
cultivate and liberate the self. If this apparent necessity re¬‚ects the dulling
of Foucault™s somatic consciousness through anhedonia and an abusive
overdose of stimulation, then less sensationalist and pleasure-challenged
subjects will ¬nd that a lowering of sensorial violence and intensity can
paradoxically lead to more attentive and acute somatic consciousness,
enabling feelings of more rewarding and even more intense pleasure.
This argument for sensorial moderation ¬nds support from a clas-
sic principle of psychophysics embodied in the famous Weber-Fechner
law, which formulates a truth we also know from common experience:

29 See, for example, L. Janiri et al., “Anhedonia and Substance-Related Symptoms in Detox-

i¬ed Substance-Dependent Subjects: A Correlation Study,” Neuropsychobiology, 52, no. 1
(2005): 37“44; and, for suicide, K. G. Paplos et al., “Suicide Intention, Depression and
Anhedonia among Suicide Attempters,” Annals of General Hospital Psychiatry, 2 (2003,
suppl. 1): S10.
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 39

a smaller stimulus can be noticed more clearly and easily if the already
preexisting stimulation experienced by the stimulated organ is small.
Conversely, the threshold for noticing a sensation will be so much the
larger, the greater the preexisting stimulation is. The light of a cigarette,
for instance, while barely visible from a short distance in blazing sunlight
can be seen from afar in the dark of night; sounds of windblown leaves
that we hear in the silence of woods at midnight are inaudible in the
city™s noise of day. A strongly clenched ¬st will not be as sensitive to ¬ne
discriminations of touch and texture as a soft hand free from muscular
Our culture™s constant lust for ever greater intensities of somatic stim-
ulation in the quest for happiness is thus a recipe for increasing dissat-
isfaction and dif¬culty in achieving pleasure, while our submission to
such intensities dulls our somatic perception and consciousness. We can-
not delight to the sound of our quietly beating hearts if we are hurtling
forward in a noisy jet with loud music blaring in our earphones. Even
the appreciation of loud music, an undeniable joy for many (myself
included), is dulled by a one-sided diet of deafening volume, which ulti-
mately vitiates the experienced power and meaning of thunderous sound.
The value of mind-altering drugs is likewise vitiated by disproportionate
use.30 Our culture™s sensationalist extremism both re¬‚ects and reinforces
a deep somatic discontent that relentlessly drives us, yet is felt only vaguely
by our underdeveloped, insuf¬ciently sensitive, and thus understandably
unsatis¬ed body consciousness. Though Foucault™s radical somaesthetic
tastes will strike many as dreadfully deviant, his anhedonia and extrem-
ism clearly express a common trend of late-capitalist Western culture,
whose unquestioned economic imperative of ever-increasing growth also
promotes an unquestioned demand for constantly greater stimulation,
ever more speed and information, ever stronger sensations and louder
music. The result is a pathological yet all too common need for hyper-
stimulation in order to feel that one is really alive, a problem that is
expressed not only in substance addiction but also in a host of other
increasingly prevalent psychosomatic ills that range from violent actions
of self-morti¬cation (such as cutting) to the passive nightly torture of

30 I
should note that my views on somaesthetics have in fact been deployed to recommend
using strong mind-altering drugs, though in moderation and in carefully controlled
contexts, to promote insights in education. See Ken Tupper, “Entheogens and Education:
Exploring the Potential of Psychoactives as Educational Tools,” Journal of Drug Education
and Awareness, 1, no. 2 (2003): 145“161.
Body Consciousness

insomnia.31 Foucault™s neglect of more tranquil methods of somaesthetic
re¬‚ection for heightened body consciousness likewise re¬‚ects the gen-
eral failure of twentieth-century philosophy to advocate and cultivate a
heightened, explicit, somatic self-consciousness. This tradition of neglect
or denial of somaesthetic re¬‚ection by even body-friendly philosophers
will be traced in this book™s subsequent chapters.

Our critique of Foucault™s pragmatic somaesthetics has so far aimed to
redeem its appreciation of somatic pleasure by re¬ning its hedonism to
transcend his limiting ¬xations on sexuality, transgression, and sensa-
tional intensity. But is there not a deeper problem in its very concern
with pleasure of whatever form? Should a pleasure-respecting pragmatic
somaesthetics not be condemned as a trivial narcissistic hedonism in con-
trast to analytic somaesthetics™ noble aim of descriptive truth (whether
genealogical, sociological, or ontological)? Moreover, does not such con-
cern with somatic pleasure contradict the very idea of strict discipline or
askesis that is so central to classical ethical notions of care of the self?32
Is there not a fundamental opposition between an aesthetics of pleasure
and the ascetics of ethical self-cultivation that implies an essential regard
for others rather than self-indulgence in gratifying one™s pleasures.
Since my aesthetic theory has sometimes been criticized as hedonistic,
the critique of pleasure is very important to me, though far too complex
to treat adequately here.33 Let me merely make the following brief points.

31 One young cutter expressed the problem as follows: “How do I know I exist? At least I
know I exist when I cut.” See J. L. Whitlock et al., “The Virtual Cutting Edge: The Internet
and Adolescent Self-Injury,” Developmental Psychology, 42 (2006), 407“417.
32 Pierre Hadot levels this critique at Foucault™s “aesthetics of existence,” along with the

related charge that the very idea of aesthetic self-fashioning involves an adding of arti¬cial-
ity that was foreign to the classical notion of self-cultivation through askesis (which involved
reduction to the essentials rather than adding beautifying ornament). See Pierre Hadot,
“Re¬‚ections on the Idea of Self-Cultivation,” in Philosophy as a Way of Life, 207“213, and,
in the same book, “Spiritual Exercises,” especially 100“102. In Practicing Philosophy, ch. 1,
I defend an aesthetic version of self-cultivation and respond to Hadot™s critique of this
notion. But I also argue more generally (as I already did in Pragmatist Aesthetics [Oxford:
Blackwell, 1992] 246“255) that there is no necessary tension between the ascetic and
the aesthetic, and that aesthetic self-construction can take the form of an ascetic reduc-
tion to bare essentials, as we see in the aesthetics of minimalism, or in the very model
of sculptural reduction that Hadot cites from Plotinus to make his case (Philosophy as
a Way of Life., 100).
33 For critique of my alleged hedonism, see Rainer Rochlitz, “Les esth´ tiques h´ donistes,”
e e
Critique, 540 (May 1992): 353“373; Alexander Nehamas, “Richard Shusterman on
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 41

1. First, even if most pleasures, taken individually, were super¬cial and
meaningless, pleasure itself plays a deeply important role in the direction
of life. Philosophers therefore often prefer to de¬ne it not in terms of
distinctly conscious sensations but in motivational terms. Not all forms
of pleasure or enjoyment display a speci¬c conscious quality, but they
all have a prima facie motivational import. Ceteris paribus, it makes no
sense to say that one greatly enjoys doing something but has absolutely no
reason for doing it. At the evolutionary and psychological levels, pleasure
advances life not only by guiding us to what we biologically need (long
before and much more powerfully than deliberative reason can) but
also by offering the promise that life is worth living. As Aristotle praises
pleasure for strengthening our activity, so Spinoza (far from a radical
voluptuary) later de¬nes it as “the transition of man from a less to a
greater perfection,” “the greater the pleasure whereby we are affected, the
greater the perfection to which we pass.”34 Moreover, pleasure™s positive
emotional surge encouragingly opens us to new experiences and to other
2. Partly for this reason, somaesthetics pleasures should not be con-
demned as necessarily entailing a retreat into sel¬sh privacy. Feeling bien
dans sa peau can make us more comfortably open in dealing with others;
and somaesthetics™ representational dimension is centrally concerned
with making one™s body attractive to others. Though this may turn into
the narcissism of pleasing others simply to please one™s pride of self (a
problem that some see epitomized by the vain posing of the bodybuilder),
such distorting temptations of pride are present in even the most antihe-
donic, body-scorning ethical forms.
3. We must also reject the dogma that the body is irremediably too pri-
vate, subjective, and individualistic in its pleasures to form the substance

Pleasure and Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56 (1998):
49“51; and Wolfgang Welsch, “Rettung durch Halbierung?: Zu Richard Shustermans
Rehabilitierung asthetischer Erfahrung,” Deutsche Zeitschrift f¨ r Philosophie, 47 (1999):
¨ u
11“26. I reply to their critique in “Interpretation, Pleasure, and Value in Aesthetic Expe-


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