‘One Step Further’ – On Affects and Courage in a Foucauldian ethos

‘One Step Further’ – On Affects and Courage in a Foucauldian ethos

Today, I would like to talk about something that I find myself thinking about a lot, in my dissertation as well as in my private life. It has to do with emancipation and its relation to affects. And I would like to talk about this relation less in a sociological, but more in a social philosophical way.

I will do so by asking three questions:

I. What is the matter with emancipation and affects?
II. What does Foucault tell us about emancipation?
III. What meaning do affects have in a Foucauldian ethos?

So, let’s begin with the first question:

I. What is the matter with emancipation and affects?

Let us first clarify what we can broadly understand as the term “emancipation”: the Historic Dictionary of Philosophy gives a first idea of what it means.

“In the roman law, emancipation generally meant the liberation of slaves, more precisely the juridical dismissal of adult sons from the paternal rule. In Ancient Times and the Middle Ages, the emancipation of slaves and servants represented an individual act, however, nowadays, in a modern sense, emancipation signifies self-liberation or the dismissal of social groups out of spiritual, juridical, social or political paternalism, disadvantage or unjust rule.”[1]

This quote is far from perfect: it mixes slavery and adulthood as well as historic periods too recklessly. But we can see some characteristics of what we might call emancipation. Let me highlight two of them:

First: emancipation seems to be a process. A process of liberation, dismissal or – later in the Age of Enlightenment – self-liberation.[2] 

Second: it is a process taking place between two poles. For example, between a social group and an unjust rule.

As a result, emancipation seems to have an object. A “who” or “what” that the subject emancipates itself from. If we talk about emancipation – but also about critique, maturity or resistance – there is somebody or something that rules over a subject and that enables the process of emancipation in the first place.

What are these ruling powers? Modern social philosophy came up with diverse answers you are most likely already familiar with: it can be the social background, but also good or bad habits, the expectations of society or formative ideologies. It can be an autocratic government; the patriarchy in our language, our colonial past as well as what is called neoliberalism.

Scholars who examine affects and emotions know these power structures and have analysed them in the past: there is a pool of studies concerned for example with the social functionality of shame; the affective alienation between class, race and gender; the emotional work a subject does on itself or the commodification of feelings.[3]

These analyses show, how fundamental and incontestable affects can become for people’s judgement. How subtle they effect the human life. They show how sluggish, how sticky emotions can become.[4] And they stick to those oppressive power structures or people, that are the origin of emancipation.

For me, that is what gives priority to the interconnection of emancipation and affects: if those power structures are operating through and by affects, how does emancipation from those structures work through and by affects?

II. What does Foucault tell us about emancipation?

To address and answer this question, I will refer to an essay first published in the Foucault Reader by Paul Rabinow in 1984 titled “What is Enlightenment?”.[5]

In this well-structured essay, Foucault is looking for what he calls an “attitude of modernity”[6]. An attitude he first finds in the work of Immanuel Kant and that seems to fascinate him. That is – I guess – why Foucault continues to look for that attitude in the following centuries and which he does find in the writings of Baudelaire for example.

Eventually, he reflects this attitude of modernity and specifies it as what he calls later in his analysis a “philosophical ethos”[7]. He defines four aspects that characterise this ethos:

1. Turmoil and fine changes

First of all, Foucault stays sceptical of collective projects such as Marxism or Maoism. Even though not acknowledging such general (power) structures and their influence might endanger his idea of an ethos.

Based on this, the ethos aims for local changes, creative actions, rather partial transformation instead of radicalised revolts. Fine changes instead of revolutionary turmoil.[8] That is why he describes it as “the permanent reactivation of an attitude-that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”[9]

With the ethos we stay in a constantly re-starting (ongoing) process of questioning the historically grown limits that shape our subjectivity.

The premise therefore, Foucault states, is that:

“We have to give up a hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits.”[10]

2. One step further

The ethos is a kind of limit-attitude: it is an attitude in which a subject is trying to understand what limits restrict its behaviour – especially norm-limits that are routed for example between normal and abnormal, healthy and sick, hetero- and homosexual or good and bad.

In ethos, the subject moves toward these limitations in order to understand their contingency and their impact on one’s own self. This is what enables a subject to possibly, but not necessarily, cross those limits.[11]

Let me give you an example of a person whom a colleague of mine and I accompanied in a self-experiment. For this example imagine somebody that never before has protested in a public space in his life.

So, we bought chalk and mixed it with water in the midst of a busy city centre shortly after Christmas. We offered him to write or draw something non-permanent on the floor. Instead of his usual use of the public space for example for consumption, he would get the chance to change the way he uses the public space.

by Frederik Metje

For the first twenty minutes, he couldn’t do it. In these twenty minutes, he described how hard it was to move and to use the chalk. That he felt watched, but more importantly, he felt under inner pressure. He also described the norm limits that restrained him in this public space – the nervosity that spread in his body considering the public’s attention, the paranoia and fear of the judging looks of people around him.

One of Foucault’s remarks is important to mention here:

“We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers.”[12]

My example is less concerned with the actual crossing or not-crossing of the limits. It is not about grabbing the brush for political articulation.

Rather, the important aspect in this example is the struggle our participant went through. It is about the experience of the limitations a subject is interwoven in. This movement to the limits, their recognition, is what we can call emancipation.

3. Splinters of unchallenged Histories

The limits Foucault is talking about are historic ones. However, why are they historic?

Foucault states, that we reproduce those limits in our daily practices and utterances. Limits that are deeply inscribed into the body of a subject by repetition over a longer period of time. Limits that thereby sedimented to massive institutions.[13]

In other words: due to their historic growth, those limits appear as quasi-ontological.

The limits seem to be universal, natural and unchangeable – this status as quasi-ontological is what the ethos Foucault describes tries to shatter. It is asking for the singularities and contingencies of those limits and in what way those are the product of arbitrary constraints. In doing so, the historic-philosophic ethos examines a subject’s own historic becoming.[14]

Foucault calls this a history of the present: a history of power, knowledge and ethics. A history of the subject as product of those structures. Histories along the procedures of Archaeology and Genealogy.[15]

It is not easy to write those histories and to touch what gives a subject certainty. It is difficult to work on the hardened limits we built our daily lives on. The day after our experiment, I spoke to the person we accompanied. He felt terrible about his public act, about the messages he wrote on the city’s pedestrian zone…

That is why Foucault points out the local and processual character. He includes that we can only try without a guarantee of success.


Foucault’s historic-philosophical ethos is an experimental one.

A subject cannot expect a specific outcome, cannot foresee what happens to it in the limit-attitude.[16] How it changes it, if at all, and its constitutive relation to its norm limits. It is a risky adventure. It is a venture.

That is why – referring to Kant – such an attitude needs courage.[17] For Foucault, it is a brave act to be on the frontiers, to face a potential subjectivity that awaits us. It is a step to overcome the own self.

III. What meaning do affects have in a Foucauldian ethos?

First, I would like to clarify very briefly what affects are.

I am still thinking about the conceptualisation myself: my understanding of an affect seems to be close to what Sara Ahmed describes as emotion: a felt change in the linkage between A) the feeling subject and B) the feeling giving object. I follow her idea that affects are neither solely situated in the subject nor in the object, but something occurs between them. What matters is how they get into contact.[18]

Like Ahmed, I assume that affects are bound to our movement through the social space. They are linked to repetitive practices and signs that create a subject’s history as well as social norms. Here, affects unfold their whole contingent character, their stickiness, how Sara Ahmed calls it.[19]

“Rather than using stickiness to describe an object’s surface, we can think of stickiness as an effect of surfacing, as an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs.”[20]

With that in mind, what are the links between Foucault’s ethos and affects?

First of all, Foucault doesn’t talk much about the importance of affects in his essay. He only mentions courage in the recapitulation of Kant’s idea on enlightenment.[21] But there are at least two points of commonality we should address when dealing with affects:

1) The Affective Armour of Social Norms

Affects are connected to practices and therefore, they are inherent part of the norm limits. Hence, we are “doing affects” and with that right and wrong feelings.[22]

On the one hand following those normalising practices feels good (or at least not bad), even if sometimes overshadowed by other moods. Nevertheless, specific affects stick to the “right” behaviour. It is their object.

On the other hand, there are affects that prevent the questioning of a limit and its reproductive practices – shame (to not meet requirements), fear (of what “the others” might think) or disgust (of one’s own thoughts) for example.

Therefore, the ethos doesn’t just challenge a norm by questioning its edges. It also questions the affects by which a subject reproduces a limit in the first place.

What happens in the limit-attitude? In our example, the person described how he felt shame, he was anxious and his whole body was trembling caused by the potential deviation from a norm by exploring his own behaviour. 

Should we stop here, considering those shaking experiences?

It is important that we don’t: what the subject experiences is an affective mode that is deeply inscribed in its body and that is activated by the potential deviation.

Nevertheless, it is especially this ontological status of affects and their norm limits that can be challenged by Foucault’s ethos: the shame in using public space to express an opinion. The satisfaction of consumption. The fear some of us have of immigrants and others, the fear of coming out. Again: “We are not talking about a gesture of rejection.”[23] The ethos questions the affects we experience in the limit-attitude by taking a look at its formation: how do the experienced affects influence me? Where did they come from? How come they influence me in the way they do? Did I always feel like that? How does it feel and what did I do to feel it? In other words: what is the history of my own affective being?

2) Courage and Abject

Ever since Immanuel Kant and the circulation of the idea of self-liberation, courage seemed to be the key to emancipation. In this context, courage can be described as a (politically necessary) capability of acting due to its potentially negative and/or unforeseeable consequences. Courage seems to indicate a risk that is meant to be overcome.

A risk Foucault keeps in mind when he talks about the experimental character of the ethos. The potentially negative and/or unforeseeable consequences moving to a limit has on a subject. A subject is risking the order it is living in.[24]

Then again, courage seems to have an affective aspect. Something that pushes a subject to take a risk and to overcome the armouring affects of a given limit. In a way, it fulfils the function of counter-affects that pushes the subject towards the unknown, the unexpected.

What is the courage of an ethos about?From a consequentialist perspective, courage influences those affects that put social exclusion or other sanctions in its place. I think this is partly right. Courage is needed to face potential consequences.

However, there seems to be something else, something unforeseeable that lies beyond the limits and that has no place in the order a subject is a product of. An unreachable something that turns Foucault’s ethos into a venture, that requires courage: an abject.

Julia Kristeva writes:

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.”[25]

Maybe it is time to start looking for the unthinkable, those dark revolts of being that Kristeva mentions and our feelings towards them. Start looking, in order to get a better understanding of who we are, by asking “how we became who we are”. Start looking, to feel emancipated, at least once.

This text, in its original form as a presentation, was given by Frederik Metje in 2018 at the University of Edinburgh as part of the Joint Midterm Conference of the Sociology of Emotions Research Network of the European Sociological Association (ESA). 

[1] Greiffenhagen, Martin (2007): „Emanzipation“, in: Ritter, Joachim (Hrsg.): Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. 13 Bände, 1971 – 2007, Darmstadt, SP. 4975–4978. [The above quote has been freely translated.]

[2] Vgl. Greiffenhagen, „Emanzipation“, SP. 4975.

[3] Vgl. bspw. Illouz, Eva (2018): „Einleitung – Gefühle als Waren“, in: Illouz, Eva (Hrsg.): Wa(h)re Gefühle. Authentizität im Konsumkapitalismus, Berlin. S. 13-50; Sedgwick, Eve K.; Frank, Adam (2003): „Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins“, in: Sedgwick, Eve K. (Hrsg.): Touching Feeling. Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, p. 93-122; Berlant, Lauren G. (2011), Cruel Optimism. Durham.

[4] Ahmed, Sara (2014), The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh, p. 85

[5] Vgl. Foucault, Michel (1984). „What is Enlightenment?“, in: Rabinow, Paul (Hrsg.): The Foucault Reader, New York, p. 32-50.

[6] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 38.

[7] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 42.

[8] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 43-44.

[9] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 42.

[10] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 47.

[11] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 45-46.

[12] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 45.

[13] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 47.

[14] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 45-47.

[15] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 46, 48-49.

[16] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 46.

[17] Vgl. Kant, Immanuel (1984): An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Cambridge, p. 1.

[18] Vgl. Ahmed, Sara; Schmitz, Sigrid (2014): „Affect/Emotion: Orientation Matters. A Conversation between Sigfrid Schmitz and Sara Ahmed”, in: Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeschlechterStudienVol. 20 (2), Freiburg, p. 97–108.

[19] Vgl. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

[20] Vgl. Ahemd, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 90.

[21] Vgl. Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 35.

[22] Vgl. Ahmed, Sara (2014): “Not in the Mood”, in: New Formations, Vol. 82, p. 13–28, here p. 19-22.

[23] Foucault, „What is Enlightenment?“, p. 45.

[24] Vgl. Butler, Judith (2013): „Was ist Kritik? Ein Essay über Foucaults Tugend“, in: Jaeggi, Rahel; Wesche, Tilo (Hrsg.): Was ist Kritik? Frankfurt am Main, S. 221–246, hier S. 234.

[25] Kristeva, Julia; Roudiez, Leon S. (2002), Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, New York, p. 1.