Poiēsis and technē (praxis) in Foucault and Heidegger: Towards an Aesthetics of Free Being

Poiēsis and technē in Foucault and Heidegger: Towards an Aesthetics of Free Being

by Warwick Mules

School of English, Media Studies and Art History

University of Queensland

 From: Academia Edu

Paper presented to  “Tekhne, Technique, Technologie”: 17th Annual Conference of the Australian Society of French Studies, 15-17 July 2009, University of Queensland.


In this paper I will develop a discussion around Foucault’s comments in his later essays on an “aesthetics of existence” and “free being.” I will relate these comments to Foucault’s writings on the “care of the self” as well as to Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as a way of drawing out the ontological dimensions of Foucault’s comments as well as proposing possibilities for further thought on an aesthetics of indeterminate being that I believe is possible to discern in the general contours of Foucault’s work.

Foucault’s and Heidegger’s arguments are not about the autonomous self, but relate to a particular engagement with being which is fundamentally pre-subjective and pre-ethical. In both cases, I will argue, care of the self concerns a certain openness within the closure of modern technologically conditioned experience; an openness that is resolutely indeterminate. This openness is not something that exists outside technology; rather it is technology’s very possibility, but considered in terms other than those prescribed by technology itself.[1]  I will argue that access to this openness, which is, in effect, an indeterminacy of the self, should be the goal of critique as a praxis of self-discovery.

This praxis is not to be considered in terms of an individualistic ethics, but as an aesthetics of existence, in the sense of (i) a resistance to the already constituted modes of selfhood made available through technological practices, and (ii) an openness in being itself as a possibility or chance for the creation of new modes of being within the being-together of human existence. As I have already suggested, this possibility of new being needs to be grasped from within the technological environments that already exist and lay claim to us in specific ways, and not from some outside position. That is, we need to consider how we can redeploy technology against itself  in a creative way to make possible new modes of being.


I   Power

As everyone knows Foucault’s writings have been crucially informed by his thinking about power. For Foucault power is to be thought as an omnipresent force: “power is ‘always already there,’ … one is never ‘outside it’” (Power/Knowledge 141). For Foucault, power exceeds the relations that it makes possible as an immanent force: “power [is] the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate” (HS 1 92). Here we need to think of power as something more than the kinds of power that Foucault identifies as juridical power (the power of the law) and bio power (the power of technique). In juridical power, power is repressive: it enforces according to the rationality or logos of the law. In bio-power, power is productive: it produces through regimes and practices in the formation of social subjects: “techniques of power present at every level of the social body” (HS 1 141). In both these cases, power functions to constrain being, to make it conform to certain laws or technical requirements. This kind of power cannot account for any change in being since its aim is always to produce itself consistently for the same being. How then can we think of being not as universally the same, but as something that transforms, evolves and changes? To account for the possibility of a change in being itself, power must also be thought in such a way that it exceeds both juridical power and bio power. There must be another kind of power – a creative power immanent in both juridical and bio power that not only makes these powers possible but exceeds and resists them at the same time.

Foucault identifies this creative power in a number of ways: in terms of an “aesthetics of existence” (Ethics 260), as an “ethico-poetic function” of the self (HS 2 13), or simply as “free being” (Ethics 316). This “ontological turn” in Foucault’s writings is not, I suggest, an entirely new direction that he took later in his career, but the necessary working through of his theory of power as an ontology of being, derived from Nietzsche and his readings of ancient Greek philosophy. His identification of power as an excessive, resistive force, accounts for changes in being as an event of disruption – a perpetual violence that irrupts in singular instances, opening up potential ways of being that cannot be contained and accounted for by technologies of the self or juridical commands and prohibitions.[2]


II   Care of self

A number of writers have noted similarities between Foucault’s concept of power and Heidegger’s working of the Greek theory of Being (McNeill, “Care of the Self,” “Glance of the Eye”; Ziarek). In particular parallels have been drawn between Foucault’s “care of the self” and Heidegger’s category of Sorge or ontological care (which I will discuss in due course).[3] Foucault points out that the care of self was not limited to the well-being of the individual self, but was undertaken with an awareness of the self in relation to others: (Ethics 287). These “practices of freedom” are not designed to liberate the self, but to form relations that are essentially free and open in the civility of the polis (283).

Foucault comments that in ancient Greek ethics “this work on the self with its attendant austerity is not imposed on the individual by means of civil law or religious obligation, but a choice about existence made by the individual” (Ethics 271). This “choice,” however, should not be regarded in terms of an ethics of subjective self-reflection; rather, it means that individuals had a certain freedom to think in absolute terms, so that thinking and acting for oneself was also primarily thinking and acting with others in the absolute possibility of what might be. Christian and post-Christian practices of the self turned away from this absolute style of thinking and became self-reflexive (Ethics 178). They turned in on the self, in the opposite way to pre-Christian practices which were always already open to others. Here Foucault proposes both a continuity with the pre-Christian practices of self-formation and a transformation of them. Christian and post-Christian practices of the self are self-reflexive, whereas, pre-Christian practices of the self were not, implying another being self belonging to the pre-Christian era which is nevertheless inflected in some way in the Christian and post-Christian eras.

So, just what is this pre-Christian practice of the self? Rather than being a relation with oneself, these pre-Christian practices were in the first instance, a relation with others. Technique, then, in the way that Foucault uses it, is not a technique designed to produce an autonomous or “free” self, but the practice of free being lived openly with others in the polis, as the very possibility of being human. Furthermore, this technique of free being is not something that we have left behind in the Christian and post-Christian eras, but is fundamentally embedded in our way of being. The task then, is to bring this technique of free being to light, to make it operable as a possible way of being.


III   The ethico-poetic function

In The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, Foucault identifies what he calls an ethico-poetic function in his analysis of Greek and Latin handbooks for self-formation. These handbooks offer practical guidelines “that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, to shape themselves as ethical subjects; in short their function as ‘ethico-poetic.’” (HS 2 13). What Foucault is driving at here is not simply that the handbooks show how to fashion a self by following rules of self formation which no doubt they do – “the  determination of ethical substance” (26) – but that they allow individuals to establish a relation to these rules – “mode of subjectification” (27). It is the latter that Foucault identifies as ethico-poetic, not the former. The ethico-poetic function is not the practice of self formation but an ontological relation to self as a questioning of self being.[4]

The ethico–poetic function risks the self’s being by questioning possibilities in techniques for self formation. These “possible differences” (HS 2 27) constitute different ways of being a self within the finite situation in which individuals are challenged to think and to be a self. Care of the self then, is a resistive mode of being – one that resists the being that one is destined to be in following certain rules and practices. Resistance is not outside the techniques of self-formation, but installed within them, as a reflective capacity to think about and act in accordance with the rules of self-formation, but in such a way that exceeds them. Although he does not say it, Foucault’s identification of the ethico-poetic function is equivalent to what Heidegger, in his reading of Aristotle, identifies as Augenblick: the “glance of the eye” within a concrete situation that sees the possibilities of what is – an orientation to an implicit future yet to be actualised.[5]  Later in this paper I will identify this mode of resistive being as praxis – the reflexive “doing” of critique that brings itself into existence by what it does in doing what it does.


IV   The Ontological Self

The ethico-poetic function operates in an openness in the self’s being; in the “otherwise” that the self might be. Here we can see parallels with Heidegger’s analysis of Sorge or ontological care. For Heidegger, human being is already thrown into being with others, a situation which challenges the human being to “be” in an ontologically singular sense. The challenged human being (Dasein) is related to other beings through Sorge (care) – concernful being-with others – from which Dasein must decide to “be,” each time, in the singular sense of being a finite human being.[6] In deciding to be (a decision, by the way, which must be made – it is not a choice in the sense that Dasein could elect not to be), Dasein finds itself already where it is, but in such a way that its being is “outside itself.”[7] Dasein bears a resistive relation with the being that it already is; a restless unhomeliness that makes its being an ecstasis or emptying of self into otherness.[8] An analysis of care is not an analysis of individual Dasein, but of the possibilities within a set of relations in which Dasein is thrown in the event of Dasein’s becoming a finite self. Both Heidegger’s Dasein and Foucault’s self are not actual selves but potentials opened up in the finite experience of absolute openness that resists the technically determined self.

What consequences does this way of thinking about the self have for the idea of technique? Technique no longer relates to an instrumental notion of achieving an end, but in freeing something up from what it already is. Technique as “free being” needs to be understood neither as a form of self-fashioning nor as an expression of an autonomous self, but as a way of accessing the possibilities of otherness opened up by the resistive capacity of critique in the technologically determined self. For both Heidegger and Foucault, the human self is inhabited by an ontological openness through a resistive capacity to reflect on being itself as a singular way of being. Indeed, the human self is this openness in its “free being.” In this case, the self has to be understood as ontologically existing and not simply as ontically determined. As an ontic determination the self takes the form of a particular, that is a particular determination of a general type: self as man, self as woman, self as black, self as white and so forth. The self is determined by particularities that it has, in common with others as so many possibilities of being a self under general rules, calculations, laws and prohibitions (the juridico- or technical self). However, self as ontologically existing is not a particular but a singular: an irreducibly concrete existence in the finitude of what is. Here, the practice of self cannot be a method for producing a kind of self, but a way of being singular in resistance to the particularity of what is. The “technique of freedom” invoked by Foucault is not an ethical practice concerning the formation of a freely autonomous self, but a praxis of proto-ethical virtue, or the “free being” of the singular in its resistive capacity to think otherness against the particularity that entails it in technological and discursive determinations of selfhood.


VI   Technē and poiēsis

So far in this paper I have identified a power relation in Foucault’s work that needs to be thought in terms other than juridical or technological power. This power relation is a relation with the self that is ontologically open to otherness. Furthermore, I have suggested that this self-relation is fundamentally indeterminate – the self cannot be known in advance but is created out of a resistive capacity to reflect on the finitude of what is. This resistive capacity, which Foucault identifies in terms of an ethico-poetic function, is not a property of the autonomous subject but a pre-subjective mode of being that “sees” (or is the seeing of) the possibilities opened up in an indeterminate openness within being itself. This kind of poiētic seeing is not a capacity of the subject, but a seeing that occurs in resistance to technological seeing, to the eidos that determines the technological object in advance.

Here I want to elaborate briefly on Heidegger’s critique of technology, and in particular his reading of Aristotle in terms of the distinction between technē and poiēsis. In his deliberations on technology, Heidegger refers to the Greek term technē, which means a way of bringing things to presence. In human technē, things are brought to presence through the application of a plan or calculation as that being presently there to be seen. Technē anticipates being in the backward glance that will bring the thing to presence (its eidos).

We should be careful not to construe technē simply in terms of a technique for making things. Rather technē is a mode of revealing something by way of a challenging forth (Heidegger, Question 21). Technē sets upon things, appropriates them and orders them according to a plan or calculation. It challenges them in their being, to be something else, implying a violence to their being.[9] This, in turn, is distinguished from poiēsis which is a bringing forth – a letting be by allowing something to become what it is in its being. Challenging forth and bringing forth are not alternative modes of presencing, but should be thought together. Poiēsis – as a bringing forth – is that which resists the challenging forth of technē. Technē thus entails a poiēsis but not on its own terms.[10]

Beings, in their resistive affirmation to technē, are always being-in-potential-to-be-otherwise, in a possibility that, by that very fact, cannot be calculated or predicted. This is because calculation and prediction are always part of a technē. Being subject to technē means being predictable, being calculable, being brought into view and so forth. [11] Being otherwise cannot be this; it cannot be an otherwise subject to a calculation; it cannot be seen in advance. What this means is that being other always remains as an absolute possibility, that is, a possibility that can only be thought at the very limit of being in its resistance to technē. This thought can only take place in the violence of a resistance to technē, in the refusal of expropriation. But this refusal is not something that happens outside technē, as if beings had a resistive capacity within themselves, as part of their own internal being. Rather, it is part of the very violence of technē in its expropriation of the being of beings, in the struggle over being as that which shows itself in beings that come to be in a certain way, as beings made visible according to a certain view of things.

More generally we can think of poiēsis as the “art” of life in general, not as a separate domain of aesthetic self-expression, but the freeing force of a figuration; an immanence in the technical ordering of the world, that leads towards otherness by letting be that which is in the face of its expropriation by technē. Poiēsis is the finite gesture of freedom as indeterminate sense within the determination of technical ordering. To be free in a poiētic sense, entails a break with technē, in the very resistance that being free is. To realise this is to be creative, that is, to break with the seeing that sees in advance in a potential becoming-other through resistive affirmation. By breaking with technē, one engages in a practice of freedom – an aesthetics of free articulation.


VII   Praxis

In this final section of the paper, I will present some conclusions to my thoughts on technē and poēisis in terms of what Foucault has called an aesthetics of existence in relation to the possibility of “free being.” These ideas relate to the Kantian discovery of transcendental freedom in critical self-reflection, and the aporia between freedom and necessity inaugurated by the positing of a contingently existing autonomous subject constituted freely and spontaneously yet in accordance with universal, a priori laws. An aesthetics, in Kantian terms, is the resolution of this aporia between the finite being of the subject and the transcendental infinite: the possibility of a reunification of sense and universal reason in some future determinate state of being.[12]

I do not have sufficient time to make the connections here between Kant and Foucault in this regard, except to say that  Foucault’s proposal of an aesthetics of free being can be read as an ontological critique of the Kantian problem of the autonomous subject that inflects it into a genealogical tracing of free being within the finite terrain of historical becoming. It seems that in the broader historical-genealogical sense, Foucault wanted to show the emergence and disappearance of the autonomous subject in nineteenth century discursive practices, but that, when it came to questions of self-formation as a resistive practice in a more localised sense, he was prepared to consider the possibilities of a post-autonomous subjective being which continued to draw on the Kantian problematic of freedom but situated more concretely in the specific sense of what it is to be. That is, like Heidegger, he offers a critique of the Kantian autonomous subject by historicising its emergence as a specific way of being framed by technological and juridical power, by situating his own critique from within the locus of this power in order to think through it.

To account for this situated critique, we can turn to the idea of praxis. Praxis is critique of critique. A praxis operates by discovering the fact of its own practice as something that does something, makes something happen.[13] Praxis is critique reflecting on itself, so that what it critiques gets done, gets made in the critique itself. It follows then that praxis cannot know what it critiques in advance. Praxis is not technē; it is not a method of critique, but critique’s own self-determination insofar as it engages with something. Praxis determines itself in the indeterminacy of what it engages with. Unlike Kantian critique which always knows what it wants in advance by following a priori rules, praxis makes up the rules as it goes along. If Kantian critique is an exercise of transcendental freedom, then praxis is critique’s finite limit, its singular happening at this place, and no other. Praxis is the finite freedom of an absolute event – a possibility determined by the limitations of what is, and not what will be.

An aesthetics of existence is a praxis of free being; a way of being in the indeterminacy of an encounter with otherness exposed in a critique of what is. In technologically determined contexts, a praxis of free being is an affirmation of what is in resistance to the technē that turns it into something else; a “letting be” of the being of something within its being-for-something else. Or to put this in other words, it is an exposure of the singularity of something in resistance to its particularisation as an object of conceptual determinacy.[14] Praxis does not seek to make the indeterminate determinate, but precisely the reverse, to open the determinate into an indeterminacy that has no determinate future. In terms of the self, a praxis of self-formation is an aesthetics of “free-articulation” in which the self is allowed to become other, in the “letting be” that happens when exposed in the indeterminacy of its finite “event.”

How does praxis relate to poiēsis? If poiēsis is the release of being in resistance to technē, then praxis is the practice that makes this happen. Poiēsis without praxis is simply blind becoming. What then determines praxis? Praxis is the decision to be in the resistive affirmation of what is; in the “letting be” of beings, making them capable of being something else. A praxis decides for itself on the basis of possibilities of being other within the technological limits of what is. Praxis is a creative practice of making the self “indeterminately determined,” thereby opening up possibilities, preparing new ground for different ways of being a self. A creative praxis operates within the finite freedom of the axiomatic decision rather than from the “free necessity” of universal laws; it risks being by refusing the end-goal of technē to know the thing in advance, yet is itself technologically determinate.

The risk of being is not the risk of an individual being reflecting on its own existence, but the risk of being-with others thought strictly in terms of the finite situation in which a praxis occurs. If we recall, the ethico-poetic function that Foucault discovers in Greek ethics requires an orientation of the self to others as an ontological condition for self-questioning – as an openness of being. Thus a praxis of free being frees up possibilities for being with others, a recovery of the openness of free being that Greek ethics strives for through care of the self.  I end on this note then: that we consider Foucault’s proposals for an aesthetics of existence in pursuit of free being not as a furthering of the Kantian project of the free autonomous subject, but as an ontological reflection on it, in terms of finite freedom. This critical reflection or praxis is creative rather than productive. It produces nothing, but in its practice, it creates possibilities in what it does.



Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley et. al. London: Penguin, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Transl. Colin Gordon et. al. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester, 1980.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, volume 1: an introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Uses of Pleasure: the History of Sexuality, vol. 2. Trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin, 1985.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and other essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: harper Row, 1977.

McNeill, Will. “Care of the Self: Originary Ethics in Heidegger and Foucault.” Philosophy Today, 42.1 (1998): 53-64.

McNeill, William. The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory. Albany: The State University of New York.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom. Trans. Bridget McDonald. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Taminiaux, Jacques. “Poiesis and Praxis in Fundamental Ontology.” Research in Phenomenology, 17 (1987): 137-169.

Ziarek, Krzysztof. “Powers to Be: Art and Technology in Heidegger and Foucault.” Research in Phenomenology, 28 (1998): 162-194.

[1] Heidegger calls this a “free relation” with technology (Question 3).

[2] This power can be considered in terms of an originary Ursprung, or divisive leap of being that irrupts omni-directionally in the historically contingent event. Foucault discusses Ursprung in terms of Nietzsche’s genealogical theory of power (see “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice).

[3] See Ziarek 186, McNeill “Care of the Self” 53 ff.

[4] William McNeill makes this point in relation to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein as a relation of “mineness” in a singular, concrete, finite individuation of the self in indeterminate being with others: “Selfhood or mineness is thus to be understood as an ontological relation to self, that is, as a relation of being” ( “Care of the Self” 54).

[5] For further discussion see McNeill, The Glance of the Eye (49). This seeing cannot be attributed to a subject in the form of a psycho-biological body (e.g. a human being with eyes attached to a retina and a brain that processes what it sees into an object of sight), but must be thought in a primary way as “gaze” or “view” that makes an appearing possible – its “fact” as that which is present. Foucault identifies the panoptic gaze in these terms: as the possibility for a certain kind of body to come into view, to be seen, to appear as a meaningful seeing.

[6] “the Being of Dasein itself is to be made visible as care [Sorge]” (Heidegger, Being and Time 84).

[7] “In expressly choosing itself there lies essentially the full self-engagement [of Dasein], not in the direction of where it has not yet been, but in the direction of where and how it always already is as Dasein insofar as it exists” (Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, cited in McNeill “Care of the Self” 55).

[8] Heidegger refers to this restlessness of Dasein as “fallenness” or “falling away” from itself (Abgefallen) (Being and Time 220).

[9] Heidegger points out that modern technology (by this he means the technology of the modern age, defined by the exact physical sciences) does not simply involve the objectification of things into objects of contemplation, but a “challenging” of nature in such a way that things are “set upon,” becoming objects ordered according to the logic of representation (a logic requiring subject/object relations). He calls this ordering of objects “enframing” (Question 14-19). This results in an “injurious neglect of the thing” (Question 45).

[10] On this point William McNeill notes Heidegger’s reference to the “doubling” of technological operations that, in extracting maximum potential from the thing with minimal effort, overlook it by looking towards the future that the thing will be, and by this very overlooking, leave behind “the ghost of the technological operation” (McNeill, The Glance of the Eye 199). This ghosting of the thing by a technological evacuation becomes the site of poiēsis, as potential for otherness that cannot be seen in the technē for which the thing is already ordered.

[11] Calculation can be understood here not simply as mathematical computing, but in Foucault’s sense as the distribution of power as ordering, normalising and disciplining (Foucault, HS 1 94-95).

[12] Kant proposes a transcendental aesthetics in the Critique of Reason, which is then grounded in specific aesthetic experience in the Critique of Judgment.

[13] For praxis as an ontologically defined event see Taminiaux.

[14] See Jean-Luc Nancy’s comments on “letting be” in relation to Heidegger (142).


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