April 10, 2020
The Recluse

and to be entitled the “Recluse”; as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement.
—Wordsworth, Preface to The Excursion

Diego Velázquez, Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit, c. 1634

Although for a long time, St. Anthony was commonly thought of as both the first hermit and the founder of monastic life, St. Jerome insists that was only partly true. In fact, he says, the first hermit was Paul of Thebes, who lived for seventy secluded years in a cave in the Egyptian desert, until he was visited by Anthony, who had heard about him from an angel (or, some accounts say, a voice in the night). St. Anthony was also living in the desert and had been under the impression, Jerome says, that ”no monk more perfect than himself had settled” there but the voice in the night assured him that Paul was “a much better man” so Anthony went looking for him and when he found him, the two men embraced in a fellowship that was confirmed by the arrival of a raven with a loaf of bread.1 Usually, Paul told Anthony, the raven only brings half a loaf but “at your coming Christ has doubled his soldier’s rations.” The raven bringing them the full loaf is the subject of Velázquez’s great picture.2

When Paul went on to say that he felt himself near death and that that he was grateful to God for sending St Anthony “to bury him,” Anthony declared his eagerness to accompany Paul on his journey to Christ but Paul told him that he ought not to seek his “own” good ; it might be “expedient for you to lay aside the burden of the flesh and follow the Lamb,” he said; “but it is expedient for the rest of the brethren to be trained by your example.”3 So he sent St. Anthony back to what Jerome calls his monastery, both to continue following in Paul’s footsteps (as a hermit) and to continue what Anthony had himself originated when, many years before, (as a more recent scholar puts it) he first “organized his disciples into a community of hermits living under a rule.” 4

It’s this idea of “a community of hermits” that both Paul the hermit and St. Jerome thought was Anthony’s distinctive contribution and that matters for our understanding of A Certain Kind of Life. (And it’s the idea of what it means for such a community to live “under a rule” that, as we’ll see, especially matters in relation to the theme of this triennial, The Poetics of Reason.) Hermits live alone; during the period in which St. Anthony set his example, they didn’t really have a monastery in the sense of a single building or compound. Athanasius just says people went to follow St. Anthony and “cells arose even in the mountains and the desert was colonized by monks.”5 The word “cells” here is a translation of monasteria (plural of monasterion), which a more recent translation renders as “monastic dwelling,” while observing that the word “originally meant a monastic cell or dwelling, then community, and finally a monastery.6 ” Under Anthony’s influence, “many monasteria came into being”; his Life takes us, in effect, from the first of monasterion’s meanings to the second. On the one hand, Anthony’s monks lived and practiced in separate and unconnected monastic dwellings; on the other hand, the fact that they were all following his example turned those separate dwellings into elements of the same structure.

Of course, buildings like the Carthusian charterhouses bring the monks together. But the Carthusians are monks in the eremitic tradition, which is to say, they explicitly take their inspiration from those who “thronged to the deserts to lead lives of solitude.” The Carthusian idea of the community is still the community of hermits. Thus virtually everything the monks do, they do “in cell” and alone.7 And, thus also, it’s what they do in cell and alone that establishes their membership in what Deserts calls a “collective.” The cell is both solitary and social.

Deserts suggests one important way of understanding this simultaneity when it points in the direction of Bentham’s Panopticon and, more generally, Foucault’s idea of the disciplinary society. Athanasius says the Devil was afraid that Anthony “would fill the desert with the discipline” and Foucault, in effect, says the Devil wasn’t wrong. In his late writings, Foucault’s understanding of the cell as a site of social discipline would eventually focus on cells like those of the Carthusians but his analysis would begin with institutions more like the reformatory that the Laveiras Charterhouse became—beginning with each prisoner alone in his cell but with the cell open to the “surveillance” of the supervisor, and, as the model is extended, to the disciplinary gaze of the state more generally. The idea here is that the cell is a space where you are both isolated and visible, where you can always be seen and where you can see that you can be seen. The exercise of power in the disciplinary society is thus through an “observing gaze that each individual feels weighing on him, and ends up internalizing to the point that he is his own overseer: everyone in this way exercises surveillance over and against himself.”

As we know, the process that Foucault here calls “internalization” would be crucial to his account of the constitution of the modern subject and to the particular form of resistance to power in which he was interested—the subject’s struggle against “forms of subjection” by way of what he would come to see as the possibilities of a certain kind of self-formation. It was for this reason that St. Anthony (about whom he had written indirectly in an early essay on Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony) would become present again in the work he was doing just before he died. One of the “Self Writing” fragments (from 1983) begins with a long quotation from the suggestions Anthony would give to his followers, urging on them the importance of daily “self-examination” to decide whether they have sinned and recommending “a system of observation” to “assure us of not sinning.”

Let us each note and write down our actions and impulses of the soul as though we were to report them to each other; and you may rest assured that from utter shame of becoming known we shall stop sinning and entertaining sinful thoughts altogether. Who, having sinned, would not choose to lie, hoping to escape detection? Just as we would not give ourselves to lust within sight of each other so if we were to write down our thoughts as if telling them to each other, we shall so much the more guard ourselves against foul thoughts for shame of being known. Now, then, let the written account stand for the eyes of our fellow ascetics, so that blushing at writing the same as if we were actually seen, we may never ponder evil.8

The basic idea is that the notebook does for the monk in his cell what the opening to the “supervisor” will do for the prisoner in his. And although this Christian “technology of the self” was, of course, an element in the technologies of power that would culminate in the disciplinary society, it was also, particularly in its Stoic form, an element in the “art of living” as care for the self that Foucault imagined deploying against that society. Thus, in its discussion of “the role of writing in the philosophical cultivation of the self,” the fragment that begins with Anthony and the notebook moves on to Seneca and the letter. The efficacy of what Foucault calls “the epistolary account of oneself” is that it produces self-examination in the form both of a “a gaze that one focuses on the addressee (through the missive he receives, he feels looked at)” and of an “offering oneself to his gaze by what one tells him about oneself.” It’s this “reciprocity of the gaze” (Foucault, 8) that makes it possible to evaluate “one’s everyday actions according to the rules of a technique of living.”

One way, then, of understanding Deserts’ insistence on the cell as “a way to imagine new forms of collective living” would be to see in it what Foucault saw in the Stoic prequel to the monastic—a kind of “withdrawing into oneself” that is at the time a relation to others. Foucault quotes Seneca: “it is necessary to train oneself all one’s life, and one always needs the help of others in the soul’s labor upon itself.” Here is how that’s put in Deserts: “the cell turns into a mirror: a window to look at ourselves and critically reframe our daily rhythms and chores.” If we withdraw from others and from the world, our askesis is not for the sake of privacy but rather as a technique of self-discovery, a technique that, precisely insofar as it’s “critical,” requires us to bring a version of that world with us. To learn to follow Anthony’s “rule” or Foucault’s “rules” is necessarily to see ourselves through the eyes of another.

But if the power of this account is in its insistence that the cell is a public space, its weakness is in the identification of the rule precisely with that gaze. We could put this in the terms defined by the Triennale’s title—the poetics of reason—and by its claim that only “an architecture… grounded in reason” can be “understandable, i.e. shareable, by everyone, and not just architects.” Foucault’s cell is shared in the sense that when we’re in it, we’re not really alone; he puts it powerfully in a kind of apothegm:What others are to the ascetic in a community, the notebook is to the recluse.” The community and the notebook fulfill the same function in the sense that they make the private cell public. But they do so in a way that suggests the non-identity between the shareable and the understandable, the difference, say, between two people seeing each other and two people understanding each other, a difference that matters for the whole idea of the cell and of the rule that makes the collection of monasteria into a monastery, that makes the effort to follow the rule a way of thinking about social structure rather than retreating from it.

The recluse’s notebook helps us understand what’s at stake here. To understand what the recluse has written is to understand his or her language and so, of course, to be entangled in the question of whether there could be—or of what it means that there can’t be—a private language. Wittgenstein thought there couldn’t be because he thought that speaking a language was, at least in part, a question of following rules and that there could be no such thing as privately following a rule. Why? Because to be able to follow a rule, you also have to be able to fail to follow it, not just in the sense that you might not live up to its demands but in the more basic sense that you might be mistaken about its use. It is and must be possible, in other words, to think you’re obeying a rule when in fact you’re not. “Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’; otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.”9 The recluse who writes, then, gives up her privacy not just in the sense that she exposes herself to the gaze of the other but in the sense that she seeks to follow a rule that, to be a rule, must transcend her own use of it. There is a right way to follow the rules and a wrong way (the rules are not determined by what the recluse does); the recluse who writes is, in virtue of writing (in virtue of following a rule) not simply a recluse. Even if no one sees the recluse, even if no one reads what the recluse writes, the recluse writing is already public.

And insofar as what the recluse writes is to be understood, it’s public not just (or primarily) because others may share it in the sense of responding to it. It’s public in the sense that they respond to it by trying to understand it. Different responses make no claim on each other or on the writer; different understandings—different accounts of what the writing means, of what the rules are—do. So this public is not merely or primarily other people; it is the public created by (because built into) the very idea of the rule.

If then, the cell can become a mirror that enables us to “critically reframe our daily rhythms and chores,” it can only do so if we have the sense that there is a wrong way and a right way of doing those chores—that A Certain Kind of Life’s four basic actions (eating and sleeping, washing and excreting) are, like writing and reading, normative. Whether this is true seems to me a real question. Is there a right way to shit? Perhaps there’s a healthiest way but it’s not clear that doing it the healthiest way is a matter of following a rule. But it’s also true that the attempt to imagine rules for our daily chores—to imagine excreting on the model of writing—can here be seen as an attempt to imagine them as deeply public. The cell now becomes not a place where I can (naively) escape the gaze of the other (and feel no shame) or (Foucauldeanly) make my own gaze into that of the other (and learn shame) but where I can try to figure out what is best to do and where the very activity of trying to figure that out is already public—since it involves understanding a rule that was not made by me and since my understanding (or misunderstanding) of it establishes a relation (logical whether or not actual) with anyone else who seeks to understand it: we agree or we disagree. Foucault replaces the solitary space of the cell with a space that is public because intersubjective (we can feel shame when we look into the mirroring gaze of the other). But the project of A Certain Kind of Life proposes a cell that is logically rather than intersubjectively public.

This is what is I take to be at stake in Deserts’ declaration that

Solitary life does not connote a system of rules. For the isolated individual there is no problem of confrontation or negotiation, and hence no problem of form. Form only arises through the encounter and the negotiation of limits between different entities. The collective formulation of a rule coincides with the cellular concatenation.

Solitary life has no place in the cell because the cell does “connote”—is structured by—a system of rules. Of course, solitary life does involve sleeping and washing and all the rest. But the most comfortable place for the solitary to sleep or the most convenient way to wash has nothing to do with any rule. For the solitary, everything has a shape but nothing has form. And even for the Foucauldean “ascetic in a community,” it’s not the mere presence of the community (someone to negotiate with) that makes form possible. It’s something to negotiate about—what the rules mean, what counts as following them, what doesn’t. And those negotiations turn the solitary who does what she wants into the recluse who does what she thinks is right.

It’s for this reason that although A Certain Kind of Life has no interest in compelling people to follow rules, it has a deep interest in insisting on their importance, an insistence that it manifests in the seven “deserts,” each of which, when juxtaposed with the others, can be seen both to be following and producing variations on a set of rules. Each one is a cube; they’re all the same size; they all have one entrance and one other opening; they all follow the rule of the four functions. At the same time, each interior is divided differently and they each open differently to the exterior. These specifications both of sameness and difference could be extended but their point is already clear: each “Desert” is so intensively and visibly structured that it turns the solitary confronting an environment into the recluse confronting structure itself. The cell is a place in which the withdrawal from public life is reconfigured as the opportunity to reimagine public life.

And, more particularly, in which the withdrawal from our public life—today, in 2019—is understood as the opportunity to disarticulate our understanding of it from our experience of it. It’s for this reason also that although A Certain Kind of Life has no interest in compelling people to follow rules, it doesn’t quite share Foucault’s enthusiasm for those Greek and Roman technologies of the self which constituted a “morality that was essentially the search for a personal ethics” (as in Seneca) over what became “a morality [of] obedience to a system of rules” (as in the monastery).10 The point, again, is to insist on the importance of the rule (whether or not one obeys it) even (or especially) when the ethic is imagined as personal. And here we can see that there is a political dimension to this architectural project. In recent years, political theorists have begun to call attention to the ways in which Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism was at the same time an expression of his attraction to it and, in particular, of his sense that it offered

un nouvel espace à la tolérance des individus et des pratiques minoritaires et à l’optimisation des systems de différences. Pour un penseur qui s’intéresse à la “societé de normalization,” la découverte d’une forme de régulation qui ne normalise pas est une trouvaille colossalle, comme le dirait Foucauld.11

And, of course, this enthusiasm for a mode of subject formation that eschewed the normalizing truth of the subject went hand in hand with his hostility not only to the admittedly sclerotic French Communist party but to Marxism as such and to its understanding of society in terms of the conflict between labor and capital. Indeed, one of the things that most struck him about the Chicago economist Gary Becker’s idea of human capital was that, redescribing everyone as a kind of capitalist, it got rid of the whole category of labor.

From the standpoint of 2019, however, as the dream of a world without the conflict between labor and capital has become the reality of a world made up of Uber shareholders, Uber management and Uber drivers—independent contractors all!—the freedom from the disciplinary state that it seemed to promise looks a little less enticing. And as the income gap between those independent contractors has increased dramatically in the U.S. (and remained high also in Portugal), the intersubjective as a model for the social has remained compelling only to those (on the liberal left and the populist right) who want to find the sources of inequality somewhere other than in capital.

By contrast, what the idea of the rule provides is a relation to the self—to sleeping, washing, eating, excreting and reflecting—that embodies an understanding of the social constituted neither by an assemblage of solitaries nor by the model of the epistolary relations between the writer and the “others” whose “help” he needs to cultivate himself properly. It would be too much to say that in the seven “Deserts” we see the struggle between capital and labor. But it would be exactly right to say that we see emblems not of self-care but of both conflict and of ideology. This is what A Certain Kind of Life calls the emergence of “form.” Form doesn’t necessarily require anyone else to be there but it’s possible only in public, even if, as A Certain Kind of Life also suggests, what exactly it is can become clearer to us if we withdraw from the public. Hence the cell becomes the site on which to encounter not just some particular set of rules but the very idea of rules, and the recluse’s notebook becomes the opportunity to begin rewriting them.

Notes

1.Jerome, Life of Paulus the first hermit, http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG1302/_P8.HTM.
2.Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit was created for the hermitage of St. Paul in Buen Retiro but soon moved to the hermitage of St. Anthony—not Saint Anthony Abbot, however, but Saint Anthony of Lisbon. The painting now hangs in the Prado, Madrid.
3.Jerome, The life of Paulus the first hermit, http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG1302/_PD.HTM. 
4.Encyclopedia of Monasticism, vol. 1., ed. William M. Johnston (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 42.
6.Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony, trans. by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2003), 53.
8.Michel Foucault, “Self Writing,” Corps écrit 5 (Feb. 1983): 3-23, https://foucault.info/documents/foucault.hypomnemata.en/.
9.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1958), 81, section 202.
10.Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture” Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988), 49.
11.Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora, Le Dernier Homme et la Fin de la Révolution: Foucault après 1968 (Lux: Montréal, 2019), 128.
About the Author

Walter Benn Michaels recently published The Beauty of a Social Problem (Chicago, 2016). His other books include The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century; Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History; and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Recent articles—some on literature, some on photography, and some on politics—have appeared in such journals as PMLA, New Labor Forum, and Le Monde diplomatique.


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