“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” – Michel Foucault.
In considering this quote from Michel Foucault, we might juxtapose it to the often expressed ‘you can make of yourself whatever you will, no matter your origins’. On the other hand, it might seem to be opposite in spirit to the saying that ‘you have to know where you are coming from to know where you are going’. In the experience of humankind, however, these concepts are not in conflict with each other. They can be true at any given time for anyone of us. In fact, to ignore either of these concepts, becoming the person you want to be in spite of your origins, while simultaneously not forgetting these origins, is to proceed at your peril. Consequently, we have found some difference between the quote from Foucault and folk wisdom handed down through the ages.
In addition, in the quote from Foucault certain phrases command our attention, especially at this time in the world. These are, ‘knowing what I am’, ‘main interest in life’, and ‘become someone else’. We need to examine these more closely to see what Foucault’s belief about life really was.
Our main interest in life is to become someone else: one might argue that that is true as the purpose of education and skills training, training within the family, the community, and by extension, the world, is to grow into the person one aspires to be: someone else. A baby is born and from then on the child is changing and growing to become a part of the adult world. In fact, there is no other direction in which to go. Some make a successful transition, others, often for no fault of their own, do not become different to who they were at the beginning, in spite of it being the main interest in life. Moreover, this does not take into account those who really do not want to be anything other than what they are in the designated social stratification. Examples may be found in past European colonies; that colonial system perhaps being one of the better examples in that it left an effective system of governments and peoples affected by postcolonial syndrome, who themselves were too young to have been part of the colonial system, some 80 years after the end of colonialism. The Indian Caste system would also be an example of this inability to change a social system. These examples seem also to fit with Foucault’s beliefs about knowledge and power. What greater power than to be able to convince a people that they are ‘less than’. What greater example than to see in the ex-colonies those on the next rung of the ladder just below the colonizers, move into the positions held by their past masters and then inflict power over the ones who were just below them on that colonial ladder. Therefore, we have resolved the last part of the statement. There are those who want to become someone else and those who, even if a minority, are satisfied with the status quo.
That brings us to the first part of the quote: knowing what I am. Knowing what you are is different from who you are, the very use of the word ‘what’ suggesting a category. If we use the example of colonialism (the one system of which I have firsthand knowledge since I was born into a British colony), this stratification is often bolstered by colour/ethnicity; the lighter skinned just below the colonizers, the darkest at the bottom, many of whom will never move from the rung on the ladder unless by knowledge which leads to power, and only if the power system allows for it. Even as you fight for change, appear to have power and knowledge this will not protect you if you step over that line, the line which states you’ve forgotten your place, and this does not only apply to ex-colonies.
History is replete with other examples of people who, even if they wanted to, could not deny what they were. Religions impose recognition on those who ‘are not’ or ‘are’. Muslims and Christians come instantly to mind, from the Crusades to present day ideologies. Both of these major religions groups can be divided into further sects of ‘what I am’: the Catholics versus the Protestants in the Reformation, The Jews in the Holocaust, their yellow star indicating what they were, and now in the Middle East, the wars are based on that ‘what you are’.
Consequently, in today’s world, just when we thought we had become the persons we should be after years of defining and instilling human rights, ‘what I am’, which means ‘what category I fall into’ or ‘what I symbolise’, is still significant. Places of worship for the major religions are subject to assault; colour of skin continues to be a lightning rod for some, to bring about their harm or death; gender places women in danger of rape and death for no other reason except that they are women, whether or not they accepted the space laid out for them by those with knowledge and power.
These two examples, gender and ethnicity/race, are particularly important because generally no one can change the colour of their skin or their sex. We also should not forget LGBT communities and other minorities because even as some are being accepted in some countries, they may be killed in others.
Homosexuality is of particular interest in this discussion as we learn that Foucault was a homosexual. Was he trying to ignore the ‘I am’ part of himself in that quote? We do not know; but we can conclude that it was an integral part of who he was.
In addition, in the last few years, we can indicate other groups whose ‘what I am’ have marked them for treatment, that a few years ago we would have considered impossible. These are refugees and migrants, once an honourable group whom the world was convinced it would welcome, and whose rights are protected by law, and who have been shunned and had barriers raised against them. In fact some of them have all strikes against them as ‘what I ams’, their status, their skin colour and/or religion. Human kind has discovered a new group to fear and shun. Equally unbelievable is the rise of hate groups that we thought had been so banished from our societies that we gave them no further thought.
Foucault’s ‘becoming someone else’ being more important than ‘what I am’, has not yet being achieved. We have to continue to strive for this level of acceptance and equality. If he were alive today, he might not have used the phrase ‘what I am’; therefore, it can be seen that there has been progress and many people fight for various rights of the downtrodden and those who face prejudice. But there is still a long way to travel.