Jeremy R. Carrette, 2000, Foucault and Religion : Spiritual Corporality and Political Spirituality, London and New York, Routledge, 216 p.



      The enthusiastic welcome with which Foucault’s œuvre has been generally received by the contemporary American Academy is best seen as a mixed blessing. The ambivalence with which one can view this reception is best summarized by the fact that Foucault’s self-imposed oracular challenge to “ think otherly ”(penser autrement) has become normalized by the various disciplines which seek to empty Foucault’s thought of its radicality. One example that comes to mind : his critique of the eurocentric Enlightenment fantasy of unbiased reason and the homogeneous citizen becomes a liberal argument for a tepid tolerance of difference, rather than a clear-headed thinking through of the relativism at the heart of his critique. If Sartre found it appropriate to label Foucault as “ the last rampart of the bourgeoisie ”, too often American academics have greeted Foucault’s writings with an ardour blended with a faint-hearted liberalism that has yielded an antiseptic reading of Foucault — a reading which unintentionally risks proving Sartre right. It is in this light that Carrette’s book can best be understood.

      The aim of this ambitious book is twofold : on the one hand, to read Foucault’s texts “ outside the disciplinary regimes that have so far appropriated his work ” (p. ix), and on the other hand, to take Foucault’s “ marginal reflections on religion seriously in order to show how they radically challenge traditional religious thinking ” (p. 2). In other words, Carrette seeks to show that an overreaching concern for and a coherent critique of religion spans all of Foucault’s writings and that his late interest in early Christian writings is but the continuation of an ongoing problematisation of religion, which Carrette summarises as “ a rescuing of the body silenced by religion and an analysis of the technology of pastoral power ” (p. 130).

      If there is but one insight which one should retain when seeking to understand the nature of Foucault’s thought, it would no doubt involve his radical revisioning of the nature of power, in its relation to subjectivity and how the latter is not merely that which resists the repressive nature of power but also that which is the result of the very power it claims to resist. Foucault “ shows how power is not just a negative force but holds the capacity to ‘ produce ’ reality and to constitute individuals ” (p. 20). By pointing out the complex structuring of reality effected by power Foucault renders obsolete the repressive hypothesis which claims to say “ Yes ” to freedom by merely saying “ No ” to power.

      By tying together the power/subject nexus to Foucault’s interest in Christianity, Carrette seeks to unearth the important religious sub-text in Foucault’s writings. By doing so, he hopes to demonstrate how the foucauldian enterprise involves “ repositioning religion in the space of the body and the politics of the subject ” (p. 6). The triadic interplay of power/subject/religion is the analytical framework through which Christianity can be understood not as the path of or to transcendence, but rather as that which takes charge of non-transcendent corporality. Carrette insists on this “ repositioning ” of religion in order to underline how “ the political force of religious discourse, in its power to silence and its power to demand an utterance, is the key theoretical operation on which Foucault’s ‘ religious question ’ can be examined ” (p. 42). In other words, the problematisation of the Christian governing of human life is founded upon two entwined themes central to religious discourse and the governance of human beings : silence and speech. Silence can be characterised by the mute stare of the caged madman, or the panoptic gaze of the prison guard, or by the “ exhausted language ” (p. 35) found in the writings of Sade and Bataille. Silence for Foucault ranges “ from an oppressive-dominant silence to a more positive enigmatic-aesthetic silence ” (p. 35). Just as ambiguously, speaking can be characterised by the power of he who has the right to speak, or by the oppression of he who must confess, in a word by the structure which dictates what can and what cannot be legitimately said (le dit et le non-dit).

      The problematisation of Christianity’s discursive strategies necessarily leads to a problematisation of Christianity as a political structure to the degree that it “ reveals the battles, struggles, and strategies of religious ideas in terms of ordering the body, the sexual, the origin of states, the individual relationship to self and the religious construction of subjects ” (p. 132). By revealing the multiple strategies in which Christianity has been involved in the construction of the individual’s relationship to his body and the institutions which engage in the ordering, (self)-control and surveillance of that very same body, Foucault challenges “ the politics of defining religion as a specific practice within a specific culture ” (p. 144). What results is a blurring of the idea that religion is an autonomous and marginalised social practice in an apparently progressively secularised world. Indeed, “ religion, after Foucault, always exists as a system of power, meaning that it orders life through a set of force relations ; not through a violence which forces people to do things but through the shaping of individual subjects to voluntarily carry out a particular way of life ” (p. 149). Put bluntly and echoing the secularisation thesis intitiated by Death of God theology, Foucault’s problematisation of the foundational aspects of Christianity — its marginalisation of the body in its dualist ontology and its politically informed techniques of social control — leads us to the realization that Christianity is not a religion but is above all “ an immanent political experience which attempts to govern human life ” (p. 142).

      Foucault’s thought, Carrette argues, marks the return of the unthought which haunts Christian theology, the embodied nature of belief which challenges the “ very constitution of religious space ”. After Foucault, the immanentization of religion “ locates religious experience in the politics and strategic relations of human struggles ” (p. 146) because “ the religious self is always part of an historical technology which produces and maintains the self ” (p. 149). By mapping the discursive and spatial structuring of the individual, Foucault unveils not only Christianity’s foundational ontology, but also the sub-terranean presence of Christianity precisely where one would expect the announcement of its definitive disappearance in our contemporary world : “ when religion is situated in the Foucauldian model of critical analysis it assumes a far greater cultural significance than has otherwise been acknowledged in academic studies ” (p. 150).

      The Death of God announced by Nietzsche and the Death of Man announced by Foucault return humans to their finitude. The double-absence of God and Man is perhaps the Nietszchean moment of a return to a divine form of thinking, where “ religious ideas become ways of expressing the body which can be both a technology of domination and a more positive technology of self, a religious aesthetic which animates matter ” (p. 126). It is perhaps only through such a heretical reading of Christianity that Carrette can defend the thesis that “ Foucault contested the ‘ spiritual ’ in terms of the politics of experience, in terms of corporality which challenges the very fabric of theological dualism ” (p. 129).

      By “ putting Foucault to work ”, Carrette offers a radical challenge to theologically-minded religious studies professionals. However, Carrette seems much less radical in his struggle to maintain in his grasp the object which forms the basis of his hypothesis : how indeed can one locate the object “ religion ” in Western culture après Nietzsche and Darwin ; how to locate “ spirit in a world without spirit ” ? The endemic instability of the object “ religion ” leads to a theoretical cul-de-sac where all one can hope for is “ to find religion in the very fabric of the secular — in the absence ” (p. 150) — paradoxe or contradiction ? I suspect that religious studies’ ability to heed Bataille’s invitation in Inner Experience to break the subject-object phenomenological model which animates the social sciences. That may be the beginning of a way out of the epistemological dilemma which haunts contemporary thinking on religion.


Michel Carrier

Université du Québec à Montréal