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Spiritual Exercises and Militant Research

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Spiritual Exercises and Militant Research

Boris Gunjevic

‘There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons’

Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on Societies of Control (1993)


According to Michel Foucault’s complex archaeology, the western philosophical tradition has two interconnected foundational imperatives: know yourself (gnothi seauthon) and take care of yourself (epimeleia heauto). In antiquity, knowledge and care as part of paideia were inseparable until the birth of Christianity, which failed to absorb and transform the concept of care into Christian practice. Or, to put it differently, Christianity as practice subordinated knowledge to care.

 Philosophy as a way of life, especially in the late Middle Ages, tried to choose an “alternative” route, prioritising knowledge of the self over care, but without its full rejection - which ultimately became a theological project. Major methodological shifts occur with Rene Descartes. The Cartesian philosophical project took a slightly different direction to medieval philosophic tradition. Cartesian Meditations and Discourse on Method trace a path that led into the definitive separation of care and knowledge giving ultimate priority to knowledge over care. 

As was clear from Cartesian Meditations, that was possible only as a meditative experiment with unintended consequences. One way to read Cartesian Meditations is to see them as a philosophical parody on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises: a grotesque commentary upon them. Descartes established the procedure of pretending to close of all of his senses and, with a rhetorical cognitive trick, convinced himself that he is not under attack from evil demons - which is a conceptual terminology taken from the Desert Fathers, particularly from spiritual exercises of Evagrius of Ponticus - in order to pass through “methodological” doubt. The whole procedure led him to what he described as a clear and distinctive epistemological certitude.

This gesture, as the late-David Graeber precisely observed, could be understood as the inaugural gesture of modern thought. The search for knowledge and ultimately searching for truth begins in shouting down the senses. Consequently this inaugural gesture gave birth to the separation of knowledge from care, because knowledge is reduced to certitude and security. The Cartesian certitudo became securitas without care and cure. Such an inaugural proto-modern gesture of the separation of knowledge and care will culminate in another perhaps even more problematic separation, that of theoria from theory, the separation of contemplation from doing (critical) theory. 


This seminar will try to provide an alternative genealogy of knowledge and care. In order to do so we will try present practice of spiritual exercises from antiquity to modern times - from Plato to Plateaus - traced by authors like Pierre Hadot, who showed that philosophy in the Hellenistic time was a way of life. This was new way of being in the world, practised as ascetic bio-moral transformations, simply called “spiritual exercise” (without any contemporary religious connotations) or, as Foucault called them, “technologies of self” (not to be confused with another “successful” technique to master life, in order to be a better consumer shaped by capitalistic rationality). That will be the first step. 


In the second stage we will try to provide a theoretical, practical and poetic method of militant research where the researcher(s) is simultaneously the object and subject of communal research. The militant researcher is a figure introduced by a radical left collective called Colectivo Situationes from Argentina at the beginning of the 21st Century. In their terms, militant research, among other things, is a set of procedures, tools, concepts and modes of redefinition and production of knowledge and the political imagination: "Militant research is that process of the re-appropriation of our own capacity of worlds-making, which […] questions, problematizes and pushes the real through a series of concrete procedures.” Co-research “is a practice of intellectual production that does not accept a distinction between active researcher and passive research subjects. At its best co-research aims for a productive cooperation that transforms both into active participants in producing knowledge and in transforming themselves. [...] Militant research works neither from its own set of knowledges about the world nor from how things ought to be. On the contrary, the only condition for researcher-militants is a difficult one: to remain faithful to their ‘not knowing’. In this sense, it is an authentic anti-pedagogy – as Joseph Jacotot wanted." Or perhaps it might be a form of Anti-discipline proposed by Michel De Certeau, and partially by Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus. 


In the third and last stage we will tentatively propose idioms for spiritual exercises, where we will try in a new constructive way to reconnect knowledge and care, theory and theoria. It is an exercise of invention of new concepts, in order to permit thinking about what was unthinkable before. Our goal is to provide a platform for possible close and less close relations between knowledge and care with a simultaneous emphasis on the personal and communal. This means that we will try to develop radically different technologies of the self, in order to participate in a new construction of human subjectivity, social relations and environmental bio-network, with an alternative perspective on old/new virtues of gratitude, courage, endurance and gentleness. 


Selected Bibliography 


Giorgio Agamben: The Use of Bodies

Roland Barthes: How to Live Togheter – Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces (2012)

Roland Barthes: Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1992)

Michel De Certeau: Invention of Everyday Life I and II

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus

Fernand Deligny: The Arachnean and Other Texts

Michel Foucault: The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2005)

Michel Foucault: The Government of Self and Others (2010)

Michel Foucault: The Courage of Truth (2011)

Michel Foucault: On the Government of the Living (2014)

Pierre Hadot: Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision (1993)

Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (1995)

Pierre Hadot: Inner Citadel: The meditations of Marcus Aurelius (1998)

Pierre Hadot: What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002) 

Ignatio of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans. Michael Ivens (1998)

Stevphen Shukaitis, David Graeber and Erika Biddle: Constituent imagination – Militant investigations/Collective Theorization (2007)

Peter Sloterdijk: You Must Change Your Life (2014)

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