This article draws on Foucault’s understanding of “thought” as “freedom” and his description of “care of the self,” connecting these concepts with the account of a vision of Christ recorded by the fourteenth-century French monk, John of Morigny (fl 1300–1315). I argue that John’s account reflects “thought” as “freedom” very much in the Foucaldian sense, even as it defers to Christ as the authority to whom the monk vows obedience. In the first part of the article I outline ways in which Foucault’s thought both is and is not “theological.” Since Foucault draws on Christian models, and John’s visionary practice involves repentance and confession, it might seem to be almost a too-perfect prototype of the self-care Foucault was interested in; yet the results of the analysis are unexpected. The vision, is induced by John’s own unorthodox prayer practice, begins with Christ appearing in penitential garb and asking to confess his own sin to John of Morigny. I demonstrate that it is only possible to make sense of this vision by looking at the ways Christ acts as an intimate mirror of John’s self, reflecting the stance and penitential practice John must follow to reconcile himself with God.
This essay employs Michel Foucault’s typology of technologies to elucidate the relationship between early modern Eucharistic polemics, scriptural hermeneutics, and the practice of self-creation in the work of Jacob Böhme (1575–1624). Böhme’s work has often been dismissed as philosophically and theologically incoherent. Yet when understood as a therapeutic practice of self-transformation, what might appear to be madness can be seen as method. I demonstrate that Böhme created a program of “spiritual exercises,” rooted in the corporeal imagination, which absorbed and subverted religious power by reinterpreting two institutional “technologies of power” – the Eucharist and scriptural hermeneutics – and synthesizing them into a “technology of the self.” I show that Böhme drew upon esoteric thought to radicalize early modern Protestantism, transforming it from a form of religious protest bent on institutional reform into a countercultural spirituality centered on self-creation. Thus, Böhme developed a creative hermeneutics that appropriated and rejected aspects of competing Protestant modes of sacramental and scriptural interpretation to formulate an erotic gnosis of self and world exploration.
The writer Robert Anton Wilson (1932–2007) played a significant intellectual role in the American counterculture in the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Drawing from a wide range of discourses, as well as his own occultural fictions and personal experiments in “hedonic engineering,” Wilson presented a pluralistic view of reality that combined a pragmatic skepticism with a creative and esoteric embrace of the “meta-programming” possibilities of altered states of consciousness. In his 1975 Illuminatus! trilogy, written with Robert Shea, Wilson wove anarchist, psychedelic, and occult themes into a prophetic conspiracy fiction written with a satiric and willfully pulp sensibility. Ritually experimenting with psychedelic drugs and sexual magic – experiences related in his 1977 book Cosmic Trigger – Wilson developed a wayward if deeply self-reflexive theory and dialectical method of visionary practice, one that, amidst the paranoia, presented its own deconstructive and libertarian vision of gnosis. This essay contextualizes and unpacks Wilson’s visionary pragmatism in terms of Foucault’s roughly contemporaneous notion of “technologies of self,” later elaborated by Peter Sloterdijk as “anthropotechnics.” It also traces the specific debts that Wilson owed to other esoteric and psychedelic technologists of the self, including Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and John Lilly.
The vernacular magical, divinatory, and healing practices associated with the Afro-American Gulf South, alternately called “Hoodoo” or “Conjure,” offer a window into an intriguing world of “everyday esoterica.” Practitioners envision a world of competing human desires, which move and are moved by an array of malign and benign spiritual forces. They cope with this world with a pharmacopeia of symbolically powerful physical substances, but also through works of bodily discipline, prayer, meditation, and other practices aimed at the cultivation of will, self-awareness, and self-regard. These latter tools and techniques comport closely with Michel Foucault’s concept of technologies of the self. Exploring Hoodoo ritual through Foucault’s lens offers opportunities to re-imagine American Hoodoo as an esoteric system that enables practitioners to manipulate and transform themselves as well as their circumstances. This examination serves to increase our appreciation for the sophistication of these traditions, while simultaneously enlarging and enriching Foucault’s paradigm – offering new ways to consider the techniques by which one might come to know and understand oneself. This inquiry addresses a lacuna in the scholarship of Hoodoo and Conjure and also situates these traditions more firmly (and accurately) within the wider corpus of Gnostic Studies and Western Esotericism.