Hypomnemata

From an Interview with Michel Foucault in The Foucault Reader; Paul Rabinow, editor (New York) Pantheon, 1984, p 363-5.

First, to bring out a certain number of historical facts which are often glossed over when posing this problem of writing, we must look into the famous question of the hypomnemata. Current interpreters see in the critique of the hypomnemata in the Phaedrus a critique of writing as a material support for memory. Now, in fact, hypomnemata has a very precise meaning. It is a copybook, a notebook. Precisely this type of notebook was coming into vogue in Plato’s time for personal and administrative use. This new technology was as disrupting as the introduction of the computer into private life today. It seems to me the question of writing and the self must be posed in terms of the technical and material framework in which it arose.[…]

What seems remarkable to me is that these new instruments were immediately used for the constitution of a permanent relationship to oneself — one must manage oneself as a governor manages the governed, as a head of an enterprise manages his enterprise, a head of household manages his household…So, if you will, the point at which the question of the hypomnemata and the culture of the self comes together in a remarkable fashion is the point at which the culture of the self takes as its goal the perfect government of the self — a sort of permanent political relationship between self and self. The ancients carried on this politics of themselves with these notebooks just as governments and those who manage enterprises administered by keeping registers. This is how writing seems to me to be linked to the problem of the culture of the self.[…]

In the technical sense, the hypomnemata could be account books, public registers, individual notebooks serving as memoranda. Their use as books of life, guides for conduct, seems to have become a current thing among a whole cultivated public. Into them one entered quotations, fragments of works, examples, and actions to which one had been witness or of which one had read the account, reflections or reasonings which one had heard or which had come to mind. They constituted a material memory of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering these as an accumulated treasure for rereading and later meditation. They also formed a raw material for the writing of more systematic treatises in which were given arguments and means by which to struggle against some defect (such as anger, envy, gossip, flattery) or to overcome some difficult circumstance (a mourning, an exile, downfall, disgrace).[…]

As personal as they were, the hypomnemata must nevertheless not be taken for intimate diaries or for those accounts of spiritual experience (temptations, struggles, falls, and victories) which can be found in later Christian literature. They do not constitute an “account of oneself”; their objective is not to bring the arcana conscientiae to light, the confession of which — be it oral or written — has a purifying value. The movement that they seek to effect is the inverse of this last one. The point is not to pursue the indescribable, not to reveal the hidden, not to say the nonsaid, but, on the contrary, to collect the already-said, to reassemble that which one could hear or read, and this to an end which is nothing less than the constitution of oneself.

The hypomnemata are to be resituated in the context of a very sensitive tension of that period. Whithin a culture very affected by traditionality, by the recognized value of the already-said, by the recurrence of discourse, by the ‘citational” practice under the seal of age and authority, an ethic was developing which was very explicitly oriented to the care of oneself, toward definite objectives such as retiring into oneself, reaching oneself, living with oneself, being sufficient to oneself, profiting by and enjoying oneself. Such is the objective of the hypomnemata: to make of the recollection of the fragmentary logos transmitted by teaching, listening, or reading a means to establish as adequate and as perfect a relationship of oneself to oneself as possible.

Source: 30 JULY 1997 OUTSIDE

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