“Even if we are hardened, there are means by which we can recover, correct ourselves, and become again what we should have been but never were.” I’m always returning to this line from Foucault.
For those unfamiliar with his work, the French philosopher dedicated his career to calling into question the bounds of “normalcy” in the modern West. He interrogated our static perceptions of sexuality, sanity, criminality. He drew up elaborate and creative histories to demonstrate that many of the categories we depend upon for understanding our bodies and lives today—categories that we take for granted as universal and unchanging—are in fact the contingent byproducts of historical shifts and coincidental convergences. While Foucault aimed to expose these contingent identity categories for what they are, he simultaneously demonstrated the powerful hold they have taken on in our world. It is difficult to think of who we are outside of them.
There are times when reading Foucault that I experience a sense of doom, of entrapment. I wonder: How will we ever escape the hold of the limited categories that pervade the way we think about human life? It is amidst these moments when I return to that line: “Even if we are hardened, there are means by which we can recover, correct ourselves, and become again what we should have been but never were.” Even the author who dedicated his career to tracing the ossification of our identities, even he ultimately believed that we can change. We can “think otherwise.”
On Ash Wednesday I heard a lovely homily on conversion. We often think about Lent as a time of prayer, fasting, almsgiving—and of course it is all of those things, the pastor noted. It is also a time of conversion, he suggested, calling upon the phrase that echoes through the day’s reading from the prophet, Joel. “Return to me…return to the Lord.” “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” the prophet proclaims, “Return to me with your whole heart.” The homilist noted that we become so easily caught up in false impressions of who we are; we bind ourselves, our hearts, to ways of thinking about ourselves that compromise our true selves, our whole selves. “Set aside the mask, set aside the false self,” the priest exhorted. “Lent offers us this invitation. It is a season of conversion. It is reminder from God that it is never too late to convert again.”
As I understand it, the word “conversion” has an etymological link to “return.” “Conversion” is from convertere—to “turn around,” or con-vertere—to “altogether turn.” I was thinking about this in the wake of that homily, as I shuffled up to the altar to receive that black ashen cross on my forehead. In order to convert again—to re-turn—to God with our whole hearts, we must first return to ourselves.
This is a task of great difficulty at times—a fact I often ponder amidst the pages of Foucault. But, at least in a symbolic way, the Wednesday ashes were a start. “From dust you came, and from dust you shall return!” proclaimed the priest as he marked my forehead. The seemingly ominous phrase struck me as a comforting reminder just then, a truth I welcomed while pondering the possibility of returning to me.
“I am a creature,” I thought, “Dust of the earth. And God is my Creator.”