As part of its partnership with The Caring Gallery, FONDAMENTAL sheds light on the political dimension of the themes addressed by the gallery through contemporary art. The exhibition Politically Intimate (1) explores a major philosophical field open since Antiquity, which seeks the boundary between public order and the freedom to dispose of one's body.
How far should the public authorities take care of me? Why should I submit to decisions taken by others, which concern my own privacy or the depths of my soul? These questions are at the heart of political philosophy; they mark out the limits of public action. But unlike other notions, such as the prevalence of representative democracy or the prohibition of violence, the answers seem to be in perpetual motion, challenged by science or reexamined by our values.
Thus, ART the choice of end of life or the use of drugs are decisions that belong to me and that (apparently) only concern me. But the law sets limits to my action and is constantly being discussed. In the name of the integrity of their bodies, some people have loudly refused vaccination against the coronavirus. In the other direction, the intervention of the public authorities is welcomed when it comes to lifting a taboo in order to detect and treat endometriosis.
With what knowledge and values can the border between the intimate and the political be justified, accepted or rejected? The question has given rise to a large body of literature. Here we present some major philosophical and historical landmarks.
Until the modern era, political or religious power rarely recognises the individual outside the whole. As early as Plato's Republic, the functioning of the city is likened to that of a human body. Power inhabits individuals who do not fully belong to themselves. This concept has lasted throughout the ages. In Catholicism, it is expressed through the symbolic confusion between the body of Christ, the church and the believers, and this confusion is then taken up and spiritually maintained by royalty.
Anglo-Saxon political philosophy, inspired by French rationalism, overturned this paradigm. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes defends the inalienable character of personal security and the right to life. Man wants to escape a violent death, the ultimate injustice. Therefore, politics must defend life (the supreme value), make individuals live together and guarantee civil peace. The state is responsible for these tasks and has the means to accomplish them thanks to its monopoly of legitimate violence.
The Habeas Corpus (1679), which prohibits arbitrary arrest, and common law jurisprudence (1767), which affirms the sanctity of individual physical integrity: "The person must be protected against bodily harm to others that he has not authorised". An extension of this idea justifies, today, the constitutional nature of the right to bear arms in thirteen American states.
This political thinking (among other phenomena) shapes today's Western civilisation and the values we share. Everyone's body must be recognised, respected and protected. British philosophy went even further. For John Locke or John Stuart Mill, what the body expresses is considered legitimate and what it feels is the basis of morality. The rights of minorities and the fight for equality are based on these principles.
At the same time, French philosophy remained imbued with ancient organicism. One can be alive and healthy in a prison, explains Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762). To escape subjugation, men must agree among themselves and create a 'political body' called the state. The right to life and death is, as it were, transposed from monarchy to parliament. The holistic nature of kingship is thus reinvented in a revolutionary and republican form. The corporeal existence of the citizen is no longer 'a blessing of nature' but 'a conditional gift of the state', as Rousseau tells us. Abbé Sieyès deepened the question by defining "the great indivisible body of the Nation". The individual still does not fully belong to himself, therefore.
At the turn of the 19th century, French politics was fed by science to do good. The mechanisms of disease propagation were identified. Physicians elected as deputies had a health project: public hygiene. Action had to be taken on towns, housing and bodies. As a logical consequence, the welfare state was invented at the beginning of the 20th century with laws in favour of the sick, the infirm and the elderly. The Ministry of Health was created in 1920. Here, democratic choices accompanied collective progress.
Foucault (La Volonté de savoir, 1976) offers a radical critical reading of a power that he renames "bio-power" since it deals with birth rate, longevity, mortality, etc. Its deepest essence? Its deepest essence? To exercise domination, prohibition and constraint over individuals. "Power, in the last resort, is repression," he writes. The body of each person is its objective and it has increasingly powerful technological means to control it. In other words, freedom is a permanent struggle. Indignation justifies many movements.
The fact remains that France has gradually converted to political individualism. French law enshrined the inviolability and non-patrimoniality of the human body in the 1994 bioethics laws. ART is one of the outcomes of this process. Faced with the questions posed by science and morality, it is a question of reconciling the fundamental freedom to dispose of one's body with respect for the plurality of opinions in a democracy. The public authorities are constantly faced with the need to define what is acceptable and what is not, what is fair or unfair. In response, the country has invented a regular and unique deliberative process, which favours the search for consensus without taking it for granted.