Article: The Ecstatics – Michel Foucault’s Concept of Political Spirituality

by Teresa Xavier Fernandes

13th October 2020

[Part of a series of articles drawn from the 6th International Anarchist Studies Network Conference, September 2020]


Was the philosopher Michel Foucault an ecstatic? In my view, the answer is yes. I argue in this article that Foucault’s work was written out of a state of ecstasy, or a spiritual state. For Foucault, the concept of ecstasy arises exactly within the scope of a broader concept of political spirituality. As the author explained in a Le Nouvel Observateur interview (1979), the concept of political spirituality is a key notion and a fundamental and permanent preoccupation of his reflection: to problematise institutionalised acts, gestures and discourses, for instance, with regard to madness, normality, disease, delinquency, punishment, and the Iranian Revolution, the example that I am going to focus on here. And Foucault built this concept of political spirituality following, at least, two main influences: Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. After reading Bataille’s work and, for instance, his exchange of correspondence with Jean-Paul Sartre, which Foucault mentions, I can confirm that Bataille’s concept of ‘ecstasy’ is crucial in order to comprehend Foucault’s spirituality. In turn, I have also discovered at Foucault’s archives, in Paris, that Blanchot’s concept of au-delá – or hors de soi – (out of self) is also a fundamental to understanding Foucault’s spirituality and his philosophical and political intervention.

So, how should the concept of political spirituality that makes Foucault an ecstatic be defined? I divide the task into three parts: 1) I will define the concept of spirituality, understanding the extent to which this spirituality has a political dimension; 2) I will show why I consider Foucault to be an ecstatic; 3) I will give as an example Foucault’s visits to Iran, having Sufism as the main background.


  1. The Concept of Spirituality

In order to understand the philosophical density of the Foucauldian concept of spirituality, it is convenient, first of all, to study two other fundamental concepts: the concept of use (chresthai) and the concept of care (epimeleia). With regard to the concept of care, it is very important to understand two other concepts: the concept of ecstasy, and the concept of au-delà (out of self)

Michel Foucault developed the concept of care in detail, especially in the third volume of The History of Sexuality, The care for the self, published in 1984, the year of his death. However, the author did not develop the concept of use in the same way, although the term appears, for example, in the sub-title of the second volume of The History of Sexuality, the use of pleasures (the chresis aphrodision), which was also published in 1984. Nevertheless, the concept of use is studied by Giorgio Agamben, also under Foucauldian inspiration, in his book The use of bodies. It is with the help of Agamben that I analyse the concept of use in this paper. And it is precisely within the framework of the concept of ‘sexuality’ – or the use of bodies – that it is necessary to define and understand the concepts of use and care, in order to comprehend what Foucault’s spirituality is.

The concept of use means ‘a kind of’ practice (praxis), but is not a praxis (Agamben 2017: 39). It is a type of action that mainly affects the subject who practises it, who is himself the place of the action (Agambem 2017:4 7). ‘The use is mainly use of oneself’ (Agambem 2017: 49). The use is about ‘the same, the exactly alike’ (Foucault 1964). And it is a current practice, a practice of everyday life, which is also ‘simply always the same’, for instance: to have the breakfast, to sleep, to wake up, etc. (Agamben 2017: 40, Foucault 1964).

In fact, the use is neither a praxis nor a poeisis, as the Greeks would distinguish (Agamben 2017: 41). Praxis means to act having the energy in the action itself. Poiesis signifies having the energy outside oneself, in the work produced (Agamben 2017: 37, 38). The Greek free man’s ideal is to be a ‘right user’ of things – and neither to be a producer nor just a user (Agamben 2017: 38, 39). So, the use of the body does not have the energy in the action itself, because the body is just a zoè, ‘an instrument for life’; the use of the body is the slave’s activity (Agamben,2017: 39). The use is also a current action such as sexuality, the example that Foucault mainly takes.

Foucault (1977: 30) explains, ‘sexuality is a fissure’: it creates a ‘limit’. Sexuality ‘marks the limit within us, and designates us as a limit’, pointing ‘to nothing beyond itself’ (Foucault 1977: 30). Sexuality is also about ‘the same’ and not about the other. Agamben (2017: 41) complements: ‘the use of the body defines a zone of indifference between the body itself and the body of the other’. In the sexual act we are completely indifferent to the ‘nothing’ that exists between us and our partner. Sexuality does not allow us to ‘communicate’ with others. In sexuality we just ‘use’ the body. Between me and the other there is an insurmountable ‘fissure’ that the sexual act, or the use of the body, cannot overcome. It can be said that, for Foucault, the use only consists of the practice carried out by ordinary people living in the profane world (Foucault 1985: 54, Agamben 2017: 39). Communication is more profound, as we will see below.

Communication happens when, for example, sexuality turns into eroticism. Eroticism is the ‘“deep sexuality”, which is opposed to superficial or habitual sexuality’ (Sabot 2007: 90). And sexuality becomes eroticism when I observe sexuality – or the ‘things from below’ or ‘the most obscure movements of existence’ (Sabot 2007: 90). And what happens when I observe sexuality? My observation crosses the sexual limit to the void that exists between me and the other. Eroticism communicates in ecstasy with this void (Bataille 2017: 66, Foucault 1977: 33).

This overcoming of limits configures a eupraxia or the ‘right use’, which is the spiritual and virtuous stage of the use (Foucault 1985: 54). For Bataille (2017: 28), it is the last step of a long ascetic path – Foucault calls this path or propaedeutic the Use of Pleasures. And this eupraxia happens when, after this long path, the use becomes a conscious practice. Spirituality is a permanent reflection, and a self-care – which, as we have seen, also includes the use of the body. As Hadot (2002: 20, 23) explains, the spiritual signifies ‘exercises’ or practices that intend to change the being radically. Bataille (2017: 22, 23) calls these ongoing exercises ‘dramatization’: if I do not know how to dramatise, or problematise, as Foucault did, observing the things from below, I will not be able to overcome the limit.

So dramatisation leads us to pass the limit that the use of the body imposes on us. And here Foucault uses Bataille’s concept of transgression. Foucault says ‘transgression’ is to cross the limit and contact with the void that exists between our body and the body of the other. Foucault (1977: 35) underlines that transgression is not a ‘negative’ concept; it is neither violence nor a victory over limits. Transgression is ‘an affirmation that affirms nothing’: a radical break of our lives (Foucault 1977: 36). Foucault (1977: 48) is again inspired by Bataille in order to define transgression: it is ‘the inner experience, the extreme possibility, the comic process, or simply meditation’. Transgression means meditation, because it puts us in contact with the emptiness. First of all it distresses us and then leaves us in an ecstatic state before the fundamental silence. Transgression makes us wonder. To be in ecstasy is to be amazed, speechless. For Foucault, ecstasy transforms us. It is the ontological transformation that does not deny the existence and established values, being just the affirmation of a difference.

For this reason, the reflective practice is radical. It is a vertigo that connects life and death, or the ‘ontological void’ or ‘death of God’ (Foucault 1977: 50). As Foucault (1977: 33) states, ‘God is nothing if not the surpassing of God’. God means limitlessness or the overcoming of the limit. For Bataille (2017: 9), ‘divine’ means ‘to deepen the tragic natures and be able to laugh at them’ – and, according to Sabot (2007), this vision of God configures ‘an atheistic or atheological mysticism’.

Spirituality is radical because it takes us into the root: the ontological void. Nevertheless, this root is just an ‘uprooting’, that is, ‘the collapse of the ground of certainties’ (Sabot 2007: 88). For this reason, the root causes a mixture of anguish and ecstasy, of nothing and everything, a mixture of screaming and laughter, drama and comedy (Bataille 2017: 22, 23). Spirituality is the experience of the abyss that scares us, but, at the same time, floods our life with joy, transforming it into a new attitude of permanent attention to the ontological void. And it is in ecstasy, facing the abject and frightening, that we discover the sublime, a new way of living: the ‘magical’ au-delà de Blanchot (2010). A new world and a new knowledge are becoming possible.

And, as Foucault (1994: xxiv) writes in The Order of Things (1966), when that other world and knowledge arrive, ‘man’ disappears. Sabot (2007: 87) explains that the spiritual exercises have two dynamics: the ‘inner experience’ and ‘the exit from the self’ (la sortie de soi). This ‘exit’ means the communication with ‘an elusive beyond’ (Sabot 2007: 87). So, this other world transforms and empties our I, or the ‘absolute subject’, who starts to live in permanent contact or communication with the nothingness. This virtuous practice dilutes the ego and brings out the plural, reflexive and spiritual self. Foucault (1977: 39, 48, 49) argues that this inner experience is the experience of finitude: when we discover that our interior is ‘an empty skull, a central absence’. And I, as a knowledgeable subject, appear as an impossibility. When I try to know this ‘central absence’ inside myself – and before myself – I realise that I am limited and cannot know the nothingness, because there is nothing to know. Bataille (2017: 15) affirms that the inner experience ‘is born from the not-knowing and remains there’.

However, as I affirm, with regard to this profane life, I can die, and then I begin ‘to live’ or ‘to be’ – as Agamben (2017: 15) says ‘to be’ and ‘to live’ are intertwined. I can make a ‘decision’, as Bataille (2017: 38, 39) says, between having an unholy life and living. For Bataille (2017: 39), the decision ‘is born before the worst and overcomes it’; it is ‘the essence of courage, heart and being’ (Bataille 2017: 39). I can choose: or I decide to live the challenge that the desecration of the sacred space offers me: the spirituality path (Bataille 2017: 19). Or I go back to my limit, to the profane life of the use of the body, abstracting myself from the precipice (Agamben 2017: 15). And if I accept to live, what is it to live in practice?


The concept of politics

Blanchot (2010: 173) explains that this ‘other life’ means to live ‘out of time’, or to live the ‘immediate’. I would say to live out of history. And I get out of time through these ‘movements of the inner being’ that are ‘vertiginous’, ‘instantaneous’, ‘powerful’, ‘triumphal’ and ‘magical’, as Blanchot qualifies (2010: 173, 174).

In turn, for Nietzsche, ‘living’ is the representation of being (Agamben 2017: 15). According to Nietzsche, the task of thought and politics today is to ‘bring to light’ the intimate and immediate relationship between being and living (Agamben 2017: 15). This intimate relationship is the permanent contact with the radical emptiness, the root of being, which gives a different perspective to life and enables a different attitude. Bataille (1967: 9, 23) explains that being and living presupposes the ‘whole man’, which springs from this ‘burning and painful inspiration’ of the nothingness. According to Bataille (1967: 9, Sabot 2007: 88), it is this ‘fundamental pain’ that, for example, leads him to write, and take his rest, because to write about the transgression could also be ‘a place of exercise’. The burning and conscious state is the ‘condition’ of this other attitude, which is being or living. Living is different from acting towards an end, which is the hallmark of the ‘fragmented man’ (Bataille 1967: 19).

According to Aristotle, the fragmented man’s use of the body happens at home (oikos) (Agamben 2017: 22, 23). However, the whole man’s right use happens at the polis. The right use allows the development of the bios politikos, which meant, for the ancient Greeks, the ‘truly human life’ (Agamben 2017: 39). The true life is the care life: the Foucauldian care for the self. And the care, Heidegger says, is a dasein’s ‘fundamental structure’; I would say that the care is a kind of hardware or an a priori that is innate, which we only unveil after the essential transgression (Agamben 2017: 60). According to Heidegger, the care signifies ‘the being of the dasein’ or the ‘being-already-in-advance-in-relation-with-the-world, as being-together-with’ (Agamben 2017: 60). According to Foucault, the care for the self is political because it implies non-slavery with respect to myself and others (Foucault 1987: 17).


  1. The Ecstatic Foucault

This is the philosophical perspective that shapes Foucault’s work and life: the ecstatic view of the abyss. This is the meaning of Foucault’s concept of political spirituality: the anguish facing the emptiness that also makes us laugh with happiness at the possibility of another life. And this possibility is an eternal return. We can try it constantly (Blanchot 2010: 175, Foucault 1977: 44)

So, Foucault’s work is la pensée du dehors: the thought of the outside or the thought of the abyss. It is the hors de soi (the out of the self), because the philosopher finds his space in the void where the absolute subject disappears (Foucault 1966). The Foucauldian philosopher is the ‘underground’ or the ‘cave’ man, who ‘operates a radical conversion to nothingness’ (Sabot 2007: 89). As Foucault tells us, it was always this perspective of the abyss, or the ‘right use’, that Foucault tried to apply to his philosophical life from The History of Madness in the Classical Age to The History of Sexuality. For that reason, I say that Foucault was an ecstatic, without taking the ‘yellow pills’, which, Foucault admits, allow the possibility of achieving a different state of consciousness (Eribon 2011). But this is not the case with this spiritual concept of ecstasy, which is synonymous with consciousness.


  1. The Iranian Case

As Brossat (2015: 259, 265) writes, when Foucault arrived in Iran and observed the Iranians’ effervescence, he concluded: ‘Il se passe quelque chose’ (something is happening), becoming ‘intrigued, impressed and surprised’. I agree with Chevallier (2004) and Cavagnis (2012) that Foucault’s interest in the Iranian Revolution was mainly linked to his ‘fascination’ with the concept of ‘uprising’, and the first phase of the Iranian event: from the 1978 uprising that led to the Shah’s departure in January 1979 to Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in February. In fact, Foucault never wrote about the Iranian Islamic Revolution in itself.

According to Brossat (2015: 260, 261), Foucault was astonished by the ‘immediacy’ of the event, which erupted from the ‘human dust’, and broke the history (the ordinary life). For Foucault, ‘a twist’ was occurring in the Iranian here and now, and a new horizon emerged (Brossat 2015: 265). And this twist also presupposes the self transgression (Brossat 2015: 276).

Nevertheless this subjective uprising was also a collective attitude lead by that heterogeneous ‘human dust’ constituted, for example, by ‘traders, workers, religious and teachers’ (Brossat 2015: 276). For Foucault, this collective, heterogeneous and cohesive unity, is really a ‘mystery’ because only a ‘no’ united those people who were so different: the ‘no’ against the Shah’s regime (Brossat 2015: 276, 279, Chevallier 2004). And the program of this ‘enigmatic regime change’ was also a paradox or an unspeakable vertigo: a ‘no’ in order to obtain an ‘everything’, ‘a change of life’. According to Foucault (1979), above all, in the streets of Tehran, through these ‘religious rites’ people say: ‘we have to change ourselves’, also ‘our relationship with others, with things, with eternity, with God … and there will be no real revolution except on the condition of this radical change’.

According to Foucault, any type of representation was out of the question during the Iranian insurrection (Brossat 2015: 277, Chevallier 2004). For Foucault, Khomeini was the ‘fixing point’ of the collective will: its ‘mystical effigy’. During the insurrection, its power was to be an ‘absence’ or nothingness (Brossat 2015: 280). For this reason, Foucault felt that the Iranian insurrection shared with him a similar perspective: the ‘outbreak of religious subjectivity’ (Brossat 2015: 264). These are Foucault’s words when faced with the insurrection and its many deaths: ‘what sense, for the people who inhabit [the land of Iran], to seek at the very cost of their lives this thing of which we have forgotten the possibility since the Renaissance and the great crises of Christianity: a political spirituality’ (Chevallier 2004). In fact, Foucault’s main goal with his ‘reports of ideas’ to Corriere della Sera was to show this Iranian ‘political spirituality’, with the aim of trying to understand what Iranian ‘people feel deep inside themselves’ (Foucault 1979).

Foucault (1979) talks about a spiritual and religious insurrection. And, here, for Foucault, the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religion’ almost merge. It looked like an atheistic atheological mysticism, as I mention. Foucault (1979) admits that ‘religion’ or ‘Islam played a role’ in this uprising. Islam ‘was really the vocabulary, the ceremonial, the timeless drama’ of this ‘irruption’ (Foucault 1979). It was this spiritual force that Foucault discovered in Iranian people: a force or power that came from the hearts, being sculpted by spiritual or religious exercises.

And as Chevallier (2004) asks: is this Iranian political spirituality ‘disqualified because Khomeini returned to the country and … began to execute opponents?’ Chevallier (2004) answers ‘no’, because formal politics is not able to erase ‘the value of a movement … by which a single man, a group, a minority or an entire people says: “I no longer obey”’. For Chevallier (2004), this movement seems ‘irreducible’, and could remain after and beyond the revolution, because this political spirituality bears on the void and on our vital energy. Chevallier (2004) argues that ‘political spirituality is not what follows the curve of history’, but ‘what is always breaking and bursting’. Chevallier (2004) concludes that it is possible to live another life beyond political power, because ‘there is something that takes us from history’. This ‘something’ is an attitude towards oneself, a ‘work of the self on the self’: the Foucauldian askesis (Chevallier 2004).



For these reasons, Foucault (1979) says that the Iranian Insurrection was ‘something totally different’. And as Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 56) explains, Foucault was very sensitive to this difference, at least, for two reasons: 1) Foucault found in Iran a very similar perspective to the one that had always influenced his work; 2) he prepared intensively for his Iranian journey with the strong influence of the great French specialists on Islamic studies: Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin. According to Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 56), both authors attributed a heavy weight to the ‘mystic, spiritual and ritualistic Islam’. According to Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 56), Massignon’s four-volume The passion of al-Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam was a huge inspiration for Foucault.

And, indeed, the ecstatic, Sufi and Persian Hallaj (858-922), known as a ‘truth seeking revolutionary’, was the kind of figure that Foucault found replicated in many of the Iranian demonstrations (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 56). Hallaj became a Sufi martyr after his execution for his alleged heretical mantra ana al-Haqq (I am the Truth) (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 56). And, as Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 56) says, Hallaj was promoted in Iran by Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977), an Iranian revolutionary and sociologist, known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution. According to Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 56), Shari’ati included Hallaj in his liberation theology, and spread Hallaj as an inspiration through his sermons to young Muslims and intellectuals. In a lecture in Tehran, in 1968, Shari’ati marvelled at Hallaj’s behaviour, who had crossed Baghdad ‘holding his head between his two hands while crying, “Rebellion has taken me over, release me from the fire which is burning me”’ (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 56). As Ghamari-Tabrizi tells us, ‘Shari’ati pauses and wonders: what if Iranian society consisted of 25 million Hallajs?’. And, as I affirm, ten years later, in 1978, Foucault witnessed in the streets of Tehran that ‘uprising of millions of Hallaj-Like seekers of truth’ (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 57). Foucault identified completely with these massive demonstrations, and their Sufi transformative political spirituality (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 57, 58). As Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 58) tells us, Foucault ‘regarded himself as one of those “new men” that the revolution created in the streets of Tehran’. He also shared with the Iranian people ‘the courage and the absence of fear’ and the will to live these times of insurrection outside the ‘dominant progressive’ historical time (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 58). As Ghamari-Tabrizi (2016: 58) affirms, Foucault completely agreed with this Iranian ‘anti-teleological view of history’, and its Sufi inspiration of ‘making history through the transformation of the self’ (Ghamari-Tabrizi 2016: 58).

In fact, Sufism had a big say in this timeless drama. The Iranian political spirituality had its deep roots in Sufism and in its constitution of the Self (Lings 2010: 108). As I mention, it is this kind of Sufi ‘inner movement’ that Foucault talks about in his ‘reports of ideas’. The Iranian political spirituality presupposes the existence of this Sufi Self, which communicates with the void or God in a perfect Unity or immediacy that is reached through care or reflexive practices, as studied above.

In fact, Sufism has strongly inspired Islam over the ages, and the Iranian spirituality that fascinated Foucault seems to have been inspired by the Sufi doctrine of the unity of being (Lings 2010: 82). For Sufism, there is a ‘unique Being’, which means paradoxically a plural being or ‘two presences’: one ‘exterior’ and the other one ‘interior’ (Lings 2010: 88). The exterior would be the positive Islamic religion, and the interior seems to be, for instance, the mystical Sufism. And it would be this mystical path that could resist and survive after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the proclamation of the Islamist republic. Foucault (1979) highlights: ‘Islam was not first nor foremost perceived by Iranians in a legalistic or legal sense’. And he continues: ‘the mistrust of legalism seemed to me essential’ among the Iranians who believed in the ‘creativity of Islam’ (Foucault 1979).

And Sufism goes even further in this creativity, and deepens this mystical path to the Self with a formula that has ‘four presences’ or degrees: lâ ilâha illâ ‘Llâh (no god but God) (Lings 2010: 89). And ‘the last of the name Allâh symbolizes the Self’ (Lings 2010: 89). So, the Self is the ‘unity’ of the multiple, and it remembers the Foucauldian askesis or his ‘subjectivation’, as the author argues, for instance, in The Hermeneutics of the Subject (Foucault 2006, Lings 2010: 82, 104).

So, beyond the positive Islamic theology and its rituals and practices, there seems to be a negative theology, which looks like Bataille’s (Sabot 2007: 88). The Sufi God or the Sufi Self (the last of the name Allâh) seems to be this ‘hidden, but essential, dimension of the existence’, which relates to the unconscious, this ‘lucid and reasonable’ ‘underground’ consciousness, from where our truth comes out, as Hallaj proclaimed (I am the truth) (Sabot 2007: 89). So, I could say that Foucault found himself in this mystic and Sufi Iran, where he could check, observe and experiment with his fundamental concept of political spirituality.



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