Apart from psychoanalysis and feminism, the other area in which feminists have appropriated and developed poststructuralist theory has been in their engagement with the work of Michel Foucault.
Several key feminist concerns figure centrally in Foucault’s work: the body as a site of power central to the constitution of subjectivity, the dispersed, discursive nature of power and power’s link with knowledge.
These theories are explored in Foucault’s historical studies of the penal system, Discipline and Punish (1979) and of sexuality, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (1981). Many of these theories are those of power based on a model of hierarchical domination of the many by privileged groupings. While not necessarily challenging these effects, Foucault offers another perspective on how power operates.
He rejects the simple, hierarchical approach and suggests instead that power is not a unitary concept, not an absolute. Instead, he says “power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between the rulers and the ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix – no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body” (Foucault, quoted in Joseph Bristow, Sexuality, 1997).
Instead, he sees power as being dispersed through a network of relationships which make up society and is based on discourse. This is not to deny that power struggle may be unequal but to suggest that it is not exercised in a single, downward vector. For Foucault, a critical component of power is freedom since power can only be said to create an effect if the object of power has the ability to resist.
As he says, “Power is not simply repressive; it is also productive....Power subjects bodies not to render them passive, but to render them active. The forces of the body corresponds to the exercise of power over it. Hence the possibility of a reversal of that power” (Alan Sheridan, 1980).
For Michel Foucault, “sexuality” in the pure state does not exist: it is always caught up in historical configurations (dispositifs) that structure in various ways. Thus far, moreover, it has always been associated with various “patterns of alliance” in the form of the family. Foucault sets himself the task of uncovering the historical and cultural forms those patterns have taken, including that which “constituted sex itself as something desirable”. In an obvious criticism of the Freudian-Marxist theories of libidinal revolution, he remarked on the “irony of the pattern, (which is) that it wants to persuade us that our liberation is at stake”.
Sexuality is always a mise en discours, a formulation in terms of theoretical and practical discourse. One discourse can replace another: in this sense feminism is not the abolition of all discourse for the hitherto dominant discourse. It is not an effect of nature but one consequence among others of history and politics, whose specific modalities call for analysis.
Foucault substituted a structural approach for Marxism’s causal explanations, and he uncovered multiple strata of power where Marxism had seen only one mechanism of exploitation, the economic. He thus injected new life into the study of how societies through the ages have relied in practice on various forms of exclusion. He focused primarily on madmen and prisoners. When it came to male-female relations, he was suspicious of reductionism and warned against the belief in the possibility of achieving some sort of ideal situation in which the truth would be revealed. There is, he argued, “no essence” of sexuality and of intersexual relations; there are only modalities. There is no society without power; there are only displacements of power.
Foucault’s philosophy, for all its analytic subtlety, was by no means a “philosophy of liberation”, and it should come as no surprise that it culminated in a meditation on “the ethics of the self”. By introducing the notion of “bio-power”, however, Foucault brought to light a process of domination that could not be reduced to the process of economic domination identified by Marx, one that shed light, in particular, on the way in which women’s bodies are subjected to inspection in the course of sexuality and reproduction.
It has been commonplace to regard the Victorian era as one in which sex was repressed, later to be released from constraint as sexual mores became more permissive in the latter part of the 20th century. This view presupposes a given, natural sexuality kept in check by moral convention and restraint. While some theorists were questioning this view, the publication of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, inspired widespread rethinking.
Foucault suggests that sexuality is not regulated only through proscription and prohibition, but produced through prescription and incitement. In other words, it is not simply a matter of being told what not to do, but being shown what it is possible to do and what should be done. He argues that the 19th century was not a period of silence around the sexual, but one in which there was a “discursive explosion” around sexuality, a cataloguing and categorizing of individual acts and proclivities which gave rise to a new sexual lexicon.
This brought into being the concept of sexuality as we understand it today, and made it possible to name a diverse range of sexualities, such as nymphomania, homosexuality or necrophilia. These were thought of as properties of persons, intrinsic to one’s inner being, rather than merely a description of specific acts. Hence it became possible, for example, to be homosexual. Sexology came into being as a mode of regulation, a means of controlling through classifying, distinguishing “normal” sexuality from “pathological” forms.
Thus sexuality was increasingly subject to medical gaze, and was no longer merely a matter of morality. At the same time, making sexuality a basis for the ascription of identities made it possible for those so identified to resist negative definitions and develop alternatives. For example, there could be no movement for homosexual liberation without a past history which defined homosexuals as a social category.
Though Foucault pays little attention to gender and regards the regulation of women’s sexuality as only one form of regulation amongst many, feminists have found much of his work useful. In particular, it allows them to view female sexuality as socially constructed and reconstructed in complex and often contradictory ways rather than as simply being repressed.
This facilitates a more nuanced understanding of the changes which took place in the 19th century, when earlier ideas of women as lustful temptresses have given way to a notion of women as “naturally” pure. Seeing this as a repression of earlier free expression is overly simplistic. In the first place, it ignores the forms of regulation which were imposed on women in earlier centuries, and, second, it disguises the multiplicity of meanings which accreted around female sexuality in the Victorian era.
Women were thought to be asexual in the sense of having no autonomous desire but saturated with sexuality in that they were governed by their sexual organs. Having no desires of their own, they were none the less supposed to be susceptible to seduction and thus could easily be dislodged from their pedestal, becoming “fallen women”.
Foucault’s stress on the constructed nature of embodied subjects as products of power, and his placement of resistance as internal to power, are important in explaining why some feminists have made use of Foucault’s work and why other feminists have found some problems with it.
Many feminists have found much use in his concern to move beyond the study of meaning in the operation of texts into explicit analysis of social relations and in his questions regarding the connections between legitimated knowledge, notions of absolute truth, and the exclusionary effects of power.
His approach locates the body as an increasingly significant site for power operations and thus recognizes that power is a feature of every aspect of social life, not simply of locations such as the state (government) or the military. There are overlaps here with feminist approaches and struggles. But while Foucault does not deny the systematic privileging of men over women, he also does not perceive that privileging as grounded in some essential sexual identity belonging to women.
For many feminists a concern to see women in terms of social construction rather than eternal essence is hardly an issue but Foucault goes further.
Feminists characteristically assert that all forms of meaning, all varieties of social construction, including the ways in which the body might be shaped and interpreted, are sexually specified and not sex-neutral. By contrast, Foucault is gender-blind and does not explore power operations in relation to sexual specificity, let alone the sexual particularity of bodily selves.
At the same time, he habitually portrays and refers to men, presenting a masculine position in relation to power as if it were universal. Such a conjunction seems surreptitiously to maintain masculine authority under the traditional modernist guise of universalizing sexual neutrality. This is a standard criticism of Foucault’s work even among those feminists who are sympathetic to his approach.
Undoubtedly, Foucault’s view of power is for feminists one of the most controversial aspects of his work. His insistence that there is no escaping power, that it is always present and that it produces the forms of resistance with which one attempts to counter it is rejected by feminists anxious to hold on to the idea that it is possible to reach a position beyond power.
Other feminists argue that Foucault offers no basis for criteria by which to choose between good and bad forms of power. Nancy Fraser, for example, argues: “Foucault adopts a concept of power that permits him no condemnation of any objectionable features of modern societies. But at the same time, and on the other hand, his rhetoric betrays the conviction that modern societies are without redeeming features. What Foucault needs desperately are normative criteria for distinguishing from unacceptable forms of power.”
Nancy Hartsock also believes that Foucault fails to provide a theory of power for women. This is the first open criticism of Foucault’s notion of power. Despite his sympathy for those who are subjugated in various ways, Foucault writes from the perspective of the dominator, “the self-proclaimed majority”. Domination, viewed from above, is more likely to appear as equality. As a result, the issue of inequalities of gender is never properly addressed by Foucault. Hartsock feels totally alienated from Foucault’s perspective and is openly hostile.
His is “a world in which things move, rather than people, a world in which subjects become obliterated or, rather, as passive objects, a world in which passivity or refusal represent the only possible choices”. There is no concept of a fervent revolution. This is where he differs from the Marxist idea of a veritable revolution.
In Hartsock’s opinion, Foucault’s emphasis on resistance rather than transformation is due to his profound pessimism. Even his idea of resistance is rather abstract and Foucault is often vague about what it actually entails. Additionally, Foucault construes resistance to (or even liberation from) identity.
He thus disallows those feminist claims which involve some appeal to or celebration of a common identity, interests or experience shared by women as reiterating authoritarian procedures.
This radical rejection of identity is a matter of grave concern for some feminists. They fear that if the marginalized feminine is not voiced as a form of resistance, its disappearance may not spell destabilization of masculine authority so much as its reiteration. They suggest that unless we explicitly refer to the category, women, the prevailing focus on men remains uninterrupted. Nevertheless some postmodern feminists like Judith Butler are inclined to view Foucault’s emphasis on plurality as presenting possibilities rather than as a problem. Like Foucault, Butler also contests the notion there is any such thing as sex outside the range of discourses that constitute sexuality. She adds, “Inasmuch as ‘identity’ is assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality, the very notion of the person is called into question by the cultural emergence of those “incoherent” or “discontinuous” gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined.” (Butler, 1990).
It is not easy to draw conclusions where Foucault’s work is concerned. He offers no ready solutions to the abolition of gender discrimination; he is, in Alan Sheridan’s words “a slayer of dragons, a breaker of systems” because he invites the student to engage in discourse in an arena of no absolutes where “truth” can change as a result of the very discourse which uses it as a premise.
His central thesis that power is everywhere expressed in a multitude of individual discourses offers freedom from the inevitability of determinate power and allows us to view the manifestation of feminist thought as a site of power and resistance where the outcome may well allow resistance as a necessary condition for the exercise of power.
Yet he also offers a bleak analysis of how we are brought to see a form of reality which narrows our views of what is possible and identifies how, in our time, our perceptions of sexuality might be used for this purpose. He shows that despite the opportunities for resistance, a normalizing process results from the effective problematization of (arguably equally valid) modes of existence. So, while it might be possible to draw comfort from his view that power outcomes are not inevitable and can be resisted, Foucault offers no revolutionary option.
Originally published in The Statesman in 2002.