’s reconfiguration of the self
is a radical departure from traditional philosophical accounts, such as that of René Descartes
, Immanuel Kant
, and G.W.F. Hegel
. For these thinkers, who embody Enlightenment
ideals, the self is a singularity, a unity which is a priori
and real. It exists throughout time, and does not change in any meaningful way; a person may undergo a change in personality, changes in opinions on this or that issue, but essentially, they have the same soul
and self for the duration of their lives1
. This, of course, gives rise to a certain way of looking at political engagement. Human rights, property, and freedom are all traditionally thought of in terms of this Kantian2
formulation of the self. They are, according to natural law and Enlightenment thinkers innate and intrinsic to human existence. Freedom
is something which can be possessed, which can be fought for, and which can be lost. In this way, then, resistance
is considered as something which strives to ensure the maintenance of that which is guaranteed as rightfully belonging to the subject
For Foucault, on the other hand, what the self and identity are is something entirely different. In works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that identity is actually produced by the very discourses which are bound up in talking about the liberation or domination of the self. For instance, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault claims that the human soul was born in the development of methods of social control that we can still see at work today. In fact, the self is created in the midst of an intricate network of discourses that run the gamut from medical, to psychological, to sociological:
A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political
awareness of these small things, for the control and use of
men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole
set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge,
descriptions, plans and data. And from such trifles, no doubt, the
man of modern humanism was born. (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 141)
This works through the conduits of a multiplicity of social relations which can involve such things as developing a medical history and profile of an individual, by trying to situate behavioural patterns in students by learning more about their life outside of school, or by engaging in the “confessional” discourse about sexuality that is highly visible in today’s world3. The irony here is that knowledge purports to equate with freedom and progression, while for Foucault it turns into power and domination: “confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom” (Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 60). This, of course, goes far beyond the production of the self: Foucault argues that objects of discourse, in general, are produced by discourse. Sexual deviance, criminality or delinquency, and even such things as gender roles all fall under this category in Foucault’s theoretical work. So, for Foucault as well as the majority of those thinkers who fall under the “postmodern” category, the subject or the self has been eliminated in its traditional conception. “Postmodernism,” writes Eileen Schlee, “has knocked the subject from its pedestal, which makes discussion of identity awkward. There are simply too many fragments to hold at one time to produce a mass sufficient to be called a definitive subject” (Eileen Schlee, “The Subject is Dead, Long Live the Female Subject!”, Feminist Issues , Fall 1993, 69). Thus, the whole idea of resistance becomes a problem: who or what is doing the resisting? Furthermore, is the resisting subject merely a fiction, produced by its own dialogue and the dialogues which it attempts to subvert and overthrow? Besides that, if the subject is so fragmented and clearly not a unity which can correspond to any archetypes or metaphysical foundations, then how can a movement truly be launched - what is holding it together? Finally, is this truly problematic, or is can this conception of the self be adopted and made more productive than that of the Enlightenment? Again, Eileen Schlee:
Any notion of self is a construct and language-as-construct
constrains subjectivity significantly. “Our experience of our very
subjectivity is a construct beyond (way beyond) our control. As
Foucault puts it, we are bodies ‘totally imprinted by history’ (Alcoff,
p.416). Conscious thought as a sort of language follows lines created
outside the self. The humanist idea of conscious thought (and
activity) constituting subjectivity overlooks entirely the countless
pushes and pulls that are the structures of human experience in society. (Schlee, 73)
The way we view our own subjectivity, then, is illusory; it is held together by a linguistic structure
which stands largely above and beyond our ability to examine it from the outside. We are trapped within it. Our subjectivity is an idea promoted by humanist thought, and a condition forced upon us by social interaction. In reality, there is nothing fundamental to grasp on to, but again, is this necessarily a problem when we consider political oppression and possible resistance? These problems and efforts to resolve them are where the feminist project comes into this essay.
Feminist thought centres around understanding and resisting the hierarchical binary opposition between the male and the female. Justice versus care, reason versus emotion, for example - we see these binaries at work all the time. Historically, philosophy has privileged justice and reason over care and emotion. By this point (within the last twenty years, at the very least), this sort of hierarchy has been reevaluated and in a collapse, its subjugated complements have been valourized as holding at least the same importance as those which are conventionally given the position of prime importance. Of course, this is not just a philosophical issue: its political and social implications are very real, indeed. The oppression and subjugation of women has ostensibly been the order of the day, in the home as well as the social and professional world: “Even today, women in the university are defined to a great extent by relationships to me - whether as students, research assistants, assistant professors, or “disciples” (Jana Sawicki, Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power and the Body, 4). The feminist project, then, is fundamentally one of resisting hierarchical relationships and gaining some foothold in equality.
So, how does Foucault fit into this? Is his work a help or hindrance to the feminist project? To be sure, it falls under some critique. For a movement that is founded on resistance and political change, Foucault’s lack of (or refusal to provide) a foundation for a “new” political vision is troublesome. Nancy Hartsock, for instance, claims that Foucault’s political thought is useless to marginalized groups because, on her reading, he prevents them from claiming any sort of solid subject identity and also argues that they cannot escape from being an object of discourse. In other words, it is impossible to step outside of the discourse which dominates you, because then you truly have nothing to hold onto. To clarify, this is like claiming that: a) the female subject is constituted by the discourses surrounding it, including the oppression of women, which means that b) to dismantle the discourses which dominate it is, in effect, to dismantle the female subject altogether. Hartsock further critiques Foucault by saying that his theory is developed from a particularly male point of view, which understands domination, and can only see domination.
Ultimately, Hartsock claims that Foucault’s analytic of power fails feminism because it is not a theory developed for women. It is the theory of a colonizer who rejects and resists the colonizers, but who, because he does not think from the perspective of the colonized, “fails to provide an epistemology which is usable for the task of revolutionizing, creating and constructing.” Hartsock regards his vision of struggle as a “war of all against all” as dystopian and unacceptable. (Jana Sawicki, “Feminism, Foucault, and ‘Subjects’
of Power and Freedom”, 162)
In other words, he avoids formulating any kind of political resolution, a final position at which one may arrive4
by overcoming dominant social and political discourses, because he only sees the possibility of further domination. Foucault thus suffers from being too deeply embedded in a particular standpoint5
, according to feminist critics
. As Jana Sawicki writes, they
raise suspicions about Foucault’s poststructuralist critiques of subjectivity and humanism. They argue that its influence and prevalence overshadows the efforts of third-world and minority cultures to establish their own identities and literatures as
oppositional to hegemonic forces of patriarchal and imperialist
capitalism. In general, these critiques portray poststructuralist
discourses as too relativistic, nihilistic and pessimistic to serve
as a basis for an adequate feminist politics. (Sawicki, 96)
On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable complaint to make. At first glance, Foucault can appear to be highly cynical
, interested only in retreating from the political world into a private domain of suspicion and refusal to become involved6
. This is, again, chiefly due to fact that he does not offer a new position or stance to move to. With Foucault, there is more problematization than anything else. In an interview from 1983
I am not looking for an alternative; you can’t find the
solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at
another moment by other people. You see, what I want to do is not
the history of solutions, and that’s the reason why I don’t accept the
word alternative. I would like to do the genealogy of problems, of
problématiques. My point is not that everything is bad, but that
everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If
everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.
So my position leads not to apathy, but to a hyper- and pessimistic
activism. (Foucault, The Foucault Reader, 343)
The theme, then, is not retreat or mere evasion; rather, it is an emphasis on continuous movement: a refusal to stay at rest or come to that final point which humanist thought searches for. For Foucault, to stop acting is to allow stagnation to occur. This is how the positive change of today turns into the hegemonious domination of tomorrow. So, even as feminist critics take Foucault to task, their emancipatory project, too, opens itself up to criticism by virtue of the fact that it still cleaves to some Enlightenment
ideals. In what way, then, can Foucauldian techniques be reconciled with liberatory movements such as feminism? If Foucault’s conception of the self can be defuse
d as a problem and reconfigured as beneficial, then how can it be done? Well, first of all, just as Foucault’s political vision is one of motion, event, and change, so can his account of the self be read. In this new view of the self, it is possible to escape from immanence
and shift between states of being in a more fluid identity.
From the loosening of forms, the release of the widest possibility of difference, stems the appeal for feminists of a poststructuralist critique of subjectivity. Discourse cut free from the Logos, from the
phallocentric norm, will undermine sociolinguistic notions of
male/female and may thus constitute new states of being. (Schlee, 74)
Because Foucault’s idea of the self is cut loose from traditional philosophical discourse, feminists have an escape hatch from male-dominated conceptions of knowledge, reason, gender, and so on. Even with in the texts of humanist philosophers, it is implicit (and in places explicit) that the autonomous self refers to the male self (Schlee, 74), so for the subject to meet its demise is no great loss for the feminist project, after all. This is not to say that there is no subject at work in the world, but it is not the a priori
unity participating in immanent identity categories that Kant and company had envisioned. Additionally, Foucault’s contention that the categories themselves are constructed through discourse is beneficial. To quote Nancy Fraser, “Foucault’s most valuable accomplishment consists of a rich empirical account of the early stages in the emergence of power” (Fraser, 17). It allows feminist thinkers to critique tangible male centred forms of power at work in society which effectively build women’s identities for them:
Foucault’s idea that sexuality is not an innate or natural quality of the body, but rather the effect of historically specific power relations has provided feminists with a useful analytical framework to explain how women’s experience is impoverished and controlled within certain culturally determined images of feminine sexuality.
Furthermore, the idea that the body is produced through power, and
is, therefore, a cultural rather than a natural entity has made a
significant contribution to the feminist critique of essentialism ...
(Lois McNay, Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender, and the Self,
If essentialist thought has been brought about through phallocentric hegemony, then Foucault certainly brings its opposite to light. The new capacity to critique “givens” as socially and historically produced is an effective weapon in combatting methods of domination. That the subject has undergone a diaspora
of sorts is not necessarily a crippling blow. It does not really matter if the female identity disappears in overturning the discourses which produce and dominate it; the domination still exists, and it is there to be resisted. The faith
in an a priori identity
is merely a phantasm
springing out of the way which language bedazzles us7
coupled with the way history builds regimes of truth. We can still, however, tie ourselves to certain statements and claims at certain times. The identity must become an event
, a toolbox
- just as Foucault’s work is really a set of tools for opening up discourses and shaking them to their roots. In Eileen Schlee’s words:
Contemporary feminist philosophy proposes that the female
subject rise from the ashes of the blasted liberal humanist model
of the subject, and that it take shape in flight. It may then be that
female subjectivity is ever a process, infinitely deterring the very
state it wishes to achieve. (Schlee, 70)
Here we can realize some sort of meeting point between Foucauldian theory and feminist thought, hopefully providing a response to feminist critiques, and formulating useful ways for feminism to incorporate Foucault’s work into its project. While Foucault rejects the idea of identity or a unified self, he still believes in an acting subject. To wit, there is an “I
” of sorts at work in each of us, but it is by no means fundamentally true, or bound to some metaphysical ground
. It appears as a process, as a timely point of reference, a centre for the “now” which acts as a focal point in how we direct our activity. By moving outside of humanist and Enlightenment frameworks in redefining the subject, the entire issue of oppression and resistance has taken on a different appearance, and new gaps for productive political action have opened up; not only for feminism, but for other social movements and groups as well. More than that, this can give us a way to rethink the entire political project in much the same manner, in terms of how we are to resist domination and effect change. As Jana Sawicki writes, for “Foucault, liberty or freedom is not a state of being or an institutional structure but a practice
” (Sawicki, 171). Movement and constant activity: this is the new method of identity and politics available to, as I have said, not only feminist activists, but all of us.
Not to mention after death, when the soul is emancipated from the phenomenal world.
Just to stick with one term, in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor!
e belong to a society which has ordered sex’s difficult knowledge, not according to the transmission of secrets, but around the slow surfacing of confidential statements” (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 63). People are encouraged to admit ‘truths’ about themselves in the form of confessing sexual encounters, accept what these ‘truths’ entail, and then proclaim their sexuality under the gaze of the social world.
That is to say, a liberated state which is final and more or less permanent.
Interestingly, the same sort of criticism can be levelled at Western (particularly North American) feminist theory, which is often faulted for failing to recognize that even locally, women cannot lay claim to a universal “female” experience. For instance, a woman living in Rosedale
, will encounter different issues and problems than a woman living in Harlem
. Basically, there is an assumption - which is forgotten or missed - of objectivity and homogenous experience, which causes the whole project to become flawed. This is potentially a Foucauldian criticism in and of itself: Foucault preferred to work from the ground up, in local situations, so that broader narratives might not gloss over more obscure, yet highly important problems.
Certainly, that was my reaction to him upon first encountering his work!
To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein