Fussy Old Foucault

Sometimes, it seems impossible to have a healthy relationship with the work of Michel Foucault. In academia, worshipful adoration mixes with utter derision to produce a frustrating bifurcation: fawning love for the seminal philosopher or absolute disdain for the fussy French sophist. At the heart of this polarization is Foucault’s conceptualization of ‘power’. Unlike many philosophers (and the vast majority of political theorists), he does not theorize power as something that an individual or institution actually has. For Foucault, power is not the ability to make others do what they otherwise would not have done. It is not limited to the accumulation of material and social capital that individuals and other entities can use to cajole others. Rather, Foucault views power as a productive force that is constitutive of people’s identities. Power is a particular discourse that creates the person, simultaneously liberating and imprisoning her. It constructs who we are and sets the conditions under which we can operate in the world.

For instance, a woman who gets plastic surgery in order to look more ‘beautiful’ may think that she is empowering herself. And, in a sense, she is. By tailoring her body according to the perceived exigencies of heterosexual men, she is more likely to get jobs and be sought for marriage. She is acquiring the social resources that have the potential to incite others to do what they otherwise may not have done. Nevertheless, she does not choose the terms on which she acquires this power. She is the product of gendered social discourses that force her to perceive ‘normative beauty’ as her only ticket to success. She is produced as a gendered subject by these discourses, and thus, it is the discourses that have the power – not her. They can exercise this power because they are ultimately productive: they produce an identity for the person (in this case, ‘woman’) and a ready-made blueprint for how to ‘get on’ in life based on this identity (‘beauty’, pleasing men). But, at the same time, they fundamentally limit her. She is a slave to the discourses that constitute her identity: she is not her own person. This is why power is so effective. It provides tangible benefits for those who succumb to it, while, at the same time, profoundly entrapping them. Power gives its subjects the illusion of control over their lives, while defining the very essence of their being.

There are generally two sets of objections to this kind of analysis. People who perceive themselves as beneficiaries of the status quo find it particularly disturbing because the terms of their success are exposed as not being their own. On the other hand, those who fight against the status quo find it maddening that Foucault does not seem to view anything as truly emancipatory. Their proposed revisions of the status quo have the potential to be just as oppressive and limiting. There is always ‘something’ (power) lurking in the background, constituting, constraining and limiting everything that we are and everything that we do. The discursive power behind any new identities that we create for ourselves is bound to enchain us in some way. People, thus, write Foucault off as a hopeless non-conformist, a radical revolutionary for whom the world will never be radical enough. A Foucauldian analysis (such as the one below) of the oppressive implications of the gay rights movement often comes under particularly strong criticism.

In Foucauldian terms, the modern gay rights movement is a direct product of the post-Enlightenment medicalization of homosexuality. Sexuality was transformed from something one does to something that one is for the purpose of classifying homosexuality as a psychiatric disease. Modern LGBT identity politics owes its existence to this transformation. Without it, it would be impossible to make appeals to human rights for people who are homosexuals. And while this new discourse, which produces sexuality as an identity rather than an action, has definitely contributed to ‘liberating’ some people, it has also placed them in a new spider’s web of limitations. The classification of people into homosexuals or heterosexuals creates restrictive identities that limit the polymorphous potential for sexuality. The medicalization of homosexuality has, ironically, provided the key resources for liberationist homosexual politics, while locking people in a new set of chains: those of binary, fixed, stable and consistent sexuality that somehow forms of the essence of their being. Critics of Foucault complain that this attitude is far too pessimistic and disrespectful to the successes of the liberationist gay movement.

This objection is perfectly understandable. What is the point of political engagement if it is just going to lock us into another set of discursive chains? Is any political effort not going to end up imprisoning people in some way? For a healthy engagement with Foucault, we should take this part of his philosophy with a grain of salt. Rather than automatically assuming that whatever ‘new social arrangement’ emerges must be oppressive in some way, it would be more productive to be on the lookout for potential anti-emancipatory effects of all political activity (no matter how emancipatory it claims to be). Foucault’s caution with emancipatory politics should be taken as a warning about utopias. He demonstrates the foolishness of the notion that, at some point, all oppressive politics will stop and we will all live happily ever after. For a healthy engagement with Foucault, we should understand his doubts about ‘emancipatory politics’ as a warning against illusory utopias, not as a definitive statement that defines all political efforts.

***For More Information***
Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1) is a great read and provides an interesting starting point for exploring his reconceptualization of ‘power’. Power/Knowledge, collection of essays and interviews, is also very useful. Also, check out my previous post on Foucault and fetishism here.

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