Essay: The nature of Foucault’s writings

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The nature of Foucault’s writings – their size, variety, and complexity – have been the subject of considerable debate, necessitating a broad response in the form of appreciation and critique. In a series of works written over thirty years, Foucault has attempted to persuade his readers to abandon traditional theoretical boundaries and reject disciplinary frameworks. So, any discussion of his work risks falsely systematising his writings that do not form a progressive and coherent ensemble or fit into a manageable category. This is the case with Foucault’s use of the body across multiple writings that provides multiple accounts of the use of the body in Foucault’s critique. This essay focuses predominantly on Discipline and Punish (1977), a historical account of the transformation in the exercise of power and, by implication, the body. Foucault focuses our attention on the body as a crucial site of power between active persons that consists of attempts, by one agent, to conduct the conduct of another. Active bodies are acted upon and, as a result, can be governed.
This essay argues that for Foucault, the body was a referent for the discourse of power he sought to analyse. He viewed the body as the sight of regulation for governance, or more specifically as a historic ‘object and target of power’ (136). However, his analysis neglects issues of gender to produce a problematic gender-neutral account of power relations in regard to bodies. To amend this theoretical gap, this essay will culminate in a discussion of gendered bodies and why Foucault’s gender blindness is so problematic. Foucault’s neutrality compromises the validity of how he uses the concept of the body to examine historical power relations as he implies that men and women bear the same relationships to the characteristic institutions of modern life (Bartky, 1988:63). Therefore, how he uses the body in his analysis of power is misconstrued as he only provides an analysis of the male body represented as the norm. Prior to this discussion, this essay will analyse the body as an object of governance and the resulting reinforcement of this governance through Foucault’s concept of ‘discursive power’. This essay reflects Foucault’s focus on how the body is acted upon rather than as an agent. However, it is important to note that bodies do not lack agency and with normalisation and domination of bodies, there always exists resistance (Foucault, 1998).

The production of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977) was the first focused discussion of the body as representative of overarching notions of control (Smart, 2004). In this genealogical period, analysis of penal institutions allowed Foucault to demonstrate how institutional knowledge and power relations integrate with the body to reverse any unruly sense of agency. Appearing from this were the integral concepts of ‘bio-power’ and ‘the disciplinary society’ (Foucault, 1977). Developing the production of power through apparatuses like the prison and the army, eighteenth-century states started a new ‘economy’ of power – one that creates a sense that the body is decisively visible (Foucault, 1998:61). So, the materiality of the body is prominent as a locus of control for those intending to gain a sense of hegemony. Yet, power does not work completely at the scale of the individual. The preservation of a disciplinary society requires social manipulation at multiple points on the micro/macro continuum (Kendall and Wickham, 2004). For example, gender norms are just one mode in which the body is historically and socially constructed on a macro scale. States use such narratives to lessen the possibility of dissent (Foucault, 1977). This produces the body as governable and a locus of power, used by Foucault to explain the exercise of power.

In describing the body as a governable space, it is important to note how it is done. The concept of discourse, one of Foucault’s most celebrated concepts, is defined as ‘…a regulated set of statements which combine with others in predictable ways’ (Mills, 2003:54). Gender norms may be regarded as discourses in that they operate as structures that shape the way the individual understands reality. Importantly, notions of normal and abnormal produced from such discourses is of consequence in the way one views their body, and thus, manipulate the way it is governed. Crucially, discourse is constructed, rather than developing naturally as the governable subject is led to believe. This is demonstrated in the biologically essential viewpoint of the debate of femininity and masculinity that will be analysed later. As such, the essentialist exclusions and selections that continue discursive practices – being a female or male for example – often go unchallenged or overlooked (Foucault, 1997) by the bodies that are subject to their influence.

Problematically, completely defining the statements that construct these inclusions and exclusions can never be complete (Smart, 2004). Foucault recognises this through his approach to discourse as forming an ‘archaeology’. His promotion of ‘archives’ concentrates on the way discourses promote practices of conformity (Foucault, 2002). It becomes clear that archives are plural when considering the limits of human memory. The placement of bodies in time and space is of importance in its subjection to distributions of discourse. Consequently, some bodies may be better positioned than others to govern themselves to undermine wider discursive practices (Foucault, 1991). So, it is important to analyse the body as subject to a number of discourses that constitute networks of social signification (Grosz, 1990). As such, the words that make these discourses have a material effect on the way a subject relates their body (Barker, 1998). Further, the governance of the body can be taken further than the state. Despite Foucault’s explanation of control of the body as originating through state tactics it is important to recognise the nexus of power has splintered to the benefit of others. The fashion industry is an example of such an institution that operates through constructing ideas of appropriate bodily behaviour and appearance, particularly when divided by gender. In doing so, they produce complimenting and conflicting discourses across multiple bodies.

Following Foucault’s conception of power as produced rather than simply repressive, the inherent subjectivity in constructing a ‘governed’ body is recognisable. Everyday life for Foucault is a battle of power relations with the body a node in which power is focused. However, this governance is not given. Resistance is something that Foucault responds to later in his work as he switches his analysis from methods of bodily governance to those of bodily resistance. This battleground between power and resistance is an area of interest to feminists.

Feminism has been immersed with theorising how power operates between men and women that converges with Foucault’s discussion of power. Consequently, Foucault’s theories have been of use to feminism in their questioning of essentialist thought. Foucault critiques the traditional ways of theorising a subject as a being with a fixed essence, arguing: ‘Nothing in man – not even in his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men’ (1991:88). Further, he argues that there is no body who is ‘altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole new technique of forces and bodies’ (Foucault, 1977:217). Echoing Foucault’s critique is Simone de Beauvoir’s commentary on how subjectivity is produced: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (p.295).

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