Essay: The nature of Foucault’s writings

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  • 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).

However, Diamond and Quinby (1998:36) allege Foucault of ‘gloss(ing) over the gender configurations of power’ as if ‘the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the same relationships to the characteristic institutions of modern life’ (Bartky, 1988:63). In his admission of the docile body as ‘a body…that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’ (Foucualt, 1991:136) there is no identification of the unequal focus between men and women.

As his main project was to elaborate on how power produces subjectivity by focusing on the ways it invests the body (King, 2004), Foucault’s accounts of the body are interestingly gender-neutral in both the History of Sexuality Volume I (1998) and Discipline and Punish (1977). Therefore, this essay will now explore how Foucault’s use of the body as a referent for power relations is problematic, and then examine the female body as a particular target for disciplinary power.

McNay argues that if Foucault theorises there is no such thing as a ‘natural body’ then ‘he needs to elaborate on how the systematic effect of sexual division is perpetuated by the techniques of gender that are applied to the body’ (1992:33). Foucault’s gender neu
trality is an issue because we live in a society that is far from gender-blind and consistently reiterates the polarisation of the belief that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ (Gray, 1992) through discourse. Not identifying what bodies he discusses implies that gender has no impact on his theoretical framework. His analysis downplays the material consequences of the subordination of women and the resulting policing of women’ bodies through structures of control. As a result, Foucault’s gender-neutrality is androcentric (King, 2004) due to his writing of the body as male. King argues ‘there is no distinction…necessary when dealing with the ‘genderless’ body of man’, discursively produced as the essential human subject. Therefore, Foucault’s critique becomes problematic when considering he is promoting the discursive construction of the male as essential, a concept he refutes consistently in his published work. Bartky argues his work ‘reproduces that sexism which is endemic throughout western political theory (1988:64). As Foucault’s main aim was to elaborate on how power produces subjectivity by focusing on the ways it invests in the body, his own reproduction of male essentialism through a particular use of the body within his critique has had material and discursive consequences for the treatment of women.

Popular fashion is a discursive example of a disciplinary technique that reduces the female body to an object and target of power’ (Foucault, 1977:136) through the separation of male and female norms. Wilson argues that fashion is ‘obsessed’ with gender, and serves to define the gender boundary (1985:117). Female fashions are concerned with distinguishing parts of the body by drawing attention to sites of ‘otherness’ such as the waist and hips which have become pronounced due to corsets and bras. King (2004) notes the well-documented’ discomfort, breathing difficulties and internal organ displacement caused by the nineteenth-century corset’. This relates to Foucault’s writing on torture, which he asserts must ‘mark the victim: it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy’ (Foucault, 1977:34). This infamy is imperative in marking the ‘woman’ as other, a discursive marking that continues to subject women to this bodily discipline. The notion of women as pathological bodies requires pre-modern practices of containment that brand them with the stereotypes of their gender. Bordo observes the power of the corset as causing women actual physical harm whilst serving ‘as an emblem of the power of culture to impose its designs on the female body’ (1993:143). Techniques of discipline and manipulation are still practised on the female body that employs Foucault’s attention and calls for a recognition of his analysis of the body as harmful through the implication that all bodies are equal in gendered discourse. How he uses the body in his critique of power is limited.

For Foucault (1971: 153) the body is moulded by ‘a great many distinct regimes’. It is an outcome of the play of power, and power ‘reaches into the very grain of individuals and touches their bodies’. The body is a referent for the discourse of power that Foucault sought to analyse. It is a sight of governance. A particular focus on how discourse can be used to reinforce the body as governable has been included in this essay as a way to demonstrate how the body is central to many of Foucault’s concepts. Despite Foucault’s omission of the body as an ‘object and target of power’, it is problematic for his series of works to assume all bodies are equal targets of power. His gender-neutral account contradicts his central aim to document an archaeology of power through discourse. As Anne Balsamo argues, ‘gender is one of the primary effects of the discursive construction of the human body’ (22). Therefore, Foucault’s neglect to address gender in his studies has produced a partial discourse surrounding the body and the discipline that shapes it. In turn, this implies that historical power relations are equal between men and women, a fundamental issue compromising the validity of his overall use of the body as a referent for the discourse of power.

So, it is important to not only understand how the body is used within Foucault’s critique but also to recognise how his conceptualisation of the body is problematic to discourse itself. This is not to say that Foucault’s conceptual framework should be abandoned. It is clear from the uptake within feminist studies of his ideas of power that it holds an important key in furthering academic debates within feminism. One such further course of action would be to consider Foucault’s later conceptualisations of resistance as existing wherever there is normalisation and domination in the context of gender relations and the political intersectionality of race. In his discussions of power and the body, the impact of racist discourses of women designed non-white would be a further step in using Foucault’s conceptual framework to include those whom he previously excluded.

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