Essay: Foucault and Feminism – The Powerful Identity of Knowledge

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  • Foucault and Feminism - The Powerful Identity of Knowledge
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Power never resides in a single person’s hands. It is not observed in any obvious manner, but rather a devious idea that inhibits our imagination and renders obedience. For example, in a business setting, power is passed from the top downward. Its passing is an indirect circulation of power in each department. For instance, the corporate executive officer is thought to be the ‘most powerful’ followed by the president, director, manager, and lastly the employees. The more knowledge and control a person has invested in the company, the more dependent power he/she is assumed to have. Although a CEO does not have direct communication with the people he/she employed, employees are actively trying to succeed in fear of disciplinary action. This is an example of denying certain courses of action while inciting and provoking others. When considering Foucault’s work, it is obvious he believes power works best when the participants involved accept it full willingly. Foucault’s conception of power is a difficult one to grasp, primarily because it is not entirely clear who has the power to begin with. If we remove this idea that power belongs to an individual or small group of people at the top of the ladder e.g. a CEO, it becomes challenging to determine where, and whom power resides, as well as what this power is. Throughout Foucault’s work, he recognizes that we as people are so used to thinking about power as an overt force that we claim identifiable; moreover, he believes this is not the case. Foucault’s early belief that people are subjected by disciplinary power may be proven through examination of society’s norms.

Foucault believes that we take it upon ourselves to regulate individual behavior, thus creating societal norms, such as gender. “Gender is understood as an effect of dominant power relations which is imposed upon the inert bodies of individuals” (McNay 71). Today we have established a set of societal rules dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person in relation to his/her biological sex. These norms are composed of fulfilling attitudes and ideologies demonstrated by male or female. Assumptions are made about typical gender roles when dictating this norm. One assumption is that typically when considering gender, men have a dominant authoritative power. There is a general patriarchy where men are the oppressors of women. This implies women are a general opposite: obedient and praising of this hierarchy, or masculinity. Another assumption about gender roles is that women are thought to be less knowledgeable than men. Women supposedly display less ability to make decisions when necessary. These assumptions are humanly constructed and create a foundation for social expectation. It can be understood that “…the social constraints on gender compliance and the taboos connected to deviance are so powerful that it is difficult to exist to a socially meaningful extent outside of gender norms”(McNay 72). Like Foucault said, this power appears one-sided–only being examined from the perspective of the way power is established, without considering those subject to the power.

Sexuality faces an elongated evolution for societal acceptance. Foucault made an insight that, “…sexuality is produced in the body in such a manner as to facilitate the regulations of social relation”(McNay 32). The norm corresponding to sexuality starts with the denial of a female right to socialize her sexuality and ends with the idea that sexuality is only something exchanged between a male and female. All excluding the possibility that there can be a sexual attraction between the same sex or no sexual attraction at all. For example, an adolescent girl is shamed by her peers when she has aroused interest or discusses the topic of sex or sexual relations. This is due to the idea that it is unladylike to express this interest, failing to be feminine. Social norms regarding femininity, include sexual purity. With regards to religion, which helped develop modern social norms, there is the Virgin Mary–whose sexual purity is worshiped in many households. Sexual purity as laid out in Judeo-Christian culture is a standard for all, but since women are supposed to be obedient, as discussed previously, there is a greater expectation for the standard of sexual purity among women. A male who freely expresses his sexuality is praised because he has become a ‘man’. Normal ideas with the association of manhood often include sexual activeness. Men are expected to be sexually active. As western civilization has for millennia, becoming a man is something for celebration and praise among peers. A good example of this is the induction to manhood in Judaism, known as the bar mitzvah. However there is a bat mitzvah, the induction to womanhood, but it is even more rarely performed.

Foucault is commemorated by his historical analysis into the origins of disciplinary society. His theory of disciplinary society originated in his first book, Discipline and Punish which addressed the relationship between power and knowledge and their role in social control through society. Foucault’s working example of this theory employed effectively was Bentham’s Panopticon, the architectural configuration of Discipline and Punish. The panopticon was an annular prison structure with a tower in the center, the imprisoned assume that someone is always in the tower watching them assure they are acting accordingly. Ultimately, the prisoners begin to self discipline themselves in the assumption that the surveillance is permanent, even if the action is discontinuous. Thus, subjects by disciplinary power. Lois McNay believes that resistance is undeveloped in Foucault’s work. She argues that “Foucault’s historical studies give the impression that the body presents no material resistance to the operation of power”(McNay 40). This vision of power is dominatory in McNay’s eyes and denies a person the opportunity to resist. For Foucault’s concept of power to have disciplinary force, “…it is necessary to produce a counterfactual which would show how a situation would change if an operation of power were canceled or resisted”(McNay 40). Without considering and applying the possibility of resistance it classifies the human existence as ‘docile bodies’ rather than an individual. The systems and processes society has created has also developed a power to shape and manipulate the human body. McNay argues that the resistance is undeveloped in Foucault’s work because it eliminates the possibility of an emancipatory action. Foucault’s theory that power itself produces resistance does not anticipate the power it opposes, or issues from a situation external to power. Instead, it relies upon and advances with the situation which it struggles.

The way in which we perform is not a singular act, it is the reiteration of a norm, or norms we have come to acquire in our daily lives. These types of regulatory acts are maintained and obscure through individual performance. This repeated action is how a norm is developed and carried out. Foucault’s insists that liberation from despotism is not enough to promise freedom, by establishing new attitudes, establishing a new behavior, and cultural forms that accredit the vulnerable, to ensure that power does not develop into a state of domination.

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