Notes on: Ramazanoglu, C. (Ed) (1993) Up Against Foucault: explorations of some tensions between Foucault and feminism, London: Routledge
Grimshaw J 'Practices of Freedom' (Chapter 3)
Foucault has a good analysis of
sexuality, but one which appears to depoliticise
the issue. His work allows no resistance, or no major
resistance. Perhaps his work can be used as
a 'tool box', though? Some
feminists believe that he can only be used to assist
feminism, while others are more interested in a dialectical
relation with his work.
Foucault opposes the notion of
the 'deep self', which is really an effect of discourses.
Genealogy is a method used to research these discourses.
Feminists also want to deconstruct discourses of
female subjectivity, such as those on current notions
of beauty. However, Discipline and Punish, on
the carceral society, is too monolithic, allowing
little diversity in disciplinary techniques, and unable to
explain specific forms of resistance. Foucault says,
of course, that there always must be resistance,
but only in the abstract. He doesn't offer
any grounds for resistance either, nor tell us much
about how to choose the most effective forms of resistance.
The concept of power in Foucault is too general,
whereas feminists need some idea of what counts as
'malign and benign' forms (55). Lurking behind his analysis,
it is possible to detect Foucault's unacknowledged
Enlightenment notions of freedom and morality, even
though these are criticised in the work too. Fraser
argues that Foucault should choose either a nihilism,
or a set of explicit values. Generally, Foucault's
work is seen as adequate for deconstruction, but
lacking a more positive theory.
However, Foucault can be used
to criticise feminist totalitarianism or Utopianism.
He is good at pointing out the risks of even
emancipatory politics. There are such risks with feminism,
for example in lacking awareness that females may
also be involved in exploitative relations, or ignoring
the oppressive tendencies of some feminist thinking,
which can marginalise many women double -'not
merely by the unthinking use of the concept of "woman" itself in a manner that elides
difference, but by the very use of the sign of "difference" which
may construct some women as “Other"’ (56). There can be contempt for
women who do not correspond to feminists’ ideal of
authenticity, too. Finally, the feminist dislike
of hierarchy can produce, as an unintended outcome,
'"the tyranny of structurelessness", and a pragmatic
domination by the more experienced and articulate' (57).
Some feminists also see female
heterosexuality as over determined by patriarchy, which
can be accompanied by an 'almost wholly negative
attitude towards any current forms of sexual desire' (57). Women are seen as victims.
Opposite problems arise with libertarian views of
sexuality and desire -- should all forms be permitted,
even where they appear to harm women? Radical feminists
see heterosexuality as the single source of male
domination, and often described Utopian views of
some perfect freedom and equality instead. Foucault would
help us see the limits of these views, by
defending complexity and ambiguity against such foundationalism
and totalitarianism. It is clear, then, that his
work would not be against suitably cautious forms
of positive politics.
Foucault would warn us against
general theories of liberation, which allow for few
complexities and ambiguities. In practice, it is sometimes
difficult, for example, to spot the difference
between supportive male behaviour, and that which implies
some inferiority for women. Similarly, the debates
about feminist pedagogy offer ambiguities -- feminists
want to break the existing hierarchies of knowledge,
for example, but they are also aware occasionally
of the need for some structured knowledge (61).
Foucault did write about ethics
and the 'care of the self' in some of his last
works. This did recognise the need for a desiring
subject, and there was an intent expressed in it
that 'subjugated knowledges' should be allowed to
express themselves. However, the development of the
self also required some policing of some parts of
the self. Foucault began to investigate some historical
forms of morality, including the notion of the 'care
of the self' in ancient Greece:
the aim here, was to lead a stylised and graceful
life [which looks roughly like the
notion of 'civilisation' in Elias].
Clearly this involved a great deal of attention directed
towards the regulation of conduct.
This example cannot be used directly
in modernity, where we have very different societies,
but it can defamiliarise our notions of morality:
for example, it makes it clear that we can
have ethical conduct without an actual moral code,
since we rely on a notion of aesthetic conduct
instead. This could lead to some idea of a modern
ethic of self discipline and self production, and
might be used for in guiding a feminist project of
developing greater autonomy for women.
However, Greek conduct was both male-centred and elitist. Foucault's work is still focused on bodies rather than full selves, and he is still describing a kind of surface aesthetics rather than any real intimacy or emotion, according to Eagleton at least. Foucault offers a rather mechanical view of life, especially sexuality, as technique. Further, it is not clear why self discipline is suddenly such a good thing here, when it has been seen so negatively in earlier work
When we turn to actual current practices, we find ambiguity and complexity again. For example, is a drive to develop a beautiful self a matter of genuine choice for women, or an effect of the 'male gaze'? How are we to analyse women's interest in fashion? [as a typical example of the disciplinary technique, for analysts like Hargreaves? ]. Is the exercise of considerable self-discipline that is required in the development of anorexia, a good or bad development of subjectivity?
Foucault is silent on these matters, and also inadequate in his discussion of interpersonal forms of morality. He doesn't seem to have noticed that the Greek elites were able to practise an aesthetic way of life because others were exploited. Can there really be no social basis for morality? Feminists are more interested in mutuality and collectivity, but Foucault offers at best a limited universalism, a generalisation from the activities of a few elite Greek males. Feminists know best of all how this apparent universalism can exclude. Foucault's basis for morality is both individualistic, and based on modesty and restraint of excess -- so, to borrow an example in Eagleton -- is rape justifiable if it is stylish? (69). Are there really no moral absolutes? This is currently in still being debated in feminism too, of course, but Foucault is far too uncritical and far too general in this later work.
Cain, M 'Foucault, feminism and feeling. What Foucault can and cannot contribute to feminist epistemology' (Chapter 4).
No position can go beyond epistemology,
and we need to develop knowledge which is helpful
for women. How does Foucault fit, especially in terms
of (a) the relations between
discourses and the 'extra discursive', that which is outside
discourse; (b) and the issue
of repressed knowledges, those who have been excluded
from dominant discourses; (c)
the genealogical method and its relation to realist feminism?
Realism denies post-modern relativism
and the emphasis on communication and discourse. Other
relations exist as well, including Bhaskar's 'intransitive
relations': however, the problem is that these
must somehow exist beyond discourses, yet can only
be articulated in discourses. It is essential for
feminism to pursue realism if they want to argue
that the relationships in which women are placed exist
prior to any analysis of them double - for
example, sexual harassment. This links to the issue
of repressed knowledge, if it can be argued that
these exploitative relationships have been some have
systematically denied expression. However, it is not
easy to formulate lived experiences, which is why
feminist researchers have often emphasised the importance
of shared standpoints with the researched.
Marxism used to dominate discussions of the extra discursive, and it haunts Foucault too. Foucault's Archaeology... explores mostly the internal relations of discourse, at the expense of any discussion of their causes or origins. Discourses are identified by rules, which exist inside discourses themselves, and which even determine the items which are to be talked about . Discourse has no subject, and it creates its own spokespersons. This is developed in the method of archaeology.
This work can be seen as an argument for the radical autonomy of discourses, and for their role in generating everything else, including causal relations. However, the extra discursive is still present. Foucault can be interpreted as ‘proposing a radical methodology’ (78) to reveal discursive processes and powers, as items of analysis in their own right. He is not necessarily making a strong ontological argument. Indeed, he acknowledges certain 'primary relations' which need not be expressed in discourse at all. He gets close to some analysis of the ways in which the bourgeoisie appropriate certain categories, for example, implying some extra-discursive social or political relations. [Yet he insists that these can only be known through discourse].
Discourses certainly have epistemological implications, in that they offer a way to capture what exists. Foucault prefers largely to describe the relations between discourses, and this does have political significance, so that feminists might be advised to investigate them. Sometimes, the extra-discursive does appear to play a major role, for example in Madness..., where categories are closely tied to the emergence of bourgeois power. However, this is an early work. The work on Pierre Riviere (Foucault 1978) shows the considerable influence of inter-professional rivalries and micropolitics, however. The same ambiguities arise in Discipline., and in the work on sexuality ,where 'bio-power' is closely linked to the development of capitalism. None of this involved causal analysis, nor has the extra discursive used to explain discourse -- 'But there may be connections/articulations between them which are illuminating. This is what non- causal theory is about' (82).
So Foucault has
tried to avoid the so-called 'primary relations',
but he needs to recognise their effect. Foucault's
right to draw our attention to discursive relations in
the politics of knowledge, but feminism has also uncovered
positive knowledge of 'the previously unthought relationships
in which women live' (83). Examples include sexual harassment,
or incest, but Cain considers the best example to
be the work of Kelly (1988) on sexual violence and
its very widespread occurrence. Kelly's
work actually enabled respondents to speak of their
experiences, and to recognise them as 'pressurised
sex'. Cain also says that she 'recognised it with
a great feeling of emancipation: I have always felt
an unease, and in explicit consciousness of something
wrong. This is an example of an intransitive
relationship, pre-existing its possible utterance' (83). Thus many such relationships
'are not yet available to politics because they are
not yet available to any one's knowledge' (84).
Foucault expressed an abstract interest
in repressed knowledges, but never explored the concept
-- are they repressed because they are not yet articulated,
or because they have been articulated and yet dominated
by another discourses? To reasonably
obscure books do address the issue, the stories of
Pierre Riviere (Foucault 1978),
and of Herculine Barbin (Foucault
1980). The former tells the
story of a man convicted of murder who finds his
life rendered in medical and legal discourses [and
tends to read rather like Camus’ The
Stranger] The latter tells the story of a person
who is discovered to be hermaphrodite and thus remains
out of place. The issue concerns
'which discourse wins in a clash of ways of
The debates between the writers
in Pierre Riviere… raised the different possibilities,
including the point that Riviere's experience was
a denial of his voice, and that his voice
had already been politically repressed by a dominant discourse,
one which used completely different terms, and which
offered an account which simply avoided Riviere's
own. This offers support for feminist project in
their attempts to make silent voices sound, via
'multiple discontinues interpretation' (86).
In the case of Herculine Barbin,
the notion that sex is a fixed identity dominates
the discourses applied to her case, as a
'demonstration of the policing of a discourse before it
can be spoken' (87). Other
work, suggests a role for intellectuals in overcoming
various blocking discourses which affect the discourses of
the masses .Academic discourses can also block or
disqualify other knowledges, making criticism possible,
and leading to a 'multi-faceted, post-modern politics
of refusal at the sites of power'
(87). Cain suggests that this work is similar
to Gramsci’s on commonsense knowledges, although the role
of the intellectual is more modest.
[There is also a link with some of the
work of Habermas, here, who defends his attempts
to reconstruct social sciences in terms of various 'quasi
- transcendental human interests’ in the same terms,
of 'unblocking', although this also includes psychological
as well as linguistic ‘blocks’].
Some feminisms work with an authentic pre-discursive experience, others have argued that researchers should share political commitments with those being researched. All seem to agree that it is impossible to take an objective and detached standpoint. Researchers like Kelly have done more than unblock, in a spirit of shared commitments which go beyond refusal to create new discourses and practices. For these people, the issue becomes deciding whether naming a pre-discursive experiences useful as a way forward -- 'A recognition that a formulation is apt brings immense relief and gratitude that something unsayable can now be said and shared' (89).[ Some sort of experiential validity here?]
In terms of epistemology, knowledges are always limited and specific to cultures and discourses, as well as social position. This relativism is 'fundamental to modern feminist realism. A realist feminism must maintain this crucial distinction between relativity in epistemology and what might be described as dynamic absolutism in ontology' (90). We can, however, 'reflect upon and make public the way … [our]... knowledge was made' (90).
Foucault's term genealogy involves tracing the descent of ideas, deliberately to reveal difference and discontinuities. Power becomes integral to knowledge. In his later work, Foucault intends to use genealogy deliberately to excavate the various 'illegitimate knowledges'. This is clearly linked to progressive politics, which informs the very project of genealogy [and archaeology, defined here as a methodology of analysis, rather than the tactics implicit in genealogy]. This is entirely compatible with a feminist approach -- e.g. in analysing the discourses of criminal courts in order to show how legal equality is gendered. However, Foucault would not accept that the researcher can take the standpoint of 'a biologically given woman' (93) [often the basis for claims of shared commitments and knowledge]. Instead, 'an act of political will' (93) is required to take a standpoint., involving, if necessary, developing 'an appropriate relational nexus from which to work... usually necessary for middle-class academics wanting to write on behalf of underprivileged people' (93). Thus men can write feminist analysis (94)-- 'Feminists do not all share a site... but they may, if they choose, all share a standpoint' ( 94).
offers many conceptions useful to feminism, but 'We
cannot let even Foucault tell us
that our feelings are impossible. Sometimes
they are the most important political asset we have.'
Foucault, M (1978) I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Foucault, M (1980) Herculine Barbin, Brighton: Harvester
Kelly, L (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press
Bailey, M 'Foucaldian feminism. Contesting bodies, sexuality and identity’ (Chapter 5)
Some feminism works in terms of stable dualistic categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’, and patriarchy is seen as static and universal. However, this leaves feminists in an unfortunate position, agreeing with patriarchs that there are essential and fundamental differences between men and women. Feminism becomes a kind of reversed patriarchy as a result, differing only in that it sees women as superior.
One way out was to distinguish
between 'sex' (universal and biological),
and 'gender' (culturally variable
and social). However, at the
cultural level it is clear that there are other important
differences among women, based on sexuality or ethnic
origin. Further, the issue of biology as a determining
factor still lurks in the background, and has now
been criticised (by people
like Butler and Haraway). Foucault's work on politics,
identity, sex and bodies can offer a way out,
although he left 'gaps' which feminism can help
Appealing to a biological dimension
does have some advantages, especially in terms of
the '"biological" issues, such
as women's health care, rape, abortion, maternity' (101), but Foucault offers a way
out of 'an identity not premised
on some pre- or extra - social
essence' (101), especially in his History of Sexuality.
Here, genealogy is used to criticise dominant discourses
and generate alternative historical accounts. First,
'Bodies are understood in relation to the production,
transmission, reception and legitimation of knowledge about
sexuality and sex'. Secondly 'Foucault's suggestions
about the new form of power, bio-power, or the disciplining
of bodies and populations, have strong resonances
with feminist theories [that focus
on women's bodies as the key to understanding male
dominance]' (102). There
is also a connection with the feminist project to
reclaim 'Herstories, the reclamation of forgotten and overlooked
women's histories' (103).
Foucault’s work ‘enables a more guerrilla-style attack, liquid
and mobile, on the Western tradition' (103).
There is no essential self located
in bodies, no essential ultimate nature. Instead,
Foucault shows the connections between truth and power.
There is no continuous history of a monolithic patriarchy
either: there have been different forms with different
rationales at different times (104). What is constant is that women are generally
powerless compared to men and that this lack of power
is justified by some notion of an essential 'sex'.
The very notion of feminine bodies may be historically
specific. Ideas and the ‘materiality’ of the body
inform each other, but there are no absolute truths.
However, 'Genealogies of gender allow
[important] partial truths of specific and historical
differences in the lives of men and women' (105). In this way, 'feminism
can offer better resistance to the fragmented and
diffuse, but undeniably interlocking, specific structures
of masculinist power, than it can to the primordial
monolith of "patriarchy"'
As another consequence, Foucault
dispenses with monolithic notions of power as well,
which 'facilitates intriguing possibilities for feminist
identity' (107), and permits a
number of struggles. He suggests that
women engage in specific forms of resistance around
bodies and pleasures. There is no appeal to restore
some pure essential body, since bodies cannot be
understood without reference to the accumulated discourses
centred on them. However, this very
complexity means that 'the subjection of bodies is
never complete... the "truth" of sexuality struggles
with other competing truths' (108).
Since power is also a generative
force, it can create pleasures -- Foucault's example
is the pleasure in finding a name for oneself and
embracing a new identity in this 'truth'
[he seems to have in mind coming out
as homosexual]. Sexuality as a disciplinary technique
is as subject to resistance and struggle as any
other, and cannot only be guaranteed to take
the form of a prohibition and refusal. This also
provides for a warning to feminists ‘on the limits
and dangers of identity based politics’ ... 'there
is no "innocent" class of the
purely oppressed' (111). Later,
'Identities allow a certain fictional unity -- a
unity grouped around an historical identity, around
specific relations of power... there is no universal
category of women... [but] women whose interests
are linked together by their similar positions in
modern networks of power' (114).
Foucault does chart the ways in
which sexuality emerged as a discourse, and grounded
on the notion of the body, and this did lead
to a new kind of power. Thus the discovery of
'hysteria' could be used to discipline bourgeois wives,
and 'perverts' could be demonised. Sexuality as a
discourse came to take on other important functions
as well [permitting politicians to
talk about sexual hygiene, restricting the growth
of populations, disciplining children and the like].
There were clearly interested parties in these moves,
including men, but this is not the usual story
of bourgeois dominance -- indeed, sexuality helped
'to define that which was unique and superior about
the bourgeoisie' (113). In general, therefore a number
of interests intersected, including those of institutions
developing medicine and science.
Feminist resistance strategies
are ' myriad, local, institutional political, scholarly,
It would be wrong to prioritise say legal and
institutional battles, or to reproduce some hierarchical
distinction among identities. Foucault's notions may be
compatible with ideas of the personal as political,
since bodies are a ‘battleground of interests and
power' (115). Effects of the
struggles are complex. Despite attempts at rigorous discipline,
resistance remains. Foucault is not suggesting, however,
that new kinds of sexuality alone have a potential
to resist a -- these too are effects of power.
Thus feminists cannot hold out
for an essential natural category, but they gain
much more tactical manoeuvrability as a result.
Feminists can exploits of the 'plurality of resistance’ is
to subvert conventional notions of identity. There
is no overall revolution supported by Foucault, since
all politics partakes of disciplinary power . New forms of politicisation are required,
although Foucault does not specify what these might
look like a, and warns us that they may be
rapidly co-opted by other interests.
What is on offer is the possibility
of identities which are not absolute but which are
seen openly as 'sites of resistance': absolute identities
exclude those who do not possess them. What is required
instead is 'loose, opportunistic coalitions which
can embrace differences' (118)
[the work of Laclau and Mouffe
is referenced here, advocates of the notorious 'post
marxist' , politics where alliances are constructed only
Foucault's work is an excellent resource for feminist scholarship, it points to the limits and dangers of identity politics, and avoids unnecessary essentialism. It permits instead 'strategic essentialism... a fictional essence deployed within very specific institutional settings where the terms of debate are already circumscribed' (119) Foucault enables us to see gender relations serving specific interlocking interests, and social formations as masculinist, without involving an essentialist patriarchy. This permits a more strategic and mobile 'politics of difference... in which no system of classifying identity is taken as more primary than another' (119) .
MacCannell D and MacCannell JF 'Violence, power and pleasure A revisionist reading of Foucault from the victim perspective' (Chapter 9).
Foucault's analysis of sexuality tries
to operate without a notion of the self.
Although he is sympathetic to the struggles of the
victims of oppressive uses of power, he reduces sexuality
to discursive practices, in a completely abstract
manner. In his later work he tries to explain how
formations of the self intersect with notions of
pleasure and power: both conceptions can be criticised
when looking at women's pleasure and by the use of
power against women.
Foucault tends to ignore force in his analysis of power: power is seen as 'a pure impartial drive to structure... open to all, even when it appears to be held by a few' (204). This attribution of neutrality to technologies of power does not apply to women. When looked at from the perspective of victims, 'neutrality' becomes a technique to legitimise the use of violence. The actual use of force and violence still accompany the exercise of power, but this is not shown by an abstract knowledge like Foucault's.
An analysis of violence is best
derived from the words of actual victims. The greatest
violence results in 'long-term more permanent damage
to the victim's subjective functioning, extending to
the subjective functioning of those who would try
to love her afterwards. An assault is serious in
the degree that it fragments subjectivity.' (205). Such violence is suppressed,
enabling those who use power to see themselves as
neutral. Some victims over conform as a result, trying
to restore their esteem and by 'demonstrating a
capacity for total involvement in current small matters
at hand' (206). Other
responses involve complete incapacitation, memory disorders,
perpetual fear and so on. Subjective damage may be
far more extensive than physical damage, and this
can be masked 'behind a screen of "good intentions"
or high moral ideals' (207).
Some victims blame themselves for inducing the violence.
Some victims also resist some of the implications,
and deny to the offender 'the power to define
her subjectivity and her sexuality'
The relationship of power to force and violence has been neglected by Foucault. His notion of the gaze has a liberating consequence of dissolving ‘class, gender and other definitions’ of identity (211, but he thinks that such power renders violence and force unnecessary, or at least, marginal into normal behaviour. But violence is important and common. Foucault's notion of power operating at the micro level 'should be accompanied by an understanding of "capillary violence"... Wheresoever power is found, violence is sure to be. Wheresoever resistance to power is encountered, force will be applied' (212). This is still unacknowledged, partly because victims continue to identify with the claims to authority which legitimate violence.
Common types of violence include direct violence, legal and/or bureaucratic violence, and administrative violence 'zealous and sadistic execution of office in such a way that it destroys the life chances and sometimes the lives of those who come in contact with the organisation... it is a heartless, soul-killing over-application of rules and regulations' (213). These forms also have an effect on subjectivity. Administrative violence in particular relies on the ' identificatory gaze, on individuals internalising the point of view of controlling authority, and carrying out the oppression as their only means of seeming to have some authority of their own'. Even direct violence involves a gaze which isolates victims, the better to intimidate them. Indeed, the gaze only has power if it can be associated with violence or the capacity for it -- widespread surveillance, for example, is effective only when linked to some serious threat of punishment.
Certainly, victims fear of violent consequences of the gaze. They tend to respond to the gaze as a result, to deflect it or hide from it, or even 'represent themselves and their behaviour in a way... [that]... appears as positive to their oppressors' (215).
Extensive empirical investigation is needed to disentangle effects of violence, including the effects of naming or categorisation, which can deny 'unique subjective integrity in order to make her [the victim] a member of a class' (217). Foucault knows that such naming is often seen as a primary form of violence at the heart of other symbolic categorisations and apparatuses. However, this is an abstract and imaginary kind of social order and primary violence, almost irrelevant to the occurrence of actual abusive behaviour, or even serving as a cover for it: 'when victims appeal to authority for protection, they predictably discover that authority is set up in advance to protect their assailant, who, by definition, stands in the position of power' (218). Authority ceases to be abstract and universal, and is often used to cover up real violence space bar [a number of concrete examples are given, including the ways in which the police often simply ignore 'domestics', or the Church sexual abuse].
The most effective
violence often acts directly on the pleasures of the
victim, often in a detailed and intimate way,
linked ultimately to the 'tendencies for self annihilation'
in our culture (222). These tendencies include the manipulation
of excess and surplus in capitalism, so as to
create a constant lack. This mechanism
is linked to the kind of violence that exceeds
any instrumental purpose 'The assailant mimics the
capitalist when he says, in effect,
"I have it all but I can still take more;
I can pursued beyond your physical limits to extract
even more than I want, and I will never be
satisfied"' (223). Sometimes this
excess involves taking pleasure specifically in denying
the pleasure of others. [More disturbing examples
follow, e.g. on page 224]. Such violence can completely
destroy the capacity of victims to experience pleasure,
or can even lead to a capacity to experience
pleasure only in the course of abuse. Certainly,
intimate relationships can be destroyed, since they depend
on 'mutual involvement or complicity in the other's
relationship to her and his own pleasure' (227). Hence isolation and loneliness
ensue, and 'It is striking that half of humanity
is routinely subject to this exclusion'
Foucault's celebration of excess involves a 'demand for liberation from all restrictions on pleasure and power' (229) which contains hidden dangers. This is a Utopian notion, which looks unlikely given the everyday experience of women. Generally, his writing rarely specifies any actual proposals or new forms, while he ignores the 'nightmare version of Foucault's dream already inhabiting certain details of everyday life' (230). Women, in other words, are overlooked, and his imagination limited to 'safe' [‘cultural’ or ‘life-style’] options -- homosexuality and sado-masochism. He might appeal to relatively undamaged women feminists who can identify with the sexually deviant, but Foucault has still missed the role of violence in enforcing the power to define [and punish] [all] women as sexually deviant.