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 knowing'  (85). 

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).

Overall,  Foucault 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.' (94)  


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 to close. 

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"'  (106). 

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, metatheoretical'  (114).  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 in discourse]. 

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'  (208). 

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'  (228). 

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.