Th Essay, Research Paper
Power has been a concept with which political scientists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and myriad others have been concerned at the very heart of their disciplines. It a reality which in this century has been used and abused to what Foucault calls pathological extremes, but the understanding of power is now more than ever too of crucial importance to the construction of the self, particularly in the idea we have of our own sexuality. This essay will be divided into sections asking the following general questions: i) What does Foucault mean by power, and the subject ? ii) What is the relationship between power and sexuality, and how has this changed between the society of Greek antiquity, and modern, or postmodern society? iii) What implications does this have for the self today? What would Foucault change about contemporary existence, for that he sees as his brief: “To change something in the minds of people – that s the role of an intellectual.” The essence of Foucault s ideas on the subject, is that “far from being a source of meaning, the subject is in fact a secondary or byproduct of discursive formations.” This is, for Foucault, where power is to be located. The traditionally held viewpoint that human beings are possessed of a universal and essential being, and the manifestations of this presupposition throughout numerous political, ethical, social, religious standpoints, is merely one example of the power exerted through discourse, through language: “Foucault shows how the assumption that individuals have a deep interiority and innermost truth – expressed in concepts such as the soul, psyche and subjectivity – is a coercive illusion. The idea of an inner and essential depth is in fact an effect of material processes of subjection. To be a subject, in Foucault s view, is necessarily to be subjected.” Foucault is common to a long tradition of intellectuals for whom freedom is the primary concern: ” I believe in the freedom of people.” Campaigns of liberation, those of Marx (from alienation and capitalist domination) of Freud (from institutions repressive of the ego) of Rousseau (from the hypocrisy of the bourgeois ) and similar, often related, lines of modern Western thinking presuppose an essential human self, representing the goal wherein freedom lies. Nietzche made clear that these movements inherited, despite their outward rejection of it, presuppositions inherent in Christianity, of the basic self epitomised by Adam in the garden of Eden. It is Foucault s view similarly that any desire for a return to an essential human self is as repressive as the above thinkers assumed the supposedly artificial constrains imposed upon it were. Power then is created, or exercised, through discourse or language, not from some natural preconditions which are used to justify the existence of the state, or the class society, for example.It is a characteristic assumption of modernity that we are each essentially autonomous beings, albeit restricted by necessary social considerations. The concept of a state of nature such as in Hobbes, is in some ways the archetypal thesis of modernity. Power then, through the operation of the state most particularly, was thought generally to be repressive of true identity . But power, according to Foucault, is not exercised systematically. Identity is constructed through discourse, and power is therefore productive, not necessarily limiting or oppressive. Foucault s analyses of the relationship between sexuality and power illustrate his complex ideas further.”The precept, to be concerned with oneself was, for the Greeks, one of the main principles of cities, one of the main rules for social and personal conduct and for the art of life.” Modern philosophy, Foucault however notes, has understood the fundamental principle of Greek life to be “…not Take care of oneself but the Delphic principle, gnothi sauton ( Know yourself ).” This misunderstanding illustrates the difference bases morality has in antiquity compared to modernity. Foucault believes Know yourself was an important ideal in the Greek world, but “…it was the need to care for oneself that brought the Delphic maxim into operation.” The Greek civilisation was obsessed with health. They, unbelievers in an afterlife, desired to maintain the art of life . Greek ethics were centred around an aesthetics of existence, the pursuit of the beautiful in everything. Sex, a practise likely to involve excess, had to be conquered if one was to become a master of oneself, to become more beautiful. There was too no real concern for deviancy from what is today the idealised norm , heterosexual, relatively monogamous sex – it was rather excess that would corrupt. From this basic ideal stems the Greeks ideas concerning sexual conduct, which, unlike those of Christianity, serve the purpose of caring for one s own self rather than the demands of an external deity. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Greeks “…were not much interested in sex. It was not a great issue. Compare, for example, what they say about the place of food and diet…” Sex, like food, in ancient Greek society, was considered a force liable to become excessive and domineering. Homosexual love was also considered liable to become problematic, but, in accordance with the principle of take care of yourself, it was that excessive behaviour in this area was likely to promote the spread of disease, the detriment of the body and the pollution of the beautiful, and although permitted “…the practise of aphrodisia was not something that honoured the most noble qualities of mankind.” Socrates, for example, was proud to abstain from all sexual activity, and widely regarded by his contemporaries for it. While sexual activity, both hetro- and homosexual, was widely practised, the philosophers of ancient Greece concentrated on developing an ethics of abstention. In Foucault s words, unlike modern morality, “The moral reflection of the Greeks on sexual behaviour did not seek to justify interdictions, but to stylise a freedom – that freedom which the free man exercised in his activity.” The tactics of the Greek philosophers is something Foucault considers important in developing in contemporary society – a theme which I shall return to in conclusion.Foucault s ideas of power and the importance of a knowledge of sexuality to modern identity are embodied in his rejection of the repressive hypothesis , which he describes in the first volume of his History of Sexuality. He asks a crucial question which illustrates his break with traditional ideas of power: “Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? Are prohibition, censorship, and denial truly the forms through which power is exercised in a general way, if not in every society, most certainly in our own?” The traditional Freudian / Marxist oriented idea of sexual repression expresses the idea that the requirements of capitalism involved the bracketing off of pleasure, so that the proletariat would, through the neuroses and subsequent rationalisations caused by sexual repression, buy into the capitalist world – view despite their interests being inherently antagonistic towards it. This is part of what Max Weber called “The Protestant Ethic.” In order to conquer the reality of sex for the benefit of economics, its linguistic expression had to be mechanically prohibited, and made morally distasteful. The association of sex with dirt for example still prevails in common parlance: a promiscuous woman is mucky , a legacy of Christianity and the pollution (notably by the woman) of the body through knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Masturbation was another area viciously demonised from the beginning of the seventeenth century, as was the idea of childhood sexuality which Freud thought crucial to understanding the human psyche. This theory then, the repressive hypothesis , says that until the seventeenth century, sex was a freely discussed subject. Since the dawn of that century, in accordance with the demands of capitalism and / or the strict morality of the Victorians most particularly, sex was controlled and rigorously censored. Sex itself, for alternative thinkers, thus became a revolutionary act, intrinsically liberating in its subversiveness. George Orwell in 1984 for example establishes a paradox between authoritarian society and sex; sex as inherently revolutionary and as an anti – establishment gesture:”But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.” Similar tensions between sex and power are displayed in D. H. Lawrence. “Lady Chatterly s Lover” for example positions sex as an escape, a liberation from the repressive power of class and tradition. Foucault s point however is that power is in no way diametrically opposed to sex, but, quite on the contrary, it is through the construction of sexuality as intrinsic to our identities that power is firmly administered. Foucault believes that movements of sexual liberation “share common tactics,” that is, employ the same basic discourses, as those of sexual prohibition in our society, and therefore reinforce the power which a particular social construction of sexuality imposes. “…they [both sexual liberation and sexual repression movements] are movements that start with sexuality, with the apparatus of sexuality in the midst of which we re caught, and which make it function to the limit; but, at the same time, they are in motion relative to it, disengaging themselves and surmounting it.” Foucault cites the beginning of the seventeenth century as giving birth to “a veritable discursive explosion,” around the subject of sex, rather than the neurotic silence on the matter that is commonly thought to characterise the period. These discourses were institutionally based, the institution in question namely being the Catholic church, and its culture of confession. Good Christians were to name, that is, transform into discourse, feelings, desires – not only the physical facts of sexual practises as had been the subject of earlier monastic confessions, those which contravened the laws of sex, but “everything that might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts which, through the body and the soul, had some affinity with sex.” Foucault saw that parallel to the condemnation and careful proscription of the acceptable language concerning sex, “an imperative was established: Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse. Insofar as was possible, nothing was meant to elude this dictum…” The ancient world, the Greek one at least, demanded no “uniform truth of sex,” but the bourgeois society of today, in Foucault s opinion, considered that “…it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.” The modern individual is made subject to a form of power through the understanding of sexuality as containing some “fundamental secret,” a particular truth about oneself buried somehow deep within.
For societies like China, Japan, India, Rome and others, in erotic art “truth is drawn from pleasure itself [which is] not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself.” They are endowed with what Foucault calls an ars erotica; sex is understood for itself. In contrast, our civilisation practises a scientia sexualis, the way in which on the one hand, sex is censored and demonised, and on the other we have developed “over the centuries procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power…I have in mind the confession.” This is the mechanism through which power is manifested around sexuality in the modern world, (like madness, or social deviancy, which Foucault also worked on) in a form of discourse which politises sex as a taxonomy, of normalisations and aberrations, of the standard and the perverted . The truth of self is created through the understanding of sexuality. But it is power too which creates discourse, “…the interdiction, the refusal, the prohibition, far from being essential forms of power, are only its limits, power in its frustrated or extreme forms. The relations of power are, above all, productive.” “…the contemporary preoccupation with sex is a manifestation of the extent to which individuals are controlled by an insidious disciplinary power that produces confessing and self – policing subjects.” It is obvious in modern society how the existence of taboo controls and makes individuals subjects, that is, individuals who are necessarily subjected to the rules of a historically specific social construction of morality. Foucault follows Bataille however in asserting that the transgression of taboo is, rather than a denial of the rule of taboo and morality, a fundamental, complimentary part of that taboo. Morality cannot reign superior unless it is also broken. “…transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends and completes it…[there exists] a mutual dependence between taboo and transgression. Taboo does not have absolute identity, rather it is a relational entity that can only be sensed in the act of transgression.” On a social level then, prohibition and censorship in discourse had necessarily to be accompanied by a release, a discourse which offered transgression from everyday morality. The confession had a central role in creating, and thereby controlling, sexual identity. In the twentieth century, confession is manifested through psychoanalysis, psychotherapy; the overwhelming desire to confess is illustrated no more clearly than by the immense popularity of television programmes such as the “Vanessa,” or “Ophra,” or “Ricki Lake” shows both in the UK and the United States, where ordinary members of the public share their personal relationship problems, which often involve matters of sexuality, with an audience of millions. Lifestyle magazines, of both the male and female variety, (and especially those aimed at younger generations) consist primarily, and are sold mostly upon, their revelations by average men and women of sexual fantasies, fetishes, perversions. The cult too of the problem page allows an interaction between readers nation- or world-wide and represents confession on a grand scale. “Western man,” says Foucault, “has become a confessing animal.” The ideology behind such phenomena believes this type of confession to be somehow intrinsically liberating . Foucault would disagree. These discourses, these transgressions, share their genealogy with what they assert to be escaping, and in doing so exert a form of power which is constructive in creating sexuality, but also limiting and imprisoning, holding its subjects to this particular contemporary, historically specific, creation of sexuality.Individuals in the modern West are made subjects, that is, they are necessarily subjected through the desire to find in sexuality a truth of selfhood. Christianity maintains that the purity of the soul, expressed by virtue and morality in bodily conduct, constitutes a pathway to heaven. The discourses developed to police and maintain this purity, the confession, create an idea of there being a truth of sexuality, in fact, they created sexuality, which did not exist previous to being expressed in the form of discourse. This power then, of the priest over the confessor, which has become embedded in, and is now self – policing through established confessing language, was productive in creating a truth of sex and thereby defining the self for the modern Westerner. This creation of sexuality, implicated in a form of knowledge / power, is however merely a historically and culturally specific one, one which Foucault argues, has the potential for resistance. “…as soon as there is a power relation, there is a possibility of resistance. We can never be ensnared by power: we can always modify its grip in determinate conditions and according to a precise strategy…” It is a contemporary aesthetics of existence which Foucault believes to be necessary today. “…in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life…But couldn t everyone s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” Style is to be all – important. As Nietzche agreed, “To give style to one s character – a great and rare art!” This is the truly postmodern Foucault, eulogising discourse and metaphor as that which should be exalted. He talks tentatively in his later life about and end to politics, which would logically accompany an aesthetics of existence. Foucault sees the engagement in politics as being “to try to know with the greatest possible honesty whether the revolution is desirable,” and with the viability of revolution destroyed by the experiences of the twentieth century, “We are perhaps experiencing the end of politics.” The end of politics however opens dangerous questions – what of social deprivation, class antagonism, gender / sexuality / race conflicts which have traditionally constituted what is tagged politics, for these surely still exist on a day to day basis? Does Foucault s aesthetics of existence lean towards a Nazi – esque fictionalisation of politics, a transcendence of contemporary social realities in order to fulfil a bourgeois stylised existence? If this was to be the backdrop to the modern formation of the self, would not this particular form of discourse become repressive in the more traditional sense, of those who could not live the beautiful life? Habermas is one theorist suspicious of an end of politics, and history (as proposed by Fukuyama), seeing that this focus in intellectual life entirely consistent with a conservative maintenance of existing social conditions, however revolutionary this shift my be to philosophy: “More or less in the entire Western world a climate has developed that furthers capitalist modernisation processes as well as trends critical of cultural modernism.” With an end in sight to politics, where does this leave truth? These are questions I will necessarily leave unanswered, but with the postmodern emphasis on form, on the image and the superficial, these are questions of high contemporary cultural relevance. Foucault then made a fundamental break with ideas previously concerned with sexuality. There is no essential self . Ideas such as this have been invented through modes of discourse, and not arbitrarily, but in concert with the multifarious demands of many aspects of society. Sexuality then, is intrinsically enmeshed in historically specific forms of power / knowledge, exercised through institutionalised forms of discourse. The confession under Christianity, psychoanalysis in the 20th century. The individual is thus subjectified, is made a subject of the power exerted through discourse. Through its classifications, its hierarchies and its normalisations, the individual is forced to locate for oneself a place within this and live an identity in accordance with the position chosen – although this is too free a term. This is the exercise of power, and it is not systematic, not predicable, and neither entirely negative nor entirely positive, but it is entirely political. There are limits to its control however, (all power has within the possibility for resistance) and this is where Foucault seeks solace in the modern world, making parallels with the Greek world: “Love your liberty, which you have when you can act and do so. Take care of yourself; know yourself by transgressing your limits; practise liberty.” Bibliography+ M. Foucault, Technologies of the Self, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988 + M. Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of work in Progress, (from M. Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics) in P. Rabinow (ed). The Foucault Reader, Penguin + M. Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Pantheon Books, 1985 + M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Pantheon Books, 1978 + M. Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture, Routledge, 1988 + F. Nietzche, The Gay Science, no. 290, Vintage Books, 1974 + J. Habermas, Modernity – An Incomplete Project, in H. Foster (ed) Postmodern Culture, Pluto, 1985 + J. Simmons, Foucault and the Political, Routledge, 1996 + L. McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction, Polity, 1996 + G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty – Four, Penguin, 1968
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