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Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is probably the single most influential figure in postmodernism, inspiring many later theorists and activists including queer theorists such as Judith Butler.
His book The Order of Things, which outlined the theory and method of his early, structuralist phase, suffered a devastating critique from the psychologist Jean Piaget (Piaget p128-35) But it is the later, post-structuralist Foucault who became a guru. He now replaces structuralism’s “great model of language and signs” with Nietzsche’s theme of “war and battle”. (Quoted in Callinicos APM p81).
The network of power/knowledge
Nietzsche had presented military and market competition under capitalism as universal, eternal features of society and nature, as previously discussed. The clash of social classes, he said, is secondary and arises as a side effect of this fundamental, atomised power struggle.
My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power epigram 636)
Foucault does a cut-and-paste of Nietzsche’s formulation, lightly adapted to modern times and his academic environment. Power, he says
is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations. Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations) but are immanent in the latter… there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled… One must rather suppose that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups and institutions are the basis of wide ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole. These then form a general line of force that traverses the local lines of force and link them together. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 1 p94)
Despite the passing reference to economic forces, Foucault generally discusses power only in relation to knowledge, which he treats as more or less two sides of the one coin: “power and knowledge directly imply one another”. (Foucault, Discipline and Punish p27) The police truncheon, fuel-air bomb and factory all fade from view. Everyone seeks power by gaining knowledge of others and by framing the knowledge that others receive.
This war-of-all-against-all formulation is bound to irritate mainstream politicians and right wing ideologues who like to present society, at least sometimes, as bound together through patriotism, “national values” etc. Conversely Foucault’s concept of power has appealed to many social activists and critics who want ways to unmask hypocrisy and explore the realities of discrimination and the power struggles hidden beneath bland exteriors. Ultimately, though, Foucault’s formulation has two very conservative implications.
Firstly, it makes to no qualitative distinction between oppressor and oppressed. The Walmart executive, the call-centre worker, the police spy, the Sierra Leonean mother who’s had her hands chopped off by thugs, are all playing the same game of power/knowledge, seeking power over others by gaining more knowledge of them. The only difference is how well they are currently doing in this fluid, timeless contest.
Secondly, there is nothing beyond the network of power/knowledge – people will always be competing and trying to dominate one another. Postmodernists love to attack Marxists for their “closure”, the way they link every social relationship back to capitalism and class struggle. In fact it is postmodernism that is closed. Humanity can never be liberated, it is forever caught within social forces beyond its control, like rats in a maze with no exit.
Localism and fragmentation
Foucault opposes any challenge to the capitalist system as a whole. The mighty global network of corporations, banks, armies, bureaucracies and private institutions that dominate the world should not be subject to any united challenge from below: that would require masses of ordinary people developing a collective, systematic understanding of what they are dealing with, and Foucault rails against “the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse”. (Quoted by Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History p59) As we’ve seen, everyone is always trying to dominate each other, and power and knowledge are twinned, so when Marxists talk of the capitalism as a totality their real aim can only be totalitarian power for themselves: they want to control everyone’s thinking within their own discourse, the end result being the Stalinist police state.
Foucault’s alternative is localism, the motto of the petty-bourgeois intellectual since Proudhon: “a reactivation of local knowledges – of minor knowledges, as Deleuze calls them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power”. (Foucault, Power/Knowledge p85)
Protest actions should never be more than fragmentary, nor should our way of thinking. No knowledge can be anything more than a perspective, inseparable from one’s place in particular power struggles. As Mark Poster put it, there is “not truth only truths.” (Poster p7)
The celebration of fragmentation fed into the social mood of the late 1970s, as discussed earlier. The far Left slogan of “one struggle one fight” against the establishment and the system as a whole looked less and less realistic as the tide of struggle receded. Postmodernism, and Foucault in particular, provided a set of theories to justify the abandonment of these politics, and to attack anyone who still defended them.
Humanism and anti-humanism
“Man is an invention of recent date” says Foucault. “And one perhaps nearing its end.” If “the fundamental arrangements of knowledge” were “to crumble, as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Quoted by Callinicos, ITAFFM p42)
Leaving aside the sexist terminology of the time, the concept “man” presents people in broadly humanistic terms. Foucault was anti-humanist. He was not indifferent to human suffering, as shown for example in his criticism of the prison system. But his moral critiques are made within a stunted view of what people are and what they are capable of. Before discussing that, some background about humanism.
Humanism, as Wikipedia says, “emphasizes the value and agency of human beings”. Among other things, it asserts the value of the human personality, the notion that each individual has a universe of thoughts and feelings within them, and they deserve the chance to express and develop that inner world to the full. And it asserts that humans can consciously act on society and change it. So people are “subjects”: both a valid focus of study, and active participants in the world.
Humanism arose alongside the slow emergence of the capitalist class, and was a weapon in its attack on the rigid hierarchies of feudalism. People depicted in art were no longer lifeless symbols but displayed their own thoughts and feelings. As capitalism flourished people began keeping private diaries, the notion of romantic love pushed out the belief in arranged marriages. Personality was deeply explored in literature. The notion that people could change their personal situation through their own efforts became accepted ideology: you made your own life and “the people” could throw off injustice. Women began to challenge the way their own lives were cramped by sexual oppression. (For an overview of these developments see Zaretsky ch 3-5)
By the late nineteenth century, however, the supremacy of the human subject, “man” as a central concept, was under challenge. Under intense scrutiny, the human individual turned out to be rather fragmented internally into persona/inner self, Jekyll/Hyde, ego/id, etc. People were also seen to be driven by forces and structures external to themselves, such as class position, national status and sex roles, as well as by great events like war and economic crises. Perhaps “man” as a self-contained, unitary, free-floating entity was not after all such a good way to understand people and society.
The politics of humanism
Behind these ideas lurked different political agendas. Mainstream capitalist ideology still emphasised the freedom and responsibility of the individual. You are free, so if you don’t get rich you are to blame. It celebrated competitive individualism, with “the community” as a cynical or sentimental overlay. The celebration of the human personality usually focused on upper class males.
The rising socialist movement, and Marxism in particular, broke from these bourgeois concepts of liberty and liberation. It opposed competitive individualism as anti-human: true personal fulfilment and freedom required, among other things, nourishing interpersonal bonds which are cruelly constrained under capitalism. It challenged women’s oppression, particularly that of working women. For example, Lenin said in 1919 that the Soviet republic had barely begun the task of women’s liberation: “Notwithstanding all the [new, Soviet] laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.” Marxists also pointed out how men’s lives were debased by women’s oppression. If woman is “merely a cook, a maid and a whore for man, their relation only satisfies his dehumanised, animal needs”. (Mezaros, p185) Within the Marxist worldview individuals were not truly free to do as they chose, but still had agency by participating in the struggles of their class. Major class struggles were set off by the economic and political crises of capitalism – objective forces beyond anyone’s control. But the working class was capable of understanding these forces, and overcoming them through revolution. When the working class broke the rule of the capitalist class it would also end humanity’s enslavement to the chaotic uncontrolled forces of market and military competition that threatened even the capitalists themselves.
But there was also a second strain within capitalist ideology, one that derided the individual and glorified wider social structures. Unlike Marxism and classical liberalism, it denied human agency, declaring that common people could never take democratic ground-level control of the forces that ruled them. This current tends to present the human personality as endlessly malleable, and/or inconsequential. (By contrast, Marxism declares that people have basic needs and drives which set a limit on the social engineering of our minds. People crave the chance for creative use of their skills, and for fulfilling interpersonal bonds. Their skills, tastes and personal relations develop historically but are an intrinsic part of being human, and if they are not given expression our lives are cramped and distorted.)
Fascism is the prime example of this second form of capitalist ideology: individuals are nothing before the majesty of the nation. But postmodernism too says that people can never be more than chess pieces moved by uncontrollable outside forces – in Foucault’s case, this means power/knowledge.
“Where there is power,” Foucault says, “there is resistance”. (History Sexuality Vol 1 p95) But this resistance seems to be like a law of physics: not the struggle against oppression, more like an objective force operating beyond human control; it does not imply real agency from an individual or a social class. Certainly, such “resistance” does not mean we can ever fight our way beyond the dog-eat-dog world of petty power struggles. This is very clear from Foucault’s contempt for theories of liberation. He allows for no development of the idea beyond bourgeois ideology:
The socialism of a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century… dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature. What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realise that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model.
As evidence for this he points to the failure to move beyond bourgeois values, eg around the family, in either the Stalinist states or western democracies. But while liberty is a purely bourgeois concept for Foucault, the idea that we are all nasty, competitive and selfish – the stalest capitalist cliché about human nature – is preserved in concealed form, in the idea of the inescapable network of power/knowledge.
After all this, Foucault suddenly does an about turn. In his final works he retreats from an objectivist notion of power.
Characteristically, just as he had in the mid-1970s denied that he had ever been concerned with language, Foucault now played down the question of power: “I am very far from being a theoretician of power… power, as an autonomous question, does not interest me”. (Callinicos, APM, p88).
Foucault now investigates
a group of practices which have been of unquestionable importance in our societies… those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 2 p10-11).
I would argue that this is another rehash of Nietzsche. As previously discussed Nietzsche proposed that great men, the Lords of the Earth (the Trumps, Koch brothers and Tony Blairs of his day) could achieve self-expression by forging mighty personalities from their own superior wills, while people in the “herd” could not and remained depersonalised. Foucault is not on the far Right, but like Nietzsche he is drawing a class line. Having spent years explaining that ordinary people’s personalities, hopes and dreams are as shallow and insubstantial as a face drawn in the sand, he now says that the new middle class, and those who ape them, should feel entitled to self-cultivation.
“Couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” Foucault asks. (Quoted in Callinicos, APM p89) By “everyone” he means everyone-who’s-anyone, everyone in a certain social layer. “To invite a hospital porter in Birmingham, a car-worker in Sao Paulo, a social security clerk in Chicago or a street child in Bombay to make a work of art of their lives would be an insult – unless linked to precisely the kind of strategy for social change which… poststructuralism rejects.” (Callinicos, APM p91)
Bodies and pleasures: Foucault on sexuality
If Foucault was to ever to address discrimination against women, his three-volume work on sexuality might be the place. No. His wretchedly impoverished view of humanity leads him away from examining the way sexuality under capitalism dehumanises females.
Under a humanistic view, sexuality connects to the human needs for intimacy, variety and experimentation, all brutally limited by female objectification and the values of submission and self-sacrifice. Foucault sees things differently. Sexuality, as anything more than bodily sensations of pleasure, is only a “great surface network” of force relations created blindly on a social scale as individuals seeks power over each other by gaining knowledge of them. So he can talk of the notion of female hysteria being created, like that of perversion, by doctors and psychiatrists in the Victorian era, to increase their own power. But even here his real aim is to degrade the notion of the human subject, with its valuation of personality and agency: power struggles create “men’s subjection: their constitution as subjects in both senses of the word.” (History of Sexuality Vol 1 p60)
There is no shortage of texts which discuss the inner damage females sustain through socialisation. To take a few examples, Juliet Mitchell closely examines how females’ very early experiences lay the groundwork for a lifetime of self-limitation, in “The Making of a Lady” (Psychoanalysis and Feminism part 1) Cordelia Fine has researched the subtle ways in which girls internalise femininity. John Berger points out that the objectification of women and girls leads inevitably to “a woman’s self being split in two”:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. (Berger Ways of Seeing ch 3)
Foucault directs our attention away from all this.
Above all Foucault mocked the notion of escape from oppression through sexual liberation. Like Nietzsche, he compared liberation to religious deliverance:
Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom… slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression. Some of the ancient functions of prophesy are activated herein. Tomorrow sex will be good again. Because this repression is affirmed, one can discreetly bring into coexistence concepts which the fear of ridicule or the bitterness of history prevent most of us from putting side by side: revolution and happiness. (Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 p7)
Foucault, female socialisation, and transgender
As part of the transgender phenomenon, sex stereotypes have been repositioned as a minority concern, and femaleness redefined in terms of stereotypes rather than socialisation. These are the messages which governments and the corporate media are now pumping out to millions of women and girls internationally, under the guise of defending vulnerable transgender people. In this way the trans trend is of great benefit in furthering the anti-woman agenda of the capitalist class. Marxists and feminists continue to oppose female socialisation in many contexts, but most fall quiet when the issue is seen in terms of transgender; effectively, they are the Left wing of the uncritically pro-trans coalition that extends all the way to the business wing of the US Republican Party.
To this extent, the issue of female socialisation has been junked to accommodate transgender concerns. How can the far Left have made such an abject capitulation? As previously discussed they have caved in to immense pressure from identity politics. But why are identity-politics activists themselves – anti-sexist, politically sophisticated – willing to take such an anti-woman position? The postmodernists, Foucault prominent among them, have helped to make this possible. They have connected to the anger and cynicism of masses of people only to narrow our view of people and society, limit perceptions of what is possible, and pull social critics and activists to the Right. In response we need to reassert Marxist humanism, which highlights the significance of people’s agency and the value of their inner lives. And this means, among other things, highlighting the oppressive nature of female socialisation, even when it is given a progressive veneer.
Sources cited but not hyperlinked in the text:
John Berger Ways of Seeing Penguin Kindle edition
Alex Callinicos Against Postmodernism Polity Press Cambridge 1989
Alex Callinicos Is There a Future For Marxism McMillan 1982
Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, Penguin 1979
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 Penguin 1981
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 2: The Uses of Pleasure Viking Penguin 1984
István Mezaros Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin Press London 1970
Jean Piaget Structuralism, Routledge and Kagan Paul London 1971
Mark Poster Foucault, Marxism and History Polity Press 1984
Eli Zaretsky Capitalism the Family and Personal Life 2nd edn Harper and Rowe NY 1986