Foucault for Thursday

Most of my leisurely writing lately has been dedicated to baseball, but I spent some time this morning preparing the following for a undergraduate student reading Foucault for the first time. Her project this semester has been dedicated to queer rights, and this is her first encounter with queer theory. I suggested she start with either Foucault or Butler, and she chose Foucault. My undergrad students are required to do am 8 to 10 page final paper on any topic of their choosing, so long as it meets specific criteria (more on that later). Here's what I gave her to help her think of how to use Foucault for a project inline with her semester long project.

Foucault and Sexuality

Here’s a few specific passages to help you think your way through this material. First, from page 105 of the 1990 Vintage Books edition (Part 4, Chapter 3 “Domain”):

Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (105-106)

These long sentences essentially say the same thing—that “sex” isn’t something either a) completely natural or b) entirely cultural. Hence why sex isn’t something “real” and “really hidden” that we can uncover. Rather the act of trying to “uncover” sex produces (or, if I was using Foucault’s language, discursively constructs) sexuality itself. Hence his statement of a “great surface network.” In short summation, we can’t really know anything about sex, but we can pay close attention to the ways in which people talk about, represent, practice, and contest sexuality. This work was written in France in the mid-1970’s. You might want to look at sexual politics and representations in the 1970’s and then compare them to today.

The second passage comes from page 56:

The important thing, in this affair, is not that these men shut their eyes or stopped their ears, or that they were mistaken; it is rather that they constructed around and apropos of sex an immense apparatus for producing truth, even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment. The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood, and that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful, or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short, that sex was constituted as a rpblem of truth. What needs to be situated, therefore is […] the progressive formation (and also transformations) of that “interplay of truth and sex” which was bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, and which we may have modified, but, lacking evidence to the contrary, have not rid ourselves. Misunderstandings, avoidances, and evasions were only possible, and only had their effects, against the background of this strange endeavor: to tell the truth of sex. (56-57)

The “they” in the opening sentence referes to early psychoanalysts such as Freud. They were exploring “pathological sexual deviance” and other such “problems.” We might ask ourselves, 25 years after Foucault’s writing—is/are there still (a) "truth(s)" to sex? Where does it/they emerge?


Casey said...

This is one of those opportunities for studying the "why?" within academia. Why Foucault on sexuality? Is he "more right" than Freud, or than Whitman, or than a biology textbook? Or is he spinning culture a certain way?--and if so, are "we" on board with that?--and who is "we," btw?

My frenetic questions here aren't meant to overwhelm. I'm really earnestly wondering about the answers to each. Your experience may have been a little different from mine, but upon arriving at Purdue I was told to go see Judy Ware then start reading Foucault. Nobody was interested in discussing why. It was presented just as the Bible is presented at a divinity school.

And, I'm taking it for granted that you have thought about these things--and sort of asking (with plenty of patience, because I know it's crazy right now) to hear a defense of Foucault-on-sexuality in either a follow-up comment or another post.

Is Bataille-on-sex preferable? Is Hindu-Tantra-on-sex preferable? Why or why not?

All of this is also, of course, a roundabout way of asking you why you suggested Foucault and Butler? Who/what else did you consider before those recommendations, and why did you settle on F&B?

P.S. -- thanks for putting up with me!

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Sorry I didn't respond earlier. Your question as to the why is particularly relevant here.

For me--as with Freud (I cannot speak to Whitman)--the interest in Foucault is partly methodological. His use of juxtaposition warrants close attention.

Beyond his methodology, however, there is an element of Foucault's work that disturbs any effort to totalize, universalize, or normalize. I say disturbs rather than negates. Especially for introductory students, I believe Foucault performs what is the essential and ethical dimension of postmodern theory by highlighting the difference between [discursively] constructing ahistory of something and revealingthehistory of something.

In my class this semester, in regards to their final projects, I have stressed how we can invert the normal causal relationship between humans and the objects and ideas we use. For instance, we might normally say that humans created television--and in a chronological sense this is true. But it is also equally true, in a kairotic sense of time, to recognize that television creates the human. Here again, Foucault's notions of power and institutions are valuable.

Butler's notions of performativity operate along the same lines. Of course, Foucault is a major influence on Butler, as she notes in much of her work.

More and more, I see the work of rhetoric involved in the underlying question you pose (a question from the other? I wonder how much we are, at core, the same): the question of identity, agency, and foundations. I am, of course, foundationally anti-foundational, so I search for foundational premises upon which to build an anti-foundational argument. Irony can be tasty.

Sorry, too, I haven't been conversant lately--I've just been real busy. I've been trying to dedicate more time to blogging and friendships.

Casey said...

Busy time of year, isn't it?!

Good answer. I just graded an "exit exam" (thanks, SACS!) today that included a section on "historiography." The student had internalized much of what you say about "a history" vs. "the history," but her answer seemed to rely on a shared assumption with whomever (me, in this case!) would read her paper.

I'm not saying Foucault is "wrong" at all. I guess I'm just going to keep asking "why" all the way down--which is what Socrates does, I guess? For example, why do you want students to be disturbed? I sometimes use "disturbing" as a tool in pedagogy, but only when I think that the notions my students are beginning with are superficial or incorrect--then I try to disturb those ideas.

So to me this implies that you do sort of think Foucault's argument is "better" than the old-fashioned way.

And then I would ask: better how? For whom? ...and the beat goes on.

Have you seen the Twins' new park? I like it. Looks good to me.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I can answer the "why" disturbed pretty quickly (and I have ten minutes until I teach, so it will have to be quick). Two reasons:

First, I've mentioned my education professor Dr. David Zern a few times in this post. Zern was a firm believer in the Freudian concept of disequilibrium--that is, that we only learn when we are uncomfortable. Some of us want to be more comfortable than others. But, if you want to stimulate thought, then you've got to move someone outside of their comfort zone. I can think of nothing less Levinasian, and this is a personal issue with which I struggle: to what extent does the educational context allow me to compromise my ethical principles?

Two: I believe ethics is tied to a tentative being-with-the-world. Confidence and assurance do not often lead to nice and sensitive. The difference between "the history" and "a history" equates to the difference between creating "world citizens" and "citizens of the world." In both cases, though it might just seem semantic, I will urge the latter as more ethical than the former (even if the former makes "us" [the majority, the center] more comfortable).

I also sympathize a bit with your plight in grading a paper clearly written to "you": those papers that do not seems to demonstrate an ability to generalize an audience, to "invent the University" in R/C lingo. It is an important ability, to generate documents for broader audiences--but should that be the exclusive form of writing we validate? As a rhetorician (and a Levinasian), I want to say "no." There are other forms of writing. There's a Vitanza essay that articulates the difference between "writing" and W-R-I-T-I-N-G and argues that we "teach" the former because the latter is too unruly for the kind of packaging that passes as contemporary education.