Sunday, March 28, 2021

Notes for a Post-Foucauldian Research Program in Gender and Sexuality

The Foucauldian equation of Power/Knowledge only works when those with power take responsibility. (Foucault would quibble with the idea of any identifiable grouping “having” power, so let us say, pedantically, those constituted by power as authoritative.) Ignorance can be a tool of heedless authority, a means by which it retains stability. Ignorance can be cultivated, preserved, guarded jealously.

From this it follows that the smooth circuit of power, knowledge, and pleasure which he postulates in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality is invalid, even within the arbitrary (Eurocentric, Christocentric) civilizational constraints he imposes on that study. The pleasure of knowing does not exhaust the scope of pleasures that can be taken. Pleasure can be experienced in the absence not only of power but even of knowledge. By studying and naming a phenomenon, one has called it into discursive existence, but the means by which that phenomenon participates in power may come about through discursive practices other than the scientific (knowing). Ample historical evidence for each of these points exists in the generation and comprehension of minoritized genders and sexualities.

Further: Within that volume there is a self-contradiction, which may or may not be related to this. On the one hand, he claims that “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations….” (Part Four, Chapter Two, “Method”, p. 94) And yet in his periodization of sexuality he argues that “sexuality is originally, historically bourgeois” and speaks of “the proletariat’s hesitancy to accept this deployment and its tendency to say that this sexuality was the business of the bourgeoisie and did not concern it” (Part Four, Chapter Four, “Periodization”, p. 127). This proletariat he describes speaks in an unusually (for Foucault, though not for vulgar Marxists) univocal manner, and does not seem to include, e.g., proletarian women who agitated for birth control technology. If we take seriously the notion that “power comes from below,” then we must consider the possibility that these women were advocating for pleasures (the least of which would be, the pleasure of not having to worry about having yet another child) regarded as unspeakable by the bourgeois knowledge of the time. They advocated for one knowledge—the recognition and regulation of one’s own menstrual cycle—against another—the demographic certainty with which the bourgeoisie hoped that the reproduction of the labor force could be regarded as a matter that “took care of itself,” part of the faux frais de la production.

Thus: A disjunction between power and pleasure, that took the temporary historical form of a quarrel between types of knowledge. One need not adhere to the repressive hypothesis which Foucault so thoroughly and effectively discredits, for the same historical evidence can show how the demands of pleasure were soon enough recuperated into the circuits of power, through the expansion and segmentation of the productive labor force and the commoditization of care work. But one can see here--and in many other places--how inadequate a framework for critical analysis Power/Knowledge is.

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