By Margaret McLaren

Book Symposium
Margaret McLaren. Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (SUNY Press, 2002)

Response by Author and Discussion

Margaret McLaren: I want to thank Dr Jaeger and Dr. Waugh for their remarks and to thank Dr. Park for organizing the symposium. I will say just a couple of things. In general, I agree with the comments, questions, and issues raised by Suzanne and Joanne, but I want to respond to two main points. Dr. Jaeger points out that Foucault doesn’t acknowledge his own perspectivalness. Yet because he argues that knowledge is partial, he needs to look at the ways in which his own critique is partial and perspectival in order to be consistent. There are places where he does that, mainly in his interviews. As I argue in my book, Foucault’s interviews and essays provide important information about how he viewed his own work. When Foucault was asked about possible directions for particular political projects, he would say he didn’t want to propose a project because he’s only one person with a limited perspective. He refused to impose his own agenda because it had a particular point of view. He was often criticized for this lack of a definitive response. Yet if we take the remarks he made in his interviews as guides to reading his texts, such as History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, it is clear that Foucault acknowledges that he was offering only a partial perspective.

The other thing that I think could bear some discussion is what norms should and can be critiqued. This is a huge issue not just for Foucault, but also within feminist theory itself. Dr. Jaeger raises a relevant and interesting, but complicated, question when she asks when we should privilege the first rather than the third person perspective. The sex wars debate in feminist theory raised this question about a number of controversial practices that women engage in—sadomasochism, prostitution, dancing at a strip club. The debate fell along these lines: liberal feminists advocated the first person perspective, they argued that so long as you are making the choice you can do what you want, whereas radical feminists were more inclined to privilege a third person perspective, they were willing to say that certain things are just bad for women because they are repressive. But I think that Foucault doesn’t fall cleanly along those lines. His idea of resistance to norms does not seem to unequivocally privilege the first person or the third person perspective. It is not just based in choice or autonomy, so it is not solely in the first person perspective. But it certainly is not in the third person perspective that prescribes what is good for others. Using gender roles for example, I think that his idea of resistance is not that I have to resist notions of being a homemaker, nor that I need to resist notions of particular types of female sexuality by not working at a strip club. In other words, resisting norms is not simply about blindly rejecting stereotypical or conventional gender roles, nor is it about uncritically embracing transgressive ones. There is room to take up your own projects in your own way that are transgressive, but they don’t have to be transgressive in the same way or in one particular way. It depends on the norms. But there are norms that are always oppressive in relation to certain people, for example, heterosexuality. Foucault was gay, and he died of AIDS. Heterosexuality is a norm that is systematically oppressive to those who are gay and lesbian. There are certain norms that if you are not in the majority, it is actually very productive to resist them. It might be necessary to your own survival. You might need to resist those norms. But Foucault doesn’t just talk about social norms in one way, and the last thing I’ll say about norms is about Dr. Jaeger’s improvisational theatre examples, which I really like.

As I was writing the book and thinking about norms it became clear that Foucault’s own position on this issue is very complicated, and because of this, often misunderstood. It seems clear that Foucault doesn’t mean that we always resist norms, because communication would completely break down. We exist in world of background assumptions. There is some differentiation in his work between these norms that are constitutive for social interaction and norms that are oppressive, and if you turn to his later work, he doesn’t condemn norms constitutive of communication and social life. In order to draw out this distinction, I turn to sociologists about norms in my book. So I think Foucault’s position on this is more moderate than most people think. He criticizes some norms, but not all of them. For instance, I doubt he would object to the ones that enable communication to go farther as in the improvisational theatre examples.

The last point I would like to address is the idea that there are bases other than aggression and conflict for social interaction and the development of subjectivity. Here I agree with Suzanne (and maybe against Foucault) that subjectivity is not defined solely in an agonistic relationship–a kind of conflictual relationship. This position that subjectivity and relations with others are conflictual or strategic is mainly found in his middle works. But he moves away from this toward the end of his life in his later works. Unfortunately, until recently these later works have largely been neglected. In his later works he says many things that are more positive about social relationships. For instance, he talks about friendship as a model of a social relation in Volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality. And he talks about care of self and care of others as a relational social practice that involves other people. So if we consider his later works along with his genealogical works he discusses both negative and positive social relations. Although the discussion of positive forms of social relation and self relation, such as friendship and self-care may not be developed to the degree that we would want; it is in there. It is unfortunate that he died so early. He was still working on his ethical works.

I like the way Dr. Waugh tries to extend the project. I tried to write in a way that would be accessible to a wide audience, including Analytic and Continental philosophers, as well as non- philosophers. One of the reasons for this is that my interests are wide ranging including contemporary French theory and existentialism as well as traditional political theory. One of the things that drove my research on Foucault, besides the notion of subjectivity, was trying to unravel some of the philosophical mistakes I see in the Enlightenment legacy, for instance, the notion of autonomy that denies social context. But I think Foucault’s turn back to antiquity, like some other philosophers return to it, is to get at some things that are important and essential about the social and political embeddedness of moral agency; it is not just abstract, not just voluntarism. Our actions are always in relation. To think of a self that is constituted through social norms yet able to resist them avoids the stark contrast between an unconnected self and a completely embedded one. So the return to antiquity is very important in Foucault’s work.

Joanne Waugh: One of the things that I didn’t say quite explicitly was the extent to which some of the feminist criticisms of Foucault against which McLaren defends are red herrings, and they are so because people have a tendency not to read Foucault as a historicist and with insufficient attention to concepts of aesthetics. That’s one of the reasons I went in the direction that I did. In reaction to Suzanne, I think the criticism about Foucault’s notion about norms being partial and perspectival tends to come perilously close to the idea that the self as a knower is prior to or independent of history. We make history as much as history makes us. And so it is far more difficult to be perspectival in an original way than some feminist critics have suggested. It is true that his analysis of subjectivity is male subjectivity. But that doesn’t mean that his position is not of use. And Foucault’s position as gay in relation to other dominant identities provides him with a kind of double-aspect vision that we find discussed in DuBois and others who talk about stories that are told about them and the ones they say about themselves. Another point I think is important, one stemming from study of Greek society, is that we shouldn’t view the agonistic aspects of Foucault in a Hobbesian way. What Foucault is talking about is mastery over self. For Foucault, as for Nietzsche, the mastery over self is the most agonistic thing in which we engage. We may bring others in and others threaten one’s mastery of the self, but I don’t think the agonistic aspect of Foucault is particularly Hobbesian.

Suzanne Jaeger: When you say that the norm of heterosexuality is oppressive, I balk at this over generalized way of talking. The term may be taken to refer only to a certain kind of sexual practice, or it may be understood to refer also to the state oppression of any other kind of sexual practices. We need a more refined way of discussing the various aspects of the concept of heterosexual normativity. There are contexts in which heterosexuality is not an oppressive norm, but an option among other sexual practices.

Margaret McLaren: I say it is oppressive for homosexuals, but I am willing to qualify that. I am willing to look at the ways in which it is or is not oppressive. It is obviously a very complicated issue.

Suzanne Jaeger: We were going to talk about norms. We have to be refined and sophisticated about our characterizations of norms. When we use sweeping generalizations, we risk oversimplifying the issues.

Audience member: I have a kind of worry about this. Obviously, Foucault became a public intellectual and that doesn’t happen to us. Though he thought of himself as a historian, he thought of himself as a traditional, scholarly historian. Given the role of being a public intellectual, he was constantly asked about things. Should we be so confident that the things he says in those interviews are the guide to the historical work? The historical work seems to me to be complicated. The Birth of the Clinic is about the history of medicine, but it is hard to understand what kind of political conclusion I would draw from the book. Did you find the dislocation of these interviews and these quite scholarly historical texts? He always said he was an historian.

Margaret McLaren: You’d have to say, “should we trust what he says in which interview?” He is not consistent in his interviews. In some of them, he talks about his own work, he’s not always just asked about political situations like Iran and Poland. You need to have a general overview. I think the interviews can help guide a reading of his works, because he actually says sometimes that he is trying to make strategic interventions, writing so his works will be used politically, but he did not want to say how in particular. He was involved in many different political struggles and lived all over the place. He was involved in Polish solidarity; so some of his interviews are about solidarity. What I did in the book was not to look at particular situations, but the way in which his work should be read. Should we take him as the authority on the way his own work should be read? The fact that Foucault was a public intellectual and thus often discussed his own work during his lifetime should not lead us to dismiss what he said. The situation of the philosopher in France is so different; many are public intellectuals and are actively engaged in politics and public policy, including writing articles for the popular press. Taken together, his activism and social criticism provide a context in which his work can be read; I believe that his historical works have a political point. You asked what is the political message of The Birth of the Clinic because it is essentially a history of medicine. I agree that it has rich historical detail. But I think that there is also a political thesis—that is, we should not take current categories, and ways of doing things for granted, attention to the changes that have happened in the two hundred years Foucault covers in his book should make us aware that even the categories of science and medicine change. For instance, in Madness and Civilization he looked at the changes in the treatment of the mad. Even in contemporary society the protocol has changed, not too long ago lobotomies were considered a valid form of treatment for insanity, now they are considered inhumane. So, I think one of the underlying political messages in many of Foucault’s historical works, includingThe Birth of the Clinic, is to urge us to question authority, because the authority of accepted categories has changed historically. There are many cases where people thought they had the right answers, for instance, the medicalization of mental illness. These things have dramatic effects on people’s lives. Recognize these things. We may not be at the apex of the historical trajectory. That’s what I think his thesis is.

Audience member: I guess one thing I was interested in was transgressing norms. It seems like the general thrust of Foucault’s work is to unsettle these norms in a way, but at the same time the norms define the ways in which they can be transgressed. They define the categories outside the boundaries. So it seems hard to transgress them. That might be why you have to do the genealogical and archaeological contexts. Looking at texts that no longer appear self-evident, we start to be able to see the categories. They start to unravel themselves. And so there is an importance to paying close attention to the determinate structure of the text or the argument. For example, in the Phaedrus, Socrates says the only way to get him out of the city is to write a speech and pull it out of the context, but to write it down and take it out of the bodily context, to decenter it, causes one to start to see things differently. And so maybe there is, in that sense, something really important about how texts are structured and how they fit into a particular context, but then they don’t in another context.

Joanne Waugh: I think that is a lesson much learned; the lesson I want to impart is one about a text’s multiple meanings, about texts as art, about the pleasure of texts– about texts as metaphors for bodies and bodies as performances that are never completely constrained despite the norms we extract from them. One thing I think Foucault is saying is that norms are extracted from bodies, from the performances of bodies. They can become ways of disciplining bodies. Just as the bodies of those who are privileged in one way recognize the ways in which their performances are productive of power Foucault knew both from being gay and from being an upper-class French person. African Americans recognize this with respect to performances in different contexts. If they are not speeding but stopped on that pretense, their identity as wealthy and educated is not an empowering fact in that context. So I think that the claim about how to escape is a mistaken emphasis. It seems to me that norms are never going to be completely determinate of individual bodies, and this is why I bring in Kristeva and others who talk about how bodies contest the norms—because they have other identities besides the particular identity into which they are being normalized at that time.

Margaret McLaren: One of the important things for me is that Foucault is doing social and political philosophy. There is no question about it–-he talks about material effects that not a lot of people do. Norms can’t be escaped but are not all oppressive. There are a variety of norms that operate. The Birth of the Clinic looks at the way norms have operated in the past and it denaturalizes things. And so it can allow you to look at particular practices both historical and contemporary—to get a new perspective, to discover assumptions that underlie particular practices.


Margaret McLaren

Margaret A. McLaren holds the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Chair of Philosophy at Rollins College where she teaches Philosophy and Women’s Studies. She is the author of Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (SUNY Press, 2002). Her articles on gender issues, Foucault and feminism, virtue ethics and feminist ethics have appeared in anthologies and the journals Social Theory and Practice and Hypatia. Her current research addresses the intersection of gender, cultural tradition and human rights.