By Margaret McLaren

Author’s Opening Remarks

Margaret McLaren, Rollins College

First, I want to say thank you for inviting me to do this symposium. My book, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity was published in October 2002. My opening remarks will summarize some of its main themes but, of course, I cannot cover everything I discuss in the book. I tried to make the book both accessible to an interdisciplinary audience, and interesting to specialists in the field.

In my book, I aim to do at least three things. I argue that Foucault’s work ought to be examined as a whole with equal attention given to his later works as to his early and middle works, which is something that is not often done. I examine feminist criticisms of Foucault that claim that his work is not useful to feminists; this has larger implications because by extension I am also rejecting claims that postmodernism is antithetical to politics. And finally, by exploring what Foucault says about subjectivity in relation to feminist practices, I offer the beginnings of a new theory of subjectivity that is both embodied and political, based in part on Foucault’s ideas.

In the first chapter, I offer a brief overview of the debate among feminists with regard to the usefulness of Foucault’s work. Although some feminists say Foucault is dangerous and undermines the possibilities for a liberatory politics, I argue that Foucault offers useful resources for feminism, including the idea of immanent and situated social criticism as well as the notion of a subject that is embodied, that is subject to social influences but is not determined by them. This chapter also provides background both on Foucault and on feminism.

In the second chapter, I take up the issue of social criticism without norms. Many social and political theorists argue that norms such as equality, rights, justice, and freedom are necessary for social and political critique of current social injustice and inequality. I demonstrate that Foucault engages in a situated or immanent social criticism in his genealogical work. This situated social criticism relies on implicit normative notions such as freedom. Such notions are not simply appropriated from liberal political theory that he criticized in much of his work; they are explicitly reconceptualized in his later works. Foucault draws on ancient philosophy and on Kant for his reconstructions of freedom and critique. I conclude by showing how situated social criticism aimed at anti-domination can be useful to feminists. This idea of situated social criticism is found in other philosophical traditions such as pragmatism, critical social theory, and feminism. I try to show that Foucault is employing the same sort of social criticism.

The third chapter examines what Foucault says about subjectivity. This is especially important because Foucault claims that examining subjectivity has been an essential motif in his work:

My objective . . . has been to create a history of the different modes by which in our culture human beings are made subjects. My work has dealt with three modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects. Thus it is not power but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.1

In his early works, such as The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault seemed to suggest that the concept of man was problematic. For instance he claims “man is disappearing.”2This is the point on which many people criticize Foucault—the notion of the decentered, fragmented subject. On the other hand, in genealogies like Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume I, subjectivity is constituted through disciplines and practices. Perhaps understandably, feminist critics have taken issue with each of these rather extreme positions. Feminists argue that Foucault’s rejection of subjectivity in his early works does little to help women who had yet to achieve the right to equality and moral and political agency conferred upon subjects. Conversely, feminists who focus on Foucault’s middle works claim that he presented a picture of the subject wholly determined by outside social forces. I counter the first criticism by showing that Foucault’s early work is a criticism and rejection of post-enlightenment subjectivity. He is talking specifically about Descartes and Sartre, so he is criticizing notions of subjectivity in other philosophical works and not rejecting the concept of subjectivity altogether. To counter the second criticism, I draw on Foucault’s later work in which he articulates a self that is active rather than passively determined by outside forces. Retaining the notion that subjects are socially, culturally and historically situated, I then turn to Foucault’s conception of the body in chapter 4.

Many feminists have successfully drawn upon Foucault’s idea of the body as shaped by social norms, disciplines and practices. For example, Sandra Bartky, in her article “Foucault, Feminism, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” explores the disciplines and practices that shape the feminine body.3

The feminine disciplines she discusses include make-up, exercise and bodily comportment. Susan Bordo applies Foucault’s ideas to the widespread contemporary phenomenon of eating disorders, noting their prevalence among young women and linking them to social norms of slenderness.4

Both Bartky and Bordo draw on Foucault’s work to illustrate graphically how the feminine body is constructed through social norms and practices. However, they find limitations to Foucault’s notion of the body, questioning whether or not it is possible to escape the insidious power of these disciplinary practices. I contend that although one never steps outside the social altogether, resistance to particular social norms and practices is not only permissible in Foucault’s view, it is essential.

In chapter 5, I take up issues of identity. In feminist theory, there is some debate about issues of identity and the category of women. Many feminists say that the category of “woman” is necessary to ground and mobilize a feminist politics. On the other hand, challenges have come from working class women, women of color, and lesbians claiming that a singular or unified category of women obscures the differential social locations that women in non-dominant groups occupy and fails to do justice to the variety of their lived experiences. Foucault would side with the second group of feminists. He was deeply suspicious of identity categories and their tendency to homogenize. Keeping both sets of feminist concerns in mind, I show how Foucault’s suspicions are realized with regard to sex categories such as bisexuality and intersexuality. Rigid sex categories simply exacerbate the problems of recognition and justice for these groups. I propose that rallying against sex-gender oppression, including the oppression of rigid gender categories, will be more productive in achieving feminist goals such as the aim of having an inclusive social movement.

I turn in chapter 6 to Foucault’s later work. In Volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality and in several essays, Foucault’s work takes an ethical turn. He is explicitly concerned with notions such as freedom and critique. Drawing upon early Greek and Roman philosophy, he focuses on practices of the self. Practices of the self are operations performed by the individual herself on the body, soul, conduct, and thoughts and way of being to achieve an end such as happiness or wisdom. These practices serve to shape the ethical self because they involve specific ways of behaving toward others and mastering one’s own desires. Foucault draws heavily on ancient philosophy to articulate this notion of practices of the self. I look at two practices–self-writing and truth telling–and apply them to the contemporary feminist practices of autobiography and consciousness-raising in the last chapter.

In the conclusion, I suggest that new ideas of self and identity may serve feminist purposes well for social transformation.


Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge. 1990.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P. 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books. 1971. _____. “The Subject and Power.” “Afterword” in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Eds. Hubert

L. Dreyfuss and Paul Rabinow. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1982.

  1. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Afterword in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, eds. Hubert L. Dreyfuss and Paul Rabinow (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982): 208-209.
  2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971): 385.
  3. Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990).
  4. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993).

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.