By Joanne Waugh

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

Foucault, Feminism, and the Care of the Self: Lessons from Antiquity

Joanne Waugh, University of South Florida

In Feminism, Foucault, and Subjectivity, Margaret McLaren accomplishes her aims. She shows how “Foucault’s ideas about body, power, and subjectivity can provide important theoretical resources for feminism”—here and now at beginning of the 21st century. The most important of these resources is his conception of subjectivity as embodied and historically constituted. McLaren also addresses feminist critiques of these ideas, showing how useful the ideas that accompany his notion of subjectivity, viz., social criticism and political practices, can be for feminist theory. She does this by reading his later work in relation to what has been termed his “genealogical work,” seeing the former not as a departure but as a continuation of the latter, “as a continuation of his earlier project to think through a new conception of subjectivity that is embodied and manifests itself through practices. These practices both enable and constrain, but freedom is conceptualized and situated within material, institutional and disciplinary matrices.”1 Finally, she demonstrates how “his ideas and practices of the self can be applied to contemporary feminist practices.”2

Inasmuch as I agree with McLaren and applaud her project, attempting to find some major point on which I can criticize her seems a rather artificial, forced, and consequently, pointless exercise. I propose instead to contribute (or try to contribute, at any rate) to this project—perhaps even extend it—in the areas in which I can make a contribution. I begin by examining why the book is necessary and useful in feminist theory as articulated by English language feminists. In the process, I hope to show that much of their criticisms of Foucault result from mistaken notions of language and meaning, both as speech and texts, notions that underlie liberal feminism as well as the epistemological and ethical projects inspired by the Enlightenment. Finally, I will argue that Foucault’s return to the ideas of Classical Antiquity in his later work proves to be corrective of these Enlightenment concepts, and as such is not only essential for “his project to think through a new conception of subjectivity that is embodied and manifests itself through practice” but is also valuable for the project(s) of contemporary feminist philosophy.

Despite the number of books in English devoted to Foucault, it seems that for common sense Anglo-American philosophers there is still a need for accounts of his work in clear, no- nonsense, straightforward English. It seems that French poststructuralist philosophy, for which the sobriquet Foudada was coined, continues to elude their grasp as does German hermeneutic philosophy and critical theory, known as “Gadamermas,” though the latter is more accessible than the former. McLaren presents Foucault’s thought in clear, straightforward prose, taking care to tell her audience what she will say, saying it, and then telling them what she said. Philosophers in the Continental European tradition, as well as more literary-minded philosophers in the English- language tradition, might object to this no-nonsense style, for Foucault, Derrida and other poststructuralists believe that the way they write is conducive to, if not necessary for understanding the points they are trying to make. But there is no question that for common sense Anglo-American philosophers, McLaren’s style is a virtue, for they need or want a translation of poststructuralist thought into terms they can understand. That this very need or desire may prove an obstacle to the understanding they seek is not an observation that their view of philosophy and philosophical writing easily permits. That McLaren can provide such a translation is a testament to her command of both the Continental European and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. That she must do I take as indicating that the view of speech and texts still dominant among English language philosophers is problematic. It is this problematic view of speech and texts that Foucault is trying to combat, as indeed are Derrida, Kristeva, and Irigary, though by different means and by different discourses. Derrida had made the point that written language, and not speech, has been the model for dominant conceptions of language in the Western tradition, despite the fact that philosophical writing has disguised the fact that it is a form of writing. Notoriously, Derrida does this in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” where he cites Socrates’ remarks about writing as evidence of philosophy’s appearing to privilege speech over texts.

I believe that Derrida and others who have interpreted Socrates’ remarks as applying to writing regardless of historical context are incorrect to do so. If we read Plato in historical context, a context he takes great pains to present, it is far more likely that the remarks are directed to the technai of the Sophists. Of course, these remarks also betray some of Plato’s reasons for writing philosophical dialogues. But the point about philosophical writing is well taken, and applies, I suggest, to how philosophers explain language itself: as a system in which certain variations shown among the structural properties of certain objects or things (utterances, texts) generate meaning according to rules and conventions. For the purposes of studying how language can convey meaning, then, utterances and texts are interchangeable; thus it matters not which is the focus of our attention. But speech and texts are not interchangeable, as I hope to show.

As anyone who has studied archaic and classical Greece in any detail can tell you, in the absence of a writing system sufficiently simple, unambiguous and exhaustive in representing speech, the Greeks for centuries relied on speech—oral public exchanges—for the preservation and transmission of culturally significant communication. Religion and ritual, ethics and etiquette, law and customs—what Foucault would call “discourses” and English language philosophers, social norms or laws—were produced and maintained through bodily public performances. In these performances meaning was conveyed not just by what speakers said, but on how they looked in saying it: the stances of their bodies, the expressions of their faces, and the tone of their voices, and their movements and gestures, or lack thereof. Before laws were inscribed in clay or stone or leather or papyrus, before power was conceived of as primarily juridical and prohibitive, power in the form of social norms was produced, preserved, and communicated through the speech and acts and performances of bodies. We may speak of cultural inscription, of “discourses written on the body” as Foucault says, but this is misleading, for the body is not a metaphor for the text, the text is a metaphor for how the ability to communicate is in the body. The body communicates not just through speech but through movement and touch; this is the point that Kristeva and Irigaray are so intent on making. And the knowledge that is stored in the body is more stable and much more difficult to cast off than that articulated in language and inscribed in enduring substances. Texts are poor substitutes for bodies until or unless embodied, if only in imagination by readers. Once they are embodied we know whether the speech act recorded by the text is ironical, triumphant or apologetic. (Think of the once ubiquitous, “Yeah, right.”) We know whether the parties involved in communicative acts are male or female, rich or poor, Gentile or Jew, Hebrew or Muslim, European or non-European, colonizer or colonized, Protestant or Catholic, heterosexual or homosexual, or otherwise culturally endowed. For the text does not mean just because the author intends that it should; it requires a reader. Nor does the author have control over who will read it and how it will be read; one need think only of the many conflicting interpretations of the works of Plato or Nietzsche or Foucault or Kristeva or Irigaray.

It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Barthes, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, and Irigaray have been inspired by Classical Antiquity in contesting the Enlightenment notion of the disembodied Modern subject of Enlightenment discourse, the autonomous agent whose body may be subject to domination but whose consciousness is free. The ideas of Classical Antiquity are especially useful for French feminists, poststructuralists and postmodernists, or anyone else wanting to dispute the claim that consciousness is identical with the subject but its body is something other than the subject. There is, as Foucault recognized, no theory of the subject in Greek philosophy and hence no subject. For the ancients, the self is embodied; it is social and political but nonetheless personal. The Modern distinction between public and private does not obtain, for we are by nature, as Aristotle reminds us, animals of the polis. This means that freedom does not consist in the unconstrained will of the Enlightenment individual; the primary meaning of freedom in classical Greece is not being owned—literally, being autonomous. Greek autonomeia is not Kantian autonomy; the self that rules the self is embodied and political, for it gets its identity from the polis, the household, and its family. Neither the self nor the body is a text, and a text is not a model of language. For the Greeks, there was not language, but logos, speech, and before logos there was muthos, publicly performed poetry. Muthos belongs simultaneously to no one and to everyone; it is authorless poetry, speech that is “always already” cultural discourse for it does not exist apart from embodied performances that produce, preserve, and communicate it.

McLaren’s search for a better metaphor than cultural inscription in explaining how embodied selves are culturally endowed is in keeping with the insight that the very notion of a body is already part of a cultural discourse. Her candidate, internalization, is an improvement over inscription, emphasizing as it does that cultural discourse is public discourse that assigns identity to embodied individuals. There is no body that does not possess a cultural identity, and no unsexed, genderless mind that deserves rights whatever its sexed and gendered body, the goals of liberal feminism, notwithstanding. But neither do such embodied selves commit one to linguistic monism or linguistic idealism, for the communication that is transacted in the shared performances of embodied selves can occur by means other than speech and writing. Embodied selves exist because of their relation in communication: they are relational selves. Finally, there are no bodies that are only women’s bodies: bodies are not only sexed and gendered, they are also rich, poor, white, black, Asian, Native American, criminal, law-abiding, large, small, Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, Muslim, a member of a familiar religious group or not a member of any such group. This means that one cannot limit the scope of her political or moral concern simply to women.

This does not mean, of course, that women whose bodies are assigned identities in addition to being females have not, as females, been subjected to power in ways that male bodies, as males, have not. But we are never just female or male bodies, and the tensions and conflicts between our sexual and gendered identities provide occasions for resistance to our being subjected to power.

Neither does this mean that the thinkers those who have advanced philosophy beyond Modernity by appealing to ancient Greek notions of embodied performers of meaning have not acted and written in ways that maintain or produce the subjection of female bodies, whatever other identities these bodies may possess. But we must not confuse the fixity that texts possess as inscribed with the meanings of the inscribed texts, for texts have multiple meanings and allow multiple readings, as do the bodies of many identities for which texts are metaphors. Finally, in no way should we minimize or discount the fact that female bodies in Classical Antiquity were constructed in ways that made them subject to domination and limited in the ways in which they were productive of power. The production of sexed and gendered bodies in ancient Greece is far too complex a subject to enter into here. One need only think of the way in which female bodies were portrayed in muthos that was performed by male bodies, portrayals and performances that are contested at times by the logos of philosophers. But that is another discussion for another time.


Works Cited

McLaren, Margaret. Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. New York: SUNY Press. 2002.

  1. Margaret McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (New York: SUNY Press, 2002): 3
  2. McLaren 3.

Joanne Waugh

Joanne Waugh is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida in Tampa where she also teaches in the Honors College. She is co-editor of Feminists Doing Ethics that was named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice. She is currently writing a book on why Plato wrote dialogues.