By Suzanne Jaeger

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

Relativism and Particularity:
A Commentary on McLaren’s Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity.

Suzanne Jaeger, University of Central Florida

Margaret McLaren’s book, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, provides a well written, informative, and challenging analysis of some intersections between Foucault and feminism. McLaren provides a comprehensive overview of Foucault’s work, as well as a very useful taxonomy of various feminisms and feminist projects. If you are interested either in Foucault or in the social and political concerns of feminist philosophies, I highly recommend that you put her book on your reading list.

McLaren derives four core feminist commitments from a variety of sources and then uses them as criteria according to which Foucault’s work can be measured as useful to feminists. First, Foucault’s ideas must be able to serve as a resource for political and social change to end the subordination of women. Second, his work needs to address the relationship between theory and practice. Third, it must be relevant to experience, and fourth, it must be accessible. At the end of her analysis McLaren supports the contributions Foucault makes to feminism, contending that “Foucault provides a notion of the subject that is useful to feminists, and that his account of social norms provides an important link between individual experience and social change.”1

The comments that I would like to offer for critical discussion are connected to Foucault’s account of social norms. Although I agree with McLaren’s reading of the value and importance of Foucault’s work for feminists, especially his later work on the care of the self, I am not as tolerant as she with the “tensions” in his work. I have two main critical points to discuss. The first concerns residual monolithic assumptions in Foucault’s analysis of social norms. The second is drawn from Kelly Oliver’s concerns about the inherent violence and aggression that is promoted by Foucault as a necessary aspect of a thriving self’s relations with others. For Foucault, the affirmation of the self is defined in its resistance to normativity, that is to say, in a struggle against the self’s bonds with others in a socially meaningful world.2 I would like to suggest that there are alternative ways of conceiving self-affirmation consistent with Foucault’s account of subjectivity as socially conditioned.

With regard to my first point, Foucault makes an important argument for the immanence of subjectivity, or what he also calls interiority. The very way in which we think and understand ourselves, our relations to others, our linguistically articulated knowledge of others, and of the world are all features and conditions of consciousness that arise, according to Foucault, as effects of specific social and historical forces. Subjectivity is inflected by hierarchal structures of symbolic power and socially conditioned bodily powers. Quoting Edward Said, Foucault “showed, in effect, that the existence of systems of thinking and perceiving transcend the powers of individual subjects, individual humans who were inside those systems . . . , and hence the individual cogito was displaced, or demoted, to the status of illusory autonomy or fiction.”3 If, however, Foucault is right, and his is an accurate description of the material conditions of human self-consciousness, it must also be true of Foucault’s consciousness. Although his descriptions of the history of sexuality and of the invention of the subject’s desire as an effect of prohibition, and his other genealogies are all informative, interesting and compelling, they are also relative to his perspective. There are other points of view, other ways of understanding the history of sexuality. There can be no closure on the histories to be told that provide compelling reasons why we have certain forms of life today. Foucault, however, does not always acknowledge the relative status of his own claims. His discussions of non-normalizing normativity, for example, give his monolithic viewpoint away.

Following Foucault, McLaren asserts that one important feminist project is to resist norms, particularly those norms that oppress women. The first task, however, is to recognize the norms, and the difficulty here is who gets to say what norms are operating in any particular situation. Furthermore, what criteria will determine the analysis? How do we know when the analysis has correctly identified the norms functioning in a particular situation? Is it possible for a Foucauldian analysis to be mistaken about the norms it identifies? If there is no universally objective, bird’s eye view of situations, if participants in social practices only understand their situations from the limited perspectives of their socially situated consciousnesses, then there can be no one “true” description of the norms operating in any situation. The various participants may not even agree about the norms that frame the situation as a particular kind of practice. Some examples mentioned in McLaren’s book will help to make my point more concrete.

There are debates in the history of feminism about the oppressive conditions in which women are homemakers and housewives. Not all women, however, experience these roles as oppressive. There are similar discussions of S & M practices, prostitution and strip-club dancing. Not all women experience these practices as disempowering. There are no clear ways to determine the effects of power that play out in these situations. As a critical theorist, it is important to ask whether one considers third person reports of power dynamics to be more reliable than first person reports. What are the reasons for privileging the perspectives of the cultural critic, anthropologist or genealogist? For what reasons might we want to privilege the participant’s first-person perspective, the self-understanding, for example, of a strip-club dancer or prostitute? The cultural critic needs to be careful here not to naturalize the norms that she sees defining particular practices.

To be fair, Dr. McLaren states that there is a tension in Foucault’s work when he discusses normativity and non-normalizing disciplinary practices.4 On the one hand, Foucault is suspicious of norms insofar as they oppressively normalize behavior. He also acknowledges, however, that not all social norms or all disciplinary practices normalize in the same way. Foucault is opposed to philosophical norms that are universal and ahistorical. Social norms, on the other hand, are cultural phenomena that prescribe behavior. “His objection to norms that impose universal principles does not indict social norms embedded in specific historical and cultural practices that are constitutive of social interaction.”5 McLaren then goes on to discuss the self-affirming, non-normalizing disciplinary practices that Foucault finds in the ancient Greeks.

It is precisely at this point that McLaren needs to say more about Foucault’s authority to identify these norms functioning in a culture’s practices other than his own. Why is Foucault in a privileged position to assess the norms of ancient Greek society? Is his understanding of these norms also historically conditioned? Surely Foucault’s particular scholarly interests are also social- embedded and theoretically invested. Foucault’s interpretation of the meanings and norms of Ancient Greek culture are given, however, in the same monolithic and objectivist tones as other historians and anthropologists, and for this reason the tensions in his work are problematic.

Why not be fully committed to a perspectival view of consciousness? Why not admit that one’s own claims are shaped by the material, social and historical forces that give rise to them as truths about the world, and of others? It might mean acknowledging the socially granted privilege of having a voice, of being dominant, of using effectively the various tools of rational persuasion including the discovery of evidence. My point here is not to disagree with the relativistic implications of Foucault’s explanation of subjectivity. My concern is with Foucault’s inconsistency. If one accepts that human self-consciousness is an effect of material, social and historical forces, then any and all claims that we make, including our descriptions of the norms that we believe structure our lives or the lives of others, are relative to our limited perspectives. I do not believe that Foucault acknowledges enough the relative status of his genealogies. And the omission is troubling.

I want to turn now to my second point, to suggest that violence and aggression are not always the best attitudes to cultivate in relation to the norms that structure our lives with others in the various social worlds that we inhabit. There are features of Foucault’s philosophy that are a little scary. McLaren acknowledges, for example, that Foucault views social relations as strategic and agonistic, and that he “suggests that we should analyze power relations in terms of struggle, conflict, or war.”6Although I agree that there are situations that call for combative strategies of resistance against dominant and domineering social norms, there may be reasons to take up other attitudes, such as compassion, sympathy, and love. These attitudes are not necessarily weak modes of self-care, or self-knowledge.

All social relations involve normative structures. Our bonds with others in the various communities in which we are participants unavoidably entail values, some of which we may find restrictive and oppressive. I want to suggest, nevertheless, that the gesture of resisting norms can be self-destructively anti-social.

There is a concept that has some currency in improvisational theater that is helpful when trying to understand the self-destructive aspects of Foucauldian strategies of resistance. It is the concept of blocking. An actor in an improvised scene begins by offering some line or action in response to which another actor is expected to develop the scene. To block is to reject the offering. It closes the scene down and quickly becomes frustrating. Here is a very simple example taken from Keith Johnstone’s book called Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre:

‘Hello, how are you.’
‘Oh, same as usual. Nice day isn’t it.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so.’7

Here is another example: an actor mimes wiping a table and clearing away cups and saucers. A second actor walks in and says, “Did you find a large black purse under this table?” The first actor replies, “this isn’t a table.”

In both these scenes one of the improvisers says “NO.” Their response is a form of aggression that blocks the development of action. Blocking occurs in improvisational theater when actors get scared, or embarrassed, or when they are worried about being original. The contrast with blocking is accepting. Here is an example of accepting from Johnstone’s book:

‘Sit down, Smith.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’
‘It’s about the wife, Smith.’
‘She told you about it has she, Sir?’
‘Yes, yes, she’s made a clean breast of it.’8

Johnstone tells us that neither actor in this improvised scene is quite sure what the scene is about but he’s willing to play along to see what emerges.9 Accepting involves saying ‘yes’ to the norms, values, concepts, ideas that constitute a scene as a recognizable scene. To block a scene is to stymie the flow of creativity. I am suggesting here that to maintain a constant state of resistance with all social norms similarly blocks the development of one’s own and other’s creative powers to be in a situation. To retool subjectivity within the conditions of human social existence requires some acceptance of social situations and the complexities of power dynamics. In other words, resistance isn’t always the best answer.

In her book, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, Kelly Oliver rejects the violence inherent in Foucault’s appeal to strategies of resistance on the basis of an understanding of social space provided by the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. She also considers what bell hooks and others have to say about love, even the hard case of loving one’s oppressors. Oliver sees the need to develop other strategies besides aggressive resistance if we are to promote social change. She questions the ontology of subjectivity wherein violence is conceived as the underlying force of self- assertion in social interaction.

In closing, I would like to suggest a reason why I believe that Oliver is on the right track and why the affirmation of love also works as a strategy of self-affirmation. I draw my account from the work of Merleau-Ponty. It relies on the existential fact that we are perceptually open to our lived worlds of experience. According to Merleau-Ponty, the norms that structure human experience arise not just because we share ideas and symbolic expressions, but also as a result of our bodily modalities of being in the world. When we communicate with another, we are responding and exchanging information using a number of different perceptual capacities. Our more bodily responses are often unconscious, not in the Freudian sense, but in a pre-reflective way. That is to say, the nature of human consciousness is such that it is structured by habitual patterns of perception. The term “perception” is understood here to refer not just to vision, but also to auditory and tactile sensations, our ability to taste and smell, our powers of mobility, our affects and emotions, all of which connect us to the world in specific ways. Our perceptual powers are both socially conditioned and dependent upon natural, species-specific bodily capacities that are endowed to particular human beings in unique ways. The habitual patterns of perception are the structures of experience that make possible knowledge of things in the world. They also bind us to those in our linguistic communities who have similar ways of knowing and understanding the world. However, because perception is not only structured by what is meaningful at an abstract, symbolic level, but also through our bodily ways of being in an environment and with others, therefore, new possibilities for knowledge arise as transformations in our habitual ways of perceiving. The ever- changing environments in which we live force us to renegotiate our familiar ways of interacting.

We may, of course, remain closed to new possibilities. In this case, we bring to bear on our lived situations the habits of thought and action that are most familiar. We rely on structures of perceptual knowledge that anticipate only certain kinds of results. Some features of the situation, and of others in the situation will, therefore, remain invisible to us. There are numerous reasons why we engage with others in this way. For example, such is the basis of professional training. We learn to engage with the world and with others through structures of experience acquired as the discipline of a practice. In some disciplines, like teaching, to deviate too much from established, institutionally recognized standards and modes of perception leaves one vulnerable to charges of eccentricity, or worse, liability. On the personal level, we may remain relatively fixed in our perceptions because of limitations in the time we have to spend with others, the roles we play in each other’s lives, personality differences with respect to risk-taking, and the need to establish comfortable personal boundaries. If our perceptions of others become too rigidly fixed it can be a sign of neurosis, or feelings of fear and uncertainty about the unknown. Intelligence, level of education and our particular perceptual abilities are also important factors contributing to our ability to be open to new ways of understanding others and the world.

What I am suggesting here is that social structures change by virtue of our interactions with others and with their differences. Violence and resistance are ways of forcing rupture in the familiar structures of institutional practices, but there are other possibilities by virtue of the fact that meaning in human existence is not just a result of repetitions of habituated structures of perception. It is sometimes unavoidably necessary to renegotiate our familiar ways of being in the world precisely because our perceptions are only partial, limited by our perspective and by the temporal nature of our existence. When we remember these humble conditions for our forms of knowledge, it should also remind us of the possibilities for new knowledge, for something new to happen, and for the differences evident when we listen to other people’s perspectives. It is for this reason that I believe that subjects are not re-iterated in identical ways through the effects of power or discourse. No one theorist has the singular authority to identify the norms that structure our social spaces.


Work Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Two Lectures.” Power/Knowledge. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper. New York: Pantheon Books. 1972.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Books. 1984.

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

Oliver, Kelly. Witnessing: Beyond Recognition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 2001.

Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia UP. 2004.

  1. Margaret McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (New York: SUNY Press, 2002): 17.
  2. See Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001).
  3. Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia UP, 2004): 9.
  4. McLaren 68.
  5. McLaren 68.
  6. McLaren 78. See Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge, tr. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972): 78 – 108.
  7. Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1984): 94
  8. Johnstone 95.
  9. Johnstone 95.

Suzanne Jaeger

Suzanne Jaeger is Assistant Professor of Humanities in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. She received her Ph.D. from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has published articles in Philosophy Today, Nursing Philosophy, Queen’s Quarterly, and Routledge Encylopedia of Feminist Philosophy. She is on a leave of absence from UCF for 2004-05, and teaching at York University, Toronto, Canada during this time.