Foucault and Feminism Redux
Dianna Taylor and Karen Vintges, Eds. Feminism and the Final Foucault
(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2004).
1. The last texts of Michel Foucault include explorations of Greek and Roman conceptions of "care of the self," parrhesiastic practices of truth-telling, and the cultivation of an "aesthetics of existence." Given the centrality of care, truth-telling (consciousness raising), and the practices of everyday life to feminist theory and politics, the "final Foucault" and feminism seem poised naturally to encounter one another. The collection edited by Taylor and Vintges brings the final works of Foucault into a predominately amicable conversation with feminist thought. Although several authors include caveats, the essays in this volume argue for the utility of Foucault's thought for feminism. Some essays, rather than arguing for the value of Foucault's work, simply embody it.
2. Many essays aim to retrieve Foucault as principally a political thinker and defend him against the well-rehearsed criticisms of feminists as well as other political theorists. Thus, this book not only addresses the concepts of the late Foucault, but endeavors to clear the ground of the heaps of negative commentary. Several of the authors aptly contest the dominant interpretation that Foucault's notion of power evacuates subjects of agency and that the absence of a robust normative dimension to his thought renders it useless to political theory. In addition, several authors articulate that freedom for Foucault, far from being the unencumbered action of a willing subject, becomes the negotiation of a vast constellation of power relationships. Rather than eliminating agency, they contend, such a notion of freedom presents a subject that is always necessarily both active and acted upon, both free and subjected, both produced and productive.
3. Several books and many articles have been written on Foucault and feminism since the late 1980s. As a feminist who has been reading Foucault appreciatively for the last ten years or so, I was not sure that I would discover anything new in this volume. Although the table of contents is populated by the usual suspects, reading the essays of feminist thinkers who have been living and thinking with Foucault's ideas for quite some time turned out to be what I most appreciated. By virtue of having dwelt in his thought and lived and worked through the problems posed by an encounter between feminism (and lesbian, gay, and queer thought and practice) and Foucault, the voices of Jana Sawicki and Ladelle McWhorter, for example, seem to have incorporated and transformed Foucault's ideas in relation to their own thinking and lives.
4. The real gem of this collection, which I would go as far as to call a beautiful essay, is "Practicing Practicing" by McWhorter. Precisely because she has struggled and conversed with Foucault at length in her work and life, her essay is not so much about Foucault as it is with Foucault. I confess that I had reservations about McWhorter's monograph Bodies and Pleasures, because I disagreed with some of the claims about Foucault. Presently, I am far less interested in contests of interpretation and am excited to witness her productive appropriation of Foucault's philosophy.
5. McWhorter thinks with Foucault in order to explore critically the kinds of self care feminism enables and encourages. McWhorter understands Foucault to be "developing an alternative conception of what philosophical work might be" (143), and it is clear that she aims to enact and expand such an alternative herself. The result is neither a perfectly honed argument nor an irrefutable exegesis, but rather a public tarrying with the consequences of incorporating certain ideas into one's lived existence. The result is an essay that embodies precisely what it identifies as a hope for the notion of "woman." McWhorter notes that, if she is to remain a feminist, she might "learn to think woman not as a category of human being, not as an identity, but as the name of a locus of creative formation" (156). Since her essay exhibits just such a creative formation, I suspect that not only will she be able to continue to be a feminist but she will reveal and model "an alternative conception of what [feminist] work might be."
6. In a different vein, Judith Butler's essay, rather than thinking with him, makes Foucault think with her. Butler treats Foucault's notion of a body as a persistent "passion," a nexus of attachments, and a desire to transmute the norms of recognition. An extremely interesting essay, it reveals far more about Butler's recent thinking than the final (or, more likely, middle) Foucault.
7. Several essays take up Foucault in relation to particular issues and practices such as the therapeutic environment of Alcoholics Anonymous (Valverde), gay marriage (Sawicki), and identity politics (Hekman). Others bring a Foucauldian analysis to bear upon the lives of women thinkers of the past. Most essays treat Foucault in relationship to broad concerns of feminist thought. One essay even addresses the events of September 11 (Taylor). Ultimately, the collection is quite diverse, even if most authors share a high estimation of the possibilities for a vital relationship between Foucault and feminism.
8. If I have any criticism of the text as a whole, it is that no one adequately analyzes the nature of Foucault's final works. Some authors seem to proceed as if Foucault's analysis of Greek and Roman practices of self care convey prescriptions for contemporary life. Although most note that Foucault uproots these historical practices and endeavors to account for them in their peculiarity, they continue to refer to "Foucault's concept" of self formation and care. It is not clear to me that Foucault ever advances his own understanding of self care, and it is even less clear to me that he prescribes such concepts or practices to his modern readers. Indeed, the final Foucault, like most of his oeuvre, cannot be understood as a program for the present any more than it can be understood as a metaphysical account of human nature.
9. The late texts offer alternative portraits of ways of being in effort to cast a different light upon the present. Yet, the function of such alternatives is not obvious. If the historical alternatives do not present a model that we might simply imitate, what do they make possible? In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault famously describes the aim of his studies: "The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one's own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently" (9). The liberation of thought from the sedimentation of habit and the blinders of the present is not the transplantation of thought into another era. If the illumination of other ways of being and thinking is not tantamount to philosophy as "choose your own adventure," what kind of work does the adumbration of the present by the past perform? More specifically, what does an examination of the historical practices of elite Greek and Roman men do for feminism? Precisely how to read, use, and understand the last works that undertake a "history of systems of thought" remains under-theorized in this collection (and elsewhere).
10. Nevertheless, many essays do a wonderful job of putting Foucauldian concepts to work so as to think through various feminist questions and problems. In fact, some examples of the use of Foucault are so inspiring that I expect not only to re-read them but also to live with them.
Hasana Sharp is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. She has published articles on Althusser, Foucault, and Spinoza in journals such as Rethinking Marxism and International Studies in Philosophy.
© borderlands ejournal 2005