Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999
Panopticism and Shame:
Foucault trough Beauvoir
The best of what "postmodern feminism"
has so far developed is a series of radical glosses on Simone de Beauvoir's now
classic starting point: "one is not born a woman: one becomes one."
For, like the work of Beauvoir, postmodern approaches enable us to
de-essentialize and de-naturalize the concept of "woman."
In particular, creative appropriations of Foucault's genealogical methods
have enabled feminist scholars to explore the ways in which representations of
"woman" have shifted over time. His insights into the inseparability
of power and knowledge, and his explorations of the disciplinary practices that
produce "subjectified" subjects, have also made his methods a valuable
resource for a wide range of feminist analyses of women's subordination.
But there are also difficulties for feminism and other emancipatory
movements in appropriating Foucault too fully or too uncritically.
In reading Foucault both through and against Beauvoir in this paper, I
seek to illuminate and address some of these difficulties. By pointing not only
to the divergences but also to the striking complementarities between the two
thinkers, I aim to challenge views of Beauvoir and Foucault as advocates,
respectively, of "Enlightenment" and "postEnlightenment"
philosophies that are starkly antithetical.
For the binary oppositions between Enlightenment and postEnlightenment
thought, between modernity and postmodernity, that too many protagonists on
either "side" of recent debates have accepted, are themselves highly
More specifically, I argue
that Foucault's insightful account of the production of "subjectified"
subjects is, as it stands, still inadequate and incomplete. It either remains at
the level of description or else, at
an explanatory level, falls into a version of crude functionalism. In reading
Foucault through the lenses of Beauvoir we can find means more adequately to
explain what Foucault describes. I also argue that reading Foucault through
Beauvoir enables us to reintroduce into his analyses notions of personal agency
and moral accountability that remain important for any project of emancipatory
politics. Foucault claims to deny the importance of such notions, yet his work
still tacitly presupposes them. Beauvoir's
concern with the ethical aspects of subjectification can be used to bring both
greater intellectual coherence and explicit moral import to Foucault's work.
Foucault's work is, of course, far from
monolithic. In what follows I am concerned with the Foucault of the
mid-1970s; that is, the Foucault whose focus is less on the "care" of
the self than on the anatomo-political production of the self.
For this is the Foucault with whom feminist theory has most pervasively
engaged: the Foucault of Discipline and Punish [French 1975], the first volume of The
History of Sexuality [French 1976], and the essays published in English in Power/Knowledge
(1980), a thinker whose focus is on the inseparability of power and knowledge,
and on their constitutive role in the production of the subjectified subject
through disciplinary and normalizing practices. This is a Foucault for whom
subjectivity is so thoroughly produced "from the outside in" (Grosz
1994), by the micro-practices of power, that to ask questions about the degree
to which freedom or moral capacity might be attributes of subjecthood appears
It is also the Foucault whose work has a distinctly functionalist, even a
teleological, cast insofar as disciplinary practices are said to take on
purposive attributes that have traditionally been ascribed to the individuated
human subject. Discipline is frequently personified or anthropomorphized. It
knows what it is doing; it acts in an intentional, goal-oriented, rational
manner, to perform necessary social functions.
For example, Foucault writes: "discipline
had to solve a number of problems for
which the old economy of power was not equipped . . .
it arrests or regulates
movements; it clears up confusion
. . . It must also master all
forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organized multiplicity; it
must neutralize the effects of counter-power that spring from them and which
form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it" (1977a: 219;
This is not to deny that one can still find reflections on freedom in
Foucault's work; but freedom is not an attribute of the subject, or of
individual agents. Rather, freedom
is cast as the "insurrection" of subjugated knowledges (1980: 84), or
as the emergence of "transgressive" discourse that has purpose of its
own: transgression too has agency, but
no specific authors. One might talk
not only of a history without a subject, or of a text without a subject, but
also of agency and freedom without a subject.
As with discipline, Foucault personifies transgression, attributing to it
intentional agency, rather than attributing such agency to persons.
He writes, for example, that "transgression does not seek to oppose
one thing to another . . . . its role is to measure the excessive distance that
it opens at the heart of the limit and to trace the flashing line that causes
the limit to arise," (1977b: 35)
"What difference does it make who is speaking?" In his essay,
"What Is an Author?" Foucault suggests that the notion of individual
authorship emerged at a particular moment in the history of ideas: a moment when
"individualization" came to be privileged. That moment, he argues, has
now passed: "it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) of
its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex
function of discourse" ( 1984: 118).
The issue of authorship, then, is part of a wider debate about the status
of "the subject," about whether human actors are knowing and
volitional subjects, and about freedom. But above all, for Foucault (and here we
must focus on his particularity) "the subject" in question is the
subject of French phenomenology. For there is (to psychologize in a way he would
have detested) something obsessive in Foucault's relationship to phenomenology:
the Sartrean Father has to be killed over and over again. Long after we might
have thought phenomenology to be dead in France, Foucault continued to feel the
necessity repeatedly to exterminate it. For example, in a 1977 interview he
I don't believe the problem can be resolved by historicizing the subject,
as posited by the phenomenologists, fabricating a subject that evolves through
the course of history. One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get
rid of the subject itself, that's to say, to arrive at an analysis which can
account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework . . .
genealogy . . . is a form of history which can account for the constitution of
knowledges, discourses, domains of objects etc., without having to make
reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field
of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of
history (1980: 117).
This statement opposes as stark alternatives, on the one hand a
conception of the subject as "constituent" (or constituting) and
as "transcendental" to history, that is, unsituated; on the
other a conception of the subject as constituted and to be analyzed (through
genealogy) as no more than an "effect"
of its historical framework. In it we find posed those overly simple dualities,
between humanism and anti-humanism, between "Enlightenment" and
"postmodernity," that we
need to put into question. For in
order to account (with Foucault) for the weight of social structures, discourses
and practices in the formation of
the subject, and yet still to acknowledge (against Foucault) that element of
freedom which enables us also to
consider the self as a particular and intentional agent that is to some degree
responsible for what it does, we need a far more complex account of the subject
than Foucault would appear to grant us.
It is with this in mind that I return to Beauvoir and read Foucault
through and against her. For much of her painstaking and detailed account in The
Second Sex of the young girl's formation
and the perpetuation of "femininity" could be re‑told in the
Foucauldian modes of "the political
technology of the body," of "discipline," of
"normalization," and of "panopticism." Yet Beauvoir still
adheres to a notion of the repression
of freedom that Foucault would not endorse.
However suppressed, however "disciplined,"
it is still freedom‑made‑immanent that
distinguishes even the most constituted human subject from a trained
animal. A real repression or oppression of the self is always possible
for Beauvoir. For Foucault at least as he expressly presents his position
this is not the case. I will
pursue this divergence primarily through the notion of "panopticism,"
of the place of the gaze or look in producing docility, as Foucault and Beauvoir
respectively treat it. For
Beauvoir, "becoming a woman" also involves subjectification through
what Foucault will call panoptic practices. But to understand this process of
"becoming" we must also explore the ways in which subjectification is
lived and taken up by the subject, be it in modes of complicity, of resistance,
or both. This "lived" aspect of subjectification cannot be accessed
through Foucault's explicit framework of analysis yet, I suggest, his own
analyses actually require that we acknowledge and consider it.
Panopticism is, according to Foucault, the quintessential form of the
method of "hierarchical observation" that is integral to much
disciplinary power. It is a mechanism "in which the techniques that make it
possible to see induce effects of power" (1977a: 170-71). It is a crucial
(though certainly not the sole) component of those modern disciplinary practices
which produce the normalized subject, both in formal disciplinary institutions
and beyond. In Bentham's ideal prison, in
which each isolated inmate lives
and knows himself to live under
continual inspection from the all-seeing (but anonymous) eye of the guard, the
major effect of the Panopticon is "to induce in the inmate a state of
conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of
power" (1977a: 210). Interiorizing the scrutinizing gaze to which he (or
she) is subjected, the inmate becomes effectively (and efficiently)
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes
responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he
simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own
subjection. (1977a: 202-03; emphases added)
Panopticism is not confined to particular institutions, such as the
prison or the asylum. On the contrary, Foucault conceives it to be a general
"modality of power" in normalizing societies such as ours. Moreover,
women are subject to (and subjects of) what Foucault refers to as "the
minute disciplines, the panopticisms of every day" (1977a: 223), in a
particularly all-encompassing and complex manner that he does not himself
explore. Indeed, Beauvoir's account of how one "becomes a woman"
intriguingly anticipates Foucault's later account of panopticism. As she
describes it, becoming a woman requires developing an awareness of one's
"permanent visibility," learning
continually to view oneself through the eyes of the generalized (male)
inspecting gaze and, in so doing, taking up as one's own project those
"constraints of power" that femininity entails. But becoming a woman
is, for Beauvoir, still an intentional process, even though it is enacted within
the constraints of power. Thus
questions that Foucault leaves hanging in mid-air, concerning how
this modality of power functions, are more adequately addressed by Beauvoir.
Foucault is (to put it politely) sometimes a slippery thinker. His previously cited claim, that we need "to get rid of
the subject itself," and his affirmations that the subject comes into being
as simply the effect of power, are tacitly put into question by passages such as
the one I just quoted from Discipline and
Punish. Such passages imply something else: an active, even, one could
argue, a quasi-constituting, subject; a conscious subject who "knows"
that he is visible; one who "assumes responsibility" for the effects
of power on himself, and who is active in playing "both roles," that
of scrutinizer and scrutinized. But just how and why does the panoptic gaze
induce such an active compliance? It is not clear. "Just a gaze,"
Foucault says. "An inspecting
gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the
point that he is his own overseer, each individual exercising this surveillance
over, and against, himself" (1980: 155). But how and why does an individual
interiorize the gaze? What kind of subjectivity is capable of such an
interiorization? Or most
importantly of resisting it? For,
as Foucault acknowledges, there has also been "effective resistance"
to various forms of panoptic scrutiny (1980: 162).
But while Foucault's own analyses actually call for an account of the
subject as both constituted and constituting, as playing "both roles,"
his concern to distance himself from his phenomenological fathers
precluded him from acknowledging this. Thus his explicit pronouncements, that
"the subject" is produced through panoptic and other disciplinary
"subjectifying" practices, and the implicit presuppositions of his
account come to be at odds with each other. Foucault claims that, "power
relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on
the mediation of the subject's own representations. If power takes hold of the
body, this isn't through its having first to be interiorised in people's
consciousnesses" (1980: 186). Yet, we have seen, panoptic power does
have to be interiorized in a way that engages consciousness; and if its
interiorization can be resisted this implies also that, in some manner and to
some degree, individuals may choose how to respond to it.
Resistance cannot be explained solely as the result of the
self-functioning of transgressive discourses, or of the deployment of subjugated
knowledges (though it might be incited or invited by these). On the contrary, it
also involves individual responses that imply some play of intentional
consciousness, even of what we might call freedom.
Foucault reverses traditional forms of mind-body dualism by privileging
the body as the site of the formation of the self, yet he is still caught up in
this dualism. If the interiorization of power takes place through "the
body," then it can of course bypass that allegedly distinct entity
called "consciousness." But if, with Beauvoir (who here draws on
Merleau-Ponty) we insist that the body is not
distinct from consciousness but rather is the site of their interconstituency, and the site of a sentient and
intentional relation to the world, then the modalities through which we
interiorize and/or resist the panoptic gaze can be explored more adequately.
Judith Butler has suggested that there are ways in which "the
body" comes to be a substitute and an inadequate one at that for
the psyche in Foucault's theories (1997: 94). She rightly argues that Foucault
leaves us with the problem of how to understand "not merely the
disciplinary production of the subject, but the disciplinary cultivation of an attachment to subjection " in the modern self (1997: 102).
Butler turns to a psychoanalytic framework to address this problem,
but in what follows I offer an alternate route. I return to Beauvoir and
to her phenomenological explorations of the look, or gaze, in order further to
examine some of the issues of complicity and resistance to power that Foucault
implicitly raises yet never adequately addresses.
In Foucault's general
discussions of power of power as capillary and circulating normalization
proceeds through panoptical and other disciplinary practices in which, as
subjectified subjects, as both the effects of power and the bearers of power, we
are all implicated. As he puts it, "power is employed and exercised through
a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its
threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and
exercising power . . . The individual . . . is not the vis-ΰ-vis
of power; it is I believe, one of its prime effects" (1980: 98).
However, in discussing the generalized masculine gaze, under and through
which women become and remain women, Beauvoir suggests that men and women are
not subjected to the same forms of power, nor subjected to power to the same
degree. At one level Beauvoir agrees with Foucault: the generalized power of men
over women is possessed by no specific individual. Thus, she points out, an
individual man who wishes to cease participating in the privileges of masculine
power finds that he cannot withdraw from it; it is not his to renounce.
"It is useless to apportion blame and excuse . . . a man could not
prevent himself from being a man. So there he is, guilty in spite of himself and
burdened by this fault he did not himself commit" (1989: 723; cited
in the text hereafter as TSS).
Even so, men and women, as socially distinct groups, are differently
positioned within generalized networks of power in ways that Foucault does not
recognize. Furthermore, as Beauvoir sees very clearly, their differential
positionings may easily permit the actual "possession" of power by a
particular man over a particular woman. In Beauvoir's France the marriage
contract still brought into being a form of "sovereign" power, in
which a husband unambiguously controlled his wife's finances, domicile, access
to her children, and so on. Beauvoir was acutely aware of the significance of
what we might call the institutional dimensions of masculine power, as they
mutually enabled and reinforced those more diffuse forms of power that Foucault
describes as disciplinary or normalizing. For
it was not the case that "power [was] no longer substantially identified
with an individual who possesses or exercises it by right of birth"
(Foucault 1980: 156). On the contrary, in marriage, right of birth alone still
conferred juridical grants of "sovereign" power to husbands in
Beauvoir's world. Although such power does not formally exist today, at least in
most Western liberal democracies, the institutional dimensions of continuing
masculine privilege should not be underestimated.
If we are to understand women's complicity in sustaining those
normalizing practices through which their subordinating "femininity"
is perpetuated, we will need also to look at juridical, economic, and other
institutional arrangements in which women find themselves located. For these
often still produce de facto
relationships of personal privilege and dependency that make compliance a
rational survival strategy for many women.
We will need also to look at the ways in which women become invested in
their femininity, not only as a material survival strategy but as a mode of
lived experience that is integral to the self. It is in exploring the less
calculating ways in which women become invested in their femininity that
Beauvoir allows us to examine also "from the inside out" (Grosz 1994)
Foucault's account of the disciplinarily constituted subject. When discussing
the Panopticon, Foucault writes, "we are talking of two things here: the
gaze and interiorisation" (1980: 154). However, he does not ever explain
how the latter, the interiorization of the gaze, is effected. Nor does he show
how it brings into being the complicity of the self-surveilling subject; nor
(more generally) does he reveal how the continuous and minute disciplining of
the body that he describes produces its correlative "soul."
It is, on reflection, quite remarkable that in the three hundred or so
pages of Discipline and Punish we get
absolutely no sense of what it feels
like to be subjected to the panoptical gaze; nor any sense of the experiential
dimension of becoming a self-surveilling "subject" of panopticism.
Foucault's disciplinary subjects do not appear to feel fear, anxiety,
frustration, unhappiness. Such emotions, not to mention pain, are strikingly
absent from his account. It is here
that Beauvoir's analysis adds another necessary dimension to Foucault's. We do
not need to posit a Cartesian knowing subject, or a pure constituting
consciousness to understand how the
practices of power are taken up, or interiorized, by an individual self or
"soul" that may inflect, deflect, accept, or resist them in
multiple and idiosyncratic ways. However,
we do need to posit a subject that is active and intentional to some degree.
Beauvoir's account of an embodied and situated subject, a subject that
while never being an absolute freedom or pure consciousness, has a view-point on
the world and an intentional relationship with it, offers us what Foucault
Beauvoir's account of women's diverse interiorizations of the male gaze
involves a creative reworking of Sartre's phenomenology of "the look"
in Being and Nothingness.
For Sartre, another's look is always experienced as a threat. For to be
seen by another is to become an object in his world; and to be aware of myself
as being seen by another is to be aware of myself as object-like. The look is
thus always experienced as an assault on my freedom: on my ability to define for
myself the meaning of my situation.
However, for Sartre, I am always free to reaffirm my status as a subject
by turning the tables on the Other, by in turn looking at him.
I have argued elsewhere (Kruks 1990: 83-112) that Beauvoir radically
modifies Sartre's account of self-other relations by insisting that, where there
are relations of social equality, objectification can be superseded by forms of
mutually validating "reciprocity" (TSS xxiii). The look can be a means
of expressing friendship or love, of
sharing, of validating another: it can, in short, be intersubjective, rather
than objectifying. However,
in those formal institutions that Foucault characterizes as panoptical the
prison, the asylum, the school, the army parade-ground, etc.
surveillor and surveilled are not equally positioned, and the look thus
functions irreversibly to objectify. Indeed, in Bentham's design for the
Panopticon it is essential that the inmates are illuminated and visible to the
inspecting gaze of the guard or overseer, but that he is not equally visible to
them. Similarly, those assembled
for inspection, such as soldiers on the parade ground, may not look back at
those who inspect them.
To be subjected to a gaze that one cannot reciprocally return is, indeed,
to experience objectification, or an alienation of one's subjectivity. I
experience a loss of my immediate, lived subjecthood as I become fixed or
immobilized in my own eyes as the
object that I am (or believe myself to be) in the eyes of the one who looks at
me. However, this experience is not by
itself sufficient to account for the production of docility and of compliant
self-surveillance that Foucault attributes to the power of the Panoptic gaze.
What is also essential here is what Sartre and Beauvoir call
"shame": a relation to oneself, in the presence of another, in which
one evaluates oneself negatively
through the look of the other. Sartre
begins his discussion of shame in Being
and Nothingness with the well-known example of hearing somebody else
approaching while, "moved by jealously, curiosity, or vice," I am
peeping through a key-hole ( 1956: 259). The experience of shame in being
"caught" in such a circumstance involves not only seeing myself as the
object that the other sees, but seeing myself as the other will judge
me: as reprehensible, faulty, inferior. Moreover, I do not just feel shame of my
act, but of my self. For suddenly I am
as I am seen to be: "shame . . . is shame of self;
it is the recognition of the fact that
I am indeed that object which the
Other is looking at and judging" ( 1956: 261). Here, we have an initial account of how the power-effect of
the look, which Foucault only observes, actually operates. We see how, in
interiorizing the shaming look, I become not only the object of my own
surveillance but also the judge of myself.
But Sartre's account of shame calls out for further elaboration which
Beauvoir offers in her descriptions of feminine experience. First, I can come to
feel shame by virtue of such facticities as my bodily characteristics or my
social status without having engaged in any specific act. I may judge myself to
be ugly, for example, if my body does not conform to the norms of beauty in my
society. Or, if I am a member of a class of people, such as women, that is
deemed to be socially inferior, I may judge myself to be inferior.
Second, although I may come to judge myself through the look of a single
individual, as in Sartre's example, I may also do so through an impersonal or
anonymous, an entirely non-specific, or even in the long run absent, Other. In
the panoptical institutions that Foucault describes, the look is impersonal but
presumed present: continuous scrutiny on the part of designated officials is
part of the disciplinary regime. But in other instances, the look is generalized
or non-specific; "they," "others," "society,"
judge certain of my characteristics to be signs of my inferiority.
And, in its most strongly interiorized forms, the look may become so
integral to the self that it functions in a situation of total privacy as when a
woman carefully applies her make-up even if she intends to stay at home on her
own the whole day and will be "seen" by absolutely nobody but herself.
In these latter cases we might appear to return to notions of panoptical power
as circulating and capillary, to Foucault's "minute disciplines, the
panopticisms of everyday," in which nobody possesses power. Yet, when we
come to look more closely, contra
Foucault and as Beauvoir realizes, some
are more disciplined, more normalized, and less powerful than others among
Woman, as Beauvoir depicts her, is not just man's Other, she is his inferior
Other: "The relation of the two sexes is not like that of two electrical
poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, so that in French
[as in English] one says "men" to designate human beings . . . He is the Subject, he is the Absolute she is the
Other" (TSS xxi). Whereas Sartre argues that by returning the look one can
always turn the tables on the Other, Beauvoir suggests that what distinguishes
the situation of woman is precisely her inability
to do so. "No subject,"
she observes, "immediately and voluntarily affirms itself as the
inessential," thus the question is "from whence comes this submission
in women?" (TSS xxiv).
In answering this question Beauvoir offers us a series of descriptions of
how women come to exist in the mode of inferiority and to subsume it into forms
of subjectified feminine subjectivity. If
"not every female human being is necessarily a woman" (TSS xix), then
we need to grasp the processes through which "one becomes one" as not
only the exercise of power upon and its transmission through the subject, but
also as it is interiorized, taken up, and lived. It is here that the panopticisms of daily life and the
"interior" experiences of shame they induce are crucial.
Beauvoir begins by describing the multitude of small disciplines to which
female children are often subjected and
which still today induce passivity, timidity, and physical self-constraint.
But she suggests that it at puberty that more profound experiences of
shame usually begin. At that time, a girl often becomes the object of stares,
whistles, derogatory remarks on the street (and at school in coeducational
systems) and, simultaneously, is required to hide from view the newly acquired
"secret" of menstruation. In the experience of menstruation
(at least in Western society) a young woman's profound sense of herself
as not only the Other but as the inferior Other is dramatically discovered. She
must ensure that she does not appear soiled in public; must learn discreetly to
dispose of bloodied pads, tampons and clothing; is warned that she might give
away her "condition" by the smell of menstrual blood should she not
keep herself sufficiently clean.
In such ways, a young woman learns how to develop those practices of
self-surveillance and self-discipline that Foucault attributes to the panoptic
gaze. But they are not the direct
effect of the gaze itself, so much as of the shame with which it forces her to
see "herself." Shame, as
what we might call a primary structure of a woman's lived experience, extends
far beyond her relationship to menstruation, and it becomes integral to a
generalized sense of inferiority of the feminine body-subject. A woman, Beauvoir
writes, "is her
body; but her body is something other than herself" (TSS
As Beauvoir's account of women's lived experience proceeds, from early
childhood, through girlhood, sexual initiation, marriage, childbirth, and
motherhood, toward old-age, shame remains a primary structure of experience.
Shame of an embodied self that is always marked as inferior, as defective, is
instrumental to women's participation in the multitude of minute daily practices
that induce docility and reproduce forms of normalized feminine behavior.
Nor does the woman who resists, the would-be "independent"
woman whom Beauvoir describes in the final section of The
Second Sex, escape from it.
On the contrary, Beauvoir
points out, the would-be independent woman lives her femininity as a painful
contradiction. Brought up (as most girls still are today) to see herself through
the male gaze, enjoined to passivity, and to make herself desirable to man,
she is her femininity. Her
being-for-others is profoundly gendered. This is not a facticity that can be
ignored, since it thoroughly permeates her being-for-herself. She cannot
renounce her femininity, for it is constitutive of her selfhood even as it
undercuts her struggle for self-affirmation. The "independent" woman
thus lives divided against herself even more starkly than the woman who more
fully accepts traditional feminine roles.
Moreover, because Woman is not merely man's Other, but an inferior Other,
Beauvoir is keenly aware that individual solutions are not fully realizable.
This is not to say that individual women should cease to mount a personal
challenge to normalizing femininity. But in challenging it they will disclose
the radical inequality of their situation and encounter the limits to what can
be individually achieved. Beauvoir is far from affirming the untrammelled
capacity for freedom, or "transcendence," of which she is often
accused. On the contrary, she would agree with Foucault that it is through
subjection to disciplinary and normalizing practices that subjectivity comes
into being. The feminine subject cannot simply shed her femininity, for there is
no "inner" subject that can, in absolute freedom, transcend its body
and its situation; there is no pure constituting consciousness.
But to acknowledge this is not to deny all freedom to the subject.
For most women, a range of choices are still open as to how
one interiorizes, assumes, and lives normalized femininity. Thus, issues of
personal agency, ethics, and responsibility, that cannot consistently be posed
within Foucault's explicit framework, emerge
as central for Beauvoir.
Beauvoir posits a continuum of situations. At one end of the continuum,
she offers an account of the subject that could be re-cast in Foucault's
starkest terms. She talks of the woman who lives in a situation of such extreme
subjection that freedom is made immanent, is no more than a suppressed
potentiality. Here a woman is so
thoroughly her situation, so
thoroughly its product, that no effective choice as to how it is to be lived is
possible. Such a woman is, as Foucault had put it, a constituted,
not a constituting subject (1980:
But while immanence marks one end of a continuum of theoretically
possible situations, it is doubtful if many women actually live in such a
condition. At the other end of the
continuum is the "independent" woman, who struggles doggedly against
the constraints of her situation and in so doing reveals the impossibility of
fully transcending it. Most women, however, live neither in total immanence nor
in a mode of continuous revolt. They live somewhere between, embracing various
modes of complicity, compromise, or resistance, each of which has both rewards
and costs attached to them. Here we return, with Beauvoir, to those issues of
complicity with subjection; and to those questions of individual resistance that
Foucault's account of subjectification tacitly poses but does not adequately
Near the end of The Second Sex
Beauvoir observes that men find in women "more complicity than the
oppressor usually finds in the oppressed" (TSS
721). The term "complicity" for Beauvoir connotes a moral
register, absent in Foucault's account of the subject's "compliance"
in disciplinary power. What both Beauvoir and Foucault share is the insight that
the subject of disciplinary power actively participates in it: power is not
unidirectional, nor simply top-down. We
have already seen that Beauvoir accounts more fully than Foucault for how,
through self-objectification and shame, disciplinary power is internalized so
that its subject comes also to be its agent. But, beyond the 'how,' there are
also questions of 'why.' For Beauvoir also suggests that in many instances
complicity could be more fully resisted. The subjectified subject, which takes
up those practices of power through which it is both constituted and
self-constituting, still enjoys a degree of freedom as to how it assumes them.
Here, ethical issues begin to arise: for if the subject enjoys a degree
of freedom, complicity is not just a fact to be described, but a choice, a
project, that is open to moral evaluation. It is a matter of what, following
Sartre, Beauvoir will call "bad faith," "flight," or the
choice of "inauthenticity."
After decades of popular self-help manuals, the term
"authenticity" often connotes today a highly psychologized notion of
the search for "inner meaning" or the quest to get in contact with one's "real self."
But for Beauvoir as for Foucault there is no real or inner self
"there" to be discovered. Rather,
what is at issue here is the choice of an ethical stance in the face of one's
situation and its facticities. In inauthenticity, a woman affirms her selfhood
to be constituted by exterior conditions and forces even when this is not wholly
the case. The "bad faith," or self-deception, lies in the fact that
one is still making choices and
exercising a degree of freedom, while claiming to be unable to do so. For (very
rare circumstances apart), one is not free not to choose how one takes up one's
situation. To "become a woman" is not to be sculpted by exterior
forces like a lump of clay. To claim an analogously inert status, to claim that
one is "constituted" through and through, is in bad faith to flee
Beauvoir thus insists that, however constrained our situation, we can
almost always still take it up in different ways, and that we must accept
responsibility for our own choices and values.
Today, few Western women fit the details of Beauvoir's outdated portrait
of the inauthentic housewife in The Second
Sex. Yet surprisingly many of
her insights remain pertinent. Self-abnegation and denial; deference to the
opinions of others and failure to assert one's own; limiting one's goals and
ambitions, particularly to fit in with those of a lover or husband or child: all
of these typically "feminine" forms of behavior still endure among a
diverse range of women today. They can, of course, often be explained as
rational, even self-interested, strategies on the part of those who are still,
to a significant degree, economically dependent on men. In Foucauldean vein, one can also account for them as
strictly the effects of those disciplinary and normalizing practices through
which women are constituted as subjects. But if neither explanation is wrong,
neither is by itself adequate. For "feminine" behavior is more than
either a calculated strategy or a discursively produced effect. It is more than
a strategy because being a woman is not an identity that an "inner"
self could pick up or shed at will. It is more than a discursive effect because
it is interiorized and taken up in ways that are both constrained and yet still
indeterminate, and open to moral evaluation.
It is from this indeterminacy that feminism, as a political project,
begins. It must start by recognizing the existence of that margin of freedom
that enables us to struggle against our complicity in subordinating and
subjectifying practices as
well, of course, as to struggle against the institutional dimensions of
subordination, such as legal lack of control over our own bodies, or unequal
pay. Beauvoir's message is clear: feminism must not be shy to affirm its values,
for any emancipatory project implies an ethical stance. And, indeed, given even
the smallest margin of freedom, we cannot avoid affirming values in all that we
do. To deny this is to act in bad faith, and lay claim to an irresponsibility we
do not enjoy.
It is also true, of course, that no emancipatory project is entirely
innocent. As Foucault has so clearly pointed out, all claims to truth, or
affirmations of values, are also productive of power effects.
However, this does not mean that we should endeavor not to affirm our own
values lest, in the name of truth, we become yet further complicit with power.
On the contrary, the better
safeguard is to make explicit the values implied by our actions, while also
recognizing our responsibility for the power effects they produce.
Thus to write, with Foucault, "to have no face," to insist that
there are not authors (be it of texts or of deeds),
to attribute to disciplinary practices their own purposes and
intentionality, and to claim that each of us is equally constituted by a power
that none possesses, amounts finally to a flight into the self-delusional and
irresponsible world of bad faith. To
conclude, Foucault offers us a new version of "the temptation to flee
freedom and constitute oneself a thing" (TSS xxvii) a temptation we
should resist, even as we continue to draw on his rich insights into the
operations of power and subjectification.
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. I use this term somewhat reluctantly since it can cover such a diversity of positions. However, it does connote an intellectual style and a cluster of loosly shared assumptions and, given also its extensive utilization within feminist (and other social) theory, it seems necessary to employ it.
. The most sustained attempt to date to extract a theory of freedom from Foucault is perhaps Dumm's. Dumm makes a strong case that Foucault effectively challenges the "liberal" notion of the "democratic individual" as "the exclusive site of freedom" (1996: 5). However, his work does not explore issues of freedom raised by an alternative conception of the self, such as Beauvoir's, that does not neatly correspond with the liberal model.
. Moreover the embarrassing evidence of Foucault's own youthful embrace of phenomenology has to be deliberately expunged from the author's presentation of his "work." Thus, in an interview published as late as 1983 (the year prior to his death) Foucault referred to Madness and Civilization as his "first" book ( 1988: 23). In doing so this man, who claimed he wrote "to have no face" ( 1972: 17), deliberately (mis)presented his "work" so as to exclude from it his earliest, and still phenomenologically-influenced, book Mental Illness and Psychology ( 1976).
. Thus James Miller observes, in the Preface to his account of Foucault's life and work, that (perhaps contra Foucault himself) "I was forced to ascribe to Foucault a persistent and purposeful self, inhabiting one and the same body throughout his mortal life, more or less consistently accounting for his actions and attitudes to others as well as himself, and understanding his life as a teleologically structured quest" (Miller 1993: 7).
. The English translator of The Second Sex, H.M.Parshley, has unfortunately translated Beauvoir's chapter heading, "Formation," as "The Formative Years," thus weakening the notion of an active production of the self implied by the French term.
. These relationships may sometimes give rise to the quite explicit interests that certain women have in complying with the norms of femininity. For example, for a dependent or low-earning housewife, the economic costs of a broken marriage that might result from resistant behavior can be catastrophic. Likewise, the refusal docilely to submit to forms of sexual harassment by a male superior at work can jeopardize many a woman's career. In some instances, contra Foucault, we may reasonably posit a woman as an interest-maximizing agent, in order to account for her complicity in her own continued personal subordination.
. It is, I think, this omission that Nancy Hartsock has in mind when she observes (following Edward Said) that Foucault is "with power" rather than against it (1996: 36).
. The French, "le regard," has conventionally been rendered as "the look" in Sartre translations and scholarship, and as "the gaze" in the case of Foucault. While the two terms carry different resonances in English, these are the function of translation processes, and would not be present for French readers.
. Frantz Fanon also powerfully developed Sartre's account of shame, to explore the lived experiences of black embodiment in a predominantly white society ( 1967). I discuss Fanon's relationship to Sartre more fully in Kruks 1996.
. Although girls from most social strata in the USA today are less constrained than were the middle class women of Beauvoir's France, Beauvoir's observations generally still appear to hold. Iris Young has discussed a range of studies that show that girls (and women) still fail to extend their bodies, or to occupy space as fully as boys do; they throw, sit, walk, and carry things in typically timid and constricted "feminine" modalities. Young suggests that these are not merely different from masculine modalities, but are indicative of women's oppression: "Women in sexist society are physically handicapped. Insofar as we learn to live out our existence in accordance with the definition that patriarchal culture assigns to us, we are physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified" (Young 1990: 153).
. An astounding number of products are aggressively marketed today that promise women "protection" against the dread embarrassments of leaks and odors. Deodorant tampons, special cleansers, and other such products abound on supermarket shelves and are heavily advertized.
. The content of normalized femininity has, of course, shifted dramatically since Beauvoir's time, especially in the USA. But normalizing demands are no less intense today. Indeed, if the corset once constricted the body from without, today the demands not merely for slenderness but for a well "toned" body necessitate an ever greater interiorization of discipline (Bordo 1993). Sandra Bartky has suggested, with some plausibility, that women "have their own experience of the modernization of power, one which begins later but follows in many respects the course outlined by Foucault" (1990: 97) As women have achieved more freedom of movement, and as juridical male power over them has diminished, they have become subject to ever more demanding normalizing practices.
. Beauvoir suggests this is also the case for lesbians who, while refusing to engage in "normal" heterosexual behavior, still find themselves trapped in normalizing femininity (TSS 404-24).
. It is also to live in what Beauvoir (following Sartre) calls the mode of the "serious." As she wrote in The Ethics of Ambiguity, "the characteristic of the spirit of seriousness is to consider values as ready-made things"(1967: 35) and so to refuse to accept responsibility for the values implicit in one's own actions. "The serious man's [sic] dishonesty issues from his being obliged ceaselessly to renew his denial of freedom . . . The serious man must mask the movement by which he gives [values] to himself, like the mythomaniac who while reading a love-letter pretends to forget that she has sent it to herself"( 1967: 47).
. Although his failure to make his own values explicit invites such a reading, I don't think Foucault himself draws this conclusion from his analyses. However, it is the demobilizing consequence drawn from his work by many feminists and other radicals, who fear to speak on certain topics lest they become implicated in power. Silence, it should be remembered, can equally implicate one in power.