THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FOUCAULT FOR FEMINIST THEORY: CONTRADICTIONS AND COMPROMISE
On one level Foucault appears to hold much significance for feminism. As Ramazanoglu (1993) notes, he has enabled feminists to look in new ways at the control of women. At another level, Foucault can be said to challenge or even undermine feminism, in that, as Ramazanoglu states, he questions many of feminism’s conclusions about the nature of social life and in the process deconstructs both feminism’s emphasis on collective action as part of the transformative process and the nature of gendered power itself.
Foucault’s work was not directly supportive of feminism, nor did he offer a direct challenge to feminism. In fact, Foucault personally seemed sympathetic to women’s desire to change power relations. His work does have particular implications for feminist thought and feminist politics: Foucault challenges traditional feminist conceptions about the nature of knowledge and power and, in particular, challenges feminists’ understanding about the nature of men’s power over women. Foucault challenges a range of concepts, including reality and truth, cause and effect, freedom and the nature of human agency, which, as Ramazanoglu notes, are intrinsic to the Western liberal humanistic tradition and which many feminists have uncritically adopted. Foucault challenges and subverts these concepts of truth.
The obvious tensions between Foucault and feminism highlight fundamental problems in explaining the nature of power relations which both feminism and social theory have failed to solve. These contradictions and problems should not be linked necessarily to any specific weakness in feminism, but, as indicated above, rather to feminism’s pragmatic approach to some of the most profound problems confronting social theory. Caroline Ramazanoglu, writing in Feminism and the Contradictions of Oppression (1989), argues that the contradictions and inconsistencies of feminist thought are indicative of the fact that feminism is deeply contradictory because women’s lives are contradictory.
Thus, in addressing the significance of Foucault for feminism and feminist theory, it is, as Grimshaw notes,
not so much a question of whether Foucault can be useful to feminism (or vice versa) or whether some ‘synthesis’ of the two can be found. It is rather a question of what affinities there are between some of the questions that feminist theory has addressed and those that Foucault addresses and what sort of dialectic can be created between these.
There are a number of issues resulting from Foucault’s work which are significant for feminist theory, practices and politics. Feminism’s interrogation of theory, especially since the 1970s, has already begun to question ‘the implicit or sometimes explicit misogyny of theories, disciplines and intellectual frameworks’ (Grosz 1990a:91). As Grosz notes, Foucault finds problematic any aspirations to truth as an objective, verifiable and eternal value, and his adoption of theory as a strategy both confirmed and enhanced feminists’ doubts about the ‘epistemological politics invested in truth’ (ibid.). The implications for ‘resisting’ feminist discourses have been profound. Foucault’s critique of the concept of truth, and his suggestion of theory as a strategy or tool, has contributed to the development of alternative feminist discourses. French feminist deconstructivists (Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva) have developed a body of writing which does not claim a truth status but positions women’s writing between theory and fiction. In addition, some feminist challenges to phallocentrism do not aim to replace patriarchal discourses with feminist truths, but ‘to reveal the investments patriarchal knowledges have in both representing and excluding women’ (ibid.). As Grosz goes on to note, a range of feminist voices do not claim a universal objective value, but reflect particular views written from specific perspectives.
A second major area of interest for feminists in relation to Foucault’s work is the structure/agency debate. Fraser (1989) argues that, like Foucault and Habermas, she has wanted to avoid what she describes as ‘functionalist models that purport to show how “systems reproduce themselves”’. The limitations of these models based on structural analysis is that they screen out ‘“dysfunctional”: actions that resist, contest and disrupt social practices’ (1989:9). In addition, argues Fraser, they tend to neglect the actions of social agents and more generally social processes and the ways in which even ‘the most routinised practice of social agents involves the making and unmasking of social reality’. However, while Fraser accepts the poststructuralist critique of ‘totality’ when applied to what she describes as ‘ahistorical philosophical metanarratives’, she is less convinced of this critique when applied to empirical theories about historically specific social formations, which, she maintains, can be ‘both epistemically possible and politically useful’.
Foucault’s approach to understanding power can offer feminists new and productive insights into relations of dominance and subordination both within masculinist discourses and within feminism itself. As Ramazanoglu (1993:2) notes, while feminists have been developing theories of the social construction of gender, sexuality and the body, Foucault has opened up a parallel but rather different theory of social construction through new ways of deconstructing history and of analysing power relations. Fraser is positive about Foucault’s approach to understanding the operation of power, which she describes as ‘productive’ rather than prohibitive. In addition, she argues, Foucault’s account of power demonstrates that modern power is ‘capillary’ in that it operates at the lowest extremities of society in everyday social practices. Further, Fraser (1989:18) notes that ‘Foucault’s genealogy of modern power establishes that power touches people’s lives more fundamentally through their social practices than through their beliefs.’ In addition, Foucault’s emphasis is on the practices of the operation of power and, as Fraser points out, this facilitates an understanding of power which is both broad and ‘anchored in the multiplicity of what he calls “micro practices”, the social practices that constitute everyday life in modern societies’ (ibid,.).
Foucault’s understanding of the nature and operation of power has a number of implications for feminism. Foucault’s notion of knowledges and truths as the bearers of power has raised a number of issues around feminist politics and practices, and has challenged key assumptions about the nature and causes of women’s subordination on which various versions of feminism are based. Ramazanoglu (1993) argues that the implications of Foucault’s analysis suggests that feminist political practices are based on a misunderstanding of the power relations that feminism aims to transform. As Grimshaw (1993) notes, Foucault’s work is useful in pointing out that theories of emancipation such as feminism, tend to be blind to their own dominating tendencies, and feminism itself is not innocent of power.
Jana Sawicki (1991) argues that a Foucauldian approach can offer a useful alternative to feminist analyses which adopt over-monolithic notions of male power and male control of women. Sawicki argues that feminism’s recognition of its own potentially dominating and oppressive tendencies is crucial for feminism for a number of reasons. Women are themselves implicated in many forms of domination and oppression along class, occupational and ethnic lines. In addition, feminist thinking and practice has not been innocent of divisive, exclusionary and oppressive tendencies resulting in the marginalisation of groups of women. Grosz (1990a) notes that feminist practices are neither more nor less neutral and value-free than any other, and feminist research is as implicated in power relations as any other.
Foucault’s pluralistic and localised conception of power, reflected in his account of marginal political struggles and subjugated discourses, facilitates an understanding of ‘resistance’ in terms of challenging patriarchal discourses at a ‘micro’ level. Grosz maintains:
while Foucault’s marginalised, localised struggles rule out the concept of
‘The Revolution’ smashing patriarchy in one fell swoop, he makes clear
that a revolution of sorts is already under way. Patriarchal relations can be
transformed, not through reformism but in strategically located strikes at
power’s most vulnerable places.
It is clear that Foucault is significant for feminism. Ramazanoglu (1993) notes that feminism cannot afford to ignore Foucault, because the problems he addresses and the criticisms he makes of existing theories and their political consequences identify problems in and for feminism. However, she also notes that feminist knowledge poses a challenge to the validity of Foucault’s work. As Ramazanoglu contends, there has been growing interest in Foucault’s work among academic feminists who have been both enthusiastic and critically evaluative of his work. Some examples are Barrett and Phillips (1992), Bartky (1990), Braidotti (1991), Butler (1990a), Diamond and Quinby (1988), Fraser (1989), Hekman (1990), Nicholson (1990) and Sawicki (1991).
One of the ways feminism has challenged Foucauldian analysis revolves around ‘the question of truth’. As Ramazanoglu points out, while Foucault might criticise feminism for the limitations and rigidities of its conception of the truth ofpatriarchy, feminists could equally criticise Foucault because he did not recognise that his supposedly neutral analysis of the discourses of truth, power and sexuality comes from a male perspective. As Ramazanoglu (1993:45) maintains, it is not simply a question of confronting Foucault’s ‘masculinist analysis’ with one which is woman – centred. The difficulty is the interaction between Foucault’s understanding of the nature and operation of power, and feminism’s reliance on women’s experiences as a grounding for its explanations.
While feminism cannot afford to ignore Foucault, feminists need to be aware of the dangers of too close an engagement with Foucault. Feminists who wish to draw on Foucault must realise that his position shifted in some respects between his major works and again in many later interviews and discussions with him. Further, if feminists are looking for consistency, as Ramazanoglu (1993:8) notes, ‘feminists are at risk of being lured into some version of political pluralism in which feminist politics are undermined by political relativism’. Feminists therefore need to be wary of Foucault and to take seriously the political uses Foucault’s thought can be put to and the possible uses of his work in supporting male dominance by ignoring gender in social relations.