Tag Archive | Foucault

Pleasure and Power: Nussbaum on Butler

Edvard Munch - puberty (1895)

Martha Nussbaum in her article “The Professor of Parody” (1999) gives an explanation of contemporary American feminist discourse focused on the example of Judith Butler’s work. Nussbaum’s critique focuses on three main issues: Butler’s complicated narrative, her lack of originality on the analysed topics and the conclusions she withdraws from them, and her passivity concerning social and political changes. Due to my research topic I will focus on the former and the latter arguments.

Nussbaum infers from the obscurity found in Butler’s texts a lack of honesty which may consist in complicating simple statements and arguments in an aim to disguise them under a high intellectual value ‘since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought’ (1999: 4). Indeed, Nussbaum refers back to Socrates’ defense of clarity and simplicity in philosophical thought, claiming against sophists and rhetoricians whose ‘manipulative methods showed only disrespect [for the soul]’ (1999: 5). Therefore, Nussbaum suggests ideological purposes in Butler’s text, however, she does not consider the possibility of these texts as being an expression of an unconscious meaning, instead she stands easily for a lack of meaning, a simple reproduction of issues, mentioned by previous authors, in a confusing verbosity (1999: 4-5).

The third point of Nussbaum’s critique regarding Butler’s passivity is interesting insofar it relates to Foucault’s questioning the repeatedly use of our supposed repression in contemporary discourses. According to Nussbaum, Butler’s texts are so theoretical and symbolic that they ignore the real and material situation of women who are victims of social and political injustices being unable to help them (1999: 12). Nussbaum suggests Butler’s arguments to be ‘focus narcissistically on personal self’, while there exists other feminist scripts concerned in ‘building laws and institutions, without much concern on how a woman displays her own body and its gendered nature’ (1999: 13). But Butler, argues Nussbaum, finds pleasure living within the same structures which oppress her, belonging to them insofar they are the conditions for her being, as for its victims: ‘I cannot escape the humiliating structures without ceasing to be, so the best I can do is mock, and use the language of subordination stingingly’ (1999: 10).

However, Butler’s attitude can also be understood as a need to keep this structures alive in order to generate oppression and hence her own discourse. This conclusion may arise a polemical and ethical question concerning the academia, its economic sources, and its scope of influence outside itself which mostly refers back to sexual politics, as Nussbaum implicitly points out through her whole article. In Foucauldian terms, there would be a need either to create repression or sustain it in order to justify new discourses on the body. In this context, Nussbaum’s claims on Butler’s passivity would remain insufficient, as Butler’s discourse does not only avoid change but it stands against it as its only possible existence is within these structures in a masochistic relationship; hence, the question arises, is she constructing a masochistic body? This relationship between body, pleasure and power, may logically support patriarchal social and family organizations as a source of pleasure for women, which shows a high cynicism and contradictions in Butler’s texts. In fact, Nussbaum mentions feminist theorists’ comfortable positions ‘in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level’ instead of ‘work in changing the law, or feeding the hungry’ (1999: 13).

The Hysterical Discourse of Gender Studies


Surprisingly enough Gender Studies theories have very particular allies: the Victorians. What do these two apparently distant groups have in common? A shared enemy: Freud, and a shared belief: the sexless child. Ironies of history, never better said, it results that these two extremes touch each other in what can be called a fear of the sexual, that is, of the body in its most visible and basic part: as a sexualized entity. The Victorian belief that children were sexless, and that sex did appear as a process of culmination into the adult life, was shown in practices such as for example dressing boys and girls in the same fashion being boys actually dressed as girls (with contemporary eyes). This vision involved a granted naiveté regarding both children and sexuality something demolished with the apparition of Freud’s analysis. The strong Victorian reaction against Freud can only be understood with a complete understanding and awareness of this society, their domesticity and family organization. The earthquake Freud meant is totally comprehensible: he ended with the sexless child myth, therefore, with the supposed innocence of children.

Foucault really had reasons to entitle the first chapter of his History of Sexuality “We Victorians”; this assertion is so real that even those who think be liberating society in the most radical form from old beliefs are trapped in those same beliefs, and that is the case with the so called Gender Studies. What they put into question today is the existence of sex, logically, it may mean the existence of the body because sex is inherent to the body in normal human beings, that is, in exception of rare biological cases. This ideology implies that the human being is born without sex, that is, the body is not a sexualized body, therefore, children are sexless. How should a baby or little child be referred to? I ignore it, maybe ‘it’ like the rest of the pets and objects. What should one do with ‘its’ sexual organs? Or, how should they be interpreted is another riddle. So the big question is: what do we do with the body? Because the body is there from the very beginning, and as far as I know, there is no being without body. But Gender Studies got further than the Victorians and claimed that there is no innate sex because it may not be in accordance with the sexual orientation, therefore it is  better not o treat little children as girls or boys but -I guess- like nothing. Can we disassociate a body from its sex? Are we not sexual beings relating to each other in a sexualized form even outside men/women love relationships? Of course Freud is not welcomed in Gender Studies, instead he is seen as a leader of the patriarchal society for labeling male bodies under the name of ‘man’, and female bodies under that of ‘woman’.

Gender Studies and Victorians seem to share a fear of the sexual body, which is actually, the only proper body. The sense of alienation in one’s body comes quickly to mind: the repression of one’s sexuality since the very beginning. By repression I mean the negation of sexuality even in its idea or theoretical approach, that living with the foreign: my body as different of me, a very uncanny experience in Freudian terms: being not at home with myself. Hysteria is not far from this feeling. Is it possible that radical feminism, in its negation of innate sexuality, be an enlarged branch of Victorian thought in its opposite form? Are radical feminism’s conclusions a neurotic outbreak of a puritan approach to the body outspreading in radical solutions? Is there a relationship between a refused maternity and the fear of heterosexual sexual relationships? Ultimately, does not radical feminism annihilate the sexual body, especially, the sexual female body  introducing theories which demand a deconstruction of the innate sexual body as if terrified by it?

The female body as scapegoat in The Crucible or The Salem Trials


The Old Vic Theatre at London is hosting till the 13th of September Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1952). As I am working on a chapter on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) I am becoming familiar with the New England society in the 17th C, which easily brings to mind the Salem’s trials where some of Hawthorne’s ancestors participated. Thus I felt full of curiosity for Miller’s play, and I really recommend this representation at the Old Vic, it was excellent, a wonderful adaptation with great actors and a very moving acting. The play runs for 3 hours and a half but time flies in such a touching piece of work whose main virtue, I think, is the lack of action and the great dialogues full of feeling and at some points also comical. Hope, anxiety, pity, love or fear are some of the feelings the actors achieved to raise among the public, it is a cathartic piece of work in the Aristotelian sense; behind that, the aesthetics are very well chosen, it is beautiful to see the mise en scène and the whole atmosphere, I wish also to point out that the play has been faithfully adapted, it is not a modern and free adaptation but really settled in the 17th C Massachusetts which helps you to be there.

So, as has been suggested above, The Crucible deals with the Salem witch trials in the Puritan community. To sum up the facts: a group of girl teenagers from the Puritan community go out a night in the woods afterwards one of them is afflicted by some unknown malady, and as it was proper of the place and time, they suspect she has been possessed or gone into some kind of witchcraft. One of the girls starts to think and talk about spirits in the woods and panic arouses: all the girls who were in the woods start to behave as if possessed, which is, after Freud, a hysteric outburst. We may say now with Freud and Foucault that the discourse of the community is so powerful that the girls end up believing they have been victims of witchcraft and one falls after the other: collective hysteria. So, the interesting point is that these teenagers -and I think this age matters here as the introduction to womanhood, sexuality- start to accuse of witchcraft to almost every single woman of the community, that is, puritan mothers and wives. And that is the point I wanted to arrive at: teenagers belonging to a society with a terrific control over sexuality and the female body accuse women of being witches; women is what they are becoming, so a possible interpretation of the situation is the young girls’ sense of alienation with their own bodies and upcoming sexuality. Of course they are unconscious of it, but they are unclosed within the puritan discourse which demands of them to negate the experience of their puberty till, it may be said, it appears taking another form, that is, in the form of possession because this word belongs to the same discourse, so they are familiar with it, and it does not only belong to the same discourse, it is the evil part of the discourse, so is their bursting sexuality.

The situation goes completely out of control, and any woman is arbitrary accused of witchcraft by the girls. The trial is looking for witches, that is, women, so they are the scapegoat of a neurotic discourse, and I dare say, in this case it is a patriarchal one: women were the victims of the discourse, they were seen as dangerous, dangerously powerful, in the puritan context, they have a dangerous sexuality, they attract men to sin. That can be seen as the male control of the female body because they were scared of its power of seduction, and the girls in a sort of reaction against their own future bodies attack women as looking themselves in a mirror.   

What I find most interesting here is the relationship between the text or discourse, and the body in this particular context; there are more to say about it but maybe in another moment.

If you wish to see the play: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2014/the-crucible/

Why does Freud matter?

freud1938Freud has been highly criticised by both conservatives and liberals either for being too explicit in his discoveries or too critique in his conclusions. Nowadays it is mainly criticised to be ‘politically incorrect’ whatever it may be. Indeed his ‘sexual theories’ to say so are not precisely in agreement with what is today widely accepted: homosexuality, ‘sexual liberation’, and so on. For example, to argue that a promiscuous man is more likely to become a pedophile, or that to be homosexual is to be a narcissistic are two things one cannot openly say in the street. If we look now at the most conservative part of society, it is possible to note how neglected female hysteria is as a consequence of sexual dissatisfaction within marriage. These two ideological visions of Freud’s theories are at least high unfair.

Whatever Freud said and whatever one thinks of, Europe owes a great deal to Freud. His investigations meant a completely new world to both science and humanities, and they show the root of an important number of psychological issues; not to mention that he is the father of psychoanalysis, and of a deeper understanding of sexuality. Freud was a great observer of the human mind and behaviour, and a brave man who was not afraid of his contemporaries. He faced lots of child-abuse cases within a bourgeois society and dared to dive into the human soul.

Literary studies are as well in debt with him. I would like to synthesise how can be Freud’s theories used into the literary field:

1. Aesthetics: Psychoanalysis opened the world of dreams and, particularly, its own logic. 20th century is full of artistic examples of a dream aesthetic (Kafka, Schnitzler, Dalí, Hitchcock, Welles, Brecth, among others). Freud’s influence cannot be mislead for those who approached especially the first part of the century.

2. Characters: Psychoanalysis has enhanced the understanding of literary characters and their relationships beyond the limits of the 20th century. Specially important are the familiar relationships to be approach, in many cases, from a Freudian perspective.

3. Art: The relationship between art and the artist acquires a more existential and sexual perspective; as well as the relations between sexuality, beauty and desire.

4. Sexuality: Explorations in the field of literary representations of sexual issues are facilitate by Freud’s studies on sexual behaviour which were pioneer. A quite complete analysis of all kind of sexual experiences was openly explore by Freud.

5. Unconscious: Terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘unconscious’, ‘sub-conscious’, ‘repression’ are properly born through Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis. These concepts complete the understanding of human behaviour especially in unhealthy cases.

6. Body: Literary representations of the body can be approach metaphorically, that is, as a physical representation of the mind or illness. Freud advances further postmodern theories of the body and its relationship to the illness and the text such as those of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

7. Childhood: The importance of early experiences in life has result to be a key point in general psychology until now.

I think the seven points above are the most important. Generally speaking, psychoanalysis has brought a deeper understanding of the relationship body-mind, and it is not at all surpassed by any other posterior theory, it is perfectly complementary to a kind of more scientific studies. Freud deserves, as any important thinker, a high consideration.

Our Body, Our Language

dancing,women,art,dance,painting,womans-59550cc39b7428ffade728ba4e533455_h_largeSince the second half of the nineteenth century is possible to see in the history of literature an increasing prominence of the human body and its importance. It was Freud who put into words the relation between our interiority and our body and clearly talked about an interpretation of the physical signs to know our inner problems. The body talks, indeed, as we are a human unit, and it is a pity to see how nowadays medicine is just concerned with the physiological. A lot of health problems have their origin somewhere deeper within us but the fashion today is to cut off what is superficially wrong and, of course, the problem usually comes again later on. Well, the main problem in our medical system is that humanities have absolutely no importance and we find doctors with no idea of what a human being is beyond his or her flesh. But this digression was not my intention.

Coming back to literature, I would say Zola is one of the most important authors concerned with the body reactions to our own actions. In fact, Thérèse Raquin and Laurent after killing Camille do not present spiritual regret but physical regret, to say so. It is a very interesting point how, even when a person could have lost all his or her feelings, the body remains and expresses through illness the consequences of an action. They do not ‘feel bad’ but they feel ill, terribly ill until the point of desiring death. That is what Zola does wonderfully, he experiments with the most physical part of the human being and this part talks as well.

In a more linguistic approach, it is excellent the work of Roland Barthes and even of Michel Foucault regarding the language of the body. Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge finds a correlate between the body and the language and argues how illness belongs to the language of the body. Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic presents a similar approach regarding the sign found both in the body and the language. It is possible to read a human body as it is possible to read a text and until now the most wonderful example I can give of is Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes establishes a parallel between the textual and the human eroticism and seduction. Language and body are extremely related in this case but they are so indeed in a lot of situations.

Lawrence is another author dealing with the language of the body and between bodies. Most of his female characters feel their sexual needs as something which goes beyond the physical and expresses itself in the whole person, something similar happens to Thérèse Raquin. The awakening of the body has consequences all over the psyche and soul of the character and the process of attraction starts with a physical communication which usually is expression of something deeper. When the body is able to express the truly personality of the person harmony is likely to appear.

The Truth about Odette in “Swann in Love”

-1040x940-15When Swann meets Odette he does not like her as her beauty responds to a traditional conception. She is not a cultivated woman as she shows, for example, asking if Vermeer, who died in 1675, is still alive. She seems to be seduced by Swann’s intelligence and cultural interests. She appears as someone who looks for affection and is devoted to Swann; she is sensitive in love matters in contrast to Swann’s first frivolity. Her main interest seems to be that of seeking a husband and a marriage in which she could develop her wife’s duties.

 In opposition to Swann, she appears as naïve and innocent; in fact, she looks as a Swann’s perfect victim. Moreover, she lacks personality or an own life. That is also one of the reasons she is a perfect Verdurin’s faithful.

The fact that she has no personality is related to her unknown past and it is expressed in her high attachment to Swann’s desire. She appears as unable to say “no”, which makes her a potential sexual slave and extremely vulnerable. Moreover, she is someone in relation to Swann, to his perspective or presence, which in this case, is that of the reader too. Odette is not presented as a consistent self; it suggests again the idea of performance (like Mme Verdurin) as far as she is not for herself but for the other. When she meets Swann, she performs a self: a delicate and helpless Odette; she performs a sexuality: she is heterosexual and a beauty expression of the Western canon; and these two performances belong to a specific world constructed by herself which gives to Swann and the reader an image of Odette based on a lie. It is a lie, as we will see later, because the part of Odette is presented as the whole.

Among all the topics which can be found in the story, Odette is one of the most important; she herself constitutes a topic. Odette begins to be suspicious for both Swann and the reader, as the process of discovering Odette is the same for they two. The first sign of Odette’s falsehood is suggested by her financial necessities which make Swann a necessary help for her.  Swann begins to spy Odette because he thinks she is been unfaithful. At this point he is excited by the idea of knowing Odette’s other life, which remains a secret for him. He is fascinated with the idea of discovering the truth about Odette, which is especially related to her sexual life. His first attitude regarding Odette’s infidelity is that of a scientist or of a doctor in sexual matters. At the same time, he is an artist finding out the secret of a masterpiece. A potential forbidden life of Odette makes her more attractive to Swann as a mystery which involves a work of art.

Swann discovers that Forcheville met Odette in her house. Forcheville becomes a rival for Swann. Mainly because Mme Verdurin sees the relationship between Swann and Odette too dangerous for her. Swann is taking away Odette from Mme Verdurin. That is the reason for finding a substitute for Swann. From now on, Swann is put apart from the faithful.   Swann discovers gradually Odette’s multiple affairs in France and abroad. She has had a lot of lovers both for money or pleasure. At this point the missing past of Odette begins to appear. Swann is now completely jealous of been missing Odette. He feels anxious and he needs to know everything about her.

The second important scene regarding Odette’s truth takes place when Swann receives an anonymous letter containing all Odette’s affairs (hetero- and homosexual ones).

Finally, Odette tells the truth to Swann who is horrified by it. Swann’s approach to Odette’s sexuality is mainly conformed by a medical perspective. As Rivers argues, the characters in the novel show contradictory selves (‘kindness and cruelty, sadism and altruism’). According to him, this expression concerns mainly the 19th century medical idea of a homosexual person as a kind of schizophrenic. Proust would include himself in this group and it could also explained the idea earlier mentioned of “performing selves”.

Together with Odette’s confession, the approach to sexuality conforms Foucault’s explanation concerning the relation between the discourse of confession and the scientific sexual discourse, both of them extremely important in the Western history and culture. According to Foucault, the methodology of confession is similar to that of science as they are based in observation and interrogation. The ‘truth of sex’ was born in the Western and institutionalized by religion and then, by the medical science which gave the correct view of sexuality. However, in this case, Odette has another truth which conforms a very challenging idea of the genre. A whole new set of sexual possibilities is being presented in literature, as Freud did in psychology. As Rivers points out, the whole assumptions of female roles in the Western world are completely distorted provoking thus a revision of the meaning of “man” and “woman”.

The whole past of Odette comes out: she was sold by her own mother. This particular fact could be seen in relation to her successively acts of selling herself. A possible psychoanalytical explanation could be that of “the compulsion to repeat” explained by Freud. It consists in a traumatic experience lived in childhood which the subject makes to come back again and it is related to the death drive because it is presented as a threat for the self. The compulsion to repeat would be an instinct because it is stronger than the pleasure principle. This behaviour of Odette is linked to a sadomasochist figure who, as Haberdstadt affirms, connects cruelty with pleasure. The sadomasochist used to find love in his childhood in exchange of something else which could not be pleasurable.

Finally, the relationship between Swann and Odette is inverted regarding the beginning, as it is Swann who becomes the victim of Odette’s lies.

The Encounter with Beauty and the Self

IMG_3645_2The large tradition of Confession in the Western culture is developed by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality from a very challenging approach as he usually does. According to him, the confessional pattern goes from a religious practice to a medical one highly developed in the 19th century. Sexuality has always been one of the main victims of these two methods becoming thus scrutinise until the minimum point. Narratives of sex have been usually presented as “confessions” of intimate experiences, not because the narrator could feel himself as a sinner or deprived -in psychoanalytical terms- but because of the strong powerful tradition of confessing something unusual which is attached to the will of knowledge.

The structure of confessional narrative can be seen as well in works such as Frankenstein or The Turn of the Screw, where a story is explained inside the story in an epistolary form. There is something there which should be told, which cannot remain as an individual experience. It is the necessity of confession detached of its religious aims but still surviving as a path towards knowledge. The same kind of narrative is presented in The Immoralist by André Gide; in this case it is a sexual one, which links the text again with Foucault’s theory.

In this short novel, Michel encounters his best male friends to confess his truly self, that is, his homosexuality. The novel was published in 1902, its themes are indeed very modernist ones. Together with homosexuality, the importance of the body and sensuality as paths towards self-knowledge, beauty and art, are some of the topics one can encounter in it. In fact, homosexuality is not explicitly expressed until the very last sentence of the novel. What arouses in Michel in his twenties is the apprehension of beauty. While he is extremely sick, he finds out in Africa beauty, something that he had not discovered earlier. It is through the beauty of healthy manly bodies that he experiments a strong desire for life. The setting in this part of the novel, Africa, evokes colour, smells, sounds, all what can be perceived by the senses, and it is in fact through them that Michel experiments life. The body thus becomes a medium for knowledge, it is what is first experimented. The importance of the body is present along the novel as far as it expresses the inner state of Michel. He is in fact sick until he is able to find beauty around him, and this beauty is primary found in men. As he discovers himself, his healthy situation improves. In Freudian terms, the body and its sickness work as a metaphor of the self and express it.

In Chopin’s  The Awakening, sensuality is also a path towards self-awareness. Edna discovers her body and its sensuality and beauty when she begins to realise of her own identity apart from social conventions; it is a similar experience of that of Michel’s.

In this kind of self-realizations, the importance of nature as something which calls for the sensual impressions is crucial. The self is in relation with the whole at the moment of its own encounter. Nature and beauty are close to each other and the last one is especially crucial to relieve one self.