Foucault is what is known as a Genealogist and Archaeologist type philosopher. In his Genealogical phase, he looks at discourses throughout history, mainly around the time of the enlightenment up to the secular movements of humanism and discovers how there is always an episteme that preceeds our existence, or a knowledge structure, a truth that is sought after or aspired towards in the time of our lives, that we incorporate into our bodies.
Unlike the existentialists, who transformed Will and Desire into free will and subjective desire, as they were ‘I’ Philosophers, Foucault like Derrida is much more centrifugal, but instead of thinking about signs and how they endlessly and restlessly signify in meaning, Foucault looks at bodies in the same way.
According to Foucault, our sexual instincts are not so natural, unlike the conventional view of sexual instincts. He prioritises culture over biology.
Quote:We believe in the full consistency of instinctual life and imagine that it continues to exert its force indiscriminately in the present as it did in the past. But a knowledge of history easily disintegrates this unity, depicts its wavering course… We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too false. The body is moulded by a great many distinct regimes.
Sexual instincts are not fundamental. Take child sexuality, which Foucault argues was ‘discovered’ in the 18th century. This is evidenced by the whole new literature on the topic, with precepts, medical advice, clinical cases, outlines for reform and plans for ideal institutions. Great measures were taken to eradicate masturbation, but it had completely the opposite effect, it intensified the desire for our own bodies. In short, the sexuality of the child was created by 18th Century discourse.
He has the same view of homosexuality. While discourse on sex had previously dealt solely with marriage—what one could and could not do within and without the bonds of marriage—discourse on sex came increasingly to focus on those who fell outside the category of marriage: children, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and so on. A distinction arose between violations of marriage bonds, which were seen as violations of the law, and violations of what was considered natural practice, which were seen as sick or demented.
Foucault sees the modern concept of homosexuality arising from a desire to see sexuality as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Before the 19th century, sodomy was simply regarded as a criminal act. Since the 19th century, sodomy has been regarded as just one manifestation of a person’s homosexuality. “Homosexuality” ceased to be associated with certain acts, and became associated with a person’s identity, with his soul. One’s sexuality became a key to interpreting one’s personality and one’s behavior. Rather than work to eliminate homosexual acts, the growing discourse around homosexuality saw these acts as constitutive of a person’s identity.
Instead of sex being a desire, the desire for sex as an object was born out of discourse, out of truth. Instead of thinking of bodies and their pleasures, we should instead think of pleasure and its bodies.
On the one hand, the body does not exist like an idea, but it’s also not like a thing. It’s always being pulled out of itself, toppling forward into newly opened spaces, being drawn across boundaries. The body is not solidity, it is more of a force. Foucault, like Derrida, is a materialist, but in a very special sense.
There is a deeper reality to which can be true, rather than langue, or an epistemic framework, one that is not a thinking force. He is of course, talking about power. Power is not strictly only about wars and battles, for Foucault there is power over bodies and power of bodies.
Power over bodies is the power that invests in power relations, forces it to carry out tasks, perform ceremonies whereas power of bodies is the body’s own power, the source of Will and Desire.
Foucault observes the penal system and questions whether or not the ideal of reform is actually occuring, or if delinquency has emerged, prisons seek to grind meaning out of bodies, it normalises bodies. Just like the quest against masturbation, prison succeeds even though it fails to eradicate crime, there is a mastery of the body’s forces that is more than the ability to conquer them.
He rejects the Marxist view of progression through history towards an ideal and instead uncovers an anarchistic proliferation of forms over and above anyone’s deliberate aims or goals.
Foucault’s work on power has been used by some feminists to develop a more complex analysis of the relations between gender and power which avoids the assumption that the oppression of women is caused in any simple way by men’s possession of power. On the basis of Foucault’s understanding of power as exercised rather than possessed, as circulating throughout the social body rather than emanating from the top down, and as productive rather than repressive, feminists have sought to challenge accounts of gender relations which emphasize domination and victimization so as to move towards a more textured understanding of the role of power in women’s lives.
Some feminists have also found Foucault’s contention that the body is the principal site of power in modern society useful in their explorations of the social control of women through their bodies and sexuality.
One of the distinct advantages of Foucault’s understanding of the constituted character of identity is, in Judith Butler’s view, that it enables feminism to politicize the processes through which stereotypical forms of masculine and feminine identity are produced. Butler’s own work represents an attempt to explore these processes for the purposes of loosening the heterosexual restrictions on identity formation. In pursuing this project she argues that Foucault’s characterization of identity as constructed does not mean that it is completely determined or artificial and arbitrary. Rather, a Foucauldian approach to identity production demonstrates the role played by cultural norms in regulating how we embody or perform our gender identities. According to Butler, gender identity is simply ‘a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’