3. Foucault in Contemporary Theories
Our bodies are connected to essentially all aspects of our lives. We utilize them to survive and function on a biological and social level. It is no wonder there is abundance of theories concerning embodiment. One key philosopher that has influenced theories concerning embodiment is Michel Foucault. By putting the body into focus, he has decompartmentalized power dynamics concerning the body, state, and society. He suggests power does not exist on its own, it is created and sustained through relations between individuals and groups. By utilizing and creating power dynamics, the body has become a site to control, oppress, and discriminate individuals. To explore Foucault’s ideas of embodiment in relation to these arenas I will engage in feminist writings by Moira Gatens, Janell Hobson, and Linda Birke. In theme with Foucault’s ideas about using the body as a site for power, Moira Gatens discusses how women’s bodies are used to justify a patriarchal society, “one response to the differential powers and capacities of women and men in the context of public life is to claim that women just are biologically disadvantaged relative to men” (1). In her article, “Power, Bodies, and Difference”, she discusses two models that concern somatophobia regarding women’s bodies; in particular, the sexual and reproductive organs. One model urges society to celebrate women’s biological differences. In contrast, the other framework supposes society to ‘get around them’. Gaten takes issues with these models as they hold a dualistic process which state men and women as different. Instead, she proposes an alternative view that considers the historical context of women and men’s bodies, “if the body is granted a history then traditional associations between the female body and the domestic sphere and the male body and the public sphere can be acknowledged as historical realities, which have historical effects without resorting to biological essentialism” (2). Reflective of Foucault’s ideas, Gaten acknowledges that power identities construct the way in which society is informed about their bodies. In her theory of embodiment, she urges that the body and environment are dynamic. One cannot be considered without the other. In Foucault’s work, “The Body of the Condemned”, he emphasizes that power identities evaluate and treat an individual’s normalcy or abnormality based on self-serving motivations. Foucault uses the example of enlisted forms of punishment for criminals, “in a slave economy, punitive mechanisms serve to provide an additional labour force – and to constitute a body of ‘civil’ slaves in addition to those provided by war or trading” (25). In comparison with this power dynamic based on self-serving motivation, Janell Hobson discusses how the power identity of white/male established control over the black female form by the objectification of their bodies. Westerners focused on Saartijie Baartman’s (Hottentot Venus) and other African women’s “freakish”, “ugly” and “deviant” bodily forms in order to objectify a race (90). By condemning their bodies, westerners claimed power over of their minds and bodies. In claiming racial superiority, westerners also produced ‘knowledge’ about African’s minds and bodies. However, this knowledge is not based on truth, but on a cultural construction. Foucault explains, “there may be a ‘knowledge’ of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and this mastery constitute what might be called the political technology of the body” (26). This constructed knowledge was then used to justify spectacularization and objectification of the black female body. In example, George Cuvier dissected and displayed Baartman’s genitalia after her death. By his actions, Cuvier signified her and her race as notably abnormal and worthy of medical investigation. This example also links Foucault’s emphasis on the rise of human sciences association with the body. Psychiatry, medicine and other professions assess and judge an individuals based on the individual’s body mind. Science has become one of the most powerful identities in our society. In her article, “Ironing Out the Differences? Feminism and Biology”, Linda Birke discusses the relationship between science and feminism. Birke states that both science and culture inform how individuals experience their bodies, “whatever narratives science offers, other stories also circulate, and can inform how any of us might think about our bodily insides” (7). In similarity with Foucault’s theory that power identities create knowledge, Birke acknowledges that what is considered scientific knowledge and truth depends solely on who states it as such. These models emphasize the connection between science and cultural construction. Society understands how the human body works depending on modern scientific doctrine and claims. Due to the power of science, Birke stresses the importance of a feminist critique, “to analyze the multiple ways in which modern science has contributed to sexism, racism, or other kinds of inequalities. We need to understand also how assumptions founded on such inequalities become built into ideas of science” (9). To contrast this statement with Hobson’s article, one can consider the treatment of Saartijie Baartman. Due to her large sexual organs (body) Baartman was assumed to be highly sexual and deviant (gender assumptions). Hobson’s article displayed a lived experience that connected the body, gender assumptions and gender discrimination. Science highly prizes itself on being completely objective and rational; however, it is evident that it is not independent from cultural effects. Putting the body into focus, Foucault’s theories are reflected in many concepts regarding the relationship between power, knowledge, history, and embodiment. To understand the body, it must be considered in its historical context. By contextualizing the body with the power identities that have written that history, society can begin to understand the body from a non-dualistic model; therefore, looking past biological determinism. Science has become one of the biggest contemporary power identities and has implicated society’s relationship with their bodies. Although science is appointed to be rational and completely objective, it is obvious that it holds potential for partiality. Foucault urges society to acknowledge that those in power dictate knowledge and that knowledge does not equate power. In doing so, society can understand their bodies in new ways.