4.6 - Balbus, Isaac D. - Disciplining Women. Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse (en)

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  • 7/29/2019 4.6 - Balbus, Isaac D. - Disciplining Women. Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse (en)


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    Disciplining Women: Michel Foucault and the Power of FeministDiscourse

    Disciplining Women: Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse

    by Isaac D. Balbus


    PRAXIS International (PRAXIS International), issue: 4 / 1985, pages: 466-483, on www.ceeol.com.

  • 7/29/2019 4.6 - Balbus, Isaac D. - Disciplining Women. Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse (en)




    Isaac D. Balbus

    I. Introduction

    In this essay I stage a confrontation between the genealogy of MichelFoucault and the feminist psychoanalytic theory of Dorothy Dinnerstein,Nancy Chodorow, Jane Flax and myself. I am obliged to resort to this artificebecause as far as I am aware none of the parties to this confrontation hasever before addressed the position of the other: the feminist psychoanalytictheorists have yet to make the discourse of Foucault the object of theircritique of masculine discourse as a simultaneous reaction to and denial of thepower of the mother, and neither Foucault nor his followers have extendedtheir deconstruction of the disingenuous discourse of the True to thediscourse of the theorists of mothering. This confrontation is by no meansarbitrary, however, because we shall see that from a Foucauldian perspective

    the discourse of the mother looks like a paradigm case of a disciplinary TrueDiscourse, while from a feminist psychoanalytic standpoint the Foucauldiandeconstruction of True Discourse betrays assumptions that can only becharacterized as a classically male flight from maternal foundations. Iffeminism necessarily embraces these foundations, then a Foucauldianfeminism is a contradiction in terms.

    I shall argue that this opposition between feminism and Foucault can beresolved in favor of feminism and in part against Foucault. Thisargument will entail a demonstration that there are aporias or internalinconsistencies in the Foucauldian position that can only be overcome through

    a reformulation of this position that would require us (a) to distinguishbetween libertarian and authoritarian True Discourses and (b) to assign thefeminist mothering discourse to the former rather than the latter category.Thus Foucaults discourse points against itself to the power of the veryfeminist discourse it would undermine.

    II. Foucault versus Feminism

    Let me begin with a summary comparison of some of the constituentelements of feminist and Foucauldian discourse:

    FoucaultHistoryThe object of Foucaults genealo-gies are the variety of True Dis-

    FeminismHistoryFeminist psychoanalytic theorists along with other feminists under-

    Praxis International 5:4 January 1986 0260-8448 $ 2.00

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    Praxis International 467


    stand the history of all hitherto exis-ting societies as a history of thesubordination of women by and tomen. Women have always been ex-perienced by men as the dangeroussex (Hays) and men have alwayssought to avert this danger by exclud-ing women from positions of author-ity outside the family. Thus ostensib-ly different, even antithetical culturaland/or political arrangements aremerely variations on the common,overriding theme of misogyny andpatriarchy. Beneath the apparent dis-continuity of transitory historicalforms lies the massive continuity ofmale domination. It is precisely thiscontinuity that allows us to speak ofHistory rather than histories.(Dinnerstein, Balbus)

    Western Philosophical discourseoscillates between a justification anda denial of this History. Either menhave been explicitly defined as super-ior to women (in order to rationalizetheir exclusion from extra-familialauthority) or both men and womenhave been subsumed under a cat-egory of Human Being that pur-

    ports to be gender neutral but in factalways entails an equation of thehuman with what (up to the present)happen to be disproportionately mas-culine characteristics. Gender differ-ence is either transformed into hier-archical opposition or homogenizedout of existence. In neither case isthat difference understood to be con-sistent with non-hierarchical, egali-

    tarian relationships between womenand men. Thus it is possible to speakof a History a patriarchal history of Western thought notwith-standing the otherwise profound dif-


    courses (P/K p. 131, L&G p. 90)through which the will to power hasbeen simultaneously expressed anddenied in Western societies.Expressed: True Discourses functionas regimes of truth that induceregular effects of power by virtue ofthe self-sacrifices they demand in thename of Truth and the status[they grant to] those who arecharged with enunciating it. (P/K,p. 131) Denied: True Discoursemakes it difficult if not impossible torecognize the power it produces bythe very fact that it insists on theopposition between power and truth:True discourse, liberated by thenature of its form from . . . power, isincapable of recognizing the will totruth which pervades it; and the will

    to truth, having imposed itself uponus for so long, is such that the truth itseeks to reveal cannot fail to maskit. (AK, p. 219)

    The task of the genealogist is not toproduce yet another, but rather tounmask all forms of, True Discourseby determining their conditions ofexistence and their political effects.

    Since the 18th century the prevailingTrue Discourse of the West has beenwhat Foucault calls anthropologyor the discourse of continuous his-tory. Practitioners of continuoushistory traditional historians seek to disclose the Truth of thepresent by uncovering its origins inthe past; they are committed to aconcept of historical continuity, the

    necessary presupposition of which isthe assumption that history is theunfolding of the essential attributesof Man. Man, in short, can becomethe object of history precisely insofar

    aCEEOL NL Germany

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    Praxis International468


    ferences among its various represen-tatives. (Flax, Balbus)

    The heretofore culturally universalphenomenon of patriarchy is rootedin and reproduced by the equallyuniversal fact of virtually exclusivefemale responsibility for early childcare. In all culture it is a woman either the biological mother ormother-substitute who is both thesource of the satisfaction and thefrustration of the imperious needs ofthe infant; she is at once the beingwith whom the child is initially in-distinguishably identified and theone who enforces the (never morethan partial) dissolution of thisidentification. Thus it is the motherwho becomes the recipient of the

    unconscious hostility that accumu-lates in children of both sexes as theresult of this inescapably painfulseparation. The mother who is lovedis also necessarily the mother who ishated.

    The culturally universal fear andloathing of the female results fromthe subsequent transfer of this hatred

    of the mother to all those who cameto represent her, i.e., to women ingeneral. And the exclusion of womenfrom positions of authority outsidethe family reflects the terror of everagain experiencing the humiliatingsubmission to the authority of themother within it. (In Marxism andDomination I have shown that thestarkness of this exclusion varies

    directly with the painfulness of thissubmission.) It is in this sense thatmother-dominated child rearingmust be understood as the source ofpatriarchy. History has a meaning


    as he is its subject. This commitmentto historical continuity, in turn, bothsanctifies the present with the tra-dition of the past and privileges it asthe unique vantage point from whichthe past can be definitively known.Thus the traditional devices forconstructing a comprehensive view ofhistory and for retracing the past as apatient and continuous developmentmust be systematically dismantled.(LCMP, p. 153)

    Hence Foucaults attempt to dis-mantle or deconstruct the assump-tion of Man-as-the-simultaneous-subject-and-object-of-history on whichcontinuous history rests. He arguesthat the effective material presuppos-itions for the existence of Man as

    object and Man as subject are thedisciplinary technologies (that renderthe body at once docile and produc-tive) and the technologies of theself (that oblige the subject to speakthe Truth about itself) that haveflourished since the 18th century inWestern societies. Thus power exercised over both the body and thesoul is the condition of existence

    for that form of knowledge that thediscourse of continuous historymakes possible. This form of know-ledge, in turn, functions to reinforceand renovate the objectifying andsubjectifying technologies throughwhich this power is produced.

    This deconstructive history of thepresent demonstrates the discontinu-

    itybetween the present and the pastand thus withdraws both thefamiliarity and the privilege confer-red on the present by the relationshipthat the discourse of continuous his-

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    and that meaning is the flight fromand the repudiation of the mother.

    It follows that women and men