The Feminine: Act II
Did the bourgeois society rise out of the ashes of Feudalism? Or did it create conditions in which feudalism could not survive? Philosopher Michel Foucault defines the bourgeois as a society that emerged within the seventeenth century due to a series of ‘redistributions.’ For this reason, feudalism did not encounter its demise overnight. Its remnants were invaded, dismantled and hidden in reform. The reformation rested on new moral and political theories that saw the abolishment of old laws and the death of customs. What did emerge, were modern codes and modes of analytic reasoning which multiplied into many facets of life. Specifically, Foucault proposes that the bourgeois initiated a transformation of the discourse on sex. He describes how bourgeois society implements an imperative discourse about sex in multiple bureaucratic and institutional ways. My claim is that this transformation is specifically oppressive towards women.
Scientific inquiry took on the task of disseminating sexuality through the medium of speakers; later known as experts. Experts which held the privilege of qualification and witnessed their work codified and held as a maxim. According to Foucault, it is power that constitutes the speaker, which then constitutes knowledge and scientific discourse. He believes that power is fundamental and other concepts like knowledge and sex are not. They are instead derivatives of power. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault states that the discourse of sex derived not just from morality, but from rationality as well. This allowed individual accounts of sex to proliferate into new spaces. Spaces monitored by the ‘medical gaze’ and which regulate what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not.
The byproduct of a rationalized and medicalized discourse on sex led to a hypervigilance of sex itself. Foucault claims that sex became a police matter and thus involved the political investment of the body. He examined the consequences of the male prisoner: the man’s body becomes a ward of the state and must comply with the economic use of his body. But Foucault neglects to acknowledge the biological impact on how the ‘political investment of the body’ would specifically implicate a woman’s body/life. Women who are sexual subjects (with desires) and contain the power to create life.
By tracing the historical shifts within the development of punishment, Foucault proposes that the body is reduced to an instrument which can be deprived of individual liberty. He outlines the disappearance of torture on the body but emphasizes how the body instead became entangled in a system of ‘obligations and prohibitions’ and ‘constraints and privations.’ This development is key to understanding the oppression women face in a bureaucratic society.
As a woman’s body became caught up with the bureaucracy, her body was examined differently than that of a man’s. Gendered prohibitions imply gendered obligations. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici traces the history of women and reproduction in the ‘transition to capitalism.’ Similar to Foucault’s concept of Bourgeois ‘redistributions,’ Federici believes the bourgeois redefined every aspect of daily life including the possibilities of what could be accumulated. She states that ‘primitive accumulation,’ the precapitalist mode of production, was more than the exploitation of workers and capital. It was also an ‘accumulation of differences.’ Here she claims the working class is divided by the bourgeois through hierarchies of gender, as well as race and age. Federici believes the imposed divisions between men and women allow capitalist accumulation to continue to ‘devastate life’ in every corner of the planet. An example of a gender division includes the criminalization of reproductive autonomy. The appropriation of women’s labour will be discussed in the following section.
In Marxist philosophy, the bourgeois holds two concerns. First, the value of property and second, the preservation of capital. In this framework Foucault introduces a concept called ‘bio-power.’ The key is that power is applied by diffusion whereby there is no central authority. Instead it rests largely on norms and insists on efficiency. For Foucault bio-power denotes both power over life and power over the soul. An example of bio-power is the distinction between a man who commits a crime and the ‘condemned man.’ In Discipline and Punish, the condemned man is more than his crime. He is at once his past and present, and is construed by one’s estimation of him. He can be seen dragging his iron collar and bombshells submitting to the labour and punishment forced upon him. But what about the ‘condemned women?’ Here she faces the task of carrying the future labour force, possibly against her will.
Just as Foucault claims the the legal system lay hold of the souls of the condemned. I claim it also lay hold of the future labour force. The condemned man is no longer forced to wear that iron collar while he partakes in manual labour, but the condemned women faces a different reality. She has no choice but to bear the responsibility of growing and carrying another human around for thirty-eight weeks. This turns into a lifetime of rearing and nurturing to prepare this new human for a world dominated by social class that believes it owns the means of production. Moreover, is the matter of her soul, simply a matter of her morals? The justification of the appropriation of women’s labour is achieved through a proliferation of concepts that become institutionalized. The consequences of this discourse are discussed next.
Part of the feudal to bourgeois transformation includes an ‘authorized vocabulary.’ Foucault explains how the movement of sex into discourse invaded society with a whole new set of vocabulary. Terms such as “Prostitute” and “rape” denote a regulation not just of sex, but of women’s bodies. The terms are institutionalized by a body of government which rely on a hegemonic discourse to deem what is acceptable and what is not. If one transgresses the norm, they face oppressive conditions. Foucault describes a new form of punishment that rests on an ‘economy of suspended rights.’ In the next section I will detail the consequences women face in an economy that institutionalizes the management of their bodies.
If power constitutes the subject, as Foucault proposes, the subject is not just a woman, but she lives in a binary: mother/prostitute; wife/widow; victim/maternal. The binaries affirm societal norms. The institution of marriage is an example of this affirmation. Due to what Foucault calls, the fundamentals of christian duty, one has an obligation to be a moral subject. These morals are inscribed in the bureaucratic institution and treated as privations. To be outside of the marriage institution is to be outside of society norms, and thus, outside of the law.
The bourgeois society emphasizes women as producers of a future work force. Their labour provides the bourgeois with economic supremacy in society. Abortion is an example of a freedom which has been suspended from the right’s of women. The choices of women are oppressed through the implementation of a discourse that rationalizes the activity of sex as a means of production. Not only does this leave women labeled as a ‘prostitutes’ vulnerable to a suspension of rights, but it makes every woman whom transgresses the norm vulnerable to being labeled a prostitute.
Foucault finds that when certain vocabularies are authorized there is a circular notion of capital punishment. He states that by focusing on the acts or crimes, or one’s inclination to commit a crime, the policies that create the conditions for violent crime are legitimated. In other words, when a person is labeled a prostitute, they become dehumanized and are no longer referred to as a ‘person,’ but as a ‘prostitute.’ A demeaning term has the power to constitutes their entire identity and results in the justification of the violence committed against them.
Is the absence of women in Foucault’s framework of bio-power a necessity? For if women were included, his notion fails. Women have the ability to subvert power itself, in that they have the power to create life. Women therefore are more than a derivative of power. They are the fundamental. With the inclusion of women in mind, this essay has challenged the specificities of an institutional discourse: issues such as conception and marriage are enveloped into a canvas of power that constitute the population. Here it is a regulating discourse that oppresses women and guarantees bourgeois society access to labour.
When Federici describes the development of capitalism she claims its emergence depended on the destruction of women’s power. If this is so, and the power of women was systematically destroyed by the bourgeois, then women are, as Foucault proposes, subjects constituted by power. Through authority and cultural hegemony, the power of female bodies is subverted through the codification of laws. Laws which restrict her choice and obstruct her from essential resources. Her labour is appropriated through a discourse that condemns her through specific concepts that arose within, and were validated by, the power of a bureaucratic society. The means of violence used against her – the loss of bodily autonomy – is justified through the authorized vocabulary such as ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’.
The criminalization of reproductive autonomy unquestionably takes power away from women, but that is not to say, it takes everything leaving women vulnerable and helpless. Even as men in power continue to meet behind closed doors to decide the bodily rights of women, Federici believes that women can gain back their power if they speak against the entirety of capital punishment. She insists that penal management has become a way to place criminals ‘outside the boundaries of our humanity.’ And therefore the barriers between justice and the punishment it imposes need to be dismantled. This would allow the notion of responsibility in justice to reappear. Responsibility can then transform from a ‘derivative’ to a ‘fundamental.’ In this way, I believe that Michel Foucault would have accepted that it is not the person whom constitutes responsibility, but responsibility that constitutes us all.
Cover art by: Tyler Spangler