Friday, March 02, 2012

Review: Bodies and Pleasures

[Ladelle McWhorter. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.]

Those of us on the left are often not very good at talking about the living of life at the individual level. There are a number of different ways that it is done badly among us, by different people or at different times. From some, you see a refusal to think about it at all, and a focus that is entirely on change at the social level, as if the collectives that can create such change are not made up of people and our practices or as if our politics should have no bearing on our lives outside of meetings and actions. From others, there is a focus on lifestyle choices that ends up patrolling in-group/out-group boundaries (often in quite racist ways) and/or that imports a very asocial, individualistic moralism into our groups and communities and movements in ways that are divisive and that form the basis of usually-silent but highly destructive hierarchical purity politics. And of course there is lots that is loving and communicative and accepting and supportive in how we live our lives and relate to each other as well, but even that is often similarly detached from really thinking through how we act beyond the level of "be kind to each other."

Bodies and Pleasures is an account of Ladelle McWhorter's reading of the work of Michel Foucault in the context of both her own experiences of sexual regulation and the evolution of her understanding of the social world. As such, I experienced it as important in two overlapping but distinct areas. One relates to her account of her struggles against sexual normalization. Our lives are very, very different in a lot of ways, but there were moments in reading those parts of the book when I felt that jolt of recognition you feel when you read something you've experienced but never put into words before. The other area of importance of this book is that it offers some conceptual tools that might -- might -- be useful for those of us involved in movements and committed to social change as we think about everyday practices of living, particularly if we want a critical approach that is not already three-quarters of the way down the path to lifestylism, moralism, or privilege-based exclusion.

In volume 1 of his History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that the commonsense idea that we live in a sexually repressive culture is only true in a very narrow and specific sense, and that in fact in the last 150 years there has been a great proliferation of spaces and ways and compulsions to talk about sexuality. This proliferation of talk has been part of the emergence of selves that are in large part defined by sexuality, of sexual subjects, in a way that did not exist before, and also part of the emergence of a complex of relations and practices through which such selves are administered. A distinct sphere of life labelled "sexuality" has emerged out of previously disparate and unconnected sensations, practices, impulses, and ideas. It is one instance among a number in which norms have been created, and individuals are assessed relative to those norms and disciplined to better fit those norms, as part of producing and controlling populations. A central aspect of this has been the production over that period of "the homosexual" as a defined and subjugated type of human being -- that is not the only axis along which such sexual regulation operates, but it is an important one.

McWhorter first read that particular work of Foucault's in her early 20s, in the early 1980s, and it spoke profoundly to her. Throughout her early life, in many different ways, in many different spaces, she had faced individuals in positions of power and broader social arrangements that pressured her to confess to being a particular type of sexual entity -- the type labelled "homosexual" -- and thereby to become knowable and known as a particular kind of not-quite-human being, as someone who in so many moments would have their complexity and ethical fullness and even basic freedom denied because of that status. She knew keenly before she had the language to express it what it meant to be pinned to that category, so she resisted as best she could being sorted, being labelled, being subjected to the particular forms of oppressive social regulation. This was never about doubt or hesitation about her sexual and romantic relationships with women, but rather a keen and deeply felt objection to the ways in which that forced her production as a certain kind of subject.

She charts the course of her resistance over different phases of her life, as well as the growing depth and sophistication of her understanding of Foucault. She discusses what it means to try and understand the world genealogically, in Foucault's sense -- to constantly call into question and seek the historical and social roots of every category, and so have no solid, simple, humanist place for the knowing subject. She engages with some of the key criticisms that have been levelled at Foucault's work over the years, in particular the assertions that his analysis leaves us with no ground for making moral judgements, no way to exert agency, and no way to ground political collectivity. I don't think she settles all of those questions once and for all, but she successfully shows that his work cannot just be dismissed on those grounds. She addresses modes of resistance, again with reference to her own journey. She talks about the body -- one of the key elements in her title, and one of the key elements in her understanding of Foucault's thoughts about resistance. She also talks about the other element of each, pleasure, and about some specific practices of what she describes as "self-overcoming" grounded in bodies and pleasures.

The useful stuff in her account of her struggles against sexual normalization takes a couple of different forms. I've mentioned before that one way to periodize my life would be to distinguish between the time before counter-normative sexual and relationship practices were even imaginable for me, versus after they became imaginable and gradually became more a part of my lived practices along a couple of distinct axes. The moments of recognition that I experienced in reading this book apply more directly to the later period, but I don't feel particularly inclined to elaborate on that at this point. The perhaps more distant but interesting relevance is to the earlier period, where my practices, desires, and imagination were thoroughly normative along every axis. Even so, I felt the pressure to become known in sexual terms as oppressive. Partly, given my intense shame around sexuality, this was around being pinned to being a sexual subject at all, never mind that it was a thoroughly privileged sexual subject at that point. More interestingly, I now recognized, it was resistance to being pinned to a particular version of masculinity that I desperately, urgently wanted no part of. It's not that I've ever had even any inkling of myself as doing gender in any way other than masculinity, but at that point in my life, based on my observation of the media and the people around me, I understood (even if I would have been unable to articulate) masculine desire for women as having a necessary connection to ways of doing masculinity that were about treating women and subordinate men badly. I felt that being known as a (thoroughly normative and privileged) sexual subject would have pinned me to gender in a way that repelled me. (Though I'm sure it worked the other way too -- part of why I wanted no part of that particular way of doing gender was because it was, by definition to me at that point, the only way of doing gender I had ever encountered which experienced and acted on desire, given that my understanding at the time was that no women and only bad men felt/acted on sexual desire, and that was shameful.)

The more general utility of this book for making choices about everyday practices of living has to do with the way she builds towards talking about the two elements in her title, bodies and pleasures. For her, the significant thing about bodies is understanding them as Foucault does, not as the Cartesian correspondent of "mind" but as a united whole that is capable of developing new capacities over time in response to disciplinary pressures. This capacity of bodies is the basis for the various social technologies through which disciplinary power, often in conjunction with judicious applications of pain, has been applied over the last 200 years develop capacities that are in some sense "useful" to various institutions, and that ensure the docility of those of us who are thus disciplined -- it has made us good workers, good soldiers, good consumers, and so on. However, she argues that this same capacity in bodies can be turned in more liberatory directions. That is, through how we live our own lives, we can cultivate new capacities in our bodies through deliberate, disciplinary choices that are based not in cultivating pain but in cultivating capacity for pleasures, and that are directed not towards some external end but are purely directed towards expanding our range of possibilities. Pleasures may or may not have content that we currently understand as sexual, but they are deliberately oriented differently from dominant ways of pursuing sexual desire. She gives, as examples of disciplines of pleasure, gardening and dancing from her own life, and of sadomasochistic sexual practices, hallucinogenic drugs, and the writing of philosophy from Foucault's life, and illustrates the ways in which each of these have functioned as practices of self-overcoming, of change that changes self while the relations and practices around self remain the same but that change self in ways that will (or at least might) lead that self to be an origin point of challenge and changes in those surrounding relations and practices. The examples she gives are meant not to be taken up directly but as illustrations, and she encourages those who wish to experiment with such ways of being to find their own disciplines of pleasure.

This sounds like it could easily become very self-involved and even narcissistic, and I'm not at all convinced that it is guaranteed to avoid those pitfalls. Nonetheless, it is based on the idea that deliberate cultivation of self in this manner can be a path towards us being other than we have been socially produced to be; towards us overcoming those limits into which we have been trained but which are not (or are no longer) about avoiding direct, tragic consequences; towards us challenging those relations and practices which oppressively discipline us. The idea, I think, is that the non-utilitarian grounding in pleasure will provide both the energy to motivate us and the source for logics of acting that differ from the discplinary (and capitalist) logics which permeate our lives today. To me, this resonates strongly with John Holloway's idea of creating cracks in capitalism, as it provides an answer as to where the non-capitalist logics that are to shape those cracks are to come from. McWhorter admits that there is nothing sure about what will come from following ethical disciplines of pleasure, though I think she's right that there is at least a reasonable chance that following such disciplines will, sooner or later, bring you up against normalizing disciplines and therefore carry you into struggles to create change. I think what for me makes her analysis worth taking seriously is the fact that it applies to areas of life that we make decisions about, that we enact practices in, regardless of whether we do so with political intent, so it is at least worth seeing if there are ways that we can take up her ideas that are consonant with our other political commitments. In retrospect, certain ways that I have related to writing and certain ways that I have related to sexuality could, in complicated and contradictory ways, be understood as disciplines of pleasure that have contributed to change in self.

There are a few other things to be wary of in McWhorter's analysis. For instance, she doesn't really deal with the ways in which some of what Foucault has to say in History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 is quite Orientalist. And she doesn't really deal with the fact that experiencing the moment of confession and consequent sexual identificaiton and classificaiton as the originary moment one's oppression is premised, more or less, on being white -- which isn't to say that racialized people don't experience that moment in all sorts of horrible ways, but because of the unchosen visibility that is inherent to most forms of racial oppression it is highly unlikely that it will be experienced as the first moment of oppression in the same way. And I think the examples she gives of how disciplines of pleasure lead her towards more collective political involvement -- she uses the Foucauldian term "governmentality" -- deserve more attention. She is quite right in arguing that we shouldn't just dismiss her conventional-seeming participation in legislatively oriented efforts to oppose attacks on queer lives in the Southern state in which she lives and works, given that they are very much relevant to the space that ordinary people have to survive and thrive there, but I think attaching her sophisticated understanding of power to an equally sophisticated understanding of movements and what they are and what they can do would be very useful.

In any case, I think this book is worth reading and it contains ideas that are worth taking up, given that it deals with levels of practice that those of us who identify with movements normally don't do a good job of thinking about, and given that the critical but open-ended character of her answers seem at least potentially resistant to the risks of lifestyleism, moralism, and exclusion. Is any of what she says certain? Definitely not. But it feels worth experimenting with to me.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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