Saturday, October 07, 2006

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is? Does Anyone Really Know Foucault? Does Anyone Really Know The Body?

Eric Paras's provocative new book Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge is the subject of Richard Wolin's recent Chronicle essay, "Foucault the Neohumanist." In his book, Paras argues, with evidence mainly culled from Foucault's late College de France lectures, that "in his later years Foucault had clearly become disenchanted with the research program he had honed during the mid-1970s in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. The treatment of 'power' in these works proved too suffocating and monolithic." Further, again in his later years, Foucault "turned to a more positive concept of subjectivity, centered on the 'art of living' in ancient Greece and Rome. Foucault had come to believe that such pre-Christian, pagan approaches to the idea of self-cultivation represented a valuable heuristic — a means to overcome the deficiencies of modern conceptions of the self. Second, the term 'power/knowledge' itself is entirely absent from his later lectures and texts — a telling indication of how radically dissatisfied Foucault had become with the limitations of his earlier approach." Finally, and perhaps most importantly, according to Paras, is how much Foucault, at the end of his career, reevaluated the idea of subjectvity: "During the 1960s, as a card-carrying structuralist, Foucault, along with Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser, had celebrated the 'death of the author' as a pendant to the fashionable postmodernist thesis concerning the 'death of man.' But as Paras remarks, if we know a great deal about Foucault's challenge to the hegemony of 'man,' we are comparatively ignorant of the process by which he abandoned his hard structuralist position and later embraced the ideas that he had labored to undermine: liberty, individualism, 'human rights,' and even the thinking subject."

According to Paras, Foucault became fascinated with an "aesthetics of existence," and he wrote, "The idea of the bios [life] as material for an aesthetic piece of art is something that fascinates me." According to Wolin, "Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity. As Foucault avows, his new normative ideal is 'the formation and development of a practice of Self, the objective of which is the constitution of oneself as the laborer of the beauty of one's own life'." I read Wolin's review a couple of weeks ago, and I've been thinking about it a lot in relation to a recent post of JJC's, "King Alfred's Hemmorrhoids," and our brief exchange there over queer studies [which has been heavily influenced, I think everyone would agree, by the thought of Foucault, especially in his History of Sexuality], bodies-becoming, corporeal hybridity, and embodied and disembodied subjectivities. While Jeffrey agrees with me that we can never really escape the material fact of our embodiment [we can not really become other bodies], he also argues that
humans have always relied on "exterior" devices to assist in our embodiment. Sometimes those devices are other beings. Sometimes they are tools. Always they are pieces of the world without which we would not be human at all (we'd be bereft, self-sustaining, monads, I guess). The moment you form an alliance with a keyboard to disseminate your voice across distance and to touch other bodies (yes, bodies as well as subjectivities: thought is embodied, the anger or pleasure or intelelctual stimulation we feel in reaction to a comment on a blog is embodied), you have already become hybrid: a part of you, which is still of you, has left and is circulating elsewhere. It may come back, and its return is going to affect your embodied subjectivity.
Further, Jeffrey shares the thoughts of his colleague Gail Weiss, who, in her book Body Images: Embodiment as Intersubjectivity, argues that "we are always already 'out of our bodies': we can't gain a coherent body image without identifications and disidentifications that in fact work to spread our embodiment into interstices, blurring boundaries rather than respecting them. . . . So to the question of 'whether a body can really ever be anything other than itself, I would answer: it never was itself."

I would not disagree with anything Jeffrey writes above, except for the last idea that, in essense, the body never was itself. Part of the problem, for me, in trying to parse out all of these ideas--both Jeffrey's thinking in Medieval Identity Machines and queer theorizing on the body and sexualities more generally, as well as my current reading in "sociology of the body" studies [Bryan S. Turner, Chris Shilling, Mike Hepworth, Mike Featherstone, Sarah Coakley, Thomas J. Csordas, Elizabeth Grosz, and Foucault, among others]--is that I find myself confronting a kind of theoretical impasse between the body as discourse and the body as itself, and all the tangled relations between the two. I think one of the ways in which Foucault's earlier work--especially Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality--has perhaps led us down a wrong path, is in its emphasis on bodies [and hence, subjectivity] being entirely discursive. Here is what Chris Shilling writes about that, in his book The Body and Social Theory (SAGE, 2003):
Foucault's epistemological view of the body means that it disappears as a material or biological phenomenon. The biological, physical or material body can never be grasped by the Foucauldian approach as its existence is permanently deferred behind the grids of meaning imposed by discourse. . . . The body is present as a topic of discussion, but is absent as a focus of investigation. . . . One manifestation of this is Foucault's view of the mind/body relationship. Once the body is contained within modern disciplinary systems, it is the mind which takes over as the location for discursive power. Consequently, the body tends to be reduced to an inert mass which is controlled by discourses centered on the mind. However, this mind itself is disembodied; we get no sense of the mind's location within an active human body.
To put it bluntly, the bodies that appear in Foucault's work do not enjoy a prolonged visibility as corporeal entities. Bodies are produced, but their own powers of production, where they have any, are limited to those invested in them by discourse. As such, the body is dissolved as a causal phenomenon into the determining power of discourse, and it becomes extremely difficult to conceive of the body as a material component social action. Furthermore, Foucault is insufficiently concerned with lived experience. As [Bryan] Turner notes, despite all his references to pleasure and desire, Foucault ignores the phenomenology of embodiment. (pp. 70-71)
This is not to say, of course, we want to return to a discourse of the naturalized body--of course not. But it strikes me that a lot of those hybrid corporalities--medieval and modern--that JJC illustrates so beautifully [and with deep empathy] in MIM, are really the products of art, and also, of JJC's own discourse. They are more fully realized in their textual expression than they are, or were, perhaps, in life. Yes, we depend on external devices, including other persons, to fully actualize our identities [and even our embodied "selves"], but much of the physical effects of all of this, I would argue, are mainly felt [experienced] within our own, discretely-contoured chemical circuits, and it is only the beautiful fiction of our lives, if we want to believe it, that we actually "connect" with others. But this is, in my mind, a necessary fiction. We do not really want to be alone in our bodies. This is not to say that we cannot touch and be touched by others, or that we cannot construct elaborate schemes and artifices--mechanical, textual, biological, and otherwise--whereby we blend our bodies into other living entities, or that if someone cuts off my arm, my body hasn't been irrevocably altered by an external action [although my mind may consider that arm to still be there and produce phantom pain as a result--which should tell us something about just how powerful the body--i.e., the mind--actually is, especially against external forces seeking to alter that body's self-integrity].

I'm not sure, ultimately, where I am headed with all of this in my own work [it will come into play, at some level, in my article on eros and The Seven Sleepers and in my new book project, We Must Speak What We Feel], except that I think those of us working in literary studies might need to work a bit harder to account for "the body" when we write about identity and subjectivity, and realize that, while, yes, "the body" is a historical entity that has been produced in discourse [and also in medical practice] over time, that "the body" is, at the same time, something that exists prior to discourse, and even in spite of it. Obviously, a body is always social, and both shapes and is shaped by its environment. Here is how Chris Shilling sees the current state of affairs in body studies:
. . . . the physical body is at once a source of self-identity (involving experiences, feelings, and perceptions), and a location for the effects of society (group norms permeate the individual's sense of self and their evaluation of this sense of self). . . . the body also constitutes a medium whereby people can be attached to or repelled from their social milieu. (p. 206)

Of course, a huge problem in all this, is our dualistic way of thinking about everything--body versus mind, self versus society, etc.--which is very difficult to overcome, even as science tells us, over and over again: there is NO body and mind. Only body. But how can we account for this, except through the very language that keeps us, again and again, from being only bodies?


Eileen Joy said...

I should probably add--quickly--that on the basis of neuroscience, and also some posts that Emile B. has made here concerning the ways in which certain kinds of therapy can actually impact on the development of the brain [regarding, for example, the cultivation of empathy], that, of course, at certain stages in our development, our brain/body's growth is impacted from the outside.

Eileen Joy said...

It's the wierdest thing, but as soon as I got home after writing this post this morning, I started disagreeing with myself on almost everything I had written. AARGH! This subject makes my head spin! So I offer some additional thoughts here--not meant in any way to be further "arguments," so to speak, but just random, unstructured, unformed, possibly ill-informed, chaotic, branching strands of thoughts relative to "thinking on the body":

I. As regards Chris Shilling's idea that "the physical body is at once a source of self-identity (involving experiences, feelings, and perceptions), and a location for the effects of society (group norms permeate the individual's sense of self and their evaluation of this sense of self)," and also the "medium whereby people can be attached to or repelled from their social milieu," haven't MEDIEVAL and CLASSICAL studies already produced much work that demonstrates this? I'm thinking especially of the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Peter Brown, Jeffrey J. Cohen, Peggy McCracken, Karma Lochrie, Glenn Burger, Norman Cantor ["In the Wake of the Plague"], Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe [in her more recent work on the body and Anglo-Saxon law codes], and Thomas Laqueuer [among many others too numerous to mention here]. BUT, except for the occasional de rigeur nod to the work of Bynum, medieval studies is rarely paid attention to by contemporary social theorists who work on "body studies." While they are busy writing their books and articles calling into question Foucault's neglect of material bodies, there are medieval scholars who have been paying great attention to those material bodies, but with less fanfare. I am thinking, especially, of Nancy Partner's "Speculum" article "No Sex, No Gender" and JJC's "Speculum" article "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich" or Anne Clark Bartlett's stunning "Exemplaria" article "Reading It Personally: Robert Gl├╝ck, Margery Kempe, and Language in Crisis" [16.2; Autumn 2004]. I could go on and on. One could say [I think] that the medieval period was so obsessed with corporality that it is not possible to speak of identity in the Middle Ages only in discursive terms and medieval scholars have long understood this, while they have also recognized the utility of Foucault's archaeological method for locating the ways in which various structures of power have "written" themselves on individual and more collective medieval bodies.

II. If it is true [yeah, it is] that in his later years, Foucault became a bit obsessed with pre-Christian and so-called "pagan" ideas regarding self-cultivation, how do we judge Foucault's "historicism" on this matter? How, more specically, do these philosophies, or "heuristics," of self-cultivation or "the art of living" really help us overcome "modern notions of the self," and why are they so necessary *now*? [I actually agree with "the later Foucault" on this point, but I don't know how to begin to judge whether or not we really need what we might call "the turn to the classical" to help us "overcome" our modern selves.]

III. I am really finding myself stuck, I think [no pun intended] on wanting to agree with JJC's idea that parts of ourselves circulate "out there," come back again in a different form, and affect/change our embodied subjectivities. In other words, we can't help but *affect* each other, and even *change* each other [and perhaps neuroscience could show us how this change can manifest itself in our bodies--chemically or otherwise?], and perhaps also, we never really understand ourselves without always somehow pulling on references [or devices] that are external to us? I offer two items--one from a play by Neil LaBute, and one entirely hypothetical--that, for me anyway, shed some light here [but what kind? I don't know! help!]:

a. in Neil LaBute's play "The Shape of Things" [very apropos to this whole discussion, actually] an art student named Evelyn decides to make her final art project [for her Master's thesis] the "sculpting" of a human being. She chooses this really geeky, awkward, and insecure undergraduate student named Adam [and yes, there's a purposeful allusion here to the Adam and Eve story; in fact, Evelyn's initials are E.A.T.], and basically makes him fall in love with her [for which feat she mainly flirts with him and sleeps with him and dotes on him]. Once she has him hooked, she starts to "mold" him. She gets him to change what he wears, to get rid of his glasses for contacts, and to even get a nose job. She also slyly pushes him into an act of sexual infidelity with his best friend's fiancee, and then demands afterward that he never have anything to do with his former friends who actually *really* love him. [This play is so cool, if seriously misanthropic, like much of LaBute's work, by the way, and I usually teach it alongside Milton's "Paradise Lost"]. When all of this is finally revealed to Adam at the end of the play--after he has proposed marriage to Evelyn, which she refuses--he is alternately shocked, morally outraged, stunned, hurt, grief-stricken, and just generally so de-centered that he can barely speak. Let's just say that this is not your "normal" break-up: Adam literally does not who he is, or who Evelyn is [or so he thinks]. Evelyn is very cool and doesn't understand what all the fuss is about--after all, if she had never told him and he had gone to their apartment that night and they had made love and he had believed she loved him, what difference would the truth make? If HE believed, then that is all that matters. What SHE thinks is irrelevant to what HE actually feels. Therefore, for him, the love was real, even if for her it wasn't. In Adam's mind, his love for Evelyn isn't real unless it's confirmed by her--love as transactional. If he loved her [thinking she loved him] while she wasn't loving him, then somehow his love isn't "real" anymore and never was. In her mind, it's real if you THINK it is--love as creative, but sustaining, illusion. Of course, in the end, LaBute intends for us to see Evelyn as completely amoral, but I think she raises an important point--no matter how many other bodies [or minds] you connect with, and regardless of the rate of "return" on your affections, the love you *feel* is ultimately your own fiction, and exists only within you.

b. Speaking of love, herewith my hypothetical: typically, in love relationships, the language of "connection" is at its most extreme, and we really believe that we give a part of ourselves away and are also transformed by what is supposedly "given" to or shared with us. But if we were really to experience the materiality, even the pseudo-materiality, of what we profess to believe--that we melt into each other, are stuck on each other, share one heart, are inside of each other, etc., wouldn't that be less a love story and more like a horror story?

IV. Having said whateverthefuck it is I have said so far, I am struck by the idea that, regardless of whether or not we really are, to a certain extent, *stuck* within our individual material bodies, that it still behooves us to do the very thing that, in the end, I think makes us more human than anything else: imagine and express in language what might be otherwise [which is also the beginning of ethics, and even, of true love]. On that note, I will share here a brief excerpt from a paper that my friend and novelist Valerie Vogrin is going to be reading next week in Oxford, MS as part of BABEL's third round-table on "premodern to modern humanisms":

-----beginning of excerpt-----

One of my favorite contemporary stories to teach is Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” which begins:

“I never can quite say as much as I know. I look at other parrots and I wonder if it's the same for them, if somebody is trapped in each of them paying some kind of price for living their life in a certain way. For instance, 'Hello,' I say, and I'm sitting on a perch in a pet store in Houston and what I'm really thinking is Holy shit. It's you. And what's happened is I'm looking at my wife.”

The reader learns that the narrator fell to his death while spying on his wife and watches with bemusement as the wife/widow purchases the parrot and takes him home with her.

My students and I admire how Butler uses detail to convince us of the man-as-bird’s new life: “That dangling thing over there with knots and strips of rawhide and a bell at the bottom needs a good thrashing a couple of times a day and I'm the bird to do it. I look at the very dangle of it and the thing is rough, the rawhide and the knotted rope, and I get this restlessness back in my tail, a burning thrashing feeling, and it's like all the times when I was sure there was a man naked with my wife.” We chuckle over his sly humor, as when, from the vantage of his cage, the narrator confronts one of his wife’s actual lovers, naked except for his snakeskin boots: “I take one look at his miserable, featherless body and shake my head. We keep our sexual parts hidden, we parrots, and this man is a pitiful sight. "Peanut," I say.”

But it’s more than artfulness, cleverness. Fast forwarding a bit:

"And since I've had success in the last few minutes with words, when she comes back I am moved to speak. 'Hello,' I say, meaning, You are still connected to me, I still want only you. 'Hello,' I say again. Please listen to this tiny heart that beats fast at all times for you. And she does indeed stop and she comes to me and bends to me. 'Pretty bird,' I say and I am saying, You are beautiful, my wife, and your beauty cries out for protection. 'Pretty.' I want to cover you with my own nakedness. 'Bad bird,' I say. If there are others in your life, even in your mind, then there is nothing I can do. 'Bad.' Your nakedness is touched from inside by the others. 'Open,' I say. How can we be whole together if you are not empty in the place that I am to fill? She smiles at this and she opens the door to my cage. 'Up,' I say, meaning, Is there no place for me in this world where I can be free of this terrible sense of others? She reaches in now and offers her hand and I climb onto it and I tremble and she says, 'Poor baby.' 'Poor baby,' I say. You have yearned for wholeness too and somehow I failed you. I was not enough. 'Bad bird,' I say. I'm sorry."

So he’s a parrot. I don’t know that I’ve read a more poignant evocation of the failure of communication in a marriage, of the loss of trust and the poison of suspicion.

Similarly, I consider "The Brief History of the Dead" [a recent novel by Kevin Brockmeier set in the post-apocalypse]. What better way to interrogate both our fear at the prospect of pandemics and ecological disasters, what better way to sit with our mortality, than to imagine both an afterworld and a post-apocalyptic world? Why not imagine what animals or ancestors or aliens or the deceased might have to tell us about ourselves? What would your dead grandmother whisper to you from beyond? What would my dog, Daisy, tell me about how to live? Can we afford not to listen?

-----end of excerpt-----

Anonymous said...

Hi, Eileen. Thanks for this provocative approach. One thing that helps me as I struggle with very similar issues in my own work is to consider where the inside of the body ends and the "outside" begins. Of course, I work on the history of smell, which immediately underscores such boundary issues. One thing I found striking in your original post was the way in which feeling/touching emerged as a model for understanding interior engagements with exterior worlds. Might switching the sensory metaphor open up new interfaces between our subjective, material, and objective experiences?

Eileen Joy said...

HD wrote, "Might switching the sensory metaphor open up new interfaces between our subjective, material, and objective experiences?" One things is for sure: we can't likely describe the interfaces between our subjective, material, and objective experiences *without* the use of metaphor, sensory or otherwise. Second, it may be that the realm of "the senses" is the only way in which we can orient ourselves to what is supposedly "outside" of ourselves and also let that "outside" in. Third, I'm not sure there *is* any such thing as an objective experience, and the material world--whatever that might be--can only be felt/experienced/translated/expressed *subjectively*. There are some scientists working in robotics, like Rodney Brooks at M.I.T., who believe that self-consciousness [or what might be called that first conscious awareness of self and other, self and world, etc.] might first arise, not from language, but from the way bodies move in the landscape--from bodily motion, in other words, more so than from "thought." Does that make sense?

Also, I just re-read this morning Malcolm Godden's "Anglo-Saxons on the Mind" [included as a chapter in "Language and Learning in Anglo-Saxon England," ed. Michael Lapidge and Helmust Gneuss, papers presented to Peter Clemoes], where he parses out the discourse on mind and soul and self in the writings of Augustine and Boethius, then in Alcuin, Alfred, and AElfric, and finally in the vernacular poetry [like "Wanderer" and "Seafarer" but also "Maxims," "Beowuld," etc.]. It's a short but compelling essay, in which you can see a kind of philosophical struggle--at the level of Alcuin, Alfred, and AElfric--to distinguish between a soul and a mind [which is either an attribute of soul or *is* the soul, which might also be an "inner self"] and to also distinguish between different aspects of that mind--as reason, but also as passion and feeling. And there are also arguments over whether or not animals have souls, and if so, of what type, etc. And where is the mind, or soul located--the head or the heart? In the poetry, of course, all sorts of things happen that Alcuin and AElfric would not necessarily approve of--mind is more aligned with the feelings and passions than it is with reason or "the rational self," and is more often situated in the heart [or breast] than in the head, where yet another "self" exists who is often at war with the deeper other "self" or "mind." Whew. Anyway--it would seem [to my mind, anyway] that the Anglo-Saxon poets recognized that the so called "mind" and the so-called "emotions" were intimately connected, if not one and the same, whereas an AElfric worked hard, in his doctrinal writings, to distinguish between the different "parts" of the mind, which corresponded, partly, to the classical tripartite division of the mind between its higher and lower parts [reason, feeling, bodily desires]. Just more food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I think i totally agree with your point about spatial motion and about the need for metaphor to describe sensory experience. for me, it's productive to push on the purely subjective realm in order to ponder what's usually left out of the historical records--three dimensional spaces of the past that comprised communal, social experience. Knowing that we can't really access such materiality without the taint of subjective perception is fine by me. What troubles me is when we pretend that our subjective experience of the body must somehow be linked to those of the past... (your lovely reading of AElfric's mind/heart demonstrates the problems with such hasty conclusions...) Some museum exhibits seem invested in using the senses, particularly smell, as a sort of time machine to the past. though, as one can probably guess, these lead to pretty sanitized exhibits... (this tends to happen a lot to dinosaurs and vikings, go figure).

p.s. I also just want to say that i loved, loved, loved the excerpt from Butler's parrot: "We keep our sexual parts hidden, we parrots, and this man is a pitiful sight. "Peanut," I say.” This lovely meditation on the failure of language to convey experience reminded me of trying to teach Skelton's speak, parrot last term.

p.p.s. I thought you'd enjoy this:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The subject makes my head spin, too. Kind of like a scene in The Exorcist, but without the pea soup.

In between hosing down the children of their weekend grime and the instigation of nighttime rituals, I just want to say:

(1) Foucault may have "retreated" somewhat later in life from some of the the grander and more dispersed conceptions of corporeality (and this later period, I might add, coincided with the waning of his friendship of Deleuze). But look at a book like The Use of Pleasure: ethics here are built on intersubjectivity, on the space in between (for example) the man and the boy. It's not as if the assemblage or circuit was wholly replaced by an old fashioned well bounded Human.

(2) Thanks for the olfactory drift, hd. So much of this subject relates to the boundaries that smell traces, invades, etc ...

(3) Last night I saw The Sea Inside, about a quadriplegic's desire for his own death -- something the disabled are never supposed to desire. Powerful, and very much invested in prison house of the body stuff .. while also being about assemblages, alliances, and intercorporeal space. And I'm not saying the latter diminishes in any way the ethical desire of the quadriplegic to die.

Eileen Joy said...

HD--the Collision Detection blog is wonderful; thanks for passing it on. But now that I know that, a) North Korea is developing robot soldiers, and b) some robots, which were designed for "tasting" wine, think human beings are proscuitto, I'm really scared.

JJC--thanks for the clarification on Foucault, viz. "The Uses of Pleasure." Also, just because Foucault retreated from certain theoretical positions [and isn't that what *all* intellectuals should be willing and wanting to do as their education and thinking progresses?] later in his career, and although social theorists [and I would argue, medieval scholars as well] have located some holes, so to speak, in his "power/knowledge" grid, does not take the air completely out of the tires. In other words, Foucault's thinking--early or late--on the ways in which identity is partly shaped by various ideologies and instruments of state power, technology, etc., is still valid. But you almost don't *need* Foucault to understand that.

I saw "The Sea Inside" about a year ago, and I'm not sure I liked it very much--as a *film*--but I was very struck by the main character's repeated insistence that, without the full use of *all* of his body, he could not really live his life, and therefore did not *want* to live it. He does not want to fall in love with someone if he cannot be physically intimate with them in a very particular way; otherwise, what is the point of the relationship [?], and so on and so forth. The movie, though, is not so much making the argument that only whole bodies can enjoy/live their lives, so much as it is arguing for the individual's right to judge the quality [or lack thereof] of his own life. I love the twist at the end--that the woman who has always kind of loved him, but who has mainly shunned, is the only person willing to help him die. Foucault famously wrote that the soul was the prison of the body [thereby reversing the terms of a famous adage and deeply-held, by many, belief], but I have always thought he got it wrong: the body is the prison of the body.