chapter  7
11 Pages

Foucault’s Body

ByNikki Sullivan

My task in this chapter is to provide the reader with an account of the body as it operates in Michel Foucault’s work, and yet, nowhere in his oeuvre does Foucault offer us a theory of the body. Instead, what we find in the interviews he gave, the many and various books and articles he published, are thoughts about, rather than detailed schemas of, bodily-being-in-the-world, or, to put it more appropriately, bodily-(un)becoming.1 This can be explained by the fact that Foucault was less interested in positivist accounts of what a thing is, than in analyses of the ways in which we, and the means by which we identify ourselves, come to matter.2 For Foucault, bodily-(un)becoming as the constitutive effect of processes and practices which occur in and through relations with others and with a world is inextricably bound up with subjectivity, power, and knowledge. Just as Foucault’s work calls into question the notion of ‘the body’ as an object to be known, it also

problematises the commonly-held liberal humanist understanding of ‘the subject’ as autonomous, unique, self-transparent, and naturally occurring. In ‘Truth and Power’ (Foucault, 1980b) Foucault says ‘one has to dispense with the constituent subject. … that’s to say, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework’ (Foucault, 1980b: 117). The aim, then, is not to get rid of an erroneous theory of ‘the subject’ in order to replace it with a correct or truthful one, but rather, to critically analyse the constitutive effects of modes of knowledge and of inquiry which shape embodied subjectivity(s) in contextually-specific ways. There are three connected modes of inquiry and/or knowledge production that are of particular interest to Foucault: they are, those which try to give themselves the status of science; those which function as dividing practices; and what he refers to as ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1982: 777). We will explore each of these in due course, but for the moment, suffice it to say that, as Foucault explains it, the aim of his work has been ‘to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves … The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyse the so-called sciences as very specific “truth games” related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves’ (Foucault, 1997: 224). In other words, if we are looking to find truth-claims about, and/or theories of, ‘the body’ or ‘the subject’ in Foucault’s writings we will be disappointed, and the same is true when it comes to the notion of power. In ‘The Confession of the Flesh’ (Foucault, 1980c), Foucault argues that:

‘le’ pouvoir, does not exist … In reality power means relations, a more-or-less organised, hierarchical co-ordinated cluster of relations … If one tries to erect a theory of power one will always be obliged

to view it as emerging at a given place and time hence to deduce it, to reconstruct its genesis. But if power is in reality an open, more-or-less co-ordinated … cluster of relations, then the only problem is to provide oneself with a grid of analysis which makes possible an analytic of relations of power.