études féministes/ estudos feministas
Feminism, Foucault and Deleuze.
Mariam MotamediFraser *
This paper interrogates the relevance and limitations of Michel Foucault's concept of techniques of the self for a feminist politics of identity and sexuality. It argues that, while Foucault's analysis helpfully enables feminists both to recognise the individuality of the self and to work against it, it also, inadvertently, serves to tie identity and sexuality to selfhood. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze's notion of the Body without Organs – and especially the notion of bodies defined in terms of affects and capacities (rather than forms or functions) – the article explores the possibility of thinking desire as exterior to techniques of normalization and the self. The argument is based on an empirical investigation of British newspaper representations of Simone de Beauvoir and bisexuality.
Key words feminist theory, Foucault, Deleuze, sexuality, selfhood, de Beauvoir
One of the central aims of western feminism is to politicize the concept of the self and, in so doing, to expose the 'universal' notion of the self for what it is. As Elspeth Probyn puts it: 'when selves got spoken they were ... taken as a-gendered although of course they were distinctly male' (1993: 2). A particular challenge which faces poststructuralist feminism is how to undo the essential or 'natural' conception of the self, while simultaneously maintaining the category 'women' which feminism necessarily requires. Denise Riley puts the dilemma thus:
What is especially appealing here, is that Foucault offers a forceful critique of humanism without entirely sacrificing the 'self' (Foucault, 1991). Indeed, the self is understood to be the site of an historical problem where even the question 'What kinds of human beings have we become?' (Rose, 1996: 294) represents a historically and culturally specific project. Hence while questions of sexuality have frequently become caught up with the way that the self acquires individuality, Foucault's work has enabled feminists both to recognize the individuality of the self and also work against it. Since individuality is itself found to be a technique which contributes to the creation of coherent selfhood, it is possible for the relation between an individual and its identity to be opened up, and to be made available as a site of political contestation.
My own research has been concerned with the relationship between bisexuality and the different techniques, techniques such as individuality, through which the textually mediated figure of Simone de Beauvoir is produced as an intelligible self. Employing a Foucauldian understanding of the relation between sexuality and selfhood, a 'double petition', where 'we are compelled to know how things are with [sex], while it is suspected of knowing how things are with us' (Foucault, 1990a: 78), my initial assumption was that if de Beauvoir was in possession of 'bisexuality', then it would be no less the case that 'bisexuality' was in possession of her. An analysis of representations of de Beauvoir across three different genres (academic texts, biographies and newspaper articles, covering the period 1980-1994) however, indicates that she is rarely identified, or constituted, as 'bisexual'. Indeed, this research suggests that it is too much to presuppose that the presence of 'bisexuality' in a text is always evidence of the 'truth' of a bisexual self.
The following brief example, which looks at British newspaper representations of Simone de Beauvoir, goes some way to explore this claim. Based on the premise that plausible selfhood is produced through the techniques which describe it, I will consider how the press deploy ‘existentialism’ in particular to constitute the self ascribed to de Beauvoir. In other words, these newspaper representations construct ‘existentialism’ as technique by which de Beauvoir works on her self in order to produce an ‘authentic’ self. The issue here, then, is not existentialism per se, but the role accorded to it in the production of ‘de Beauvoir’. I will then go on to illustrate that, while Foucault's work is essential in order to account for the peculiar position of bisexuality within these texts, his focus on the self - as 'an antidote to the normalizing tendencies of modern society' (McNay, 1994: 142) - is not always appropriate to an analysis of sexuality and identity. This is because sexuality and selfhood are not necessarily bound to each other; bisexuality does not necessarily author the 'self', or at least aspects of it, in the way that lesbian and heterosexuality are frequently perceived to do (whether this is desirable or not). The final part of the paper will examine, in the light of the above analysis, the contribution that Deleuzian thought might make not only to the analysis of bisexuality, but also to contemporary and future feminist theories of selfhood.
This question, posed by Nelson Algren (one of de Beauvoir's male lovers), neatly encapsulates the majority of press opinion with respect to de Beauvoir's 'pact' with Sartre. The virtually legal terminology in which the agreement is represented confirms that it is the 'dry' flavour of the arrangement - which robs the affairs of those features traditionally associated with romance - that warrants disapproval. As the Financial Times puts it: 'the terms of de Beauvoir's contract with the existential maestro do not seem to have been negotiable' (15 August 1987). What the press are left to negotiate therefore, is an expression of sexuality unescorted by 'love'. To this end, Algren comes to represent the figural enactment of all that is 'normal', all that is 'not French' and all that is heterosexual: 'Algren was so un-French as to be distraught ... He thought in his naive American way that two people who loved as they did ought to get married and be faithful to one another' (Financial Times, 19 January 1991).
If de Beauvoir's pact with Sartre, a pact which is understood to have its roots in the existential accent on mutual liberty, deprives the press of a traditional heterosexual love story, they in turn use a specific representation of ‘existentialism’, and the existential 'contract', to deprive her of same-sex sexual desire. According to the Independent on Sunday for example, de Beauvoir 'wants experience more than pleasure' (2 February 1992) from her women lovers, while the Sunday Times claims that de Beauvoir's 'relations with women were tortured, rarely erotic' (2 August 1987). The Sunday Telegraph too, suggests that although de Beauvoir had 'several lovers at once' this was 'curiously not always with much pleasure' (8 December 1991). De Beauvoir is said to 'ignore' her female lovers' 'jealous tears' and 'demands' and to describe them 'cold-heartedly, and in intimate detail, to Sartre' (Sunday Telegraph, 8 December 1991). The roots of this 'cold-heartedness', in the Sunday Telegraph's opinion, lies in the existential concept of 'inauthenticity':
The occlusion of sexual pleasure, in favour of an emphasis on existential philosophy, implicitly suggests that while heterosexual pleasure is absolute, any other form of sexual expression is dependent upon a motive other than pleasure itself. It appears inconceivable in this context that Olga Kosakiewitch, say, (one of de Beauvoir's women lovers), as opposed to Nelson Algren, should question the philosophy behind de Beauvoir's contingent affairs or should ask how it is possible for love to be contingent.
The shift to 'existentialism', understood to be the inspiration
behind de Beauvoir's same-sex liaisons, ties sexuality not to desire but
to intellectualism. In this context, de Beauvoir's lovers are rendered
no more than objects in an experimental research project: 'Certainly there
is something cold, exploitative in her attitude ... we cannot know how
the experimental subjects feel, for theirs are merely contingent lives'
(Independent on Sunday, 2 February 1992). De Beauvoir's ambivalent
sexuality is disciplined insofar as her pleasure is 'aestheticized', literally
'purified of pleasure' (Nead, 1993: 84). Indeed, the qualities that
'existentialism' defines, according to much of the press, are the very
same as those which constitute the sublimated pleasure of the aesthetic
- voyeuristic distance, 'objectivity' and intellectualism. De Beauvoir
'looks', for instance, with the eyes of a male: 'She and Sartre were incurable
voyeurs who specialized in emotional threesomes' (Sunday Times, 2 August
1987). The voyeurism imputed to these relationships constructs a
distance between de Beauvoir and her lovers: de Beauvoir is situated 'outside'
the relationships, she looks at, but does not partake in.
'Existentialism' thus serves as a two-pronged strategy of containment which circumscribes the sexuality ascribed to de Beauvoir. Firstly, confined to the unemotional, controlled and intellectually reflective arena, the figure of de Beauvoir is restrained through the technics of an asexual biography (where the order of the mind takes priority over the chaos of the body). Secondly, a metaphorical gender switch, whereby de Beauvoir represents the 'masculine' voyeur herself, enables not only de Beauvoir's own, now masculinized, body to be 'mastered' (insofar as it is denied energetic sexual desire for women) but also, through this body, those of her female lovers as well (they are her 'objects'). Since sexual pleasure cannot explain (or justify) de Beauvoir's relationships with women, it must be entirely forfeited. Significantly, it is replaced by existentialism and, specifically, the 'existential experiment which was their [de Beauvoir and Sartre's] long, open "morganatic" marriage' (Sunday Telegraph, 8 December 1991). The key point here is that de Beauvoir's relationships with women pertain not to the self, but to scholarship; in these representations, same-sex desire does not inhere in the self of de Beauvoir, but in philosophy. In short, no 'inherent' value is conferred on de Beauvoir's relationships with women because, unlike her relationships with men, their source lies in something (that something being existentialism) which is other than themselves, and other than de Beauvoir.
The suspicion that heterosexuality alone reveals the 'truth' of the self of de Beauvoir is confirmed by newspaper responses to de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre. The Sunday Telegraph writes:
The letters may have come out of the cupboard, but de Beauvoir remained in the closet: although they documented de Beauvoir's relationships with women as well as men, the coverage these letters received emphasized the author's 'guilt' regarding her sexual behaviour: it was de Beauvoir's anxiety, rather than her relationships with women, that ultimately proved 'the scandal'. According to the Sunday Telegraph: 'the horrid truth that emerges from these accounts is that de Beauvoir is at some level sorry. She understands the jealousy she and Sartre have caused; she describes it page after page. She feels remorse .... she feels jealousy herself' (8 December 1991). The 'truth' of de Beauvoir which emerges from the annals of historical myth is firmly heterosexual: 'For those who have not suspected it already ... Simone de Beauvoir is not Existential Woman, heroine of Bohemia. Not only does she have feet of clay; she has the ruthless and sentimental heart of a bourgeois housewife' (Sunday Telegraph, 8 December 1991).
This shift from 'heroine of Bohemia' to 'bourgeois housewife' displaces all notion of bisexuality: even though de Beauvoir was not physically heterosexual, or monogamous, she was still emotionally chaste to Sartre. '[T]hrough all these [her affairs] and other, briefer "flings"', the Sunday Telegraph writes, 'she remained loyal to Sartre, an unmarried cuckold, a submissive non-wife' (26 January 1992). Although the marital imagery in this extract is somewhat ambivalent (it is both recalled and dismissed at once), 'de Beauvoir's' heterosexuality is confirmed, while bisexuality is again imputed to a source which does not 'belong' to de Beauvoir herself. Now, it is not only existentialism which 'accounts' for de Beauvoir's relationships with women, but also Sartre, who acts as a screen for all things existential. In both cases, de Beauvoir's same-sex affairs reside outside of, and could therefore potentially be removed from, her self: in the first instance bisexuality is rooted in existentialism, in the second, Sartre.
In his earlier works, Foucault describes the processes by which the self is disciplined and regulated, subject to and of techniques of individualization and normalization. Additionally, the self is tied to its own identity through conscience or self-knowledge: ceaselessly searching for the 'truth' of its self, the self binds itself still further to regimes of power/knowledge. Modern secular ethics are all the more horrifying, Foucault argues, because they are grounded not in religion but in the 'so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the unconscious is' (Foucault quoted in McNay, 1994: 142). This attention to the historical processes by which the self comes to be established enables an understanding not only of the ways in which bisexuality is displaced as a technique of the self in the newspaper representations discussed above, but also how the self itself is constituted and how the individuality ascribed to de Beauvoir is constructed.
To use de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre as evidence of a guilty conscience endows her with the status of a sexual and ethical protagonist: it is de Beauvoir herself who bears sole emotional responsibility for her actions and who feels 'remorse'. This apparent remorse over her sexual behaviour renders her 'true' heterosexual identity available to the critics. Claiming to have the authoritative weight of a confessional narrative behind them, the press subsequently confer this knowledge on de Beauvoir. Hence the conclusions that the press draw on the basis of de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre move her one step nearer coherent heterosexuality: that her emotions are predominantly those of guilt and shame suggests that were an alternative available, de Beauvoir might have taken it. In other words, de Beauvoir is understood to have continued with her lovers only in order to 'keep' Sartre: '[de Beauvoir] is constantly trying to manipulate Sartre, and keep her position as number one wife. Significantly, at one particularly threatening time for her, she addresses him as husband' (Sunday Telegraph, 8 December 1991).
The notion that de Beauvoir's same-sex relationships were
inspired by a belief in existentialism and a desire to keep apace with
Sartre's sexual antics implies that if these factors - factors that appear
to be purely circumstantial - could be 'detached' from de Beauvoir, as
the letters 'prove', only heterosexuality would remain. Bisexuality
and selfhood are thus separated, while de Beauvoir and heterosexuality
are seen to be in possession of, and inextricably bound to, (the 'truth'
of) each other (the 'double petition' of which Foucault writes).
One of the ways that Foucault attempts to negotiate the historical processes of normalization is by advocating an aesthetics of existence, an aesthetics which obliges the individual to ceaselessly invent itself anew. Lois McNay summarizes these 'arts of existence' thus:
A question that the analysis of bisexuality and of de Beauvoir raises however, is whether the very technique which delimits and confines the self - individuality - can be held up as the means by which the limits of the self are to be explored. As the analysis of the figure of de Beauvoir highlights, individuality has its costs: 'the costs of breeding an animal that could feel guilty and bear responsibility for itself and its conduct, against which it must pledge itself as guarantor' (Rose, 1996: 322). It is hard to imagine how a concept of the individual could be established without incurring such costs: self-knowledge, conscience, responsibility - as Foucault illustrates in his work and my own brief example confirms - are profoundly entangled with processes of individualization.
Although Foucault's notion of the individual who endlessly reinvents his or her self does not necessarily require that that individual, or its experiences, be privileged (for Foucault subjectification is a historically and culturally specific process which precedes interiority), Rosalyn Diprose (1994) argues that there is nevertheless a fundamental problem with Foucault's aesthetics of the self which illustrates the extent to which he confers primacy on the sovereign self. The Greek aesthetics of the self, she argues, disqualified women on two counts. Firstly, because women's use of pleasure was derived not from their own selves, but from their role as wife and mother, and secondly, because moderation, perceived to be a necessary prerequisite for self-mastery, had an 'essentially masculine structure of active virility' (Diprose, 1994: 30). Since the very concept of self-mastery depended upon a struggle to subordinate the womanly characteristic of immoderation, the value attributed to the male Greek body as a work of art was gained precisely through the denigration of the other. Hence the exclusion of women from the Ancient Greek ethics of the self is not simply an omission, but rather a structural necessity.
This exclusion suggests that Foucault's aesthetics of existence prioritizes and maintains the relation with the self over and above relations with others or any intersubjective - or indeed non-subjective - experience. In other words, Foucault's intention appears not to be to 'break down' the self, or the boundaries that divide self and other, so much as to realize the conditions under which the self would be 'free' to dominate itself. As he says: 'One must not have the care for others precede the care for self. The care for self takes moral precedence on the measure that the relationship to self takes ontological precedence' (Foucault quoted in McNay, 1994: 152).
While much feminist work (which Foucault does not take account of) demonstrates that dieting, exercising, body-building and so forth could all be considered an aesthetics of existence, they are also perceived to be practices of the self (carried out on the body) which 'might be described, in Foucault's terms, not as operations of power, but as closer to states of domination' (Thacker 1993: 18). Not only is the concept of an aesthetics of the self gendered then, as Diprose illustrates, but aesthetic practices too, may be effected by gender. A further issue is raised by the discursive production of bisexuality in the texts analyzed above. For if, in the Foucauldian schema, the self takes precendence in the 'undefined work of freedom' (Foucault, 1991: 46), then what role would be available to bisexuality, given that it is not constructed as a technique of the self nor is it intelligible in terms of the self? Ultimately, Foucault's aesthetics of existence appears too bound up with the very self that he seeks to critique: it is an ethics born of that self, a reinterpretation perhaps, but one that does not move far enough away from the analysis that Foucault himself began.
While Deleuze's Foucault (1988) illustrates the role that forces and affects play in Foucault's work (the self itself is folded force), it is in his own work that these concepts are privileged. In Dialogues, Deleuze outlines a Spinozist concept of bodies understood not as forms or functions, but as affects distributed on a plane of immanence: 'Bodies are not defined by their genus or species, by their organs and functions, but by what they can do, by the affects of which they are capable' (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 60). Defined on the basis of what they can 'do' (rather than what they 'are'), there may be greater similarities, for example, between a plough horse and an ox than between a plough horse and a racehorse. This is because 'the racehorse and the plow horse have neither the same affects nor the same capacity for being affected; the plow horse has affects in common, rather, with the ox' (Deleuze, 1992: 627). Hence a body may be anything which can affect or be affected: 'it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or an idea' (Deleuze, 1992: 629).
This focus on forces and affects offers two things to the theorist of identity. In the first instance, it enables the effects of stratification to be addressed. Deleuze and Guattari show, for example, how the flows of forces may be limited and ordered by the three strata of organism, signifiance and subjectification. Here, matter is bound into human corporeality and endowed with an origin, interiority and depth (this 'deep' self is henceforth available for analysis and interpretation). Subjectification ensures that a subject is produced through the positions made available by discourse:
Stratification gives rise to molar entities, entities whose forces are congealed and sedimented into binary oppositions, such as those of men and women or heterosexual and homosexual. Bisexuality too, Deleuze and Guattari argue, 'is no better a concept than the separateness of the sexes. It is as deplorable to miniaturize, internalize the binary machine as it is to exacerbate it; it does not extricate us from it' (1988: 276). Deleuze and Guattari's understanding of bisexuality appears to be confined to bisexuality-as-androgyny. But one could speculate that the creation of a bisexual subject, a subject whose object of desire is both men and women, would be just as ‘deplorable’ to them insofar as it would bind and fold forces to produce a subject and the interiority ascribed it. In both cases, the capacity of a body to affect and to be affected is restricted. This is Deleuze and Guattari's objection subjects' should be 'put to work, made to do things' (Grosz, 1994: 200).
The reference to the notion of 'better' in the context of bisexuality raises the question of ethics in Deleuze and Guattari's work, and 'making things do things' is revealed to be not simply a method but, also, an ethical objective. Elizabeth Grosz writes:
The ethics towards which Deleuze and Guattari gesture
is not however, as in Foucault's aesthetics of existence, based on the
self (a molar entity which has already been organized). Instead,
it concerns the effects of and on forces which may or may not have been
regulated by the three strata. Hence Deleuze and Guattari not only
render the implications of stratification available for analysis and critique,
they also, because of their accent on flows of forces, open up new ways
of thinking about identity. By addressing all forces, rather than
only those which have already been territorialized, Deleuze and Guattari
allow for the possibility, for example, that a body may not take the form
of a human individual, or that identity may not be confined to, or 'owned'
by, the self.
I want to argue that bisexuality, as it is produced in the texts analyzed above, may be understood as a BwO. This may seem odd, given Deleuze and Guattari's views on the subject. It may seem odd also, given that bisexuality is often perceived to hold not only the binaries of the two sexes within it, but the heterosexual/homosexual opposition as well, so securing this dualistic logic ever more tightly. Nevertheless, although bisexuality may surely take these forms, the conclusions I am drawing here are based on my own analysis, where bisexuality is not 'bound' to the individual de Beauvoir, an individual who is 'defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 275).
As noted above, where the press are concerned there is no 'bisexual' de Beauvoir, no de Beauvoir who possesses, or who is possessed by, bisexuality: like all bodies without organs, the BwO of bisexuality is 'never yours or mine' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 164). Instead of cohering in the material corporeality of de Beauvoir, where it might have expressed the 'truth' of her self (as heterosexuality is perceived to do), the BwO of bisexuality is produced as a connecting force or movement between existentialism, Sartre and de Beauvoir. In this context, bisexuality is not fused to the self in (a semblance of) stasis, but is rather a mobile assemblage which has the effect of bringing existentialism, Sartre and de Beauvoir together in a relation which is neither mediated by a single subjectivity nor necessarily subject to the disciplinary processes of individualization. Desire spread over and across objects, the BwO of bisexuality is a conjugation of parts, rather than 'an organized and integrated being' (Grosz, 1994: 203). It does not, therefore, require an other upon whom it must depend to distinguish itself, nor is it itself an other against which another subjectivity is defined (as in the case of Sartre and de Beauvoir, for example, who appear to exist in an uneasy and negative relation, a relation based on necessity and characterized by lack). But to be without an other does not also signify a return to the sovereign self (as Foucault's aesthetics of existence implies): neither an absence, nor present in the form of a 'bisexual self', the BwO of bisexuality must always exist in a relation, arising as it does from the middle.
Deleuze and Guattari's understanding of desire, significantly, is an understanding in which subjectivity is not the arbiter of desire. It is in this light that I have attempted to avoid reinstating a one-to-one relation between desire and selfhood and, rather than claim that de Beauvoir is 'really' bisexual, consider what possibilities are engendered by the notion of an identity without a self (a sexuality which is not the property of the self ascribed to de Beauvoir). It may be more likely to be a BwO of bisexuality, rather than a bisexual self, which will be able to do things or to make things happen.
Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the word ‘deplorable’ to describe a binary machine is, for me, too strong. Feminists have shown that there is much pleasure to be had in ‘having’ an identity, and that sometimes having an identity, or passing as a particular identity, is not a question of pleasures, but of life and death. In this context, the desirability of pursuing the notion of identity without selfhood may be called into question: identity and selfhood remain the privileged terrain from which a politics can be articulated. However, representations of de Beauvoir and of bisexuality suggest that there is also a place in feminist theory for analyses which are concerned with flows of forces, as well as with those forces which have already been territorialized. Techniques such as individuality, and even materiality, which are often taken for granted where homosexual and heterosexual subjects are concerned (without them these subject positions would not be inhabitable), cannot always be assumed in the context of bisexuality. A 'bisexual self' will not necessarily be produced through discourse, and flows of forces will not necessarily congeal to form a 'bisexual entity'. It is thus inappropriate to always assume that a constituted bisexual self is produced through discourse and to follow this assumption up with an attempt to ‘recreate the conditions that have made [that] existence possible’ (Simondon 1992: 297). Such an analysis inevitably brings its own presuppositions with it; that is, the self that is constructed is built upon the very assumptions which preceded it.
There are gains to be had then, by following a line of enquiry which seeks to explore the violence of identity (on self and other) as well as the effects of decoupling sexuality and selfhood. The concept of a BwO enables the analysis of bisexuality to be moved along just such a path, one in which desire is no longer confined to the self and to the disciplinary exercises of subjectification. In this respect, the self is displaced as the locus of political change. Indeed, the BwO is neither inhabitable nor representable (which precludes any immediate ‘access’ to it). This is not to suggest however, that the deterritorializing effects that this assemblage produces are not subject to scrutiny. The BwO of bisexuality has the effect of deterritorializing the assumption that sexuality and selfhood are always entwined in each other, that identity necessarily inheres 'within' an organism, or that it is necessarily immured to an individual. Desire is no longer 'encapsulated within an object' (Probyn, 1995: 8), as Elspeth Probyn puts it, as the individual (which, in the example above, is identified as de Beauvoir) is displaced as both the 'source of ... desire' and 'the place where it is incarnated' (Probyn, 1995: 7). In other words, the BwO has the effect of destabilizing the centrality accorded to self and other, subject and object, in theories of sexuality.
It is this deterritorialization itself - the lines of flight which neither set out from an origin (such as de Beauvoir) nor arrive at any given terminus, which release desire from an individualized object, and which escape the proprietorial relation between identity and selfhood - which produces the BwO of bisexuality. Molecular lines of flight are inscribed onto and construct the BwO:
The high price of individuality, which is revealed in the analysis of the production of Simone de Beauvoir as an individual, 'the thousand petty humiliations, self-denigrations, deceptions, lies, seductions, cynicisms, bribes, hopes and disappointments' (Rose, 1996: 322), are thus displaced, along with the individual, in the notion of a BwO. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari's conception of desire as pure productivity - which 'in no way privilege[s] the human, autonomous, sovereign subject; the independent other; or the bonds of communication and representation between them' (Grosz, 1994: 197) - might well offer a line of flight away from contemporary notions of identity and selfhood.
* .Acknowlegdement:Perrmission granted by Sage Publications LTD,London, for republushing this text.Original publication date: 1997
études féministes/ estudos feministas