Gender

Get Paid To Write Online

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

To begin with the gratingly obvious, there are in Foucault's writings on religion, as indeed in all his writings, the tell-tale slips and turns of phrase that make it obvious that only a man could have written them, and a man who had not problematized gender or thought much about the power at work in the assumption of masculinity as normative. He writes, for example, of humanism as the "little whore of all thought" (Carrette 1999: 99). He writes of the development of the subject in relation to the government of households, wives, and children: obviously "subject" here is male (Carrette 1999: 154). Could there be a woman subject? How would she develop? Foucault assumes (as has much of Western theology) the connection of the demonic and witchcraft with women, whom "we [who?] were to subject to exclusion" (Carrette 1999: 55). When he contrasts Japanese with Western society he says: "Western man . . . always thought that the essential thing in his life was sexuality ... In the West, men, people, individualize themselves" largely in terms of sexuality (Carrette 1999: 129). But who are these "people" who creep into his text as though he is at some level aware of a problem? Does he mean that "men" are the ones who count as normative "people"? Or is he gesturing towards the existence of some people who are not men? But if so, what evidence does Foucault have that such people - presumably women and possibly children

- individualize themselves in terms of their sexuality? Surely until recently only a few privileged women have had any choice about it; and even when we do have choices, perhaps their importance falls otherwise? Foucault may be right, but he has not discussed it, so it is unwarranted on his part just to subsume women, to say nothing of children, as some of these "people." Foucault's assumptions around gender identity, especially masculinity, urgently need queering if they are not to reinscribe male hegemony.

This last example begins to indicate that the problem is deeper than one which a little attention to inclusive language would put right. We can see a bit more of what is at stake when we notice what Foucault says in "A Preface to Transgression" in his discussion (after Bataille) of mysticism. His point is that it was sexuality which gave Christian practice and aspiration a "felicity of expression." He says:

The proof is its whole tradition of mysticism and spirituality which was incapable of dividing the continuous forms of desire, of rapture, of penetration, of ecstasy, of that outpouring which leaves us [us?!] spent: all of these experiences seemed to lead, without interruption or limit, right to the heart of a divine love of which they were both the outpouring and the source returning upon itself (Carrette 1999: 57).

Here is a tangled web of ideas, all of them resting on unproblematized masculinity. First, in this sentence Foucault assimilates the "whole tradition" of Christian mysticism and spirituality to male sexual experience. It is not clear exactly which mystics he had in mind; he does not name any. But brief acquaintance with medieval Christian mysticism makes clear that only a relatively small subsection used the language of sexuality or thought in terms of "erotic" mysticism. Writers ranging from the Pseudo-Dionysius to Julian of Norwich, from Eckhart to the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, use erotic imagery sparingly or not at all, and by no amount of Procrustean stretching could be made to fit Foucault's description (see Jantzen 1995).

Second, the subsection of mystical writers who did use erotic imagery were disproportionately women, including Hadewijch of Anvers, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Catherine of Siena; and their vocabulary is, predictably, quite different from Foucault's words of "penetration," "ecstasy," and an "outpouring that leaves us spent." They are at least as concerned with tenderness, security, and fidelity as with ecstasy; and they construe love in terms of the unity of the will with the divine, and thus in terms of obedience, more than with passion. The one mystic who might spring to mind as fitting Foucault's picture is Teresa of Avila, who does indeed write of the rapture of mystical betrothal and marriage. But even in her case, Foucault's description is much more accurate to the Teresa of Bernini's famous sculpture, in which the angelic messenger is about to pierce her ecstatic body, than it is to the Teresa of her own writings in which the account of this experience occupies only a small proportion of a book devoted to exploring the soul's "interior castle" - a different set of metaphors altogether (Teresa 1946).

The point is that Foucault, by failing to problematize male sexuality, thereby also spreads false generalizations over the tradition of Christian spirituality and with it something so central to Christian thought as what it might mean to experience the love of God. Foucault then proceeds to use his generalizations, as Bataille had done, to reflect on transgression, another central theological theme. So by pulling at the thread of his gender-biased starting point, the whole web begins to unravel. To be fair, I have been quoting from an early essay, written in 1963. In his later work Foucault developed the strategy of genealogy, which when applied to Christian mysticism yields illuminating results.3 But Foucault himself never made that application, though his late work on Christianity is much more nuanced.

I am, however, not confident that he is any less gender biased in his later writing. In his 1980 essay on "The Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self," Foucault describes his concern with "the genealogy of the modern subject" (Carrette 1999: 159) and the various techniques or technologies of the self which must be studied to develop such a genealogy: it is the same theme which occupies the last two volumes of his History of Sexuality. He then contrasts the technique of self-examination among pagans and Christians respectively, showing changes in what counted as being a subject. But in his queering of the subject, his refusal of any essential or universal subject, Foucault considers only texts of male subject formation. Does Foucault think women became subjects in the same way - with the confession and self-examination and vigilance against fornication that preoccupied the men? Surely not. Does he think there are no sources from which women could be studied? As good an archivist as Foucault would surely know better. Does he think that a genealogy of women subjects is unimportant? What reinscription of patriarchal power is tacitly at work here? Although Foucault is highly effective in queering male subjectivity and sexuality, his very method of doing so assumes and perpetuates masculinist hegemony, and does so in direct appropriation of the history of Christendom. I shall return to this after consideration of my second theme, namely death.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment