There is, however, also another silence, even deeper than the silence about women; and that is silence about birth. I am not referring here to motherhood, but to what I have characterized elsewhere as natality: natality as a philosophical category parallel to mortality (see Jantzen 1998). Death, mortality, has been taken as a central category of thought throughout the Western tradition. Plato, at its inception, characterizes a philosopher as someone who makes dying his profession: death will release the soul from the body and will thereby enable the soul to encounter truth in a way that was impossible as long as it was shackled in the body's prisonhouse. At the other end of the tradition we find Heidegger's Dasein running ahead toward death: it is death that gives him his authenticity, not in some future-life encounter with truth as in Plato, but in the realization that with death before him, living for "the they" can have no place. The theme of death is also of the first importance for Western Christendom, based as it is on a dying god, the mortification of the flesh, and the hope of a world to come, after the death of the body. Even when Christendom does speak of birth, it is of a new birth, not of man or woman or of the flesh, but of God; a birth, that is, which is ready for death precisely because it has already overcome natality.
With Foucault we find again the instinctive reaching for the category of death that has been so prominent a theme in the Western tradition, death which, as we have seen, is linked in his thought with the objectification of women. The death of the (male) subject is, once again, the means of the liberation of the self, "beyond life and death." But here I suggest that we need to take a leaf from Derrida's book, who showed the importance of investigating, for any theme, whether or not there is something which it simultaneously requires and represses, something both essential and silenced. In Foucault (as in much of the rest of the Western tradition) I suggest that natality operates in just this way. If the male subject dies, when and from whom was he born? If he is capable of mortality, and if that death gives him his liberty to develop an aesthetics of the self, what does - or did - his natality bespeak? What is the origin of the male subject, and by what exclusions did he make modernity his own? And what about God, this Father, this whore, whom the sons kill even though he has never existed? When was he/she born, and from whom?
In Foucault's later writings, especially in the volumes of The History of Sexuality and related essays, he does begin to turn slightly in the direction of some of these questions, wanting to investigate the genealogy of the modern subject. Yet as he goes back to antiquity to explore some of the steps in this genealogy, we find again, different though these studies are from his earlier ones, the same entanglements of gender and death. In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault considers the relation of sexuality and reproduction to death and immortality in late antiquity, pointing out Plato's view in the Laws that (hetero)sexual intercourse and the generation of children was a means of cheating death (Foucault 1990-2: II, 133-9). Then in the development of Christian monasticism Foucault emphasizes the technologies of mortification - literally putting to death - of the flesh, which, he says, is the aim of such Christian practices as examination and obedience. "Mortification is not death, of course, but it is a renunciation of this world and of oneself: a kind of everyday death. A death which is supposed to provide life in another world" (Carrette 1999: 143). Now, what Foucault is interested in is how these practices of mortification came to construct a different kind of subject than was found in Greek polity; but what I am asking for is a recognition of the ways in which gender and mortality are again entangled while women and natality are made invisible.
Or nearly so: women, to be sure, are again lurking in the margins. In his late essay, "The Hermeneutics of the Self," where Foucault continues his exploration of penance, martyrdom, and mortification, Foucault consistently uses masculine pronouns to refer to the penitent Christian. Yet the one example he gives is that of a woman, Fabiola, who had married a second husband before the first had died, and was obliged to do penance for it (Carrette 1999: 171-2). Again, in "The Battle for Chastity" which continues the theme of the formation of the self in early Christianity, women are portrayed as the source of temptation. Or, more accurately, for the monks struggling for purity it is their memories and fantasies of women, even of their own mothers and sisters, which constitute temptation to fornication; and these memories and fantasies can be eradicated only by severe mortification (Carrette 1999: 189-90). To be sure, these ideas are Foucault's presentation of the thoughts of writers of late antiquity: Jerome, Cassian, Tertullian; they are not meant to represent his own views. Yet he uses them to develop a genealogy of the subject, not remarking that it is the male subject only who could be thus constituted - Fabiola notwithstanding -and only by the objectification of women and by the association of women with death.
But the problem is even deeper than that. As Foucault presents it - and I think that at least in broad terms he is right - subjectivity in Western Christendom has indeed been constituted by the effort to escape from the flesh. The salvation of the soul requires the mortification of the flesh. But Foucault does not ask why this should be so, or what it betokens. When we do ask that question, it is clear that we are back with the strong conceptual links between women, the body, and sexuality, while maleness is linked with reason, the soul, and God. To be born of woman is to be conceived in sin and born with a sinful body unto death. Salvation (for men) depends upon being born again of the spirit, mastering and mortifying the flesh, dying to the sinful body and all that is linked with it. It is true that in Christendom from its inception women also could be saved (though Foucault does not comment on it) but only by becoming "honorary men," raised above their gender (see Jantzen 1995: 26-58).
Now, Foucault is exhuming the genealogy of the subject, not praising it; and there is no need to think that he especially liked the ways in which gender played itself out in the Western tradition. Indeed in his writings on the death of the subject we might have looked for the repudiation or queering of these ideas of gender and death which have been so strongly formative of Western religion and Western attitudes to sexuality. And we do find hints towards such queering. As I have already said, Foucault finds in transgression and excess the liberation from the dead hand of the God in whose name so much mortification and guilt had been purveyed. But as I have also said, that excess, as presented, is often at the expense of women, sometimes violent, never seriously considering women as subjects. Thus from first to last Foucault does not challenge the marginalization or abuse of women, does not queer gender or death, and by his silence reinscribes the hegemony of their stereotypes.
Was this article helpful?