Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Fueling the Bonfire.
Date: March 3, 1995 04:08

13:37 Kingscliff, New South Wales-Australia :: 27 FEB 95

Jim Cash was good enough to recently forward to me this little tidbit, probably an 'urban legend':

>  An English professor wrote the words
>  "woman without her man is a savage" on
>  the blackboard and directed his students to
>  punctuate it correctly.
>    The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is a savage."
>    The women wrote: "Woman: Without her, man is a savage."

Personally, I think both sentences are correct.

It's interesting how, when I'll be concentrating on understanding a topic, relevant information seems to seek me out. I've been reading Naomi Wolf's best-seller "Fire With Fire". Among the first pieces of eMail I received after replacing my computer was Jim Boritz's brief introduction to the feminist author bell hooks' work "Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations". His eMail related a few of the issues hooks identifies in the initial chapter, "Power to the Pussy: We don't want to be dicks in drag." That proved to be the beginning of a rather fascinating, lengthy and ongoing discussion. Just like the 'men we are', we've taken the adversarial position of 'defending' our authors. I side with Wolf, but not simply because she uses my favoured British spellings, as below.

This is a typical scene on college campuses: several white women sit in a circle on the floor, feeling miserable because they are all white. 'We want to be diverse in our group, but the women of colour refuse to join us.' Several women of colour sit in another building, feeling irritated: 'They want us to come and integrate with them; they want us to teach them. But we're tired of having to explain ourselves all the time. We need a place of our own.' The assumption is that everyone must join in a big circle and 'have it out', 'talk things through', and 'clear things up' before the groups can join together for specific actions. To anti-racist white women, the impasse is a devastating rejection, like a lover's. 'Aren't we listening?' they ask. 'Aren't we trying to address the issues?' To Black women that very articulation of the problem is often annoying, for it sounds as if white women believe that their good intentions will make racism disappear overnight, at which point everything will be fine. White women's wish for intimacy and love from Black women often carries the implicit hope that they will be magically absolved; the 'egalitarian' assumptions of feminine intimacy seem to whitewash the inequities of race.
  graphical element Fire With Fire
p. 309

It is the final paragraph that struck me most strongly in this passage. It relates to an issue Jim brought up in his initial email. To make it fit that issue better, I altered some words to change the points of view and came up with the following:

To anti-sexist men, the impasse is a devastating rejection, like a lover's. 'Aren't we listening?' they ask. 'Aren't we trying to address the issues?' To women that very articulation of the problem is often annoying, for it sounds as if men believe that their good intentions will make sexism disappear overnight, at which point everything will be fine. Men's wish for respect and camaraderie from women often carries the implicit hope that they will be magically absolved; the 'egalitarian' assumptions of common cause seem to whitewash the inequities of gender.

After marking up the paragraph with my changes, I was quite surprised to read the first sentence of the next paragraph:

If we learned to substitute respect for intimacy and teamwork for sisterhood, these tensions would not paralyze women's organizational efforts to such an extent.

  graphical element Fire With Fire
p. 309

Respect for intimacy; teamwork (what I mean by camaraderie) for sisterhood (love): learning these substitutions would go a long way towards minimizing the tensions between men and women in the 'gender war'.

The topic of possibly the most heated discussion with Jim represents the "impasse" implied in my paraphrase. This topic is the annual exclusion of male participation in the Take Back the Night march. More than a simple case of reverse sexism, this is a condition of drawing battle-lines between two sides in a war.

When women's groups tell men that men's groups cannot exclude women while some of these women's groups exclude men they deliver a mixed message. Already it has been made clear that men are the enemy. It is men that are waging the War Against Women. It is 'male ways of thinking and relating' that are responsible for all the oppression against women. It is the exclusion of women from male bastions of power that leave women in a powerless position. No male escapes the taint of this brush, at least it's difficult for any male to feel they are individually excluded from the image of being a male oppressor. Many men are trying to lift themselves out of that image, to not be "one of them" but by being excluded from the fight against male violence men feel the brush strokes spreading on another label of "oppressor".

It is an emotional response, not much different from the one women feel when they are excluded from opportunity or choice. But it packs a different punch. Men ask: 'Aren't we trying?' 'Aren't we listening?' 'Didn't we let you into our groups?' 'What must I do to clear myself of this label?' And they say, "I'm not like that!" And true enough, most men aren't. Most men aren't violent toward women.

I think it's OK that women should form groups containing no men, just as men should be able to create groups without women, Jews without gentiles or people with big noses without button-nosed people. The current political climate does not allow this. Until the women's movement conclusively lifts the effective total ban on men kibitzing together, men will continue to respond negatively, emotionally, to being excluded from women's groups. People should be able to choose whom they associate with. What we need now is a language that allows recognition of differentiation in sub-communities without perceived threat to those excluded.

On the other hand, heterosexuals are not excluded from participating in the Gay Pride parade.

0:38 Brisbane, Queensland-Australia :: 2 MAR 95

At the outset of this piece I remarked how information relevant to your current condition has a way of finding your attention. It's probably some spin-off of Jung's 'synchronicity', the idea that seemingly coincidental events have meaning to the observer or subject.

17:13 Malaysia Air flight 126, Brisbane->Kuala Lumpur :: 2 MAR 95

What I began to say yesterday was that I've discovered Michel Foucault, or more precisely I found the book "A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject" [Alec McHoul, Wendy Grace; Melbourne University Press, 1993]. The name, Foucault, I've encountered as belonging to an esteemed modern philosopher but it was the second part of the title that caught my attention, having just finished Naomi Wolf's treatise on 'power feminism'. However, it was the following little tidbit I found inside the book that prompted me to cough up the $20.

Another aspect of Foucault's critical method is that it locates power outside conscious or intentional decision. He does not ask: who is in power? He asks how power installs itself and produces real material effects; where one such effect might be a particular kind of subject who will in turn act as a channel for the flow of power itself.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

For some time I've been looking at feminism with the understanding that what many have called "The War Against Women", that is, the Gender War, would be more profitably viewed as a conflict between one a 'traditional' culture and an 'emerging' one, that is, as a conflict between ideas rather than people. This view could hopefully reduce the antagonism between gender groups and individuals (subjects) by removing the stigma of assigning the roles of oppressor and oppressed. It highlights the differences in the two systems of ideas rather than any assignment of blame by followers of one system to whomever they perceive to profit most within the other system. From what I've read so far, Foucault provides the intellectual ammunition to pursue this perception further.

Foucault's counter-history of ideas [avoids] giving primacy to the ideas of 'the individual' and of 'subjectivity'. Instead, Foucault thought of the human subject itself as an effect of, to some extent, subjection. 'Subjection' refers to particular, historically located, disciplinary processes and concepts which enable us to consider ourselves as individual subjects and which constrain us from thinking otherwise. These processes and concepts (or 'techniques') are what allow the subject to 'tell the truth about itself'. Therefore they come before any views we might have about 'what we are'. In a phrase: changes of public ideas precede changes in private individuals, not vice-versa.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

That is, the spectrum of individuality at any given historical moment is confined largely within 'official knowledge' of that moment. This parallels Noam Chomsky's complaint that the power elite in America, (whom he defines as composed of business, media and government) confines the spectrum of permissible thought to lie neatly within the policies of the Democratic and Republican parties. In this way, the elite are able to 'manufacture' the consent of the population by controlling what becomes official knowledge. But who, exactly, are the elite? Is it seven 'old fat bald men' sitting around a table carving truth into stone tablets?

There are no such 'Masters of the Universe'. Foucault would say that the master is 'discourse' itself. ". . . the term 'discourse' refers not to language or social interaction but to relatively well-bounded areas of social knowledge."

. . . in any given historical period we can write, speak or think about a given social object or practice ([feminism], for example) only in certain specific ways and not others. 'A discourse' would then be whatever constrains-but also enables-writing, speaking and thinking within such specific historical limits.
Foucault began to consider questions of transgression and resistance in the face of the 'technologies' of punishment and sexual classification.

. . . this critical phase . . . involves an attention to subjugated or 'marginal' knowledges, especially those which have been disqualified, taken less than seriously or deemed inadequate by official histories . . . might be called 'naive' knowledges, because they 'are located low down' on most official hierarchies of ideas. Certainly they are ranked 'beneath' science. They are the discourses of the madman, the patient, the delinquent, the pervert and other persons who, in their respective times, held knowledges about themselves which diverged from the established categories. . . The knowledges (or forms of discourse) of these 'unruly' subjects might be particular, local and regional or they might have wider, even international, currency. In at least two of his case studies, Foucault makes it clear that simply to 'repeat' these unruly positions, without commentary, may be a critical activity in itself, an act of resistance to the usual treatment of them by the various sciences.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

On the other hand,

official knowledges . . . work as instruments of 'normalisation', continually attempting to manoeuvre populations into 'correct' and 'functional' forms of thinking and acting. Therefore Foucault also has an interest in examining the methods, practices and techniques by which official discourses go about this process of normalisation and, in the process, occlude forms of knowledge which are different from them, by dividing the normal person from the pathological specimen, the good citizen from the delinquent, and so on.
  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

Foucault himself observes examples of this in contemporary popular opinion as follows:

We are certainly more tolerant in regard to practices that break the law. But we continue to think that some of these are insulting to 'the truth': we may be prepared to admit that a 'passive' man, 'virile' woman, people of the same sex who love one another, do not seriously impair the established order; but we are ready enough to believe that there is something like an 'error' involved in what they do. An 'error' is understood in the most traditionally philosophical sense: a manner of acting that is not adequate to reality.
  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

Chomsky has written voluminously on the responsibility of intellectuals to beware elitist forces, to dig for the truth and share it with a public that is wiser than its Masters suppose. At first blush, Foucault sees this differently but one can see the methods of Chomsky.

Foucault then, is more than dubious about notions of absolute truth, or indeed of definitive philosophical answers to political questions. And he is far from believing that it is the task of intellectuals to provide such things. But this does not mean that 'there is no truth'. On the contrary, there can sometimes be many, each with its own rationality [, its own discourse].
But the question is: which of these, at any given period, comes to predominate and how? So instead of mobilising philosophy as the search for truth as such, Foucault tries to take this continual desire for a single truth . . . as a topic of critical analysis and description. Then . . . it is up to political activists to use these critical descriptions in their own ways and for their own purposes. This may seem a dereliction of political duty. But it has at least one virtue: it does not try to speak for others or to tell them what to do. . .

It is therefore possible to contribute to political action not only by entering the fray but also by providing studies of official techniques of regulation, punishment, normalisation and so on to those groups that have a direct interest in their subversion.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

That last sentence fits Chomsky to a 'T'—and, to turn the topic back to its origin, Wolf too. The single most important chapter written in contemporary feminism may well be "Toward a New Psychology of Power." [Or something like that. The book's been shipped home so I can't refer to it.] With this chapter Wolf, perhaps unwittingly, reveals the traditional power shy nature of female discourse and establishes the role it plays in abetting the 'normalisation' of the traditional power happy patriarchy. This is the path Foucault recommends:

. . .rather than ask ourselves how the sovereign appears to us in his lofty isolation, we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection into its material instance as a constitution.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

The authors elucidate:

Power is not to be read, therefore, in terms of one individual's domination over another or others; or even as that of one class over another or others; for the subject which power has constituted becomes a part of the mechanisms of power. It becomes the vehicle of that power which, in turn, has constituted it as that type of vehicle. Power is both reflexive, then, and impersonal. It acts in a relatively autonomous way and produces subjects just as much as, or even more than, subjects reproduce it. The point is not to ignore the subject or to deny its existence but rather to examine subjection, the processes of the construction of subjects in and as a collection of techniques or flows of power which run through the whole of a particular social body.

  graphical element A Foucault Primer: Discourse, power and the subject

As I continue this analysis it's important to note that Wolf herself does not employ Foucault's language. While her selected bibliography lists one of Foucault's pivotal works, she does not cite him within the work itself. Wolf's insight is to recognize implicitly that men's position in society vis-a-vis women is 'won' not simply by practices subjugating women subjects predominantly through methods of 'male' discourse, but to realize also that it is the tools, techniques and 'male' psychology itself requisite in that discourse which constitutes the male as powerful. Put another way, men are powerful in large part because they were brought up to be that way. Women are powerless, again in large part, because their discourse excludes those same techniques as 'unfeminine'.

01:06 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :: 3 MAR 95

Perhaps I'll complete these thoughts later, after some sleep. . .

BTW: I can already tell eMail's about to become an expensive and difficult project. For one, no access #'s in Malaysia; I have to call Singapore. After a brief midnight walk about town looking for a place to stay the night I'm kinda wondering what level of telecom technology I'm going to find.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --


What has made women unhappy in the last decade is not their equality but the rising pressure to halt, and even reverse, women's quest for that equality.
  graphical element Susan Faludi
From "Backlash"


. . .the government of the self allies itself with practices for the government of others.

  graphical element Michel Foucault