You Are What You Read?

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"Feminist
scholars, many drawing on the insights offered by Michel Foucault,
have urged us to develop new ways of thinking and speaking."
So wrote the editors of Analyzing
Gender
. The anthology Knowing
Women: Feminism and Knowledge
, quoted Foucault extensively
because his "discourse theory and the u2018post-structuralist'
methods of analysis which depend on it have become very influential
within feminist studies." He has also found his way into more
popular feminist works, such as those of Judith Butler.

Foucault's
main influence came in the initial stages of radical feminist theory
in the late u201860s and early u201870s. Given that such feminists have
a bias against quoting or crediting men for developments in u2018the
movement,' why has Foucault been so quoted and credited?

Foucault's
specialty was the interpretation and meaning of language and, for
decades, radical feminism has stressed language as a source of the
oppression of women. Sometimes language is considered to be the
source. Thus, they refuse to be called "Madam Chairman"
and insist upon the wholesale replacement of the generic "he"
with the ungainly "he/she." The word "man" is
replaced with "human being" or "person." History
becomes herstory. Words are deemed to be so powerful that syllables
are acts in and of themselves. For example, pornography becomes
an act of oppression and violence against women, and radical feminists
call it "rape." Indeed, to eliminate such words, radical
feminists have been willing to damage other causes near to their
hearts.

Consider
the 1992 Butler decision by which the Supreme Court of Canada wrote
a radical feminist definition of obscenity into Canadian law. Vigorously
championed by most feminists in Canada and the US, the Butler decision
allows Canadian customs to seize what it judges to be pornography
at the border as the material is being imported. The spring 1993
issue of Feminist Bookstore News described the impact of
its first year: "The Butler decision has been used…only to
seize lesbian, gay and feminist material." The two primary
targets have been feminist-lesbian bookstores – the Glad Day
Bookstore in Toronto and Little Sisters in Vancouver. Customs Canada
has blocked shipments to these bookstores of even innocuous material
– of mainstream science fiction writers, for example –
that any other Canadian bookstore is able to import freely. Yet
radical feminists and many lesbian activists continued to defend
the Butler decision. Lesbian bookstores are acceptable casualties
in the war against pornography, the war against words.

The
question remains, why? Part of the answer lies in radical feminist
concept of "gender." Kate Millett's Sexual
Politics
(1970) – a pivotal book in the tradition –
argued that women throughout history had been "confined to
the cultural level of animal life" by men. According to radical
feminists, only a profound political difference between the two
sexes could explain why women have been the victims of men throughout
time. There must be an unbreachable schism between the interests
of men – as a class – and the interests of women –
as a class. Men oppress women because it is in their class nature
to do so.

Radical
feminists point to pornography as one of the main mechanisms through
which male structure maintains its incredible longevity. As Page
Mellish of Feminists Fighting Pornography declared, "There's
no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the porn problem." Why
is pornography so crucial that radical feminists are willing to
sacrifice lesbian bookstores in the war against it? Because, to
them, sex and a woman's body are social constructs. Foucault's landmark
book Les
mots et les choses
(Words and Things, 1966) laid
the groundwork for this key feminist concept.

Foucault
argued that history and culture are indispensable to an understanding
sexuality. This hypothesis is not controversial. But then he introduced
the idea of an "episteme," which means "knowledge"
in Greek. An episteme of a culture is its single and self-enclosed
totality that includes its language, attitudes, ideas, and science:
it is all the paradigms of the society. It is how a specific culture
or era approaches the world. As history progresses, one episteme
replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of
the Renaissance. The destiny of words and things is intertwined.
The episteme determines how people think, which determines who they
are and what they do, which can determine a new episteme.

Take,
for example, the human body; people assume there is some permanence
to human biology that society does not alter. But, for Foucault,
the human body lives in the episteme; it lives in a culturally constituted
world and, so, is literally constructed by society itself. Foucault's
treatise, The
Birth of the Clinic
, is devoted to what he calls
the "medical gaze." Through the medical gaze, the body
is objectified and converted into a well-ordered u2018thing' that medicine
seeks to control through surgery, diet, drugs, and so forth. But
the medical gaze of the eighteenth century differed from that of
the twentieth century. Therefore, the eighteenth century human body
was different from the twentieth century one because the body is
defined by the ruling episteme.

Similarly,
the most important factors in defining sexuality are the texts that
are written and spoken about it. Consider the Victorian epoch of
repressed sexuality. A common approach is to look at its plays and
literature, the songs and newspapers – in short, the texts of Victorian
society – and to conclude that these writings reflected a repressed,
sexually horrified culture. Foucault saw exactly the opposite. He
believed that society was a reflection of the texts. The texts caused
society, and not vice versa.

In
her essay "Feminism, Criticism and Foucault'" feminist
Biddy Martin explains,"His History
of Sexuality
states very clearly that discourses on sexuality,
not sexual acts and their histories, are the essential place to
grasp the working of power in modern society." Words and texts
– not acts — are the keys to how power works. Thus…the demand
that feminist, lesbian and gay characters be included in children's
literature and schoolbooks. Thus…history is re-written to include
the voices of women, even when those voices did not significantly
contribute to events. Radical feminists want to correct the texts
in order to re-define sexuality and gender.

In
accepting "sex as a construct," radical feminists reject
sexual essentialism – the notion that sex is a natural force
that exists prior to society. Sexual essentialism claims that there
is something natural or biological, rather than cultural, about
deeply felt urges such as motherhood and heterosexuality. There
is something biological about gender.

But
according to Foucault's analysis, biology is shifting sand. Even
deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality or homosexuality,
are not matters of biology but of ideology. They are determined
by the texts of society. Thus, the phenomenon within radical feminism
about two decades ago: many lesbians urged heterosexual feminists
to stop sleeping with the enemy, men. Heterosexuality was viewed
as an indoctrinated political choice, not a biological one.

Sex
as a social construct is good news to radical feminists. If sex
has been constructed, then it can be deconstructed and put back
together correctly. How? They must control the single most powerful
of those texts – pornography – because this is how a woman's body is
defined. This is what radical feminist theorists mean when they
say u2018pornography defines/objectifies women,' or u2018pornography IS
rape', or that we live in a rape culture. It is why lesbian-activists
are willing to promote legislation they know will harm lesbian bookstores.

With
this new perspective, read a famous passage from Susan Brownmiller's

Against Our Will
:

"Pornography,
like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to
reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality
from moralistic or parental inhibition. The staple of porn will
always be the naked body, breasts and genitals exposed, because
as man devised it, her naked body is the female's u2018shame', her private
parts the private property of man, while his are the ancient, holy,
universal, patriarchal instrument of his power, his rule by force
over her. Pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda."

In
other words, pornography is the text through which man expresses
hatred of woman and socially constructs her oppression.

It
took me a long time to understand that – in discussions with radical
feminists – I was speaking gibberish to them. I would talk about choice
and personal responsibility. By their analysis, however, I am socially
constructed by male society that controls the texts and language.
I can no more choose my sexuality than a concentration camp prisoner
chooses the menu of her evening meal. It is no wonder that so little
productive dialogue occurs between radical and individualist feminists;
we are speaking different languages. Radical feminism speaks of
class warfare over who will control the deconstruction and reconstruction
of gender. Ifeminism speaks of a mutual respect between the sexes
and of autonomy in which women celebrate their inherent biology.

June
29, 2000

Wendy
McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
. See more of her work at ifeminists.com
and at her personal website.

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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