Discipline and Sexuality in Post-Colonial Criticism: Michel Foucault’s Enduring Legacy

By Doctor Comrade

French theorist, philosopher, and historian Michel Foucault is the most frequently cited scholar in the humanities.[1] For historians, particularly, Foucault’s formulations of power, discourse analysis, and genealogy have been foundational for cultural and social history, not only methodologically but also as a means by which to address modernity. Seminal studies on insanity, the social sciences, intellectual history, the penal system, and sexuality have in many ways defined how power is analyzed by historians and practitioners of cultural studies, gender studies, queer theory, and post-colonial scholarship.[2] But Foucault’s work is highly problematic and flawed: it is overly general, Eurocentric, and unempirical (or anti-empirical).[3] Cultural historian Peter Mandler has insisted that historians move on from outdated theories of discourse and psycholinguistics and has urged historians to carefully deploy new and relevant theoretical frameworks.[4] Though many post-colonial thinkers may have moved on from Foucault, his gravitational pull is inescapable. This is not to say that Foucault inaugurated all post-colonial scholarship or even made it possible; however, his gravitas in the humanities demands a broad and liberal reading of his oeuvre in order to understand how numerous Foucauldian concepts have appeared and continue to appear in post-colonial work. Thus, Foucault informs not only how post-colonial historiography was and is written, but also how historians can view post-colonial theory as it is applicable to the discipline of History.

Michel Foucault.

Michel Foucault.

Post-colonial scholarship’s indebtedness to Foucault takes three methodological forms: discourse analysis, genealogy, and social constructionism. In terms of discourses, Foucauldian discourse analysis has helped scholars understand the means by which the colonial state both exerted power over its colonial subjects and manifested the ideologies of domination that made colonialism possible. One of post-colonial criticism’s inaugural figures, Edward Said, cited Foucault’s notion of discourse in order to “identify Orientalism… [because] without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively” in a “whole web of related scientific interests.”[5] These discourses in turn produced the knowledge necessary to construct ideologies of domination, evidence of which was produced in contemporary texts.[6] For Foucault, these discourses (about sex or punishment, for example) manifest in “biopolitics,” defined as the political actions of administering and managing bodies.[7] Post-colonial historians have utilized these methodologies and the basic formulations of discourses, power, and biopolitics to analyze the interactions between colonial apparatuses and colonized peoples.

But discourses are intimately related to historical circumstances. As a scholar of philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault deployed the historical technique of genealogy to discursive forms of power.[8] Some post-colonial scholars have found this method particularly intriguing because it allows them to disrupt European conceptions of a unified and linear progression in history wherein European metropoles are always already constructed as superior to colonial subjects because they are more “developed.”[9] In essence, genealogies allow historians to deconstruct European narratives of progress in which colonial subjects supposedly thrive under European domination or in which colonial subjects are civilized by European altruism; this is a central tenet of the post-colonial project of decentering European narratives of benevolence. For instance, Said argued that Orientalism, as a system of knowledge for dominating and civilizing the Orient, could be genealogically traced through political, sociological, and literary tracts, which would elaborate its formation, formidability, and proliferation.[10]

British map of India, 1893.

British map of India, 1893.

Colonial modes of thought also helped constitute categories of race, gender, and culture, which were the means by which difference could be articulated and superiority asserted. By treating these categories as mutable and contingent, Foucault influenced the development of social constructionism.[11] Social constructionism interprets historical categories as manifestations of contemporary political, social, and economic circumstances. In the case of colonialism, race, gender, and culture have been asserted as markers of difference by which Europeans asserted their cultural superiority.[12] For instance, in Durba Ghosh’s analysis of interracial families in colonial India, she argued that prohibitions to exclude mixed-race children from civil service served as a reminder that “people of mixed races were seen as colonial subjects whose loyalty was compromised… [which] crystallize[d] existing anxieties about interracial sex.”[13] In this case, Ghosh argued that long before scientific racism became the defining characteristic of imperialism, British policy deployed the dynamic and discursive category of “race” in order to reify the categories of “British” and “Indian” and the attendant rights and privileges associated with each.[14] Through genealogies of discourses of power and their concomitant social constructions, Foucault has influenced the underlying methodologies of post-colonial theory.

But Foucault’s methodologies and epistemologies have been systematically critiqued by post-colonial scholars as being both Euro- and male-centric. The most damning criticism has perhaps come from post-colonial philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in which she contended that Foucault did not recognize his own ideological complicity in imperialism and how patriarchy prevents the subaltern woman from speaking.[15] In the first instance, she criticized Foucault’s theories as never envisioning the colonial Other as a subject, and that all of Foucault’s subjects of biopolitical discourse were European.[16] She further argued that Foucault’s notions of power only served to explicate how “the subject is not seen as a representative consciousness”; French intellectuals position themselves in a hierarchical relationship with those they allegedly represent by claiming the ability to speak on behalf of the oppressed.[17] Foucault’s concern with groups, categories, and the “macrological” forms of power foreclose an examination of the “micrological” textures of power experienced by heterogeneous populations.[18] Spivak attacks Foucault from several angles: methodologically, his genealogies and discourses never access the micro-results of colonial power because they are too concerned with elucidating macro-structures of power;[19] epistemologically, French intellectuals living on the privileged side of the international division of labor never engage in a self-reflective Ideologiekritik that recognizes how their ideology of presenting an Other actually inaugurates that subject, which was what they were trying to critique in the first place.[20]

Gayatri Chakravorty Spiva speaking at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, 2012.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spiva speaking at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, 2012.

Additionally, Spivak’s answer to the question of the subaltern speaking for itself is “no” because of patriarchal and intellectual assumptions that create the subaltern subject. Constructing a subaltern subject, which is then “gifted” the ability to speak by the benevolent colonial intellectual, coheres “with the work of imperialist subject-constitution, mingling epistemic violence with the advancement of learning and civilization. And the subaltern woman will be as mute as ever.”[21] Insisting that such subaltern subjects exist at all is what creates the narcissistic necessity for French intellectuals to make them speak, according to Spivak. Her solution is found in the work of theorist Jacques Derrida, who argued that “European ethnocentrism in the constitution of the Other… [is] the European Subject’s tendency… and locates that as the problem.”[22] This allows Derrida to invert the direction of the critique, focusing not on the subjecthood and silence of the colonial Other, but on the overabundance of colonial speech on the part of the colonizer. Rather than assimilating the Other into European discourses by commanding it to speak, Derrida sought to discredit the European voices which asserted their expertise in colonial subjecthood.

Despite this methodological and epistemological criticism, Spivak conceded that Foucault’s usefulness remains in “the mechanics of disciplinarization and institutionalization, the constitution, as it were, of the colonizer.”[23] Spivak, and others, are right to criticize Foucault as Euro- and male-centric; Spivak accurately contended that European intellectuals positioned themselves outside dominant ideologies as objective arbiters of subaltern discourse rather than recognizing their participation in those ideologies. In this way, Foucault reinforced what Said called the “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and… ‘the Occident’… as the starting point for elaborate theories.”[24]

However, Foucault can be reclaimed in this relationship through a broad reading of discourses of power that translate into bidirectional relationships of domination and resistance. Spivak argued that Foucault’s account of the invention of insanity could only be one possible explanation for European epistemic violence and that it would therefore have to exist as part of a “palimpsestic narrative of imperialism”; but both Ghosh and Said have argued that the Orient became the object against which Europe could define itself as “good.”[25] Foucault’s discourse analysis is essential to understanding the normalization of the colonizer, in Spivak’s estimation, which means that discourse analysis can also be rehabilitated to demonstrate the micrological processes of inscribing Orientalist narratives into European ideology. Because both Ghosh and Said demonstrated that the Europeans defined themselves against the Orient, colonial affairs are therefore relational and mutually constitutive. Foucault argued that discourses normalized structures of power, so for Said and Ghosh, colonial discourses also normalized the ideologies of colonialism.[26] What this indicates is that Foucault can be read in a post-colonial context insofar as he can help historians understand the relationality and normalization of power within the ideological formulations of colonialism. In Ghosh’s example of mixed-race children, she employed Foucauldian analyses to racial discourses and how they inscribed the power of white men over colonial children and women.

Delhi Durbar, 1877: Queen Victoria of England proclaimed Empress of India.

Delhi Durbar, 1877: Queen Victoria of England proclaimed Empress of India.

Applying this racialized frame to Foucault, especially in terms of the mutability and deployment of race, is not a new academic development. Anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, an avowed Foucault apologist, sought to reclaim a post-colonial Foucauldian account of racial discourse. She observed that “No single analytic framework has saturated the field of colonial studies so completely over the last decade as that of Foucault.”[27] For this reason, she attempted a detailed exegesis of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and his lectures from 1976 at the College de France about state racism; her work is both a critique and extension of Foucault in which she re-appropriates his discourses about sexuality in order to diagnose Europe’s fascination with racial typology. Though Foucault’s work elided race and gender specifically, taken in combination his oeuvre can be read as a racialized account of European modernity. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Stoler argued, Europe’s colonial experiences helped inaugurate the discourses about sexuality detailed by Foucault, and that these discourses created the racial binaries that solidified Europe’s self-assured cultural supremacy.[28]

Sexual discourses became racialized because they encapsulated Foucault’s four sexual categories (pedagogized child, hysterical woman, procreative heterosexual pair, and sexual pervert) into a single “strategic unity,” or Europe’s obsession with the savage, Oriental, libidinal energies.[29] In this sexual-racial context, Stoler has explicated a version of Foucault that accounts for racial identities in Europe that constituted and precipitated colonial ideologies. In this sense, Stoler has collapsed colonialism into a bidirectional relationship, which further answers Spivak’s contention that the subaltern’s silence is a European problem. Because Stoler has demonstrated that racial-sexual discourses were produced by the colonial system, she has isolated those discourses to Europeans, who were always already defining themselves against the Other, both sexually and racially. In Stoler’s view, Europeans played out their fantasies of racial supremacy by projecting their imaginations onto the bodies of indigenous women.[30] While this does not absolve Foucault of his Eurocentrism, it does redirect his methodologies toward the construction of race in European discourses, which aligns with how Spivak argued that Derrida successfully avoided European ethnocentrism by reasserting the centrality of the European subject.

Stoler’s criticism and subsequent extension of Foucault into a racial framework is instructive of how other scholars have approached the sexual-racial discourses of colonial rule. For Ghosh, the racial dynamics of mixed-race families were foundational to colonialism. Citing Stoler, Ghosh contended that “Indian domestic spaces, marginalizing the female transgressor, figured in the body of the indigenous mother, sustained colonialist and nationalist fictions [of] the family, [which was] central to national identity” because “The domestic space and the family was a crucial terrain in which bodily discipline was elaborated.”[31] Foucault’s formulation of biopower is foundational in this respect: the colonial apparatus was not concerned with punishing this form of deviant sexuality, but rather managing the distinctions between Indian and British. Regulating these interactions was a central concern of the colonial government because “the bodies of native women… represented a clear and present danger to maintaining Britishness within the frontiers of the household and the empire in India.”[32] For these reasons, British men were granted numerous privileges like concubinage and polygamy, as well as the ability to send their interracial children back to Europe to be raised correctly, which reinscribed their power in both public and domestic spheres (Ghosh also explicitly linked these discourses of racial supremacy with Foucault’s articulations of sexual discourses in Western Europe).[33] This is why Foucault is so helpful to historians: though his formulations of biopower may have been explicitly tied to governmentality, other historians have referred to them as useful intellectual heuristics in describing highly localized, micrological expressions of biopolitics.

British viceroy Charles Canning meets with Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, 1860.

British viceroy Charles Canning meets with Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, 1860.

Moreover, biopolitics of sexuality illustrates the gendered and racialized hierarchy that post-colonial scholars have so viciously attacked. For feminist historian Joan Scott, Foucault is invaluable because “Gender… means knowledge about sexual difference. I use knowledge, following Michel Foucault, to mean the understanding produced by cultures and societies of human relationships, in this case of those between men and women.”[34] Scholars like Ghosh, Stoler, and Spivak have all invoked this relationship in its colonial context: between the white man and the colonized woman. But Scott also posited that gender is useful as a category of historical investigation because it structures and explains logics of oppression and hierarchy.[35] These logics play out in colonial contexts as well, because colonialism is based on logics of cultural difference and domination (which, as Stoler and Spivak demonstrated, is always gendered). For Chakrabarty, these logics of difference are expressed by historicism, which “enabled European domination of the world in the nineteenth century” because it “posited historical time as a measure of the cultural distance… that was assumed to exist between the West and the non-West. In the colonies, it legitimated the idea of civilization” and the belief that colonized peoples were incapable of self-government because they lacked historical consciousness.[36] Scott and Chakrabarty, when read together and in the light of Foucault’s critique of biopolitics, illustrate how colonial domination relied on hierarchies that were established by discourses of difference, as in discourses of gender and race.

What are also apparent in Ghosh, Stoler, and Spivak are the overlapping discourses of sexuality and discipline because sexuality, gender, race, and discipline were fundamentally part of the colonial apparatus. Turning to discipline specifically, Foucault’s work can also elucidate the ways in which colonial discourses relied on notions of discipline to justify their colonial presence. In Discipline and Punish, he argued that post-Enlightenment states had to justify the deprivation of rights and imprisonment of criminals, and they did so by describing the process by which punishment would graciously rehabilitate criminals into productive members of society.[37] Integral to this process would be the examination of the “criminal” in order to ascertain the causes of their criminality. The criminal becomes a subject of knowledge, “the relations between him, his past and his crime, and what might be expected of him in the future…. Knowledge of the offence, knowledge of the offender, knowledge of the law: these three conditions made it possible to ground a judgment in truth.”[38] This process by which humans become the subjects of knowledge is extended by Said, who argued that Orientalism was “an elaboration of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts… a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is manifestly different.”[39] To justify the subjection of colonized peoples, Orientalism undergirded “impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination.”[40] Foucault’s prisoners and Said’s colonized peoples aligned as the objects of domination through knowledge. Similarly, Ghosh argued that Indian women became juridical subjects through the colonial courts, in which they “inadvertently and unintentionally solidified the colonial judiciary’s claims to political authority and its ability to construct a normative gendered and racial order within interracial households” because “Judicial decisions elaborated and consolidated racial and gender distinctions between the different subjects in their jurisdiction, showing the rule of law to be an important component in the state’s disciplinary regime.”[41] In this way, colonial regimes created colonial subjects through bureaucratic and social processes, similar to the sexual and penal discourses from Foucault.

Moreover, James C. Scott has also identified hidden transcripts as a potent way to analyze the subjecthood of colonized peoples. Scott argued that social interactions between people of two different classes of power always produce two transcripts: the public transcript, in which the subordinate person will attempt to appeal to or appease the more powerful individual; and the hidden transcript, in which the subordinate will subvert and contradict the dominant powers in the relative safety of being outside of direct observation.[42] Scott demonstrates that discourses are multidimensional and polyvalent, and they can be deployed literally (as in the case of the public transcript) or ironically (in the case of the hidden transcript). Similarly, Foucault has argued that “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”[43] What Scott and Foucault illustrate is that discourse encompasses not merely discourses of power, and discourse analysis reveals the resistant spaces in which the powerless can reassert their historical agency. Through reading archival documents against themselves, Ghosh has also attempted to reclaim some spaces of historical agency that allow women “of all stripes and shades to form their own agendas and programs and to inhabit their own histories” in order to “break down and resist, rather than reinstate, some of gender, class, race hierarchies that constituted the structures of colonial societies.”[44] For example, she dissects an unfinished painting commissioned by William Palmer of his mixed-race family in order to understand the historical context of his Mughal wife and “how family networks, both British and Indian, were important for negotiating the cultural and racial politics… across the Indian subcontinent.”[45] Working from Foucault’s discourses of resistance, and by extension Scott’s conception of the hidden transcript, it becomes apparent that Ghosh was reading archival scraps in order to identify the sorts of hidden transcripts that influenced the discursive formations of British and Indian identity in the imperial period.

Colonialism was constructed around the mutable and contingent poles of race, gender, and difference. Though problematic, Foucault’s methodologies and epistemologies are undeniably relevant to post-colonial scholars and students of history in general as they seek to understand these overlapping and mutually constitutive poles. There have been useful criticisms of Foucault by post-colonial critics, but these can ultimately be integrated into a post-colonial framework that maintains the strengths and usefulness of Foucault’s thought. Foucault’s slippery formulations of power and discourse, as well as his Eurocentrism, have troubled many historians, but ultimately he must be understood as a foundational figure in post-colonial studies, and his work on sexuality and discipline crucially undergirds research by genuine post-colonial scholars. His work on discourse in particular provides heuristic tools for analyses of identity, power, modernity, and governmentality, and has been successfully deployed by numerous post-colonial scholars like Chakrabarty, Ghosh, and Said.

Footnotes

[1] Most Cited Authors of Books in the Humanities, 2007,” Times Higher Education, March 26, 2009.
[2] Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Vintage, 1988); The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Vintage, 1979); The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (Vintage, 1990).
[3] Patricia O’Brien, “Foucault’s History of Culture,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
[4] Peter Mandler, “The Problem with Cultural History,” Cultural and Social History 1, no. 1 (2004): 116.
[5] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Princeton, NJ: Vintage, 1979), 3, 22.
[6] Ibid., 94.
[7] Foucault, History of Sexuality, 140–141; Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 9–11.
[8] O’Brien, “Foucault’s History of Culture,” 37.
[9] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 16, 148; Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), 251.
[10] Said, Orientalism, 6; Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), xi–xii; cf. Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 22; Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 6.
[11] Jeffrey Weeks, “Remembering Foucault,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, no. 1/2 (2005): 187.
[12] On intellectual superiority: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271; Said, Culture and Imperialism, 10; on gendered superiority: Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race, 9–10; on racial superiority: Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), 4.
[13] Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 8–9.
[14] Ibid., 10.
[15] Spivak refers specifically to Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), 205–17.
[16] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 274.
[17] Ibid., 275, 277, 279.
[18] Ibid., 279, 284.
[19] Said, Orientalism, 23.
[20] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 272.
[21] Ibid., 295.
[22] Ibid., 293. Emphasis in the original text.
[23] Ibid., 294.
[24] Said, Orientalism, 2–3.
[25] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 281; Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 2, 10; Said, Orientalism, 12–13; Said, Culture and Imperialism, 13; Edward W. Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (2000): 177–182.
[26] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 20–21.
[27] Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 1995), 1.
[28] Ibid., 7, 75, 56.
[29] Foucault, History of Sexuality, 104; Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire, 13.
[30] Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire, 137.
[31] Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 251, 254.
[32] Ibid., 10.
[33] Ibid., 11, 13, 30.
[34] Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 2.
[35] Ibid., 9–10.
[36] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 7–8.
[37] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 23–26.
[38] Ibid., 18–19.
[39] Said, Orientalism, 12.
[40] Said, Culture and Imperialism, 9–10.
[41] Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 170, 204.
[42] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 2–5.
[43] Foucault, History of Sexuality, 95.
[44] Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India, 22.
[45] Ibid., 80–86.

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