Foucault and Identity Politics: Strange Bedfellows

You don’t have to look far to find critiques regarding recent trends in ‘identity politics’. Whether it is resisting calls to sanitise curriculums, questioning de-platforming tactics or blaming identity tensions for the rise of Donald Trump there are a deep concerns amongst commentators  regarding  identity activism. In analysing ‘what went wrong?’ in the development of a new wave of young identity activists, the finger is often pointed at everyone’s favourite fisting Frenchmen and philosopher Michel Foucault (for a taste of this blame game, see: here, here and here).  This is not without evidence as many identity activists directly cite Foucault as an influence.

I’m a huge Foucault fan , but I’m also incredibly conflicted about identity activism. On the one hand, advocating for sexual and gender liberation as well as criminal justice reform is at the heart of my personal and professional activism. On the other hand, identity activism appears gripped by moral rigidity, myths regarding moral progress and an antipathy toward free expression. This difference in political outlook may seem slight but it has a tremendous impact on politics praxis.

As for whether Foucault is an influence on identity politics: I think his influence is slight and his ideas likely provided to activists by academics in a narrow way. The growth of ‘subspecialities’ in Humanities education probably hasn’t helped much, with disciplines like Queer Theory and Post-Feminism utilising Foucault for their own purposes rather looking at his broader work in context. I highly recommend reading Foucault’s works as they were originally intended rather than when utilised to push a particular normative agenda.

Below are three key differences that I can see between the key themes arising out of Foucault’s work, and the ideology of modern identity activists:

  1. Moral progress and the ‘arc of history’: 

    Identity activists see their work as ensuring the ‘civil rights’ and ‘recognition’ of previously marginalised identities such as POC, LGBT people and women. They view themselves as part of a larger civil rights struggle for human dignity. Although Foucault applied his genealogy to marginalised identities (i.e the mentally ill, criminals, gays etc), he followed the ideas of Frederich Nietzsche in that he viewed values as a consequence of historical circumstance rather than as a rational consequence of an improved moral consciousness. As a result, Foucault would be very skeptical of narratives depicting a particular political goals as morally ‘progressive’. This certainly doesn’t bar political activism by Foucault fans, but it does temper emotions somewhat given a unique understanding of the successes and failings of political history.

  2. Identity: 

    Depending on their ideological tilt, identity activists will either tell you identity categories are fixed and essential (gays are ‘born this way’) or identity arises from lived experience and carries political utility (“we don’t know what identities will exist once we win”). Although Foucault is often depicted as the prototype anti-essentialist, it would probably be more accurate to say that he didn’t care all that much about questions of identity. For Foucault, lived experience and questions of “who am I?” were regressive in that, rather than liberating the individual from social constraints, it simply led to new forms of subjugation. The key for Foucault was to dissolve identity away and focus on action. This is why sometimes Foucault is misread as focusing too heavily on gay behaviour in The History of Sexuality rather than gay desire. For Foucault, to categorise desire would be to limit its possibilities, see this interview he did shortly before his death.

  3. Therapy Talk and Mental Health: 

    The most stark contrast between the ideology of identity activists and Foucault is the unquestioned embrace by activist groups of therapy language, mental health concepts and a politics of care. The relationship between social work, psychology and civil rights in America has always been a close one and has shaped the tools and ideology of activism in the country. Psychoanalysis has always dominated left wing activism in America, and placed a heavy influence of ‘self work’ and discipline to cultivate an authentically liberated sense of self. As much as modern identity activists deride ‘liberal feminism’ they have also wholesale adopted most of liberal psychoanalytic tactics from the 1960s such as consciousness raisingsafe spaces and role modelling. Moreover, the repackaging of post-structuralist theory by American academics such as Judith Butler and bell hooks have twisted insights into language, knowledge and marginalisation into practices of self-discipline and a much weaker politics of recognition. This is why there is often a stark contrast between the gay and feminist movements in America and those (more successful) movements occurring in Europe. Foucault would have found the American trend particularly bizarre as to the extent that his work was normative it was decidedly individualist, anti-conformist and skeptical toward therapeutic discourse.

Hopefully, that clarifies some of the aspects in which the work of Foucault differs from modern identity politics. His work is incredibly useful for both academics and activists concerned about sex and gender politics as well as criminal justice reform. In particular, Foucault finds in his genealogical method a means to dethrone authoritarian discourses in order to bring about a new way of living in the world.

For me, one of the biggest take aways from Foucault’s work is an appreciation that kindness can be harmful. Whether it is the birth of the prison, the clinic or sexual identity – Foucault’s work shows us how a social and political  focus on saving, protecting and categorising a group of people can lead to further subjugation. To me, this should be the biggest concern for those who wish to focus a politics on identity.

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