Disciplining Bodies: Reflections on Foucault, Young and hooks
For section 2 of The Philosophy of Human Nature, students read a chapter from Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Young's "Throwing Like a Girl" and "Pregnant Embodiment" and, finally, hook's Ain't I a Woman where the whole of the class read the Introduction and Chapter 1 together while groups were assigned to read and explain the remaining chapters of the book.
The goal of this section was to learn how to apply Foucauldian theories about the production of discourses that discipline bodies via hierarchal observation, normalization and examination. One student astutely observed how this process of normalization is ubiquitous and even part and parcel of seemingly "good" things like fire control, writing of man's need to dominate and control nature, he posted several pictures of fire towers to show what he described as the phallic symbol which functions as a "disciplinary mechanism for controlling ecological movement."
Another student reacted with a piece a prose designed to capture the fear and paranoia associated with living in a disciplinary society. Her work is worth quoting in full:
Reading Michel Foucault’s work feels like waking up from a nightmare.
At first, you don’t want to leave. You read his spiraling metaphors, his convoluted phrases, his bitter passages on the nature of power. To him, we’re all just constructed, produced by an invisible yet all-seeing constructed power propagated and influenced by all of us. We are watched at all times and categorized by the identities that are assigned to us and every piece of ourselves that we find to be special and unique. According to him, that examination is what “assures the great disciplinary functions of distribution and classification, maximum extraction of forces and time, continuous genetic accumulation, optimum combination of aptitudes and, thereby, the fabrication of cellular, organic, genetic and combinatory individuality” (Foucault, 192).
You laugh it off a little bit. You find yourself relating to some of the points that he’s making, but the language that he uses is just ostentatious and self-important enough to alienate you somewhat from what he’s trying to say. You joke about it later, calling what you read “pretentious” and “overly academic.” You go about your day, turning your mind to other things. School is getting harder after all, and you need to begin working on those projects that you said that you would start.
It comes back to you at night. The sun is down now. The cold winter air is trying its best to suck the heat of your room through the thin glass of the window. You lay on your bed, staring lazily up at the ceiling, exhausted from the activities of the day. Your eyes are about to droop close when you feel it.
Something’s watching you.
The room is dark. You can feel that you’re alone in your room. You know that no one is anyone near you.
Yet you feel watched. Seen. Analyzed, judged, and categorized by something unseen. It feels almost seductive in a way. That someone would be paying such close attention to you feels flattering in a sense.
All of a sudden, you feel like a lab rat in a maze, trapped in boundless hallways, always searching out that faint smell of cheese. You feel the siren’s call of the nightmare and you dive farther into the nightmare to seek it out.
You can’t help but feel as if you need to be doing something, anything to prove that you can. The drive to make something comes to you but not in the way that it usually does. You don’t want to make something to express something; you need to produce something that other people can see. You need to create that appearance. You need to write that masterwork. You need to be unique, lovable, marketable.
The intoxicating feeling builds quickly. Soon, you don’t care what you need to give as long as that approval comes. You swear that you would peel your skin off, gouge your eyes out as long as the likes come pouring in. As long as you got an A on that test. As long as you got one shred of recognition.
Suddenly, you’re back in your body. You feel that the room is colder now than it was before. The vaguely inebriated sensation is gone and your skin feels clammy. You’re out of the nightmare
You see the pieces of that horrid dream everywhere now. Whenever you stand in line for coffee, you see the regimented ways that people act and dress in public. You feel the pressure to conform more acutely than you did before. You take further note of the things that you dislike most about yourself and realize just how much of the language that you use comes from society at large.
Seeing the world through this lens is horrifying.
But seeing the world without it is far worse.
Turning to Young, the class was broken into two groups with one half applying the ideas of Foucauldian discipline to the experience of women to be as timid, frail, weak while the other half read about the experience of pregnancy under patriarchy as something abnormal or alienating.
Student Designed Content Creation for Section 2
Writing about Young and the constructed of women as the being which must take up less space, one student combined both Young and Foucault:
" The conditioning that Young describes seems to be reflected perfectly in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The idea that young girls are conditioned into behavior a certain way for so long and so effectively that it starts to seem natural falls right in line with Foucault’s idea of how the “chief function of the disciplinary power is to ‘train’”. Foucault argues that by the way to instill discipline into someone is by making it so they are always observable, always able to be watch, but only in a way in which they remain unsure of what exact moment they may be under observation. The ideal disciplinary structure (which is not limited to just a small group of people) is one in which it “[renders] visible those who are inside it” and that “operates to transform individuals”. Young’s argument is that young girls are transformed into what the observer (in this case the rest of society) has deemed to be appropriate for them. As they undergo this transformation, they are currently placed in situations in which there is always a chance they are being watched and where the individual in eventually transformed through years of conditioning into the “ideal woman."
This discourse of women being disciplined into such categories was then immediately contrasted with hook's discussion of the black female slave experience and black women's roles in the civil rights eras. Primarily, according to hooks, the black woman is neither constructed as frail or timid but is rather masculinized and expected to be strong, something that can put up with oppression, handle the physical demands placed on her by her terrorizers. This, of course, leads to the romanticization of black women's strength even in our present era wherein which black women are forced to hide what society deems to be feminine weaknesses.
Student Designed Content Creation Section 2
Furthermore, while white women became the site of Madonna desexualization that must be protected, black women were deemed the sexually available, the site of the temptress who can and would never say no, constructing the "reality" that black women, unlike white women, cannot suffer from sexual violence or assault. She is the inessential woman and her problems are not real, she does not experience the pain or suffering of such assaults because white masculinity views her as not the being we must protect from violence, particularly sexual violence. In his eyes, women of color are always sexually available. While discussing stereotypes of black women in anime, one student observed in response to this construction:
To start, there is hardly any diversity or black representation is anime, especially when it comes to women. I spent a lot of time researching black female characters in anime and never found more than 20. Of these 20 characters, a majority were not main leads and barely had screen time or were hypersexualized in their bodies and their attire. It seemed that most of these characters were black to simply add visual diversity to the mangas and shows. Their experiences as black characters were not discussed or used to empower them in any way, these hypersexualized beings and side characters could have been any color. "
Finally, Young emphasized that pregnancy under patriarchy is experienced as alienated whereby she is alienated from the labor, the product of labor, the experience of being human and others. Under patriarchy, pregnancy is constructed as abnormal or a problem and, as such, masculine culture can pretend as if subjectivity as a stable or static one is the norm, despite the fact that half of humanity can experience subjectivity as a two, as something conditioned by time and a time that accounts for growth and change and always becoming otherwise. The "product" is both other but also same, dependent and alive with power and resource that affects me both physically but also psychological. In the end, pregnancy could be a site of destabilizing the reality of a singular and static subjectivity insofar as pregnancy reminds us that a fundamental part of being human is the capacity of many to phenomenologically experience being two, an experience of the other within that is both me and not me, an other that grows and transforms from within, a growth that will allow for something new and alive. As one student wrote:
During the process of pregnancy, women are alienated from their humanity, as they are a vessel for another being. From the outside, women are basically viewed as a nine-month clock. They also have to fall in line to the patriarchy when they go to the doctor and are expected to listen to everything that doctor says. These doctors, who are predominantly male, talk about pregnancy like it is a disease and there are specific rules each individual must follow.
Contrariwise, hooks' account of black female slaves as experiencing pregnancy as forced reproduction so that they are alienated via their construction as things to be breed. hooks' account of the black female slave experience radically problematizes the idea that pregnancy can trouble accounts of human subjectivity as control over the body insofar as for female slaves pregnancy and forced reproduction destabilizes all subjectivity over the body, an experience wherein the person inside is never yours, never a future freedom or transcendence but always a suffering, always an object alien to the bearer, something that furthers her own "thingness".
In the end, the class discussed in detail how the black female slave is constructed to be a "bad mother" who does not care about her own children while being paradoxically the perfect nurturer for white children, a discourse that his deep roots in contemporary discourses about black women today. In chapter 2, hooks goes into detail of the stereotypes of black women and argues images of the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Mammy, the Strong Black Women, the Amazon all have roots in the black female slave experience. In response to this one student wrote on the Jezebel stereotype in relation to Serena Williams:
"Serena Williams’ experience with the umpire is an example of how the Sapphire has been upheld to punish black women who violate societal norms that expect them to be passive, non-threatening, and unseen. As a result, black women are not allowed to push back and if they do they are deemed to be threatening, aggressive, and loud. This creates an environment where black women feel the need to behave in ways that dissociate themselves from anger. Black women have to constantly be aware of how others see them. It is a type of double consciousness, a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois which refers to how Black Americans experience themselves through their own consciousness as well as through their awareness of how they are perceived by White Americans. It is an internal conflict black women face, having to always be aware of how they make others feel.
The remaining chapters in Ain't I a Woman reinforce that black women were marginalized by both white women and black men during the civil rights era and beyond where rights for black Americans meant, according to hooks, rights for black men and rights for women meant white women. For hooks, there is a central need to move toward a coalition of recognizing the unique situation of black women who experience racism from white women in the feminist movement and sexism from black men in anti-racist movements.
Of course, hooks doesn't use the word intersectionality as she is writing before the word was termed by Crenshaw a few years later but students observe in the final chapter hooks' desire for what is now called intersectional feminism. As one student observed:
In both history books and classes, one hears of the slave experience, but not the whole picture. We most often hear of the Black male slave experience, not the Black female experience. We, as a society, shun that side of enslavement history despite its enormous impact. Further, this overt brutal treatment of Black women displayed by men, mainly white, demonstrates the sheer depth of male hatred of women. hooks points out that “colonial white men expressed their fear and hatred of womanhood by institutionalizing sexist discrimination and sexist oppression” (hooks, p. 31). She further explains that the sexual exploitation of enslaved women of color was a direct result of the “anti-woman sexual politics of colonial patriarchal America” or, more specifically, the politics of white colonial men (hooks, p. 43). [...] What I have come to understand [...] is that sexism is more deeply rooted in all aspects of our history more than one could ever think possible. The other important takeaway is the concept of intersectionality. bell hooks reminds us that both sexism and racism come into play with one another. The Black female experience during slavery was defined by both of these oppressions, not one or the other. It is important, especially for those in a privileged position to look into all facets of our history, no matter how ugly.
To be sure, student reactions to this section were wide-ranging. Some had never thought about any of these issues be it normalization, pregnancy as a site of subjectivity or the horrors of the black female slave experience and its contemporary inheritance. Yet, as always, their engagement was impressive and I was startled by the astuteness of their observations and their ability to discuss all of these ideas with careful generosity but also willingness to take risks and hear each other as they worked through so many diverse and difficult ideas.
Student Designed Content Creation
Again, in reaction to the content of the section, one student opted to write a poem, attempting to take on the perspective of black women.
They say I must rise up to the call for social equality.
I am told that I am “one with them” as we fight, until they win the battle I am once again their subordinate.
The very injustice lies in the failure to recognize my intersectionality.
I cannot be only a Woman on Monday, and solely an African American by Friday.
This call for social justice is objectifying me as a singular identity to affirm the patriarchy.
One says I’m African American, another a woman.
They neglect the tension that allows for the beauty in me.
They want to hear my voice yet they do not want to see.
My identity is a Strong Black Woman and the they is the patriarchy
I can neither rise up as a white woman, nor an African American man.
Instead I will be praised for the ability to eat the fruit of oppression and told to do my duty.
Interestingly, many students decided to create crosswords, discovering that in the process they were able to internalize the key terms and ideas. So to close, here are a few more of them: