Misunderstanding Foucault

Foucault isn't the godfather of wokeness. He's the godfather of anti-wokeness.

Michel Foucault has been pretty unpopular lately. Part of that is of his own making, to put it mildly, if there’s truth in a recent allegation that he routinely raped Tunisian boys in a Tunis graveyard in the late 1960s.

Last month, the revelation of those crimes titillated critics of intersectional identity politics on both the left and the right — Foucault being regarded in the popular imagination as the intellectual founding father of wokeness. It’s that part of his unpopularity that is wholly undeserved.

As far as I can make sense of it, the case for Foucault’s formation of identity politics is in his questioning of the existence of objective truths about the world — his contention that a “true” statement is inexorably connected to a particular discourse that gives that statement its meaning, and that discourses are inexorably intertwined with the exercise of power. Therefore, so the critique goes, Foucault undermined our collective belief in objective reality by reducing everything to power. That conception was seized on by his followers to dismiss the validity of everything from biological sex to the scientific method.

The argument vaguely describes Foucault’s thinking, and also completely misses his point. And his point, when correctly understood, is a critique of wokeness, not its justification.

Writing of the Victorian period in Europe in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Foucault begins by describing the conventional take on the culture of sexual prudishness typically associated with that era. During feudal times, so the story goes, people were cruder, more spontaneous, and more animalistic about sex (as they were about most things). Then, with the spread of capitalism and the emergence of bourgeois culture, sex became taboo. We no longer performed it openly, as some did during those cruder times, or even spoke of it publicly without discretion or embarrassment. Sexual deviance came to be regarded as a moral crime. In our personal lives, we repressed our sexual appetites, lying to ourselves about their power over us, or acknowledging it only with deep shame.

But this familiar account, Foucault argues, is only part of the story, and not the most important part. Accompanying this spread of Victorian sexual repression, he points out, was an explosion of chatter about sex. Far from casting silence on the topic, it became a cacophony. It was suddenly a topic of grave concern to the practitioners of religion, of the law, of medicine, of civil affairs, and of the administrative state. Casual opinions on what people did with each other in the bedroom became elaborated and hardened into moral judgments, legal injunctions, and scientific hypotheses on the “problem” of sexual deviancy.

People in the Victorian era weren’t in denial over the existence of sexual desire; they were obsessed with it.

Sexual repression was merely the internalization at the individual level of this regulatory regime, a regime that divided the population into the deviant and the non-deviant, and subjected the former to all kinds of atrocities: legal persecution, moral ostracism, institutionalization. In response to this oppressive social order, individuals were forced to self-police not only their behavior but their feelings and desires, jealously guarding against the possibility of deviancy.

The sexual classifications that emerged from this regime of social control were thereby imposed on individuals not merely as prohibitions on their actions but as defining identities of their innermost selves. The most famous example, of course, is the “homosexual.”

“As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them,” Foucault writes. “The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology.”

No longer was the practice of fucking someone of the same sex merely an activity; it was incarnated into a category of person.

Foucault’s haters hold him responsible for today’s tribal embrace of racial essentialism and other identity fetishes. But at least this particular identity category — the homosexual — was to Foucault not a timeless, metaphysical attribute of individual persons, to be celebrated and emancipated. It was the intellectual invention of the administrative state, wielded over people as a tool of oppression, enabling the government to identify, categorize, isolate, and discriminate against them, and subject them to a level of micromanaged social control that was impossible without the discourse that engendered it.

This is what Foucault means when he suggests that our social reality does not have an a priori objective existence, but is rather contrived as part of the erection of an apparatus of power. And precisely what he described in The History of Sexuality is happening in front of our eyes at this very moment, in the construction of the ideology of wokeness, particularly as it pertains to race.

In Chapter 4 of Racecraft, Barbara and Karen Fields present a genealogy of the invention of the modern American conception of race. Prior to the Transatlantic slave trade, they argue, “race” did not exist in the way we understand the concept today. European colonizers did not seek out slaves from Africa because they were black; they took them because they could be taken. It was only after the slave trade was established that the ideological justification arose, ex post facto, that held that certain people deserved to be enslaved because they were of a particular ancestral origin, which now came to be constituted as a “race.” And this racial justification was only necessary because the existence of slavery so starkly betrayed the Enlightenment ideology of human equality. As the Fieldses point out, in Tsarist Russia, there was no need for this ideological casuistry. Russian serfs were, for all practical purposes, slaves to the aristocracy. But Russian aristocrats felt no compunction to define them as a separate category of human being, because they didn’t need to. There was no conception in Tsarist Russia of the inherent dignity and rights of all humans, so there was no need to redefine this particular class of people, who were denied those rights, as less than human. In the post-revolutionary United States, on the other hand, the flagrant contradiction between the founding mythology of the nation and its material reality demanded a rationalization. That rationalization was found in the invention of race, and its corollary, racism.

The invention of race enabled the government, first, to prolong the existence of slavery and then Jim Crow, and later, to carve up the population into discrete sub-populations, subject to disparate political postures, public policies, and surveillance regimes. These acts of taxonomy arose, not coincidentally, with the growth of the bureaucratic state. It is in the very nature of bureaucratic administration to classify, measure, rank and order its objects; when the object is human society, the tendency is no different. This is the ultimate expression of Foucault's conception of power, and it's an intuitive one: the state's capacity to project its authority into every household, over each individual's personal life. It is the construction of novel discourses — such as the discourse over sex in the Victorian era and this new iteration of discourse over race today — that conjures out of an amorphous population a measurable, classifiable, intelligible data set of individuals perfectly suited for technocratic administration. It is the process that James C. Scott, the Foucauldian political scientist, describes as making the population “legible” to the state. It is what Foucault himself describes as “governmentality.”

And as with the invention of the “homosexual,” the work of creating human races is only initially undertaken by the state as such; soon, the population itself takes the baton. As the Fieldses observe, for example, the “hispanic” census category was an invention of the Nixon administration. When it was first imposed, it was widely rejected by so-called “Hispanics,” who regarded themselves variously as Mexicans, Chicanos, Hondurans, Cubans, Texans, etc., not as members of a pan-ethnic category that subsumed them all. But within a decade, not only was the hitherto non-existent “Hispanic” ethnicity a new social reality; it was also a scientific object, with its own statistical likelihoods of susceptibility to diseases and genetic proclivities. It was only a matter of time before it was taken up as a personal identifier, a source of ethnic pride, a subject of political struggle and liberation, a historical actor, and an object of interdisciplinary academic study. This was just one instance of the emergence of the politics of identity, which presents itself as revolutionary but is in fact, at its root, a project of the state itself.

Today, race has become one of the most fundamental sources of collective identity in American society. And just as the emergence of the discourse of sexual classification and regulation in the Victorian era was manifested on the individual level in the form of perpetual policing of one’s sexual desires, today the hegemony of race is engendering in individuals constant self-surveillance of one’s racism, unconscious bias, and “internalized white supremacy,” along with a whole set of institutions — from corporate HR departments to academic disciplines to government agencies — devoted to subjecting more and more people to that self-surveillance regime. It is the real time construction of Foucault’s panopticon.

Foucault did not live to see the invention of wokeness. But if he had, there is no question that he would have recognized it as the emergence of a new discursive power, with its own esoteric jargon, its pretense of scientific grounding, its norms and rules and prohibitions, its classifications systems, and its behavioral and ideological programs, so readily adapted into PowerPoint presentations and day-long instructional seminars for captive audiences of students, workers and professional managers.

Foucault was the first to recognize this discursive power as both a universal feature of modern bureaucratic governance, and a format of social control and oppression. Perhaps Foucault anticipated identity politics, as so many accuse him of doing. But he saw it not as its adherents perceive it — as a mode of struggle for liberation — but as its detractors do: as a novel way to subject more and more people to behavioral micromanagement by the institutions that rule over them.