A Critical Reading of Foucault
Few thinkers have influenced contemporary feminist scholarship on the themes of power, sexuality, and the subject to the extent that Michel Foucault has. Indeed, even scholars who dispute this thinker's claims are compelled to acknowledge the contribution represented by his work in these areas. The years since Foucault's death have been marked by intense interest in his writings, feminist and otherwise. Today, a decade after his death, it seems appropriate to reflect critically upon the central exchanges between feminist thought and Foucauldian theory.
This article looks at three "waves" of Foucauldian literature by feminist political theorists and philosophers. Although neither chronologically separate nor thematically discrete, these waves refer to bodies of work by feminist scholars in which different aspects of Foucault's work -- all related primarily to the problematic of power -- are used for distinctly feminist ends. These waves are first, literature that appropriates Foucault's analysis of the effects of power on bodies, or what is known as the "docile-bodies" thesis, as well as a related aspect of this, the notion of "biopower," which refers to state regulation of the population; second, analyses that take their cue from Foucault's later development of an agonistic model of power, 1 in which multiple, interweaving power relations are viewed as inherently contested, as best expressed by his adage, "where there is power, there is resistance"; and third, postmodern feminist writings on sexual and gender identity informed by Foucault's assertion that prevailing categories of sex identity are the result of the transition to a modern regime of power and a proliferation of subjectifying discourses on sexuality. These three waves are taken up in turn in the first three sections of this article.
In reviewing the three waves of Foucauldian feminist literature, I argue that both the paradigms of power and the treatment of the subject 2 which emerge from Foucault's work are inadequate for feminist projects that take the delineation of women's oppression and the concrete transformation of society as central aims.
Monique Deveaux, "Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault", Feminist Studies 20:2 (Summer 1994):223-45. Reprinted by permission.