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Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization
Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization. Ladelle McWhorter. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Pp. xx + 260. $39.95 h.c. 0-253-33558-2; $18.95 pbk. 0-253-21325-8.
Fifteen years after his untimely death, Michel Foucault remains the most popular contemporary philosopher for American readers. His appeal cuts across disciplines from philosophy to literary criticism, history to social science. Ladelle McWhorter, in her new book, Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization, provides an excellent example of Foucault's American popularity. As a tribute to Foucault, the book is both expository and critical, and McWhorter's subject is the transforming effects of Foucault's work on her own. The book is remarkable in two ways. First, the autobiographical style may surprise readers. McWhorter makes good use of her own experiences growing up gay in the South in the 1960s and 1970s as a backdrop for interpreting Foucault's views about sexuality. Second, rather than primarily serving as an assessment of Foucault's ideas, the text emphasizes the effects of reading Foucault. As McWhorter explains, "My primary purpose is not to prove to anyone that Foucault's philosophical positions are the true and right ones," but to show how Foucault's work "has been able to excite, stimulate, enliven, and empower me for the greater part of my adult life" (xvii). She examines Foucault's last five books (Discipline and Punish, the three-volume History of Sexuality, and Herculine Babin) as "an askesis, an exercise of thinking that transforms its reader" (xvii).
What we learn from her account is the value of Foucault's genealogy of sexual categories for understanding the role of sexuality in daily life. McWhorter defines genealogy as "a critical redescription of a dominant description" (43). She shows how Foucault provides an important redescription of sexual identities, such as homosexual or heterosexual, [End Page 76] and how they are tethered to history and culture. In particular, Foucault describes the trappings of identifying and resisting sexual categories, along with the ways in which sexual identities contribute to the politics of sexual normalization. Foucault's work on sexuality is more extensive than that of social construction theorists because it includes a genealogy of the knowing subject. Drawing from her own experiences, first in Alabama and later in Virginia, McWhorter vividly describes the pressures to conform to heterosexuality and the corresponding penalties (psychological consequences such as depression and the temptation of suicide and legal consequences such as the enforcement of sodomy laws). She scrutinizes the nature of sexual desires and what it means to be seen and judged primarily as a sexual subject. In seven chapters, she traces her own process of dealing with a lesbian identity, from resisting labels to coming out. Rather than reifying a lesbian identity, she accepts Foucault's claim that our sexual and epistemic identities are part of networks of power. Her Foucauldian approach to sexual identity and to the possibility of political action offers us a strategic stance on the political minefield of homosexuality by outlining paths of resistance.
It would be hard to believe McWhorter's claims regarding the positive effects of Foucault's philosophy if one believes, as his critics argue, that his work is prone to nihilism or prohibits political action. In chapter 3, McWhorter considers three central attacks on Foucault: that he supports no criteria for value judgments (á la Michael Walzer and Nancy Fraser); that he destabilizes moral agency, making impossible resistance to domination (as Linda Alcoff argues); and that he destroys the basis for community that seems to be contingent on a shared identity. McWhorter's treatment of the arguments is balanced. In some cases, her own position has more nuances than those of Foucault's critics, thus making for an interesting reading of Foucault that allows for, rather than prohibits, agency. Her discussion of whether the possibility of community requires a shared identity is...