Fifty Shades of Foucault

Ticklish?
Ticklish?

The upcoming release of the Fifty Shades of Grey film, in conjunction with my reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, (because, naturally, the two go together like the proverbial peanut butter and jelly) got me to thinking. What would Foucault say about the particular power/sexual dynamic of the story? Would he value the mainstream discourse on sex it has promulgated? In all likelihood he would laugh at the very idea, since the story depicts an impressionable young woman swept off her randy feet by none other than a power-crazed, über-masculinized bachelor. In a plot twist that hardly qualifies as one, they go through a brief soul-shattering breakup, followed by equally soul-shattering make-up sex, then get married and have kids. (Oops. Spoiler alert?)

Foucault is probably rolling over in his grave at the very suggestion of entertaining this. Nonetheless (or as my husband would say for shits and giggles, less than none), the book/film has a certain value insofar as it reifies Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted idea that “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” I would also humbly add to this the experience of desire. Desire is more powerful than the achievement itself; it is a taunting reminder of what you want. Yet the moments leading up to its fulfillment are often the best. Forgive my lapse into binary thinking, but when it comes to desire, there is always a power imbalance. In the best of circumstances, it is imperceptible. But someone is always in control; it is the standard pursuer and pursued narrative.

Desire has the added misty quality of lying in the future. It is something “to-come,” something to look forward to. We cannot help speaking about it, reading about it, seeing it, experiencing it, yet Foucault adamantly claims we are still repressed. He says, “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (HOS 35).

A seeming paradox, wouldn’t you say? How can you speak on something while keeping it a secret? Maybe we encode and cautiously edit the things we say about sex, or maybe sex manifests symbolically. For all our discourse on sex, supposedly liberated, we are still operating within a prohibitive framework. And anyone who would deny the existence of double-standards is intentionally deluded. The most stark feminist (be it man or woman) often still turns their nose up in silent judgment. And even if you don’t (or don’t intend to), there’s still the sharp divide between subjective perception and objective reality. As illustration, you might perceive yourself as a sexually liberated woman and act accordingly, but if the world calls you a slut and turns its back on you, where does that leave you? Lived reality trumps theory any day.

As Foucault tells us, “To say that sex is not repressed, or rather that the relationship between sex and power is not characterized by repression, is to risk falling into a sterile paradox” (8). This begs the question, who holds the power? The answer should be fairly obvious.

In any case, I’ll update this post once I’ve actually seen the film. That’s right–I will be watching it. Make fun all you want. Call me a product of my repressive social ideology, but I want to see Anastasia getting whipped.

*UPDATE*

Soft porn without plot or character. Whoever heard of such a thing? Much of the film’s failures can be rightfully attributed to the book, but even then, it misses much of the couple’s fun virtual banter. Bad writing notwithstanding, at least there was a smidgen of individuality–you know, when someone actually fits their character. Sure, Ana would drop a number of expletives befitting an eight year old school girl (what kind of self-respecting English major says “holy cow?”), but she was into the British classics of the Romantic period. Of course. Her lexicon in those pithy email exchanges was underrepresented in the movie, as was her biting sense of humor. I echo a consensus among critics when I say that no amount of good acting (and Dakota Johnson really did give a sensitive performance) can undo bad writing. The screenwriter should have taken more creative license–a lot more. Poor Jamie Dornan finds himself with lines like “what incentivizes them.” Is that even a word? Barf.

When at the end of the film, Ana intones from a soggy pillow, “I’ve fallen in love with you,” you find yourself asking, “How?” There’s no real conversation, there’s no sense of what makes them tick. In real life, the sex to be had from such vacuous characters with virtually no chemistry would have been mediocre, at best.

I defer to my betters:

Anthony Lane form The New Yorker:

“He spends half the time badgering her about a contract that has been drawn up, in which she—“the Submissive”—must consent to his supremacy. Clauses and subsections are haggled over in such detail that one feels bound to ask: How much of a sex film can this be, given that the people most likely to be turned on by it are lawyers?”

A.O. Scott from NY Times:

““Fifty Shades” is both daring and conventional, falling back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires.”

“W.H. Auden once wrote that ‘the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.’ In defiance of this irrefutable good sense, the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon has spawned innumerable kink-themed think pieces, though the analysis has dwelt less on Ms. James’s psyche than on the fantasies of the tens of millions of women who have bought her books. The writers transform their boredom into mockery and judgment as they circle around a tantalizing, perhaps frustrating question. Why do so many women read these novels, even though they have no literary value?

I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures. Which brings me back to the laughter at the end of the sneak preview. “Fifty Shades of Grey” might not be a good movie — O.K., it’s a terrible movie — but it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment.”

I could not have put it better myself. It’s about having a sense of humor; an ability to satirize the trashy. Reminds me of a theory-head from a grad class, who, at the mention of the book, snobbishly exclaimed, “That’s a book for people who don’t really like to read.” I bristled at the sweeping generalization–after all, I was a fellow scholar (with an impeccable GPA I might humbly add), and I did flip through those pages in mocking glee. In what I considered to be an apt response, I turned to a fellow Fifty Shades reader and said, “She needs to lighten up and get laid.”

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Under the Shade of Ideology

We are all fanatics—stark raving mad—after a fashion. Whether in the name of God, Humanity, Love, or any other ideal. Even those walking euphemisms for atheism, secular humanists, have faith in humanity. This faith might be thought of as a frame. Breaking through these frames that, well, frame our existence is a violent, life-shattering endeavor. But it is also an existential crisis you can be proud of. It is saying farewell to that which you once lovingly held up as Truth. Many refer to this experience as suddenly feeling “alone in the world,” to which the Spanish idiom comes to mind as a rebuttal: “Es mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.” Roughly translated: “It’s better to be alone than in bad company.” Others might argue that this solipsistic gesture is for the egoist and the self-entitled, but I believe it is a move towards freedom.

If you’ve ever seen Slavoj Žižek’s visual polemic The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, you’ll remember his appraisal of the 1988 film They Live. The protagonist, aptly surnamed “Nada,” chances upon a pair of very special sunglasses that allow him to see the ideological frames that dictate our lives. Is it telling that he discovers them in an abandoned church?

In your daily amblings, you might have noticed hordes of hipsters wearing one of the film’s emblems, “OBEY,” on everything from shirts to hats. Unfortunately, the irony might indeed be lost on them that their consumerism feeds into the film’s very critique: we are controlled by the ideological markers of our society, the most prominent of which is capitalism. This is expressly symbolized when the following words glare at you from the face of a dollar bill: “I AM YOUR GOD.”

I should take a moment here to mention the friend’s dissertation chapter that prompted these thoughts. Check him out at joaquinpedroso.com. Said scholar cites R.W.K. Paterson, who in turn cites Max Stirner in saying the following: “If the idea of ‘God’ is the idea of a unifying principle which transforms our centrifugal experiences into a coherent and significant whole, then the atheist’s denial of God is a denial of the possibility of any such ideal unity.”

The theological is such a tough frame to break through, but once you do, you’re free. What about a non-interventionist god? A movement, a force, without any direction, without any intention. How does conception of a deity frame our conception of self? Characterizing god with human qualities springs from a desire to characterize ourselves. If a vengeful god requires guilt and contrition, then does it follow that a forgiving god generates hedonism? Stirner might want us to “reject the guiding ideas that…underlie our understandings of ourselves,” (qtd. in Pedroso 11) but is this really tenable?  Even if we could, like Nada, put on the ideology-blasting shades, would that change anything? We might (in dialogue and behavior) be able to recognize and “reject” ideology, thereby annihilating all sense of self, but it’s all a ruse.  It’s like inadmissible evidence in court—once it’s presented, you can’t really ever erase it from your memory.  Memories might very well be the blessing and the bane of our lives, depending on how you choose to look at it. Indeed, even the question of choice is up for debate. How many memories would we gladly expunge, if only we could? To what extent can someone choose to remember or forget? Unless you’ve sustained brain trauma or engaged in some heavy psychotropic substances, you cannot simply choose to forget. The best you can hope for is to choose to ignore—with varying degrees of success.

*

My friend continues by invoking Nietzsche—that wonderful skeptic of all that is holy. For him, Ideological Man must join Ideological God in mutual death. But then, even the idea of death is permeated with an expectation of mourning, of continued re-visiting. Admittedly, this is another social frame speaking. Must that die too? How can we condemn to death that which embalms our lives with a smidgen of hope? It takes the bravest to do so.

Nietzsche explains why we engage in functional lies thus:

We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live – by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith no one could endure living! But that does not prove them. Life is not an argument; the conditions of life might include error (qtd. in Pedroso 22).

Dualisms act as the bulwark of our collective identity. To define something in opposition to another gives us a sense of security. And yet, the current Pope’s suggestion that science and religion can exist in harmony is only radical at first glance. The truth is, Science and Metaphysics go hand in hand, since people are compelled to fill in the gaps left by science with the divine. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Why do people feel compelled to close the gaps? To go against what Keats described as “negative capability,” or being comfortably within uncertainty. What’s so great about certainty anyway? Why are questions (like these) so irritating?

As a nod to the ubiquity of Derrida in my life, we cannot escape our dichotomies because we think via language. The extra-linguistic should be our aim, but systematically tapping into it would defeat the purpose. It should be an organic encounter—unplanned and fleeting. This type of encounter sacrifices efficiency though, another divinity in itself. The balmy conviction that comes from thinking in dualisms is particularly suited to bitter maturity. Children don’t suffer from this. Only the mind of a child can contend with an infinite horizon of possibility. We may also take a page from Fitzgerald, who imbued his fictional Gatsby with a mind that could “romp like the mind of God.”

But alas! We cannot all be like Gatsby. In any case, look how he ended up. A caution against dreaming?

Chomsky and Foucault debate (1971) “Power, justice, and human nature”

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I’m forever indebted to the few who keep me entrenched in philosophy. A friend posted a video of the 1971 debate between then-leading (still widely read) French theorist Michele Foucault and American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. The debate topics included structures of power and legitimacy thereof, the definition of human nature (if such a thing can be arrived at), and such light matters. 😉 Both men made excellent points and as usual I found myself beholden to the ambiguous middle-ground.
Foucault said it’s dangerous to claim that there is a fundamental human nature. Chomsky replied that although there is a danger in positing this, there is also a danger in inaction, in not positing, in not doing anything. Chomsky said we must make decisions, (in Kantian fashion, a moral imperative, if you will) even in the face of staggering uncertainty, because not doing so would be irresponsible. We make decisions in full knowledge that they might just be wrong. He also says that the laws that the state passes, for example in terms of civil disobedience, are not necessarily just. Therefore it follows that, one might do something illegal yet not necessarily unethical or wrong.
Foucault, irrespective of his own opinions on the matter (which I would wager are in line with Chomsky’s in the latter’s assertion that the US government is committing crimes via the Vietnam War), calls into question this ideal of justice. In essence, the question becomes: who defines what is ethical and what is illegal? And to counter Chomsky’s hierarchy of individual morality above state sanctioned legality, Foucault makes both equally problematic. This is because when you refer to an ideal of justice, this is nothing more than a construction; a product of your current circumstances. It is heavily influenced by the contingencies that permeate our era; Historical climate informed by a particularly written history, popular opinion, etc., which again, is not necessarily the “right” opinion. This is poignantly made true when we recall slavery in this country and genocide in others, just to name a few horrors that were once thought to be morally justifiable by the masses.
Ever in practicality however, Chomsky reformulates Foucault’s argument. We do not make decisions in opposition to the law in search for an ideal justice, but for a better justice. The operative word being “better,” not “best” or ultimate.

When asked to respond to the irony (or masked hypocrisy) of working at an institution like MIT which is involved in war research and the manufacture of war weapons, Chomsky compares his situation with that of Karl Marx who worked in the British Museum, not as a symbol of compliance or complacency, but to learn from the very source of imperial and colonial oppression.

Foucault was steadfast in disavowing the notion of an “ideal” justice or human nature. Claiming such an ideal, he argues, is certainly presumptuous if not wholly violent, as we’ve seen throughout history. But I embraced the other side as well, with Chomsky saying that inaction and indecision might very well be as dangerous as action and positing. Chomsky reminded me of Derrida when he said that state sanctioned laws are not to be taken a priori as justice. The laws are only an imperfect reaching after justice, not the thing itself.

In not so many words, we do the best we can. Let’s just hope that, as a Caribbean dictator once said, (irony of ironies!) history absolves us.

Here is the link on YouTube. Chomsky/Foucault 1971 Debate Make sure you select English on the “CC” so you can see the subtitles. (Otherwise, be sure to learn French. Which is certainly not a bad undertaking!)