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How Judith Butler Overcame Foucault’s Shortcomings

While Foucault’s legacy reminds us that identity politics can be problematic, Butler shows how domination can be escaped through other means. This is particularly relevant in a time when identity-based resistance, such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, is becoming increasingly popular.
@Seppevdpll // August 25th, 2018 //

By reconceptualising power from a solely repressive, to a rather productive and disciplining force, Foucault changed the way we came to think about power. However, his ambivalent stance on agency and resistance, left scholars to wonder whether his ideas were actually useful for political action. Foucault famously claimed that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’, but simultaneously argued that power could not be escaped, as power would always be ‘already present, constituting that very thing which one attempts to counter it with’. Foucault dismissed political action based on essentialist notions of social identity, but did he offer any alternative principles on which resistance could be based?

In this essay, I argue that Foucault’s reconceptualization of power provided important insights, but insufficient opportunities to resist the modern forms of power he adequately addressed. Furthermore, I claim that Butler overcame these shortcomings, by providing concrete opportunities for resistance through discursive deviation and performative protest.

From Repressive to Productive Power
In The History of Sexuality: the Will to Knowledge (1978), Foucault delivered a genealogy of how we came to think about sex. Foucault’s primary aim was not to analyse how sexual practices had changed throughout history, but rather to examine how sexuality had transformed from a ‘particular activity that we may engage in’ to an object of knowledge, accompanied by a complete field of science, that tells us something about ‘who we are’. By examining how sexualities became discursively constructed over time, Foucault criticized the dominant idea within human sciences, and psychoanalysis in particular, that sexuality was a ‘master key’ that determined all psychological phenomena. Freud had, amongst others, claimed that all psychological difficulties were ultimately rooted in sexual repression, and Freudo-Marxists, such as Reich and Marcuse, had later publicly plead for its liberation. Foucault approached this increased scientific interest in the liberation of our sexuality with suspicion, and criticized it as the ‘repressive hypothesis’.

According to the repressive hypothesis, sexuality would have been relatively free in the 18th century, heavily repressed in the Victorian age, and now again liberated through science and confessions. Foucault argued that this hypothesis would be based on false assumptions. The confessional culture that science and religion had promoted would not have liberated, but only further controlled sexuality by instigating a disciplining discourse in which sexuality had become an internal essence and ‘obligatory act of speech’. Foucault, therefore, argued that in our current society, power is not only repressive, imposed and ‘coming from above’, but also productive, enabling, and ‘coming from below’.

While ‘traditional power’ till the end of the 16th century relied on repressive laws, centralised penalties, and the power of the sovereign over life and death, modern power would, according to Foucault, rather take form in social regulation and self-control. This modern form of power would be exercised on two different levels which are strongly tied together. On the individual level, disciplinary power would have produced discourse, desires, objects of knowledge and rituals of truth. On the level of the population, bio-power would have subjugated bodies and controlled populations through medical, pedagogical and demographical interventions such as birth control and migration policies. Foucault therefore argued that ‘the ancient right to take life or let live, was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the, point of death’.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault used Bentham’s panopticon to explain how modern power is both totalizing and individualizing. In the panopticon, prison cells are located around a single watchtower, in such a way that prisoners always act as if they are being watched because they never know whether or not they are being observed. For Foucault, panopticism represented the disciplinary function in which modern power is exercised. It would serve as ‘a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals’.

Feminist Critiques
Foucault’s reconceptualization of power from a solely ‘repressive’ to a rather productive totalising and simultaneously individualising force, heavily influenced scholars and activists focussing on the emancipation of gender and sexuality. The gay rights movement and the feminist movement were, amongst others, fighting for their rights and often mobilized themselves on the presumed existence of a shared subjectivity. By refusing to engage in totalizing discourse, and by rejecting the idea that people have an internal essence which is prior to existence, Foucault implicitly criticized these social movements. However, he also provided few alternative principles on which domination could be resisted, and this ultimately instigated a storm of feminist critique. I will now turn to the arguments of Fraser and Hartsock, who both criticized Foucault on the fact that he did not thoroughly address resistance in his genealogy of modern power.

In ‘Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions’, Fraser (1981) acknowledges the value of Foucault’s empirical account on modern power. However, she criticizes the lack of a normative framework underlying this account. Foucault would have rejected the state-centered liberal normative framework, which differentiates ‘legitimate’ power from ‘illegitimate’ power and ‘liberation’ from ‘repression’. Furthermore, through the military use of concepts such as ‘domination’ and ‘subjugation’, Foucault would have suggested that an alternative normative framework existed. However, a clear description of this presupposed alternative framework is, according to Fraser, nowhere to be found. Therefore, an important question remains unanswered throughout Foucault’s work: why is it important to resist power and domination?

According to Fraser, this question remains unanswered due to the lack of a clear normative framework, but also due to the fact that Foucault’s overall concept of power is too broad and unspecific. Foucault was not able to address ‘who is dominating or subjugating whom’ and failed to address ‘who is resisting or submitting to whom’. Foucault would have failed to do so, because he neglected the idea that power could be possessed by certain individuals, classes or groups. Power should, according to Foucault, rather be seen as complex, differentiated, and always and everywhere present. According to Fraser, this conceptualisation of power does not provide a decent framework for resistance: ‘Foucault calls too many different sorts of things power, and simply leaves it at that’.

Hartsock (1990) comes to a similar conclusion in her article ‘Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?’. She states that Foucault’s concept of power is too homogeneous, and will lead us to believe that ‘power is everywhere, and so ultimately nowhere’. According to Hartsock, the main problem with Foucault’s analysis is not the lack of a normative framework, but rather the fact that Foucault delegates the analysis of structural forms of power, on the level of large-scale institutions, to the analysis of capillary forms of power, on the level of individuals. By doing so, Foucault would have ignored the structural forms of power that are existent in society at large, such as the domination of women and workers under patriarchy and capitalism.

Ironically, Hartsock then moves on to the individual level herself and assigns these shortcomings to Foucault’s privileged position. Hartsock argues that Foucault tends to overlook these structural hierarchies, because he writes from the perspective of an intellectual, dominator and colonizer that solely represents the ‘self-proclaimed majority’. Foucault would have failed to transcend the liberal opposition between domination and liberation, by simply posing that domination is all there is. According to Hartsock, Foucault’s imagination would, therefore, be ‘with, rather than against power’. His account of power would have promoted passivity, and failed to assess how resistance can create new orders, outside the already existent framework of power he examined. To conclude, Hartsock finds it suspicious that post-modernists, such as Foucault, started to reject subjecthood, just in time when social movements mobilizing themselves around a shared subjectivity booked most progress. Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as the subject rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?

Fraser and Hartsock both criticize Foucault on his ambivalent stance on resistance. However, they do not provide a satisfying solution to Foucault’s critique on ‘emancipatory’ politics either, nor do they introduce their own conceptual framework of modern power on which resistance could be based. This deadlock in the theorization of the relation between power and resistance was resolved by Judith Butler, who with her theory of gender performativity, instigates concrete possibilities for performative protest.

A Queer Intervention
In Gender Trouble (1990), Butler took up to do for gender what Foucault had done for sexuality. Butler follows Foucault’s notion that subject positions are not natural givens, but rather discursive products of modern power. By applying Foucault’s thesis on the productive nature of modern power to gender, Butler examines how the theoretic division between a socially constructed gender and a presumed biological sex, ultimately constitutes the illusion that the subject’s gender is grounded in a fixed and binary biological essence, that can be found in its pure form, unhampered by patriarchy, deep in the female psyche or in the distant past. According to Butler this belief is sustained by psychoanalysts, but also by feminists, who discursively constitute ‘women’ as the subject of their feminism. She finds this emancipatory tactic exclusionary and self-defeating, as it would uphold the heterosexual matrix, in which femininity and masculinity serve as the mere extensions of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and in which other identities cannot endure. According to Butler, gender should not be seen as a biological fact or internal state of ‘being’, but rather as an enacted performance and active way of ‘doing’ that makes us believe that it exists. Butler claims that ‘the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all’. This leads her to the radical conclusion that ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’.

By redefining gender from a passive and natural ‘state of being’, to an active and performative ‘way of doing’, Butler adds an important insight to Foucault’s genealogy of modern power. She upholds Foucault’s position that modern power is productive, while simultaneously transcending the idea that bodies are merely docile victims of the modern powers by which they are produced. And although Butler acknowledges that gender is always performed within a limiting and ‘highly rigid regulatory frame’, she clearly indicates that there are possibilities to destabilize and resist this order. Butler notes that subversive gender performances, such as cross-dressing, travesty, drag and parody, can be used to undermine the essentialist belief that there is a ‘true gender identity’, and she furthermore suggests that labels such as ‘queen’, ‘butch’, ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’ can be discursively reappropriated, to destabilize the heterosexual matrix. Hereby, Butler offers concrete tools for agency and resistance, and although she oversteps Fraser’s demand for a clear normative framework, she delivers something even more radical – an anti-normative framework and continuous call for subversive action.

While some might argue that Butler echoes Foucault in claiming that it is not her task to specify ‘what it is to be done’, it should be noted that she publicly pleas for destabilization, discursive deviation and performative protest, and openly applauds people who transcend, destabilize, reappropriate and re-articulate what is perceived to be the norm. By doing so, Butler installs ‘a permanent principle of destabilization at the heart of the subject’ which makes her go ‘further than Foucault ever went’.


In this essay, I have argued that Foucault’s genealogy of modern power enabled scholars and activists to move beyond the simplistic liberal framework of ‘repression’ versus ‘liberation’, but failed to provide an alternative framework on which resistance could be based. Furthermore, I have claimed that Butler overcame these shortcomings through the introduction of an anti-normative framework in which she pleas for discursive deviation and performative protest. This framework is particularly relevant in a time when identity-based movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are becoming increasingly popular. While Foucault’s legacy reminds us that identity-based resistance can be problematic, Butler’s work teaches us that domination can be escaped through other means. It would be interesting to explore whether these tactics could also be used to resist power in other domains of social life. Is it possible to destabilize race through performance in the same way as gender? And can subversive performance be used to resist disciplinary power in the neoliberal workplace?


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Nobonita Kar

Love this. Thank you so much! ❤️

Lupe Cruz Cardenas

This was extremely helpful for my paper. Thank you!