Considering works like Discipline and Punish, The History of Sexuality, The Birth of the Clinic, and Madness and Civilization, how does Foucault, in general, discuss the materiality of the body?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In many of his works, Michel Foucault relates the materiality of the body to its cultural surroundings. In fact, scholars agree that Foucault questions whether or not there truly is a material body that's separate from its surrounding culture, and scholars agree that Foucault's answer to his own question is no. Instead, Foucault sees the body as only a site where the power and discourses of society insert their influence.

As he asserts in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, even the body's sexuality does not exist separately from the laws and history of society. As he sees it, the Counter-Reformation played a significant role in the development of society's views on sexuality. The Counter-Reformation refers to the period of time in which the Catholic Church tried to regain power after the Protestant Reformation and involved such horrible occurrences as the Roman Inquisition. During the Counter-Reformation, there was an increase in Catholic leaders demanding that followers confess their sinful desires. According to Foucault, the increase in confessions also led to an increase in discourse about sex. There also became a social need to separate sex from morality and instead relate sex to "rationality" (p. 24). With the need to rationalize sex came the need for the government to institute more control. As Foucault asserts, "In the eighteenth century, sex became a 'police' matter," a matter to be regulated within the public (pp. 24-25). The policing of sex enhanced the social need to make confessions about sex, as seen in the book Foucault cites titled My Secret Life, a book detailing the sexual exploits of a gentleman in the Victorian era. Policing of sex also led to Victorian categorizations of sex, such as homosexuality. Hence, as Foucault shows, our understandings of sexuality, which is an aspect of the body, cannot be separated from history, politics, and other sexual influences. Instead, history, politics, and culture shape our sexuality, which is also to say they shape our body.

Hence, according to Foucault, a material body does not exist separately from its external influences.

Yet, scholars also see a paradox in Foucault's works. While he wants to claim a separate material body does not exist, many of his arguments presuppose a body existing outside of any influences even though the body is shaped by those influences. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Foucault describes the body as always being destroyed by the forces of history. Yet, as scholar Judith Butler points out, the very concepts of force and destruction assume that the body has a surface upon which force can exert itself and which can be destroyed ("Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions," The Journal of Philosophy). Even in Discipline and Punish, Foucault supports theories of criminal reform that promote gentler treatments of criminals as opposed to physical cruelty. But to argue in favor of gentleness again assumes that the body possesses a surface upon which can be felt gentleness, and according to Foucault, this gentleness leads to more effective control and actual criminal reform.

Hence, though Foucault wants to say the body does not materially exist outside of its cultural influences, scholars legitimately point out that Foucault's theories paradoxically point to the material existence of a body that can either accept or repel such cultural influences.