Thoughts and Impressions on Elizabeth Grosz’ “Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism”

Elizabeth Grosz’s 1994 volume entitled, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism has been influential in my own thinking on the body as inscribed surface. In particular, Chapter 6, “The Body as Inscriptive Surface” elucidates Michel Foucault’s treatment of the body.

In ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, Foucault wrote:

“The body- and everything that touches it: diet, climate, and soil- is the domain of descent- the object of a genealogical investigation. The body manifests the stigmata of past experiences and gives rise to desires, failings, and errors… The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the processes of history’s destruction of the body.”

The body is a field of power’s investment, of knowledges and resistances. The body is an object, target and instrument of power. As explained in an earlier post, I explained Foucault’s conception of power as outlined in History of Sexuality, Vol. 1:

  • Power is not an institution nor is it a structure (93)
  • Power is not seized, acquired or shared. It is “exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.” (95)
  • Power relations, or relations of power are never external to other relationships, rather they are immanent and expressed through these relations.
  • “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations…” (95) In other words, Marxist dialectics that inform many feminisms are insufficient for conceptualizing and addressing the intersecting and overlapping interplay of power relations played out through intersectional oppressions and privileges (a core concept in intersectionality).  Marxist usages of class as an analogue for power relations and structures are insufficient for modeling the very complex power relations that construct and shape our realities, lived experiences and societies.
  • “Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective… there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives… the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed.” (95)
  • “Where there is power, there is resistance…” (95) Just as power relations are never external to other relations, resistance is never external to power. Resistance takes place within the field of power relations.

It is tempting to say that this is too abstract, and that this lacks a certain materiality. This is not so. The effects of power can be, and are material. Discourses, “tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations,” have materiality. However, to focus simply on the effects of power to the detriment of a study of power and its exercises is to conduct an incomplete analysis.

How does this relate to the body? The body is not outside of history, power or relations of force. The body is produced through discourses, shaped by disciplines and marked by history. Docile bodies are produced in a disciplinary society, and punishment involves technologies of the body.

In the shift from a disciplinary society to a control society in which governmentality constitutes the apparatus that is the Security State, there is a shift to the measuring and maintaining of the lives of the body politic in the form of Biopolitics. As Elizabeth Grosz put it:

“In brief, there is a dramatic transformation in the concepts of the subject and the body, from a concern for the well-being of the king’s body to the maintenance and well-being of the social body. This is the shift from the right over death to a power to regulate life through a micropolitical regulation of the body, the power to actively foster life.”(153)

This is seen in the growth of census data, data regarding life expectancy, birth rates, HIV prevalence, death rates, and so on. This is also seen in the growth of knowledge production surrounding total institutions such as schools, hospitals, care homes, jails and asylums. These disciplines include epidemiology, psychiatry, psychology, medicine, behavioral sciences and development studies. In this process, “techniques and procedures from considerably earlier periods- the techniques of the Christian confessional, the practices of medical investigation, the procedures of legal and punitive practices- became of strategic use in the biopolitical management of bodies and formed a systematic regime of powers when they coalesced into a coherent orientation in the 19th century.” (153)

Biopolitics is not the inscription of individuated subjects, rather, it is a management of the ‘body politic.’ It is power exercised at the level of the population, not the individual.

Elizabeth Grosz, like other feminists, points out Foucault’s omission of gender in the marking of bodies. The subject, with major exceptions, is male. Women and female bodies are mentioned in passing in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, in a discussion of “techniques of the Self,” in which he precludes the possibility of women from the ethics of the Self (Foucault, 22). In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Foucault mentions women and female bodies in his discussion of the “hystericization of women’s bodies” as an effect of power’s exercise on women’s bodies. Grosz alleges here that Foucault also occludes women’s agency, ignoring the possibility that ‘hysteria’ was also a form of resistance against the ‘demands and requirements of heterosexual monogamy and the social and sexual role culturally assigned to women.’ (158)

Works Cited

  • Grosz, Elizabeth. (1994). Volatile Bodies. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. (1991). ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’. In Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, London: Penguin. p. 83.

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