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Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are well known for their writing based on sex and gender. Foucault’s The History of Sexuality discusses the effects that a new Victorian society has on the idea of sex and sexuality while Butler’s Gender Trouble focuses more specifically on gender and identity in the sexual world. The two authors have extremely similar proposals in each of their works about sex in general and come to quite relative conclusions, that nothing can simply be what it is, for everything there is – especially in the world of sex – is no more than a socially constructed ideal Both books discuss sexuality in terms of intercourse; however, they diverge when the discussions branch out into the topics of gender – man and woman – and sex – male and female From the similarities throughout the two pieces of work, one can conclude that Butler was very influenced by Foucault’s writing from earlier in the 20th century to write her own piece later on Michel Foucault introduces the history of socially constructed sexuality and Butler speaks more specifically about genderi She calls the current ideas of gender “culturally imposed standards of gender integrity”.
Both writers establish a clear project that they are interested in discussing throughout the text.
Butler’s project is to answer some specific questions relating to the creation and existence of the idea of femininity – more generally, gender itself – in society and how it is shaped and formed. She is also trying to find out how concrete the idea of femininity is by arguing that it is simply a socially constructed idea.
This is shown first in her preface when she claims that “power [appears] to operate in the production of the very binary frame for thinking about gender” and asks ”what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between ‘men‘ and ‘women,’ and the internal stability of this trend?”. The binary frame that she is saying power seems to connect to is one where the “subject“ – the term used for females here – and “the Other” — males – interact with each other abiding by the rules and standards that society has created for the two of them (xxx). Foucault’s objective is remarkably similar, revolving around a discussion of how society‘s views of sex have changed over time and how there is no real reasoning behind the way in which we keep sex such a private topic of discussion in present day other than the fact that this, too, is a social construct. He discusses this by introducing the history of the discussion of sex and establishes something called the “repressive hypothesis” which refers to how society views sexuality and its history since the 18th century, it is the idea that sex and all things sexual are to be spoken of in private and to involve only married couples. “Everyone knows, for example, that children have no sex, which is why they are forbidden to talk about it”. Both of these texts open on the topic of how things like gender and sexuality are no more than constructs of society which goes further to show how much Foucault‘s writing influences Butler‘s. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality was first published in 1976 and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble later in the 20th century in 1990.
From the similarities drawn out between their ideas as well as certain parts of Butler’s book where she mentions Michel Foucault’s writing it is clear that Butler was familiar with Foucault‘s work. Both authors use society as their strongest source of reference for viewing sexuality, Michel Foucault’s piece introduces this idea and shows how it came to be by discussing its past. He explored this idea that sex is something to be kept private claiming that it has been around since Karl Marx, another philosopher and author of The Communist Manifesto, introduced the idea of the bourgeoisie, a class that refers to the wealthier people of society in charge of the majority of society’s means of production In the early 18005, before this class came about, “sexual practices had little need of secrecy”. But at this point in the Victorian era, society is very against even so much as thinking about sexual relations between non—married couples, let alone speaking of or participating in activities such as these The only places where something like this is to be tolerated are “the brothel and the mental hospital”. The people of society who rebel and decide to go to places like these to relieve their unconventional sexual desires are referred to as the “other Victorians”, Butler builds on this history that Foucault puts forth by bringing in more specific examples of the effects these influences had, A main question she proposes is “can gender complexity and dissonance be accounted for by the multiplication and diversion of a variety of culturally dissonant identifications? Or is all identification constructed through the exclusion of a sexuality that puts those identifications into question?”. She is asking if the difficulty one has defining gender is an effect of the mixture of cultures and how all of them define gender differently or because of how societies disregard certain genders and sexualitiesi She explores more the specific topic of gender when she talks about “maternal identification” and “paternal law” and how “that carves up genders into masculine and feminine” which “characterize[s] gay and lesbian cultures”. These identities that people take on are socially constructed ideas of what it means to be maternal or paternal and these constructs lead to further constructs of femininity and masculinity.
These references clearly echo the discussion of sexuality in Michel Foucault‘s book, simply from the perspective of someone experiencing society’s effects on sexuality later in history, The History of Sexuality and Gender Trouble come to the same endpoint toward their final sections stating that nothing can simply exist without having been influenced by some sort of societal or cultural influence. The kind of critique the authors are deploying leads one to believe that whenever an idea is formed, society takes over the role of manipulating it. In Foucault’s discussion of sexuality he mentions how it becomes unreasonable to discuss sex in public but that, because of this, “the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression, A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom“. This sense of power or freedom would have never existed had society not formed the idea that the discussion of sex was an intolerable thing in the first place Butler approaches the same idea of power, claiming that “to expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as genealogy. Butler‘s conclusion here is that all ideas of sex – femininity, masculinity, sexual identity, power, etcetera – are simply that – ideas, They are all socially constructed views that, in order to be understood, would have to be traced back to their origin Despite the similarities between these authors’ writing in terms of sexuality, it is clear that Butler goes further. After introducing the history of sexuality and intercourse, Foucault and Butler go on to discuss gender by referring to the people who participated in sexual activities as men and women. Foucault suggests that the sex drive of men and women “ought not to be sex desire, but bodies and pleasures”. He does come to the conclusion that our desire for sex is everchanging when he says that “we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organizations, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex”.
This is the moment at which his argument diverges from Butler’s, whose book argues that there is no such definition of masculinity or what a man should be therefore she would disagree with Foucault’s reference to a “monarchy of sex.” She says that her “conclusion here is not that valid and demonstrable claims cannot be made about sex- determination, but rather that cultural assumptions regarding the relative status of men and women and the binary relation of gender itself frame and focus the research into sex-determination”. We see that Butler went further by here introducing the exploration of sex, meaning male and female, and concluding that it does not exist. From the similarities between the two books as well as Butler’s mentioning of Foucault’s writing, we can see that Butler was very influenced by Foucault’s writing in The History of Sexuality His work provides a solid introduction to the main topic of discussion in Butler’s Gender Trouble about society‘s effects on sex and sexuality as well as the history of those things. Butler uses the ideas introduced in Foucault‘s writing as reference for when she goes on to discuss sexuality in more depth and with specific examples pertaining mostly to gender but also about the lack of ability one has in terms of defining sex and genden Through this observation one can see that Foucault‘s work influenced Butler’s to a great extent and that she went even further than his writing by including thorough interpretations of both sex and gender and disagreeing with some of Foucault’s ideas about them.
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