Power, Pleasure, Intersectionality

22nd March 2019 |

Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, essentially agrees with Judith Butler when she says that gender is constructed.[1]In his analysis of the judicial and political underpinnings of the category of, what he still terms, “sex” within the last three centuries, he analyzes the overlap of bio-power with “a veritable ‘technology’ of sex.”[2]

This poses a logical problem for those who wish to defuse, rather than diffuse power: Foucault’s theory regarding the inevitable coupling of power and pleasure invalidates some of the meanderings of certain bigoted leftists. Both Foucault’s and Butler’s treatment in this sense exposes the latent dynamics of the disawoved power struggle preoccupying those actors which Mark Fisher identified with the “Vampire Castle”[3]: the fact that gender and sex (granted, Foucault did no really distinguish the two) are exposed as technology also exposes the complicity with power which enables the gender construct to persist and promulgate. The aggressiveness of some of the hard-left initiatives can be seen a spastic and highly paradoxical call for mollifying power-as-such,[4]while resorting to invasive tactics prompted by their own ludonarrative dissonance. Gender is always a tautological point de capitonfor  interstitional bio-politics.

There is a reason why Crenshaw’s widely circulated treatment of intersectionality is posited against the legal system of the USA, one where discrimination and systemic racism were integral dynamics of a fundamentally asymmetrical power relation. Today, relationship between power and the pleasure of the text is often times complementary and stereoscopic – while bearing concrete materializations, the drag between the two is in fact tromp l’oeil, and much of contemporary identity politics consists of attempting to bring these two overlapping sets into focus, without ever being able to do so. Much of contemporary subjectivity is in fact only an optical effect of what Foucault termed “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure,”[5]and takes away from real loci of conflict between reality and the irrational state apparatus.

Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins” charts a gradated spectrum of intersectional oppression, but her idea of intersectional politics still retains the hierarchical progression of oppression with the white male apparatus at the top. But the reason Crenshaw portrays the progression of oppression in such a way is that she was explicitly addressing the oppression present within the judicial system of the US. In Crenshaw’s intersectional theory, this zero degree of power relations is not that of a mere master slave dialectic, but the subject is rather constitutes as a locus point of overlapping vectors inscribed within a legalist silex of power relations, much akin to Foucault’s understanding of power systems. 

Outside of the syntax of the judicial structure, however, her model of intersectional oppression shares much with the soft system of Donna Haraway’s economy of “promiscuous couplings” where the cyborg subject is also cut up and determined through part-object interactions, but in an additive (and emancipatory), rather than subtractive sense. 

For Haraway, intersectionality is commensurate with pleasure, whereas for Crenshaw it is a system of power, but both (for Foucault) constitute two sides of the same coin.

 Foucault’s move from a “theory” of power to an “analytics” of power mirrors the dialectic present within 1990s feminist discourse between one which accepts the conspiratorial belief in an overdetermined “patriarchal system,” versus one more finely tuned to understanding power as a mode of myriad overlapping, overbordering systems. Power in Foucault’s treatment is thus not fetishized as centralized top-down hegemony, the likes of “big daddy mainframe,”[6]but rather a viscous network of polymorphous relations which are effected by power relations so minute that they bleed into what Keller Easterling calls the “chemistry of power.” Foucault precedes this argument when he writes that “technology of sex” is that of “polymorphous techniques of power”[7]which are dispersed within a matrix of “force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization.”[8]Power thus becomes a topology, with its own neuralgic points of intensity. 

As one of the main voices of the nascent queer movement, Judith Butler knew very well the often myopic activism of feminist politics which were at the time still predominantly underwritten by a heteronormative gender divide, epitomized perhaps in Naomi Woolf’s eponymous The Beauty Myth. Such discourse did not take into account the fact that power had never been usurped by a single male cabal, but that it is rather variously distributed. Foucault again: “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.”[9]


[1] Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, andBodies That Matter

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge (UK: Penguin, 1998) 90

[3]Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle

[4]It is worthy note the similar alternation of materially saturated feminist eras and eras of inflamed conflict in Liou Sh-Chin’s Three Body Problem.

[5]Foucault 45

[6] VNS Matrix, “Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21stCentury,” http://www.sterneck.net/cyber/vns-matrix/index.php

[7]Foucault 11

[8]Foucault 92

[9]Foucault93

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