The Materiality of Sex in Foucault and Salamon

Moving Beyond the Essentialist/Social Constructionist Divide

HUMN 3022

Philosophy of Love and Sex

Warped and distorted illustrations of faces.
Ella Taylor

In the second part of his seminal text The History of Sexuality titled “The Repressive Hypothesis”, Michel Foucault traces what he considers to be the proliferation of discourses concerned with sex since the seventeenth century. Foucault’s understanding of sexuality—as constructed through discourse and used as a site for the deployment of power—has been incredibly influential in contemporary queer theory because of its consideration of how power is exercised through bodies in the modern state. However, Foucault’s discourse analysis has also been criticized by scholars for its perceived rejection of bodily experiences and its treatment of sexuality as a solely symbolic identity. In response to such criticisms, I look to Gayle Salamon’s use of relationality to determine sexual difference in her essay “An Ethics of Transexual Difference” from her book Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. By putting Gayle Salamon’s relational understanding of sexuality in conversation with the underlying tension between culture and biology in Foucault's work, we can imagine sexuality—as Foucault urges us to—beyond the limitations of exclusively social constructionist or essentialist approaches.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault posits the emergence of sexuality as a discursive construction. He bases this argument on the increased frequency of sex as a topic of conversation, confession and medical treatises during the last three centuries. As a result of such discourses, Foucault argues that sexuality became a site for the exercising of power and regulating of bodies by the modern state. Moreover, Foucault warns that the increasing tie between sexuality and identity will simply make people more vulnerable to the regulation of the state. However, although Foucault’s discourse analysis has been an incredibly generative methodology in identifying and understanding the deployment of power on individuals through their specification (in terms of pleasure), it has also been criticized for the apparent lack of attention given to the lived experiences of the body. In their essay, “Reclaiming Sexual Difference: What Queer Theory Can’t Tell Us About Sexuality,” Susan Feldman considers the role of  Foucault’s understanding of sexuality (as constructed through discourse) in the erasure of bisexuality in queer theory. According to Feldman, “the crux of the problem emerges when sexuality as a subject of discourse is confused and conflated with living subjects’ sexuality” (266). In other words, the prevailing Foucauldian-inspired model of sexuality reduces the antagonism between identity and sexuality in an effort to intervene in the essentialist understanding of sex as determined by genital morphology. Furthermore, Clare Hemmings expands on the limitations of such an identity-based approach in their book Bisexual Spaces: A Landscape of Sexuality and Gender, when they write, “not only does that adding of new identities maintain the structure of inclusion/exclusion, itself productive of minoritization, but such a vision [of inclusion] is ultimately dystopian, since its vision can never be accomplished” (31). That is to say, there is no ultimate state of sexual identities that will include everyone; rather, sexuality will only become more and more specified and therefore more and more exclusive. Although Hemmings appears to treat this logic of inclusion/exclusion as a downfall of Foucault’s theory, I think that they actually highlight the essential double bind that Foucault warns us about in his theories of biopower and discursively constructed sexuality. That is, by identifying with sexuality, we inevitably become more vulnerable to internal and external tactics of regulation and as a result perpetuate the logic of exclusion.  

While such criticisms of the contemporary Foucauldian identity-based approach to sexuality are valuable in understanding the limited inclusion of lived, bodily experiences in queer studies, Alison Downham Moore reminds us in their essay “Foucault's Scholarly Virtues and Sexuality Historiography” that Foucault’s description of the development of modern discursive categories of sexuality do not deny that material bodies exist; “he simply refused to bifurcate culture and biology in the way that has become customary in twentieth-century thought” (461). In effect, Foucault’s lack of explicit engagement with the materiality of the body has led many scholars to posit Foucault as a social constructionist and ignore his subtle yet valuable treatment of materiality. Furthermore, Moore points out that “it is hardly surprising that Foucault had only so much to say about ‘the flesh’, since his strongest critical interest was in denaturalizing the categories we take as given based on biological touchstones” (461). So while Foucault asserts that such categories are constructed through discourse, he does not deny their effect on the material body. This is most explicit in Foucault’s description of how the architectural layouts of secondary schools in the eighteenth century reflected the constant preoccupation with sex at the time (27). According to Foucault, “the space for classes, the shape of the tables, the planning of the recreation lessons, the distribution of the dormitories… all this referred, in the most prolix manner, to the sexuality of children” (28). By asserting that discourse is represented in such “material arrangements” (Hardy and Thomas 681), Foucault’s understanding of power as deployed through the discourses of sexuality directly implicates the material body in complex negotiations of power. At the same time however, Foucault’s theories do not explicitly acknowledge the tension between biological understandings of sexuality (not limited to but including essentialism) and social constructionism at the time of his writing.

The difficult tension between culture and biology that is presented but left unresolved in Foucault’s theory leaves us with the following questions: if sexuality is formed through discourse then what happens to the body; what does it mean to have lived experiences? I look to Gayle Salamon’s relational understanding of sexual difference as a potential bridge between discursive notions of sexuality and lived bodily experiences. To begin with, Salamon develops her understanding of sexual difference through a critique and expansion of Luce Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference as developed in her essay “Place, Interval: A Reading of Aristotle, Physics IV.” By reading the concept of sexual difference into the foundational texts of Western philosophy such as Aristotle's, in Place, Interval, Irigaray aims to address the exclusion of the feminine from metaphysics and culture more broadly. In order to create a place for women, Irigaray treats sexual difference as a space of instability and negotiation between the threshold of the man and the threshold of the woman. Although Irigaray provides a valuable critique of Western hierarchical, phallocentric metaphysics, by maintaining the gender binary, the place for women that she develops relies entirely on the existence of an opposing body—which for Irigaray is that of a man. As a result, Salamon describes how under Irigaray’s ethics, “a woman’s own emergence as a discrete entity cannot come before her encounter with the other but rather only emerges in relation to this other who is proximate to her” (136). In effect, the corporeal identity established around a man and a woman—through sexual difference—only differentiates us from bodies of the “opposite sex” (Salamon 136) and consequently causes interchangeability between members of the “same sex.” As Chris Coffman describes in his review Salamon’s book, Theorizing Transgender Embodiments, Salamon proposes a queer reading of Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference that establishes the unsubstitutability of bodies in order to counter the essentialist and heteronormative implication of Irigaray’s theories (423). While Salamon adopts Irigaray’s treatment of sexual difference as relational, she rejects Irigaray’s insistence on genital morphology as the gauge of such difference (136). Through what she describes as “corporeal surveying,” Irigaray examines how sexual bodies take up space in order to establish the female threshold in relation to that of the male threshold. Salamon, however, uses Irigaray’s method of corporeal surveying to identify sexual difference within one and between bodies that are not limited to male or female.

Through her revised corporeal surveying, Salamon identifies differences “that are emphatically bodily, and undeniably material, even as they are also psychic, emotional, and relational” (142). Coffman describes such differences as lived experiences of embodiment, which according to Salamon exist in a “relational space between the self and the other” (423). By way of such embodied relations, Salamon effectively conceptualizes bodies that “are determined and constituted in relation to one another, their differences of form and configuration,” so that, “their distinct morphologies secure and solidify their distinct identities” (137).In other words, by looking at lived experiences as embodiments of sexual difference, Salamon creates a place where one can “confront the otherness of the other” (136) while still honoring and maintaining difference. For example, while Irigaray identifies only two types of human body based on genital morphology (“hard and narrow” or “soft and rounded”), Salamon uses corporeal surveying to recognize how each individual may inhabit their bodies differently, thereby giving each body a distinct shape, and recognizing difference where Irigaray can only see sameness. And yet, as previously described, the distinct morphologies that Salamon uses to secure singularity are neither entirely material or entirely constructed. In this way, Salamon allows for individual difference while avoiding the naive embrace of identity through sexuality that Foucault feared. In another review of Salamon’s book, Tamsin Lorraine suggests that Salamon conceives of difference as “situated at materiality’s threshold of possibility rather than caught within a materiality that is at its core constricted, constrictive, and determining” (102). So while Salamon’s sexual difference acknowledges the impact of social and cultural meaning in a similar manner to Foucault, it also locates the body’s material existence in a place that can exceed those meanings (Lorraine 102). In this sense, we can understand Salamon’s conception of relationality -which is exercised through a process of embodiment- as both material and social.  

In relation to Foucault, Salamon does not deny the taxonomic tendencies that he describes; instead, she proposes a model where they are relative. Rather than considering sexuality a raison d’être in a manner that Foucault was critical of, Salamon develops sexual difference as represented through individual experiences of embodiment. Salamon’s distinction/expansion from Foucault is perhaps most visible in a comparison of their treatment of homosexuality. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault recounts how the confession of sexual acts in the 19th century led to the medicalization and speciation of individuals. As a consequence of this exclusionary logic, Foucault describes how “the nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage” (43) or in other words, sex became synonymous with identity. Despite being concerned with the increasing attachment of sex to identity, Foucault was also hesitant to consider it a function of biology. During an interview in 1982, James O’Higgins asked Foucault “does this focus on cultural context and people’s discourse about their sexual behavior reflect a methodological decision to bypass the distinction between innate predisposition to homosexual behavior and social conditioning” (11). In essence, O’Higgins was asking whether homosexuality was biologically or culturally determined (Moore 461), to which Foucault replied, “on this question I have absolutely nothing to say. No comment” (O’Higgins and Foucault 11). In the following dialogue, Foucault explains that he refuses to comment because the question was beyond his expertise. I think that the tension reflected in the latter conversation reflects Foucault’s reluctance to participate in the constructionism/essentialism binary. However, despite being dissatisfied with the historical and current treatment of sexuality as fixed identity, Foucault's theory of sexuality is limited to the logic of inclusion/exclusion of the discourses that he studied. In other words, Foucault’s analysis of how sexuality has been shaped by discourse does not reconceptualize sexuality itself, but rather brings this “shaping” to light in order to encourage others to theorize beyond a logic of inclusion/exclusion. In this way, Salamon’s acknowledgement of the singularity of all bodies through her expansion of Irigaray’s corporeal surveying can be understood as an alternative to the treatment of sexuality as a fixed identity.  

In response to Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference and its implied insistence on the interchangeability of women, Salamon writes,  

If we take the example of a butch/femme couple and note that they may exemplify different and contrasting modes of comportment, styles of embodiment, methods of bodily inhabitation, and affective tendencies, what investments demand the withholding of the term sexual difference as a descriptor of these oppositions? (143)

In this passage, we can see Salamon’s clear departure from Irigaray’s understanding of difference which insists on determinative bodily materiality as the boundary between what she considers the only two sexes. And yet, Salamon makes it clear that her rejection of essentialism does not deny the material experiences of the body. Moving beyond Foucault however, Salamon is able to articulate her reconciliation of such supposed binary terms by considering cultural and material relations - that are represented through styles of embodiment and methods of bodily inhabitation as indicators of difference. In their review of Salamon’s Ethics of Transexual Difference, Zooey Sophia Pooke articulates Salamon’s situation of gender concisely when they describe it as “a somatic embodiment mediated by our worldly interactions with sex, clothing, and culture” (311). While there is certainly a Foucauldian influence in this understanding of sexuality as influenced by culture, Pook also describes how Salamon grounds it in a distinctly material and somatic embodiment. In effect, this means that although two people may appear to have shared characteristics, they are relative to each individual’s relations and therefore cannot be applied to other people with perceived similar qualities. In this way, Salamon establishes the unsubstitutability of bodies within the infinite spectrum of sexual difference without limiting difference to genital morphology.

Overall, although Foucault’s The History of Sexuality has often been misconstrued as a theory of social constructionism, his concerns with the constitution of sexuality through discourse and its subsequent treatment as a raison d’être can be understood as a call to action to consider ways of conceiving of sexuality beyond the logic of inclusion/exclusion. In response to these concerns, Salamon’s use of lived embodiment as an indicator of sexual difference offers a means of reconciling material bodily experiences with symbolic identities. By treating difference as relational and therefore relative, Salamon’s understanding of sexuality allows for the conception of the subject beyond the essentialist/social constructionist divide.

Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor is an artist and writer currently working on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations in Tkaronto. They are in their second year of the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program and are pursuing a minor in Art and Social Change. Their research interests include gender studies, queer theory, creative writing and gardening.

Works Cited & Consulted

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Header Artwork by Mason Smart. Untitled.