Blaming Foucault for Thanksgiving Woe

November 11th, 2013   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

garfieldPoised between two Thanksgivings — Canadian and American — I am indulging in a moment of annoyance directed at anyone who tells me what to think or how to feel at the privacy of my own dinner table. I am particularly annoyed at a political friend who has attacked me for celebrating the genocide of native Americans. (BTW, any link between Thanksgiving and genocide is based on utterly false history. In fact, standard accounts of Thanksgiving are flatly wrong. See “What Really Happened at Plymouth” by Murray Rothbard at the lewrockwell site.)

And, yet, this is what the world has come to. Everyone monitors everyone else’s words and thoughts for their level of political correct purity. God forbid you tell a joke that could be construed as racist or express a doubt about gay marriage because you think all marriages should be private contracts. And now it has come down to being an advocate of genocide if you enjoy the smell of Thanksgiving turkey because it smells like happy memories. It is presumptuous in the extreme for anyone to reach inside my kitchen and lecture me on the why, why not and how I should eat a meal.

Personally, I blame the philosopher Michel Foucault, and not merely because he was French.

Foucault had a pivotal influence on political correctness and on the development of the idea that everything one person thinks or says everyone else’s business. Why? He believed that the collective “texts” of society defined everything about the human beings within it.

Foucault’s specialty was the interpretation and meaning of language. He viewed words and culture as so powerful that they literally created reality. Foucault’s landmark book Les mots et les choses (Words and Things) appeared in 1966. He argued that history and culture are indispensable in understanding matters like sexuality. That’s not a controversial theory.

Then he introduced the concept of an “episteme” or “knowledge” in Greek. An episteme of a society is its self-enclosed totality that includes language, attitudes, ideas, science… It is the way that a specific society or era approaches the world. As history progresses, one episteme replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of the Renaissance and, then, a new era dawns. The episteme determines who the people of that era are.

Foucault meant this literally. Consider the human body. Most people assume there is a pre-cultural human body; they assume there is a permanence to mankind’s biology. But for Foucault, the human body existed in the episteme, and it was constructed by society; in other words, it is a social construct. In his treatise The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault presented the idea of the “medical gaze.” The medical gaze was said to determine the human body by objectifying it and so converting into a thing that medicine could control, for example through surgery. But the medical gaze of the eighteenth century was different from that of the nineteenth century. The episteme was different. Therefore, in the eighteenth century, the human body was literally different from the human body of the nineteenth century. The body was constructed by every society that gazed at it.

Take another example: the Victorian era of repressed sexuality. A common manner of analysis is to look at the era’s plays and literature, its songs and newspapers, and to conclude that they reflected a sexually repressed society. Foucault saw the contrary. To him, the sexually repressed society was a creation and reflection of the texts. Like the human body, there was no set or biological sexuality. It was a social construct.

“Sexuality as a social construct” is the mirror image of sexual essentialism, which views sex as a natural force that exists prior to society. Certainly, sexuality is influenced by society but it is not determined by it. Sexual essentialism claims there is something natural or biological about deeply felt urges such as motherhood, heterosexuality or homosexuality. By contrast, Foucault saw biology and sexuality as being written on shifting sand. Even deeply felt sexual preferences such as heterosexuality or homosexuality had been determined by the texts.

To some social radicals, like gender feminists, sex as a social construct is good news. After all, if sex has been constructed by the texts, then it can be deconstructed in the same manner and put back together correctly. That’s why gender feminists seek to control one of the most powerful texts – pornography. That’s why they consider a woman’s body to be objectified and defined by pornography, rather as the medical gaze objectifies all bodies.

How does the foregoing relate back to my Thanksgiving annoyance? Today, many who forcibly thrust their political critiques onto others do so because the idea of social construction has become pervasive. They may have never heard the name “Foucault,” they may be unable to define “political correctness” but the concept has been pounded into society’s psyche for decades now. It is embedded. If someone believes that my words and attitudes exert a defining and destructive influence upon him – if my words and attitudes are the literal equivalent of acts of attack – then no civil conversation can take place. My protestation “but I have a right to an opinion” loses all force because what he will hear me saying is “I have a right to assault you.”

All in all, it leaves me tempted to adopt the approach of the anarchist Little Black Star (LBS) in his admirable blog post “Thanksgiving vs. Anti-Thanksgiving: A Political Analysis.” Because he celebrates Thanksgiving, he receives hate mail every year with his favorite being from a self-described anarchist and vegetarian. It read, “who calls Thanksgiving a holiday: F*** YOU. Read a f***ing book.” (The asterisks were not included.)

He responded, “Serious?” The last book he read was on the Oregon Trail and it hadn’t taught him a thing about Thanksgiving. He requested, “Please angry people, be specific!….You know, being all pissed off and yelling “F*** YOU” to people isn’t going to make them be all like “gee, you’re right, let me re-examine my entire lifestyle.” It’s going to make them say “pass me a turkey leg and f*** you too.”

Of course, saying “Foucault you” works for me.


26 Responses to “Blaming Foucault for Thanksgiving Woe”

  1. ShawnNo Gravatar says:

    Another excellent article, Wendy. If these so-called anarchists would spend some of the time and energy they spend being angry at others in the movement at defying the state, we could possibly actually accomplish something.

    Foucalt you, indeed. 🙂

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Shawn! I’m glad you liked the piece. It is a bit atypical of my work but I felt a rant build up insider me…or as close to a rant as I ever get. Have a great Thanksgiving of your choice, my friend.

  2. Mark Corbett WilsonNo Gravatar says:

    Ms. McElroy

    Unfortunately, Little Black Star’s blog doesn’t exist. The Wayback Machine has the posts from Thanksgiving 2007 and 2009 but not “Thanksgiving vs. Anti-Thanksgiving: A Political Analysis” from 2008. Conspiracies will ensue. Can you provide this text?

  3. Brian CantinNo Gravatar says:

    I believe that the concept of society constructing reality preceded Foucalt. For example, the New Soviet Man consisted of the notion that Soviet society could construct a new human being without any of the old selfish tendancies that prevelant under the capitalist order. The idea that society constructs the individual in some arbitrary manner goes back to Marx, and before Marx, Hegel. Foucalt mostly formalized and systematized what had been implicit in state leftist thinking for many generations.
    May everyone have a good Foucalt on Thanksgivings day!

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Hello Brain: Good to see you posting at the Daily Anarchist. You are quite correct that the concept of human nature itself being changed by social conditions existed before Foucault. And it is interesting that you should bring up the New Soviet Man as an example because I am polishing an article for the Daily Bell that revolves around the concept of the New Soviet Man. But the idea of changing man’s nature through social conditions was not a cohesive theory within the Soviet regime, as far as I know.

      I called Foucault “a pivotal influence on political correctness and on the development of the idea that everything one person thinks or says everyone else’s business because he made the concept into an integrated theory. He also introduced unique elements — for example, the idea that the biology of man literally changed with the epistemes of society. As far as I know, the Soviet idea was merely that the psychology and emotional nature of man changed…not that biological changes occurred.

      So I pretty much stand by my wording. But it is good to point out that the idea of the social construction of man existed in a vaguer, somewhat different formulation before Foucault. Thanks!

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        I thought the Daily Bell was going to close shop like a year ago or something.

        • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

          Hey Seth: the Daily Bell did close down for several months but it reopened under a different business model in September (I believe) and it is going full steam at the moment. I have a regular Thursday column which I am enjoying immensely.

  4. cb750No Gravatar says:

    “express a doubt about gay marriage because you think all marriages should be private contracts”

    OH YEAH BABY! I get SO sick of this. Point out that a lot of gays went the statist route and its like invasion of the body snatchers where they howl at you. Gov should NOT be in the marriage biz. Instead of ending the unfairness they just added themselves to the list of unfair people. And you can’t even reply to this post cause you’ll get rubber stamped in some way ie “look what Wendy said about gays”.

    And screw what people think. ITS TURKEY AND GRAVY DAMMIT!

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      I hear you. I’ve given up the very possibility of arguing with some friends against gay marriage even though the basis of my argument is that NO ONE should be married by the state or be able to claim legal benefits from 3rd parties (primarily employers) on the basis of a marriage, state-sanctioned or not.

      • cb750No Gravatar says:

        Agreed. Just so sad there can’t be that discussion cause of the monolithic thinking of a great many who can’t imagine any other way other than a mommy giving people permission to do things.

  5. MycenaeNo Gravatar says:

    I get really annoyed with people who bitch about “heteronormativity.” Yes, I’m a man, I consider myself to possess certain masculine traits, and I want to have a relationship with a woman with certain feminine traits. You’re gay? Or you have a different idea of your own gender identity than I do? Fine. That’s your business. But stop telling me that who I am is determined by some evil homophobic/patriarchal/whatever conspiracy that you’re trying to eradicate. I find it offensive that people think my gender identity and sexual preference is determined by some sort of clandestine cultural brainwashing.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Mycenae: Thanks for the post. I agree with you, and raise the ante. I don’t even want to hear about people’s sexuality unless they are being somehow treated unjustly because of it; then I’m happy to defend their rights. But people who want to thrust their personal sexual choices, preferences, memories, etc. my way, well, they should just keep walking by. Unless you are Brad or a friend of mine who needs to talk, I don’t want to hear about anyone’s sexuality, especially if the revelation or my reaction to it is somehow going to become a commentary upon me.

      • MycenaeNo Gravatar says:

        Well, I tend to hang out with the types of people who do talk openly about their sexuality. I can accept your position, though, as long as gays and other people whose sexual preferences are different from the norm are able to talk about the parts of their love lives that heterosexual, monogamous talk about. You shouldn’t have to keep your mouth shut about your relationship with your partner just because some people think it’s gross.

        • gdpNo Gravatar says:

          The transition to a culture where “people talk openly about their sexuality” — even to total strangers who have no reasonable interest because they don’t know the speaker from Adam, Eve, or Steve — is itself a peculiar phenomenon.

          While Western (and in particular U.S.) culture was (and in many ways still is) very prudish and puritanical, it’s not clear to me that it was an “improvement” for the “Sexual Revolution” to transition from the original 1960s value of “What you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is your own business AND NO ONE ELSES” to the current “Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr Generation” `value’ of “What you do in your bedroom should be posted to Social Media for everyone else to see — and if you think you have a right to `privacy’, then you’re being `antisocial’.”

          How is it that the U.S. has transitioned from a culture believing in the value and necessity of personal privacy to a “selfie-posting” culture of exhibitionists and voyeurs who have no concept of privacy in a mere 50 years?

          • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

            Peerhaps it is a result of the promotion of socialism and the decline of individualism. The ruling elite want “sheeple” so as to keep their power and perqs with as little worry as possible. I have nothing against open sexuality, but one should not be castigated for desiring privacy either.

            • Good Saturday to you, Fritz. I don’t care whether people are open or closed about their sexuality, frankly. That’s up to them. What I care about is my having to deal with their sexuality. I say the same thing to people who want me to “acknowledge” their gayness as I would say to a straight woman or man who thrusts their sexuality in my face…namely, “no offense intended but please take that to someone who cares.” And when I say “in my face,” I don’t mean that gays or hets are kissing in public. I mean the presumption that I should have a eraction, emotionally or politically. I don’t want to. (And I know you are not suggesting I shouldI.) spent so long figuring out my own responses — I would never for any amount of money be 20 again and go through those relationships! — I spent enough time on my own reactions and reality that I have no interest in theirs. Now…back to work!

  6. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    The only deterministic word is The Word. Figure out its meaning and everything turns into Easy Street.

    Problem is: what word or combination of words can be used to adequately describe The Word? What words could exist in the first place without the predetermination of The Word?

    Maybe, instead, the answer to everything is some number from some novel…

  7. bvcNo Gravatar says:

    > Personally, I blame the philosopher Michel Foucault, and not merely because he was French.

    My favorite line from the article. Nothing beats being politically incorrect when you’re making a point about political correctness!

  8. Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

    I LOVE IT!!! I will have to quote you. Foucalt you! HA!!!

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Fritz! I am enjoying your comments on the “Small House” article, BTW. I didn’t realize you were living and breathing that strategy for freedom. I find it rather captivating.

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Wendy, I grew up about half my childhood on a “playfarm” of 30 acres where I developed a love of country living and a desire for self sufficiency which I think is the ultimate key to personal liberty. My father was a “rugged individualist”. I learned about freedom at his knee. So it is not surprising that my “radicalization” takes the form of trying to set an example for other freedom lovers in a backwoods setting. Also it is pragmatic to be away from people as much as feasible to avoid stupid rules and regs. Dad used to say that people would move to the country to find freedom but when they got as many as three together they would elect a mayor!
        Alternative building in general is a good step towards personal liberty since most folks largest expenditure is on shelter. If one gets government and the bankers out of your back pocket, you can build your own home with pocket money usually within a year. Here in the Ozark backwoods stone is everywhere free for picking it up. So stone construction is a natural alternative. I built the original house I live in before the addition back in 1996 for $1,000. It took about 6 months of actual work spread over a year since I was traveling up north for construction work during the summers. Stone homes do not burn if you have a metal roof, are insect resistant. and weather at about a quarter inch per century. They do require lots of physical labor which seems to terrify most people today. Look up Scott Nearing. He built with stone even when he was close to 100 years old. A total amature can use his methods and build a solid stone home. When you move to Chile you may find it handy if and when the world economy fails.
        I really appreciate your writings. Thanks for being out there. Live free.

  9. Great article.

    There’s a thesis (a correct one imo) laid out in the book Explaining Post-Modernism by Stephen Hicks that Foucault and other post-modernists picked up the anti-rational traditions of the counter-enlightenment.

    My video-review here:

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Roman. Thanks for the YouTube link as well. It is a hoot to start my day with a video dissecting Foucault. BTW, I think Hicks is correct in placing Foucault into the anti-rational tradition, which he carried forward and to which he added theory. Much to his disgrace.