Self-Affirmation, the Foucault Way

I’ve always suspected that I am a disease and a fetish to the United States of America.

What got me to believe this wasn’t just what I have experienced within my immediate family, but also within wider society and my relation to it. What I went through within my family was sometimes rough, but it at least offered the theoretical comfort of meeting folks of one’s kin (to paraphrase Zora Nealle Hurtson, skin folk are not always kin folk). Looking at the outside world, however, through both the media I consume and my few chances of walking into more affluent (read: white) places has me learning the hard way just what the United States really thinks of me. But I was told to aim for the approval of this world, because it was the only way I could survive, lest I just end up a “hood rat” or “ghetto” like other folks in my neighborhood. You can guess that my parents did not approve of gangs, even though we lived in Compton, CA, and at least we made sure that we were living on a block away from an elementary school. We didn’t encounter as much gang or gun violence as folk may assume, but we still knew it existed. We walked and drove through neighborhoods full of poverty while my siblings and I got lectures that amounted to “Do not be like this. Aim for better.” And the “better” world we were supposed to strive for turned out to be within a wider society in the United States of America, which pathologizes, fetishizes and fears blackness to this day.

How could I square these contradictions? Well, one way I did so was by looking up to other famous black people. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson etc. But even when doing that I was faced with the fact that said approval was conditional. The people I mentioned were those who came from circumstances where not everything was handed to them. They’ve had to fight against material struggles and the social preconceptions that made the conditions for said struggles… all to get multi-million dollar deals and turn themselves into multi-million dollar brands. That commands a lot of healthy respect, right? Well, only for them, not for me. When one looks up to famous black people as a young black person, one has to face the fact that the love one craves as a member of humanity is delayed, even outright refused, until you can “prove” to society at large that you are “good”, “useful” or at least are very rich. And even then, your humanity can still be disputed, your talents and skills used as a sign of decay (i.e.: basketball is what a black folks play because they have no talents for anything else), our bodies and minds turned into rhetorical weapons where we are both elevated and put down because some of us happen to excel at certain things.

Granted, none of this is exactly new if you have at least a semblance of empathy or education on race/class relations in the U.S.A., or if you have lived as a member of a demographic deemed “non-white” in this country. But in my youth I was given only one of two choices: be the “hood rat” my parents berated, or be the “respectable” black person who has a talent/skillset yet is perpetually working to affirm basic humanity that is practically handed over to those forwarding white supremacy. So I was taught the words of Dr. King but never his radicalism. I got stories about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad but not any intellectual tools to free my mind from the present-day prison I occupy. I was just told that Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had some disagreements, and I even watched the Spike Lee-directed movie based on the former of the two, but I never learned what he was really about until my dad gave me a copy of his biography during my high school years. Even the private school I attended, one named after Winnie Mandela of all people, gave me glimpses of Pan-Africanism and other belief systems that were, ideally, made to ground black people into something resembling a core narrative that could straighten them and have them strive for greatness… But I was afraid of embracing it all (plus my family and I would later drift from it due to expenses and animosity) due to how one’s proximity to such a thing could lessen our chances of respectable success within wider US society.

Things got better… kind of. From middle school through high school, I was able to embrace my blackness through the words of W.E.B Du Bois and Toni Morrison, the music of Danger Mouse, Common and MF Doom, the comedy of Aaron McGruder and Wanda Sykes and even various friendships that allowed me to be myself with my quirky and nerdy interests… to a point. I was a closeted bisexual, cis black male caught between the conservatism of my childhood/early teens, the insecurity engendered through social interaction which emphasizes one’s social power through how “manly” they are and, well, hormones, Furry/Anime Fandom, sex (mis)education, video games, comics, movies and the internet. When I graduated, I embraced my particular kind of blackness even more, first through a failed stint in community college, then through social media. My relationships over the years have given me a space to be myself, and I’m sure the people in my life are grateful that I am… well, me. But even with the rediscovery of the radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the like, plus my growing embrace of my sexuality and identity, I was still caught in the struggle between self-affirmation and respectability, plus the limits of both positions. Sure, in my writing and in my walking life I use a fair bit of slang, listen to Rap/Hip-Hop and am very outspoken and loud at times (even when I shouldn’t be), but I am still trapped in oppression and fear.

Some questions that dog me, some of which I am unlikely to be able to answer explicitly in this essay: who is to say that some of my pleasant social interactions will stay the way they are now? Who is to say that my current full time job won’t kick me to the curb because of my support of Black Lives Matter, anti-Capitalist causes, or even just because of who I am deemed as based on my physical traits? And what of my transgenderism? Is my daily habit of estradiol and feminine presentation a road towards freedom, or just another prison that I have to work hard to stay in lest I lose personhood? Am I too trans, not trans enough, not socialized enough to deserve to wear makeup and act like some nebulous idea of womanhood? And is my overall growth as a person just another axis of oppression, where my healing and ability to be myself comes at the expense of the ideas of justice and equality, in which I gain while someone else is being fucked over, where I am able to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and get hormones (as long as I attend meetings and appointments) while someone else is shut out of such a regimen because of some arbitrary standard held up by society of large? And does my very existence implicate me into perpetuating this oppression within this society? Do I have a bigger responsibility to be more deviant, or more respectable, in order the advance the cause of not just the emancipation of my people but also true equality? Or am I left with nothing? Is the idea of racial/class/gender unity all a lie, a mere difference I cling onto because of an absence of something real, or due to a defect of character or usefulness, so I should just shut up and be the next Sheriff David Clarke, Dr. Umar Johnson or even a Blaire White, lest I deserve whatever treatment this social order (might is right, am I right?) says I should get?


 

It is these numerous experiences and troubling questions that eventually lead me to the works of Michel Foucault, when a longtime friend invited me to a reading/discussion group full of other friends. First we read and discussed “A Feminist Analysis of the 21st Century Family and a Communist Proposal for its Abolition” by KD Griffiths and JJ Gleeson, along with “Capitalism and Gay Identity” by John d’Emilio (I’ll give you a moment to stop and read those two essays, because they are really good). From there, I got into bits and pieces of “The Foucault Reader,” edited by Paul Rabinow, featuring various texts written by Foucault and translated by various people. And it is here that I have found a crucial bit of information that has helped me to free myself from the struggle between respectability and self-affirmation, towards something more base, rough, nuanced and beautiful.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: Foucault can be intimidating to read for someone who hasn’t read much philosophy, and arguably even for those who have. His writing can be dense to get through, with flowery language and complex metaphors (with one notable one, the panopticon, taken from a concept used in architecture) used to illustrate ideas of what truly runs society, discourse and human behavior. But rather than try to get to the bottom of what abstract concepts like “justice,” “health” and others mean, Foucault instead looks at how such concepts have been used to shape society at large, often for the benefit of those who use social forces and means of production to shape them in the first place. He has elaborated on this with works like “History of Sexuality,” and “Discipline and Punish.” As of this writing, I have read the first 4 chapters of Rabinow’s “Foucault Reader,” Foucault’s interview with The Advocate (yes, that magazine) and am currently going through Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” because I am a stickler for seeing people justify their intellectual positions down to the barest level they can manage even if the end result can be intimidating, dense and close to very pedantic. See also: my reading of the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, who apparently hated each other, and my regretful readings of the works of Mary Daly, Brittney Murphy, Janice Raymond and other racist, transphobic and ableist bullshit just to find out why people hate me and how to avoid them for the sake of my nebulous sanity.

But out of all of my attempts of intellectual enrichment, I have found Foucault to be some of the most liberating in a long time, even as most of his work is pessimistic at best. It has given me an intellectual framework to which to identify my exploitation and pathologization as a black, bisexual transfeminine queer with visions, and it has allowed me to critique my own desires, dreams and passions without resorting to forms of self-immolation like I have been taught to do in the past. Foucault, through his dense writing and complex ideas, some of which is influenced by Nietzsche, has given me a crucial piece of courage in which I can be myself. I will do my best to explain why.


 

The thing one needs to understand about Foucault is that he deems questions like “What is X” irrelevant and wants to examine instead what people do to invent and enforce X. Inspired by Nietzsche, Foucault sees the world through power relations, and the ways said power shapes the world. In other words, debates about the meaning of justice are mere quibbles in the face of how justice is practiced in the real world, and Foucault seeks to make a historical investigation of sorts into how ideas around sexuality, insanity and social order are formed and enforced and how they, in turn, shape human behaviors. From “Discipline and Punish,” to “The History of Sexuality,” and then to “Madness & Civilization,” Foucault looks at the identities and pathologies we take for granted in social relation, not as inherent truths/untruths to grapple with, but rather as a complex series of systems that, however much positive or negative they grant individuals, still places everyone in a box for the purpose of exploiting them down the line. In the risk of oversimplification, one could say that the schizophrenic homeless person, the recently out black lesbian, the poor male Brazilian worker, the rich straight white man and everyone in-between/excluded/classified, are all part of a structure that codifies and reinforces a power structure which places different people in boxes for the sole purpose of perpetuating an unequal society. This society can seem fluid and provide equal-opportunity for work and pleasure, but in reality is rigid and hostile due to inherently dehumanizing, objectivizing practices (or, in some cases, is rigid and hostile on its face without pretension to fluidity or equality).The school, the hosptial and the prison serve the same purpose of marking individuals and placing them down chutes to perpetuate this power structure. Hence Foucault goes on a lifelong investigation to see how this all came to be and how it affects life as we know it today.

But, there are key differences to how he goes about this investigation from normal historical practice. For one, he argues against a view that history should add things up to a grand overall narrative, for to do so one would ignore multiple variables just to create a clean Platonic picture that is so dissimilar from reality as to be ridiculous. He is not like Marx in that he views all of history as of proletariats struggling against bosses, nor is he like Hegel with his view of history being defined as a series of conflicts between ideals. Instead, as he states in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (as taken from “The Foucault Reader” by Paul Rabinow), “We want historians to confirm our belief that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessi­ties. But the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference.” After a series of paragraphs elaborating on this point and taking inspiration from Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” which critiques the idea of an easy to follow lineage to sociality accepted ideas of morality, Foucault states, “The purpose of history, guided by ge­nealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation.” So Foucault wishes, in a perhaps ironic show of idealism, to help us break apart the prisons that house us, and thus our very selves, to get ourselves closer to liberation.

Now, there may, understandably, be objections to that. In an age where people decry “Identity Politics” (read: anyone other than straight white guys speaking up about shit) as the reason why leftists lost the U.S. Presidency in 2016 and why the Brexit vote succeeded, Foucault’s writing can seem suspiciously apolitical, as if one’s acknowledgment of one’s own existence is a virus, a plague that is the very reason why suffering occurs and as if one’s difference is, at best, a fabrication and, at worst, a plague that breaks some nebulous idea of unity against… whomever we are supposed to be fighting. Except that is not really the case. In his interview with The Advocate, titled “Sex, Power and The Politics of Identity,” he views one’s creative expression of sexuality and identity as a potential form of existence, going into detail about how the S&M, lesbian and gay scenes of his day were forms of expression that toyed with the dynamics and intense power structures in heterosexual relations and the rituals thereof, to create modes of play. But, with a hint of nuance, he notes that said modes of play could, down the road, be co-opted by the status quo and become defanged. He, a bit optimistically, concludes with a sort of call of arms for the queer movements to keep fighting through creative expression, without regard for typical demands for structure:

“I think that one of the great experiences we’ve had since the last war is that all those social and political programs have been a great failure. We have come to realize that things never happen as we expect from a political program, and that a political program has always, or nearly always, led to abuse or political domination from a bloc-be it from technicians or bureaucrats or other people. But one of the developments of the sixties and seventies which I think has been a good thing is that certain institutional models have been experimented with without a program. Without a program does not mean blindness-to be blind to thought. For instance, in France there has been a lot of criticism recently about the fact that there are no programs in the various political movements about sex, about prisons, about ecology, and so on. But in my opinion, being without a program can be very useful and very original and creative, if it does not mean without proper reflection about what is going on, or without very careful attention to what’s possible.”

What I take from this is that, while one’s identity can be pathologized, demonized and exploited, it is no less valid just because it has been treated in such a way. One should defend one’s identity and harness it as a tool of resistance within the structures one is in, as opposed to sitting docile and letting the world stamp itself onto you. Whether one is asexual, a sex worker, a lesbian, a gay person, a bisexual person, a disabled person and/or a trans person, one has been marked at some point in their lives, sometimes for access to resources, other times to be denied such access. My own transgenderism has been both a boon of freedom and a source of anxiety, for while I have access to estrogen by licensed pharmacists, granted by doctors (at least for now), I am granted such access only under the premise that there is something “wrong” with me. In other words, I had to be “diseased” in some way (in this case, fraught with gender dysphoria and determined to be such by an outside judge) in order to be able to go on this regimen. But that doesn’t make my being trans therefore something that I should be rid of. Instead, as Foucault suggests in his reference to S&M and lesbian socialization, I can embrace this and toy with it. Rather than just being a docile person following the lines of a power structure that brands me so it can exploit me and house me, I can instead examine said power structure and find a way to, if not thrive within it, then at least play within it, with a goal of liberation of the mind and body without worrying about having to be “respectable” for my and other’s actions to matter. What has respectability done for me other than delay true healing and empowerment in the name of politeness towards an order that doesn’t respect my right to exist to begin with or give me the same unfettered right to exist that it gives to ruling classes? Better to have a short life as a hood rat fucking the system (literally and figuratively) and helping my folks than to risk a long shot toward a long life as one running the system with a cow prod.

Of course, like all philosophy not written by Ayn Rand or that creep who won’t shut the fuck up about being an “incel,” things are more nuanced and detailed than that. In “The Archaeology of Knowledge,” Foucault states that some of his earlier writing in works like “Discipline & Punish” is a bit under-detailed, and thus he works to fully articulate core philosophical-historical points. For example, in the closing paragraph of one of the chapters in “The Discursive Regularities,” titled “The Formation of Objects,” he defines his philosophical-historical investigation as follows:

“A task that consists of not- of no longer- treating discourses as groups of signs… but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language (langue) and to speech. It is this ‘more’ that we must reveal and describe.”

Beforehand he uses the example of a field called “psycho-pathology,” in which data points like the term’s first usage, along with the analysis that accompanied it, and how it came to be distinguished from fields like neurology and psychology. This leads to Foucault demonstrating how said gathering of data points confronts one with results that can only loosely be grouped under “psycho-pathology,” finally culminating in the field being renewed, corrected and sorted with, “discoveries” within itself and its own framing, leading the allegedly valid field of research and study to perpetuate itself and shape, and be shaped by, the world it exists in. However, he says, “But let there be no misunderstanding: it is not the objects that remain constant, nor the domain that they form; it is not even their point of emergence or their mode of characterization; but the relation between the surfaces on which they appear, on which they can be delimited, on which they can be analysed and specified.” Further, he elaborates on what it is he is looking for:

“What, in short, we wish to do is to dispense with ‘things’. To ‘depresentify’ them…To substitute for the enigmatic treasure of ‘things’ anterior to discourse, the regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse. To define these objects without reference to the ground, the foundation of things, but by relating them to the body of rules that enable them to form as objects of a discourse and thus constitute the conditions of their historical appearance. To write a history of discursive objects that does not plunge them into the common depth of a primal soil, but deploys the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion.”


 

I will say that so far I have only read a bit of “The Archaeology of Knowledge,” and I am still continuing my study of his other work (I started with “The Foucault Reader” for a reason). So while the other passages quoted before it gives (at least to me) a fair bit of articulation about his points, I expect that, as I read more, I may encounter… er, things that may temper the fervor I express in my paragraphs. After all, I still have questions as to how exactly to apply what I read or if even the act of trying to apply such teaching is to therefore miss the point in my context. My very existence is arguably already a revolutionary act in and of itself, but it can also arguably be just another resource in an oppressive machine.

After all, how can a black person from Compton, CA who has recently embraced their queerness, depravity, limitations and skillset properly resist in this climate of suffering and oppression? How may I express myself in a way that aims for liberation not just of myself but of other underprivileged folk? Reading Foucault has given me moments of pessimism through recognizing just how pervasive systems of inequality are, to the point where my own identity and existence can be credited to it. Even with my own struggles, someone else got fucked while I survive. My home at the moment is possessed because no one else could have possessed it, as are my job, toys, technology etc. Under normal circumstances, I would give up and just accept it, try not rock the boat, suppress myself on to the road to maybe being the new master of the house (or kill myself, whichever people would prefer me to do), because who am I to bite a hand that feeds me even when I don’t wish for it to? That’s what my parents and my other peers taught me, in many different ways, and they all justified it in the name of “helping you out” under their own conditions which ultimately ignored my hunger for my humanity to be affirmed. But by confronting the suffocating and ugly reality through reflections on my abuse, my forbearers and the writings of people like Foucault, something within me has been awakened. Something that, through suicidal breakdowns, despair and fear, paired with moments of discovery, delight, creativity and hedonism, refuses to take the world as is.

Though, to answer a few (unlisted) questions in full: yes, I’ve seen the movie “Straight Out of Compton,” and I think it’s a good, albeit flawed, movie with a second half that is kinda dull and scattershot in comparison to a great first half concluding with the Rodney King riots. And yes, I’ve lived a block away from, and ate at, the kinda famous Taco Bell that was built literally days after the riots ended for about 22 years. Yes, I often ate at a popular local chain of Tam’s Burger restaurants that are all over Los Angeles, one of which is still in my childhood neighborhood as of this writing, and I have attended both elementary school and middle school within Compton. But no, I did not ride through the same neighborhood Dr. Dre lived in or been to that skating rink N.W.A advertised in. I do at least recall the aftermath of the Rodney King riots and the song “California Love” by 2Pac, Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman being blasted over and over from a huge audio setup my parents had before they divorced. Also, yes, Compton does have a skating park sponsored by Tony Hawk, but no, I wasn’t friends with The Game, Serena Williams or Venus Williams before they got famous, so don’t ask me for their fucking phone numbers.


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