“Bodies”

Michel Foucault wrote about power as if it were an autonomous and automatically functioning machine. To see the world through Foucault’s eyes is to become aware of strategies, deployments, distributions, apparatuses, spaces, adjustments, divisions, and separations, but no persons. Instead, human beings are described as “bodies.” (In The History of Sexuality vol. 1, sexuality is treated as a matter of “bodies and pleasures.”) In hundreds of pages on the topic of power, Foucault almost never mentions the other ways citizens of liberal democracies ordinarily influence their government – by means of political parties, elections, lawmaking, and debate.

The effect is to establish a climate of somewhat spurious objectivity. But it also puts readers on edge. There’s something creepy about this way of talking about power. What?

It’s that for most of us, wrongness consists in treating people as things, rather than as persons with inherent dignity and agency. Writing about people as if they are mere things dehumanizes them, and insinuates the thought that power has dehumanized them. Dehumanization is wrong, so readers conclude that power is bad. Foucault himself shrank from articulating the moral principles according to which what he described looked bad – on the contrary, at times he denied the reality of moral value. Foucault relied on his readers to apply the principles, which, when they cooperated, enabled him to both assume and disavow the role of critic.

Referring to human beings as “bodies” rather than as persons or individuals began as one of Foucault’s idiosyncrasies. Then the practice was recruited by feminist theory and queer theory, and finally showed up in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me in the form of references to African Americans as “black bodies.” It now seems to be in casual use among activists. I’m unable to grasp the rhetorical advantages of referring to members of any human group as “bodies” rather than persons, and so far no one has been able to explain it to me.

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