Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.
[Michel Foucault. (1996) . Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity. In Foucault Live. collected Interviews, 1961-1984. Sylvere Lotringer (Ed.). New York: Semiotext(e), p. 385.]
Random thoughts in response
Foucault is talking specifically about homosexual identity here but what he says can be applied to his views on all forms of identity, something which is borne out by other remarks in the rest of his work. These remarks all share the common theme that identities are a trap which limit who you are and make you subject to power relations. We need to continually escape from identity formation, not try and aspire to an identity. This position is clear in his famous remark from The Archaeology of Knowledge:
I am probably not the only one who writes in order to be faceless. Don’t ask who I am, or tell me to stay the same: that is the bureaucratic morality, which ensures that our papers are kept in order. It ought to let us be when it comes to writing
(AS:28, AK:17). Translation by Clare O’Farrell
Speaking at a personal level (I can afford such luxuries in this blog format!), I have found Foucault’s position particularly useful recently in thinking through problems of writer’s block. Why has writing been so difficult, and a problem that has haunted my existence for decades, its spectral presence never completely out of my vision? Perhaps the answer is simple. I have been aspiring to what I have perceived as the desirable identity of ‘writer’, a hugely constraining and complex set of rules which constantly provokes the question in relation to any writing activity: ‘does this thing conform to my identity?’
This question becomes particularly restrictive in the academic context which strongly polices what is regarded as suitable subject matter for academic discussion and the form in which this is delivered. The academy, for all the admirable and worthwhile rigour of its approach can also operate terrorist effects on those who have been trained to accept its norms and principles. It is an environment which is both enabling and limiting.
To further complicate this scenario, the modernist view of the academic writer and intellectual, one which I grew up with and breathed in every day, was that such a writer had a sacred mission to the world, to save mankind from its excesses, to reveal the truth, to make an important contribution to the well-being and advancement of society. Your success on this front was measured by your ‘reputation’, by the numbers of acolytes hanging on your every utterance and the volume of citations in a variety of citation indexes. There is no doubt that writers such as Foucault have definitely more than stepped up to the mark here, even if Foucault himself was by no means reticent in drawing attention to the flaws of such missionary pretensions. For example, one can refer to his remarks on the ‘specific’ versus the ‘universal’ intellectual and to his personal doubts about the social efficacy of writing as an activity.
Is this model of writing, this writerly identity, one that is productive for everyone? There is no doubt that it has been highly successful for many, but in my own case this poorly articulated lifelong quest to ‘uncover’ my identity as a writer, to somehow make it the governing principle of my existence has been constraining to the point of paralysis. Seeking to solidify an identity which would forevermore mark a place and a concrete presence in the world, like some kind of public monument, has been a shaky premise on which to operate. Aspiring to monumental status, no matter how grand, is a recipe for grinding boredom and paralysed inactivity.
So where does this leave me and my own writing activity? I can only come to one conclusion. Writing works for me when I regard it as fun, easy and disposable. I am able to write because of the cultural capital provided by my education and family background. Nothing else. There is no ‘mission’. It is a hobby not an identity. My own enjoyment and engagement, and the enjoyment of a few others observing my attempts as ‘a unique self’ (to use Foucault’s phrase) at ‘differentiation, creation and innovation’ is what makes it all worthwhile.
5 thoughts on “Foucault, identity and writing”
What a fabulous blog! I shall delve more when I attain freedom. What you write about writing is excellent. Of course, academic writing is policed by the institutions as well: interdisciplinary writing (and particularly of the Foucauldian philosophical-historical kind) becomes an impossible dream. We must do it and be slammed for doing it, because academic criticisms criticise each others’ projects, so we can never fulfill academic criteria.
I suppose an aim for thought now is to carve out a form of unserious speech, whereby we can be creative without asking to be taken seriously. The best expression I’ve seen of this was on the lips of a monk of the fourth or fifth century (the kind Foucault gets interested in at the very end of his 1984 lectures), who said “wherever you go, do not expect your speech to be believed” (I quote from memory: you can find it in the sayings of the desert fathers).
Which means we speak for the pleasure of speaking rather than in order to be understood. Or even misunderstood.
Thanks for your kind comments Andy. This is an interesting angle on the problem.
I wonder if the mission of academic writing was lost in the search for identity or ‘fame’. More than half of the people academics are to help does not understand them. They not even know someone is writing about them.
I am trying to pursue an academic career, yet I’m afraid that the system and power itself are there to avoid a real transmission of knowledge to those who really need it.
I really like your blog…
I tend to agree with you. There seems to be a lot of institutional focus on academic writing that will enhance your CV and indicate membership of a club rather than genuine outreach to the rest of the community. The content of the writing becomes less important than the ‘impact factor’ of the journal you are publishing in or the grant money that it might be attracting. So it becomes about institutional prestige both for the institution and the individual.
There are ways of getting one’s work out there but many of them are not rewarded in terms of promotion by the institution so this tends to discourage a number of academics from pursuing these avenues.
Thanks for your thoughtful insight. I now reach the end of my PhD thesis and really wish I could have produced it in a format of my choice, rather than within the constraints of the formula my supervisor envisions is the golden key to viva success. Would I trade a less secure viva outcome for a thesis that more accurately reflects myself and my identity as a thinker, scholar, writer? Yes, maybe, but then the freedom after the PhD is awarded is probably worth being stifled – for a while…