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Second Read, McWhorter

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago
McWhorter, Round Two 


Kate Driscoll Derickson

Discursive whack-a-mole


The margins of my copy of Bodies and Pleasures read like a two year old’s endless litany of questions: “Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?” (apologies in advance if the analysis is also as obtuse and annoying as two year olds can be at times...).  McWhorter does an excellent job of tracing how different identities are created through normative practices and constructed through discourses.  Her nuanced reading of Foucault’s genealogical practices (almost) resuscitates him from the abyss of relativism to which he is often relegated.  And yet with Foucault, and McWhorter, I am often left wondering: why does power need to function in this way?  Why, in the now infamous case of her cousin’s disagreement with the bank, do some discourses appear more legitimate to Harry McNash than others? 


I understand and appreciate the intense therapeutic and political value in the de-naturalizing of oppressive discourses through the practice of genealogy.  I think it’s a crucial practice.  But why give up on the “why” question?  Here’s what I think some might say (to carry on discussions from our previous class): The reason Foucault, McWhorter, and others would eschew the “why” question is that to answer it in any comprehensive way, any way that would link the reason(s) for different discourses would be to functionally create a totalizing theory.  This totalizing theory would, due to the inherent nature of totalizing theories, necessarily exclude, or create others who cannot be accounted for by the theory.  This is to say, that totalizing theories are functionally and ontologically impossible.  Further, such a theory would necessarily have normative prescriptive content.  Description always creates prescription and prescription is always oppressive.


I can concede that point for now (if it is, in fact anyone’s point... maybe its just a straw woman).  But Marxist (Rosemary Hennessy, for example) and postmodern/post-structuralist leaning feminists (Linda Nicholson, for example) have both argued that we can analyze and name social totalities without creating totalizing theories.  I am not sure what that would look like, but Hennessy argues that our identities are constructed, in part, to simultaneously obscure and explain the inequalities created by capitalism.  Nevertheless, she concedes that identities can be places from which politics can be effective, as long as such a politics has some analysis of political economy and its role in creating the identity upon which the politics is based.  Without such a connective tissue between discourses that yield oppression, it strike me (and Hennessy) as though we’re playing a losing game of whack-a-mole, in which another mole rears its ugly head in an alternative discursive practice to explain inequality each time we’ve whacked one by subverting the normative practices through which it is enacted.


So I have two questions for the class: 1) do you agree with my analysis that McWhorter and Foucault duck the “why” question?  And 2) if you agree with their analyses, I’ll turn the strategic question that I was grappling with last class on each of you: why do you want a conception of discursive power operations that has no connective tissue, and cannot answer the “why” question?

Hillary A. Jones, On Textual Resonance


A major question we encounter in rhetorical studies is the problem of effect.  Making claims about the effects rendered by a speech, a text, or an artifact is troublesome—without measuring (which you social scientists know is far from simple in itself) the audience’s reactions, any concrete proof is lacking.  Although there are a number of ways of dealing with this trouble, the one I prefer turns to a consideration of the functions that a text appears to serve (which is often different than what it seeks to render in an audience or what was intended by the rhetor).  That is, I look at what they “tend to do,” as McWhorter frames her encounters with Foucault on xvii.  As a textual critic, I have learned I sometimes need to defend that in my work I am often the controls and method.  Questions of the reliability of individual readings and charges of narcissism, lack of reliability, and credibility questions hound textual critics.  Although not everyone is willing to take the position that the buck stops with the critic’s training and ability, it is one of the most honest positions to assume.  As part of my work, however, I have to expand beyond my own readings and understandings of the text if I am to do it well.  I also incorporate other critics’ reads of the text, contextual and background information, and ideally that context is allowed to expand to the point needed.  Criticism could easily turn to genealogy for methodological apparatuses.  This book speaks to me.  It is one I will return to more than once. This is not the first time I have had this experience with a book, of course, and it is not the most powerful text to speak to me.  I’m curious what texts speak to everyone.  What books/essays/texts have impacted you as Foucault impacted McWhorter, if any?  I know this is highly personal, but I think McWhorter positions us to think to these personal applications.  As the last book, too, I’m also wondering which of the books this term spoke most powerfully to everyone.  Why?  How did the text function for you?


For the second thread, I’m questioning the role of identify formation.  McWhorter acknowledges that we use texts and experiences to craft identity, to invent oneself, with the autobiographical work functioning both theoretically and politically (5).  This book is an exploration of how she struggled through and invented one of her identities.  McWhorter suggests on 3 that identity is performative, saying “I couldn’t do what I did and escape being what those actions implied to most people that I was.”  She continues later, arguing that “one’s membership in the community is more a matter of what one does than of what one is” (87).  This group membership relies more on shared interests and actions, as Young suggests, but relies on an identity category many both within and without the LGBTQ community try to tie to biology, which is a bit closer to Alcoff. 


What I find myself wondering is if this provides a way to tease apart a group that shares common experiences (pleasures, for instance) and one that shares common desires.  This seems to be where we were stuck in trying to understand Young’s city life suggestions.  If, for instance, we form the LGBTQ community based on a shared experience (e.g. coming out to one’s family and friends) instead of on a shared desire (e.g. for same-sex sexual partners), we get a different group.  If we turn this to Young’s politics, if a group forms more based on what they have shared than on what they seek, do we lose the ability to incorporate Anderson’s yearning? 


This resonated for me personally a lot, and I think it may provide us a way to bring together (ecologically!) a majority of the texts to find a way for them to function in our individual politics and work.


Second reading. Hagit Barkai.

Ladelle McWhorter  Bodies and Pleasures



In the project of creating an oppositional resistance to sexual regimes of power, Ladelle McWhorter looks for freedom-affirming practices that are based on bodies and pleasure. This is based on Foucault advice for resistance through turning from sexual desire to bodies and pleasure for affirming one’s identity.


Although McWhorter mentions the position of the body for Foucault as a primer location for the discipline of the subject and a construct of the power (180), she describes the body that one should turn to in the search for resistance to sexual regimes as a developmental body that rejects the dualistic body-mind separation and which she refers to as ‘our bodies’, as apposed to a futuristic or a-historical concept of body (176). Turning to pleasures involves a different process because pleasure, McWhorter claims, has been excluded from the theoretical realm as a non analyzable unproductive item. While pain is established through Kant, Marx and Freud as a basis for the construction of the self, pleasure remained blocked from theoretical areas. McWhorter, through Foucault, builds a concept of pleasure that not only cease to oppose productivity, but is inherently creative and productive (177).  

The project is to use pleasure as a primary disciplinary tool, therefore establishing identities and selfhood on pleasures rather than pains (182). Liberation is attempted not through freedom of desire but through being made more susceptible to pleasure (184).

The process of turning to pleasure in order to open up new possibilities becomes an “aesthetic of existence” (189). The creative power of pleasure is turned towards the individual who is transformed through it, turning life itself into a work of art (188). In other words, the individual’s thoughts, beliefs, actions and appearance become medium for artistic creation through pleasure.

A creativity that is based on pleasure is not said to be more productive than that which is based on pain or humiliation (179), but it is one that is promised to be an act against sexual normalization and power regimes. Such an enterprise is highly personal, situational and a subject for change (192), because it has to continually ‘listen to’ the changing developmental body. Foucault’s refusal to present a general vision of gay identity and politics (191) is related to a commitment to this aspect of change of body and soul, thoughts and conducts (190) as a condition for freedom. Any notion of gayness remains as a choice for individuals to experiment with.

At this point I want to look again at the original motivation for the turn towards pleasure and bodies. McWhorter attempted to give an account of without primacy for sexual desire is a search for a ‘safe identity’, an identity that will not explain her as an “unchanging object” and see all her actions as signsfor her homosexuality (190).

With the refusal to arrive to any generalized solution and with the dedication to the body and its individual pleasures, does the creativity of pleasure results in an alternative to the sexual desire identity?

Thinking about Young’s and Alcoff’s discussions on identity, in which identity is dependent on group belonging and therefore inherently general, the question that I have is can shaping self and life through pleasures results in an identity?

Do bodies and pleasure allow a creation of an identity through a shaping the self and its life, or do bodies and pleasure form a surface on which a denial of identity is possible? Can McWhorter’s celebration of self creation through pleasure answer for her original need to resist sexual desire identity?




 Critical Social Pleasures

Evan Seehausen

    In what ways does McWhorter’s examination of Foucault’s theories allow us to better understand what we do as theorists? One of my primary concerns is the way in which we can continue to allow for the development of counter-memories while attempting to create spaces for counterattack. I’m reminded of many of the criticisms of Foucaultian (and postmodern in general) theory that claim that it stymies political change by complicating matters to such an extent that action is no longer possible. Clearly McWhorter argues against such criticisms, but I am left with a degree of discomfort about the whole affair. What we do with Herculine Barbin’s life and disclosure is (or at the very least may swiftly become) disciplinary and restrictive. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that I’m worried about two competing desires: the desire to allow for some sort of autonomous self-expression and the desire for political change.

    Both desires are problematic within McWhorter’s (and my own) schema, but so is the move to satisfaction or freeing of desire itself. We must strive to move away from such discourses and instead consider the creation of pleasures. (184) What sort of pleasures might we be speaking about here? In terms of theory, we are called to develop and better understand the pleasure of letting another speak. Of course, my particular situation as someone of great privilege shapes that formulation. In many cases, the pleasure that must be developed may be that of speaking itself or expressing counter-memories.

    In other words, I need to turn to pleasures regarding disruption and action. Rather than try to force the world to conform to my desires, I need to modify and develop those pleasures. The requisite changes seem almost deceptively simple in many cases. Rather than revel in the pleasure of being right, of winning arguments, or of shaming other people; I need to turn to the pleasures involved with coming to a consensus, of working out problems together, and of learning from another. I do believe that I’ve had some success in those regards, and at the very least, they seem like commonsensical obligations. Modifying pleasures with regard to political action is a little trickier. In many senses, it must reflect the above modifications of pleasure. Rather than the pleasures of placing somebody in the best possible situation, I need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of creating a space in which others can participate in their own governmentality.

    One final (for this small foray) question comes to mind, which is whether or not this development of pleasure satisfies McWhorter’s claim that pleasures should not be solely instrumental. When I develop those pleasures, am I solely doing them in order to realize a utopian world? Certainly that was true for my previous pleasures, which stemmed from a desire to be someone who was right, who knew how society should be structured and then solidified, to establish myself as an intellectual, etc. In each of those cases, I started off with a calcified, developmental plan in mind, something that McWhorter warns against (180-1). However, if I can change my pleasures in the ways suggested above, I believe that they will become more ideal. This is not because they will be more or less selfish- after all, my pursuing them is part of my own self-care-, but rather because they will allow for practices of freedom. That is to say that pleasures in disruption, flexibility, and conscientious political engagement allow for the continued possibility of reshaping and stylizing of my own life.



Kristin Rawls

On Social Constructivism and Counter-Memory


             In her book, McWhorter draws a distinction between social constructivism and the practice of Foucauldian counter-memory.  She cites the work of Jonathan Ned Katz as an important constructivist contribution to the study of sexuality.  Katz’s book, The Invention of Heterosexuality, “rests on the conviction that the power of heterosexuality comes from its unchallenged claim to be natural—meaning ahistorical, not produced in history—from its claim that it exists prior to and independently of any social institutions” (36).  As such, Katz’s work provides an empirical account of the social construction of heterosexual identity; in his account, a sound argument and rigorous use of data facilitate “a conclusion [that] is asserted with assurance” (40).  That is, Katz “knows what he is talking about, and his article and book are intended to help the reader come to know likewise” (40). 

            Foucauldian genealogy, however, does not rest on absolute epistemological foundations.  Genealogy, McWhorter explains, “never rests content with any stable identity” (41).  Here, McWhorter seems to suggest that Katz’s work merely “destabilizes hegemonic discourses” and “[describes] a view or a set of events different from the one the dominant discourse describes” (42).  The major distinction, then, is that genealogy “[redescribes] the same set of events that the dominant discourse describes and, more importantly, in a way that undercuts the dominant description of them” (42).  This work is successful, McWhorter says, when “it does a better job of describing those events in accordance with the justificatory standards the dominant discourse employs or [when] it demonstrates that the dominant discourse somehow violates its own standards in its descriptions” (42). 

            This characterization of genealogy seems closely linked to projects of counter-memory, through which it is possible to “make ourselves aware of what official interpretations of the world leave out, to find where the gaps lie and where, therefore, the potential lies for thinking and living differently” (199).  McWhorter sees the autobiographical content of this work—including the genealogy of her body—as counter-memory.  She suggests that “this book is a work of counter-remembering” because it is an attempt to provide an account of her life that is different—and better—than the official accounts found in psychological and medical records (199).  More than a social constructivist account that merely achieves better empiricism, counter-remembering “helps provide a ‘place’ from which to analyze oppressive forces and to think through strategies that oppose them” (199).  Moreover, counter-remembering can be “self-transformative” inasmuch as it “may well produce new capacities and ways of living” (199). 

            I find counter-remembering—and the example developed in the discussion of Herculine Barbin—to be useful ways of challenging the dominant discourse.  Rather than just subverting dominant paradigms, counter-memory can propel us beyond mere resistance and toward counterattack, which has the potential to create something new and show us new ways to live (206).  For McWhorter, as for Foucault, counter-memory is an ethical—and not a scientific—practice.  Whereas better social constructivism can get us to better empirical knowledge, counter-memory does not adhere to any absolute, final truth. 

I am aware, though, that the distinction between constructivism and counter-memory may appear hollow to some.  Like McWhorter, I find the abandonment of foundations a bit frightening because I want to do better constructivist empiricism; I want to blow the positivists out of the water with conclusions that rest on stronger epistemological foundations.  At the same time, I’m drawn to these practices of counter-memory in Foucault and McWhorter—and have been ever since I first read Discipline and Punish a long time ago.  I am interested in what everyone thinks of the distinction between constructivism and counter-memory, and I would like to explore ways of teasing out the possibilities that counter-memory may hold for various approaches to social science research. 




Lisa Beane

Discussion paper – McWhorter, Bodies and Pleasures

In this book, McWhorter is interested, at least in part, in the political effects of Foucault’s ideas.  She is not trying to mine Foucault’s work for some particular political agenda, but she wants to argue, against critics who say Foucault leads only to nihilism, that Foucault can be and has been used to motivate and inform political action.  Ultimately, though, McWhorter ends up using her coalition work to lobby mainstream political institutions for non-discrimination protection as an example of counterattack against sexual normalization.  Every time I read this book, that conclusion strikes me as both a little strange and strategically kind of clever, so I would like for us to talk a bit about the usefulness of this conclusion and how she gets there.

Lobbying for non-discrimination laws is an important form of counterattack for McWhorter because she recognizes that lesbian/gay/queer people occupy a threatened position vis-à-vis the law.  Therefore, creating a safe space for our very existence in the form of housing and employment protections or hate crimes laws should be a high priority.  I agree with McWhorter that these kinds of protections are vital, but at the same time, they strike me as not very Foucauldian.  Legal discourses ossify and essentialize identities, which doesn’t seem to jive with the notion of becoming or an ethic of creativity and style.  If the idea is that we ought to destabilize and continuously recreate identities, what should we make of the strategy of codifying them in law?

But McWhorter almost has to make this political move, particularly because she argues in chapter 3 that the mere existence of queer communities is not necessarily political: “For most of us in queer communities, day to day survival is not heroism, and it doesn’t change the power networks that shape our world.  People who say they’re politically active simply because they are good neighbors to other queer people are deluding themselves…” (89-90).  So queer communities are not political action groups; political action groups mobilize in response to particular instances of oppression, and the participants in those groups need not have queer identities.  Coalition building is important, but the political strategy being employed seems to leave us arguing for full inclusion in a heterosexist society without really challenging existing constellations of social and political power, as it seems Foucault would have us do.

But the recent struggles over ENDA in Congress illustrate some of the limitations of this kind of strategy.  The most prominent national gay rights group sold out its transgender members on the inclusion of gender identity in the legislation just to make sure that some version of a bill prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would pass.  This was clearly a strategic decision, but it seems to me that the cost is that it undermines a larger sense of queer community (if, in fact, such a thing exists, which we might also want to talk about).  At the very least, it seems to privilege some queer identities over others, which would seem to be an unpleasant consequence someone like McWhorter.  The formal legal protection may have passed, but when challenging the prevailing ideology about gender got difficult, the solution was to give up.

So I wonder what the rest of you are thinking about McWhorter’s distinction between queer communities and political action groups.  Also, is it possible to argue for legal protections in a way that doesn’t essentialize identities?  Are there other forms of political activism McWhorter might have looked to as examples?




  Nathalie Nya


Four concepts frame McWhorter’s description of an ethical life:  style, freedom, care and the self


In bodies and pleasures, McWhorter describes an ethical life that is based on the notion of “the care of the self.”  Her goal is to define and develop a way of life that reflects what it means to be gay.  Referring to Foucault she notes, “To be ‘gay,’ I think, is not to identity with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life (1999:  197).”  Following Foucault, McWhorter begins with a conception of the homosexual that is lacking in essential natures.  Instead, she offers an ethics of style as a way of being gay.



Four concepts frame McWhorter’s description of an ethical life:  style, freedom, care and the self.  She begins by describing style as an openness to becoming.  Loosely speaking, she claims that the process of becoming is essential to an ethical life.  We have “to become people who dare to give ourselves over to the process of becoming new, becoming different, becoming other than what we are (1999:  193).”  In view of this, style is a matter of transformation. 



Freedom on the other hand is a matter of affirmation. She defines freedom as the ontological condition of ethics.  According to her, it is the case “whether the way of life one establishes avows its origin in freedom or denies it; in other words, this is so whether you acknowledge that to some extent you chose your way of life and take responsibility for it or you claim only to be following the dictates of some transcendent power (1999:  195).”  Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics in so far as it is about exercising unconditional freedom.



McWhorter’s conception of the self and of care are interconnected in so much as she refers to both concepts as being part of self-care or care for one’s self.  Her description of self-care begins with the assumption that communities and cultures depend upon the ethical work of individual people (1999:  197).”  In view of this, McWhorter’s description of an ethical life is centered around self-care in so much as she prioritizes the individual over the community.  It is even “possible that putting care for one’s elf above all else might mean developing the competence and the self-confidence that make true generosity possibly, the peace of mind that make true generosity possible, the peace of mind that makes real sharing possible, and the desire for community that makes honesty, patience, and cooperation paramount (1999: 196).” 


Although I am unclear as to how the concept of freedom fits into her description of an ethical life, I am more concerned about the fact that self-transformation is an obligatory process within her description of ethics.  About the process of becoming new, she notes, “If I seek to become a being who is incapable of becoming anything new, I seek to become something other than my capacity to become (1999:  193).”  To McWhorter, every process of becoming is an act of self-transformation.   Implicitly, I read McWhorter’s process of becoming as being quantifiable. 




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