Monday, 8 August 2016

Have We Normalised Oppression?

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
There are forms of oppression and domination, wrote Michel Foucault, which become invisible – the new normal. Have we normalised oppression today? Are we even aware of it any more?
In the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault drew his readers’ attention to the workings of power on the level of one’s sexuality and desire, as both an example and a metaphor of all power relations. He debunked the idea that sex is the locus of the truest form of the self. In fact, this idea turns out to be an invisible mechanism of control. As Foucault put it, it is ‘a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation’. In turn, the ‘stimulation’ cannot do without sex being regulated and monitored, to effectively manage the populace. Still, modern control would not be effective without control being exerted by individuals over themselves, however unknowingly. And the more self-governing our self becomes, the more relevant this becomes.

As such, there is a clear difference between the repressive methods used by the Soviet state to regulate society and the self-discipline of the modern sexually ‘liberated’ generation. The latter has willingly measured and categorised itself through all-encompassing examination and normalisation through beauty standards, nudity and endless discourses on sex. A confessing animal, modern man has made, perhaps, the most intimate part of his self available for mass surveillance. The force of surveillance has significantly increased with the rise of social media, the efficacy of which is not inferior to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: its prisoners are close, yet in isolation from each other; perfectly visible for the watchers, yet unable to see them. In short, the soul is governed by aligning new norms with individual desires and pleasures.

Nevertheless, it is questionable whether such control necessarily has negative implications, as in the case of conventional forms of oppression and domination. It is indeed a hybrid power that does not oppose one’s wishes, but in fact creates them. On the surface of it, Foucault himself seems to take a neutral stance in relation to the new style of governance, rejecting the idea that society can exist without power relations. However, his emphasis on the effects of normalisation on the individual – which ‘attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise’ – reveals a negative attitude. It seems that Foucault confronted the issue of modern governance because of his urge to go beyond the existing perceptions of the self. Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – an ‘attempt to overcome, to bring to oneself, to incorporate’ – may well explain it. It is precisely this ‘instinct for freedom’ that would lead Foucault’s subject to want to become a master in playing these games of power with the strongest possible protection against the abuse of power.

At this point, the connection between freedom and ethics unfolds. Foucault pronounced the nature of freedom to be ethical in itself: ‘Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics’. Yet, he wondered whether it makes sense to say ‘let’s liberate our sexuality’, for the problem of freedom is much more ethical than the rhetoric about desires and pleasures. Thus, it is important, once again to debunk the myth that sexual liberation – or any liberation – is equal to freedom. Indeed, is liberation only about genitals and not about conscience, dignity and self-reflection? Freedom is impossible without self-reflection and the ‘care of the self’. Hence, as ‘taking care of oneself requires knowing oneself’, freedom from imposed knowledge and control becomes a major argument for resistance against modern power.

A bigger question, however, is whether resistance is possible – and here, Foucault led his readers into the labyrinth of philosophical paradoxes. The problem is that the relationship between the self and power is mutually determining. Paradoxically, as the self has essentially become the locus of power today, humans face the challenge of resisting themselves. As a result, the individual is constituted both through the practices of subjection and liberation. Although a fully autonomous self is impossible, those who dare to follow their instinct for freedom inevitably have to overcome these paradoxes on the path of the never-ending process of self-cultivation. As an option, Foucault proposed shaping individual subjectivity through the force of creativity, virtually transforming everyone’s life into a work of art. Metaphorically, ‘why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?’

The questions remain: Who exercises power? Who makes decisions for me? Foucault referred to the notion of ‘governmentality’ to describe modern political reason. Its main characteristic is societies in which governance follows the principle of ‘enterprise’, in which the self is self-sustainable and self-governing, ensuring higher productivity. This is a world in which discipline and control have been internalised by the individuals themselves.


  1. “Have we normalised oppression today?” In my opinion, no. “Are we even aware of it anymore?” In my opinion, yes. Cases in point, on both scores: Racial oppression. Ethnic oppression. Gender oppression. Religious oppression. Class oppression. Economic oppression. Sexual-orientation oppression.

    These are not ‘new norms’—they’ve permeated societies for millennia. Nor are they ‘normalised’—the oppressed, and their protagonists, have agitated against oppression, with degrees of success or failure that depend on place and time. The presence of resistance—whether organised, overt agitation or persistently shouted indignation—means we remain acutely aware of oppression.

    Omnipresent oppression originates from all levels: national and local governments, social institutions, religions, special-interest groups, individuals—and from the relations among them. Sometimes each tries to support or thwart the other, depending on their sense of moral imperatives, social justice, humanity, empathy, equality.

    Let’s take just one form of oppression, given Foucault’s openness toward his being gay. Given the controlling period he lived in, his nevertheless preternatural ability to revel in his sexual orientation still hit heavy head winds—resisting caustic labels like ‘perversion’. Even today, the LGBT community experiences vastly different responses: being thrown off a building in one country, or marrying a same-sex partner in another.

    Even in the most enlightened country as to sexual orientation, there are zigs and zags. The trajectory is nonetheless pointed in the right direction—upwards. Irresistibly so. This, despite echoes of moral indignation, dehumanising pejoratives, supposed ‘naturalness’ and ‘convention’ in marriage, marginalisation and powerlessness, impediments to liberalised law. All products of post-factual ‘identity politics’.

    Yet the tide of sexual self-determination has, in more progressive societies, proven hardier than opposition’s excoriation. A case where, to the essay’s opening questions, oppression is not ‘normalised’, and where we are fully ‘aware’.

  2. Thanks, Bo! A very contemporary feel to this...

    Without claiming to be able to follow all this (alas!), it seemed to me that there is a conflation of Berlin's two freedoms here: freedom from, and 'freedom to'. The conflict between the two, is, I suspect crucial - and it is the oldest story in ethics.

  3. In a democracy, the main oppressor of freedom is deception, which happens so often and so extensively that we have come to accept it as a way of life. So long as there is deception, the freedom we think we have is in fact an illusion. Deception is coercion in disguise, hence a worse sort of coercion. Tyranny may force you to do things you don’t want to, but it’s worse to falsely believe that it was what you wanted.

    1. A cultural predilection on my part, I dare say, but I prefer to be free to make my own mistakes, than unfree to have others make the mistakes for me. Democracy = in the marketplace of ideas, caveat emptor. Tyranny = in the marketplace of ideas, negavit emptor.

    2. I was contemplating a comment, then stumbled upon Chengde's comment, and considered that I couldn't say it any better than Chengde.

      I saw that Bohdana was employing Foucault as a hook to make the point of the existence of oppression "so often and so extensive". A subtle and powerful post, I thought.

  4. First off, thank you all for the thoughtful comments. The intention of the piece was to spark creative discussion on the topic of freedom and oppression, which I think it has done.

    Keith and Chengde both make valid points and the two different interpretations of the piece serve to show the varying versions of oppression and freedom.

    Overall, I simply wanted echo De Tocqueville who warned against the potential dangers of tyranny of the masses in a modern democracy. The intricate balance between freedom from and freedom to, as mentioned by Martin, is what potentially leads to the normalisation of a particular way of life and resistance to oppression, which could silence its opposition in the name of freedom and the good.