Book review: Bodies & Pleasures
Michel Foucault’s work is everywhere these days, and even if you don’t read books on history, ethnography, feminism, sexuality or queer theory, then you will certainly find contemporary scholars exploring aspects of tantra – Hugh Urban, Geoffrey Samuel, Gavin Flood or Loriliai Biernacki for example – drawing on his work. If you’re wondering what all the fuss about Foucault is, then Ladelle McWhorter’s Bodies & Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalisation (Indiana University Press, 1999, 260pp, p/bk) might well be a good place to start.
Bodies & Pleasures could easily have been titled “the pleasures of reading Foucault” – whilst Ladelle McWhorter explains the key issues of Foucault’s thought – the problems of identities and normalisation, geneological critique, the status of the subject and the care of the self, she does this through an autobiographical account, detailing how her encounter with Foucault’s work made sense, challenged, and helped shaped her in becoming who she is – “My primary purpose is not to prove to anyone that Foucault’s philosophical positions are the true and right ones,” but to show how Foucault’s work “has been able to excite, stimulate, enliven, and empower me for the greater part of my adult life”.
Later in the book, McWhorter explores the transformative possibilities of everyday pursuits such as gardening – and line dancing – which teaches her the joy of the experience of a disciplined body and the capacities for new pleasures. Although these pursuits began with identifiable goals: for gardening, “eating fresh vegetables”; for line dancing, “meeting hot women” – yet she points out that “in both cases, the disciplines I undertook changed me to the extent that the goal I started with became relatively unimportant. I disciplined myself to the dirt, and I became something new. I disciplined myself to the dance, and I became something I never imagined I could become. I strayed afield from myself. And in the process I discovered and cultivated immense capacities for pleasure I’d never dreamed of before.”
McWhorter, through her memories and anecdotes makes Foucault’s theories accessible and engaging in a way that many books on “cultural theory” fail to do. She writes in an easy-going manner, and shows how her encounters with Foucault’s texts shaped her life. Along the way she discusses – and counters – some of the key criticisms which have been levelled at Foucault’s work, such as the assertions that his work omits agency, and leaves no basis for collective political action. Thought-provoking and engaging, Bodies & Pleasures is definitely worth several reads.