One confesses—or is forced to confess.—Michel Foucault
The heartbeat of antiracism is confession.—Ibram X. Kendi
I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racism patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me.—Robin DiAngelo
Anyone who has been hanging around Liberal Arts faculties over the last thirty-five years will surely detect the heady aromatics of Foucault’s discourse analysis in much of what passes for today’s critical race theory. Discourse analysis is a method Foucault employed to unmask the relationship between language and power, and to show how our social practices are decisively shaped by the ways in which we speak. While Foucault himself had little to say about race and racism, his later work especially, which highlights the inextricable relationship between knowledge and power, furnishes much of the conceptual tool-box for today’s anti-racist intelligentsia.
Racism, the literature tells us, is not reducible to any set of discernible actions or words, but is theorized as a system of power, slithering its way through our institutions and cultural practices, privileging some, while marginalizing and harming others. When we think of slavery, Jim Crow or the harms done to indigenous people by residential schools in Canada, it is hard to disagree with this analysis. Other theorists, however, go much further: white people, Robin DiAngelo asserts, cannot help but be racist, because this system informs their beliefs and values, contaminates every nook and cranny of their souls, and has been doing so for centuries prior to their birth. Individual agency is unable to help: there can be no site of resistance, no possibility of wilful refusal. People may no longer be tabulae rasae, but white people are certainly tabulae racists.
Much of this sort of analysis—its themes and terminology, especially the focus on power, language and knowledge—could not have been written had Foucault dropped out of school and bought a Renault dealership in Poitiers after World War II. Indeed, the lines of causal connection between Foucault and Robin DiAngelo (whose work I will use to represent the genre) are not difficult to draw, and have been done so convincingly in this journal and elsewhere. My aim is not to rehash the argument that Foucault is the progenitor of much that passes for critical theory in various academic phyla, nor to relitigate the etiological role that postmodernism may or may not have played in the worst excesses of today’s woke culture. And it is not, a fortiori, my aim to either downplay or trivialize the need to resist racism, or to question the good intentions of those who work from any particular theoretical stance. European seafaring technology outstripped the development of European moral consciousness by approximately five hundred years, and the result was a horrifying calamity—the effects of which are still unfolding—for black and indigenous people. To contest this would be stupid and monstrous.
However, as Richard Rorty roughly put it, just as twentieth-century philosophy could be viewed as a series of squabbles over the right way of being anti-Cartesian, we are now in a position where we have to think carefully about the right way of being anti-racist. And this is where a more nuanced Foucault—not the Foucault for Dummies version lurking in the corner of a white fragility training workshop—might come to our aid. In what follows, I will try to show by way of an extended analogical argument, that much of Foucault’s analysis of sexuality, especially the worryingly coercive role that confession played in the production of knowledge—that is, the multiple discourses around sex proliferating in the early days of the human sciences—can be applied to our contemporary treatment of racism. We need to read Foucault carefully, and apply his suspicions to anti-racist training—which is merely the latest “technology of the self.”
Talking About Sex
First, let’s talk about sex—or, better, let’s talk about the way we’ve been talking about sex. In his provocative 1976 book, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Foucault challenges what he calls the “repressive hypothesis.” This is the standard view that, beginning in the seventeenth century, an age of repression took hold of the European continent, and the frank openness toward sex enjoyed by our bawdy Renaissance forebears came to an end. Perhaps, as some historians have claimed, this was because the demands of modern capitalism and its work ethic were incompatible with a libertine sensibility organized around the pleasures of the body. In any case, by the nineteenth century, a dour, Victorian puritanism had settled in, superintending a vast network of prohibitions and procedures to censor sex, and, if sex could not be completely driven into hiding, it was certainly hidden behind the bolted door of the parental bedroom for its furtive, strictly utilitarian performances. It is this background against which Philip Larkin could write that “sexual intercourse began in 1963,” as the revolutionary openness of the counterculture clapped back at the age of repression, and began speaking truth to power.
But, as Foucault argues, this potted history, so superficially appealing from our knowing, post-1960s perspective, is neither the right nor the full story. At the heart of the problem is a misconception about the nature of modern power itself. According to the “repressive hypothesis,” power is a strictly negating or constraining force, playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole with the liberating voice of truth. The issue is that this downward punching, “juridico-discursive” conception of power can only demand obedience and submission, and while it may have been appropriate as an analytical tool to describe the socio-political dynamics of the ancien régime, it is no longer adequate to comprehend the disciplinary control of bodies that began to emerge during the Enlightenment.
So a new way of thinking about power is required. Much of Foucault’s continuing influence and reputation is staked on this replacement theory, and on the wealth of detail (from archives, journals, paintings, memoirs, legal documents, etc.) that he furnishes to support such a paradigm shift. Instead of the old, Hobbesian view of power, Foucault the genealogist argues that, beginning in the classical age, a historic turn occurred in which power began to function more as a productive force, one that turned sexuality—through a “regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse”—into an object to be administered and controlled. While we might think that Freud and his associates were unique for their time insofar as they brought sex back from a shadowy world of silence and guilt, Foucault offers a compelling case that demographers, biologists, psychologists, educators and, later, psychiatrists were busily medicalizing sexuality, extracting “secrets of the flesh” all along. In this way, sex became not so much something to be prudishly judged, but a metastasizing field of inquiry, produced by ceaseless injunctions of modern power for the insidious ends of administration and control.
And these discourses on sex did not multiply apart from or against power, but in the very space and as the means of its exercise. Incitements to speak were orchestrated from all quarters, there were apparatuses for listening and recording everywhere and ubiquitous procedures for observing, questioning and formulating. Sex was driven out of hiding and constrained to live a discursive existence. From the singular imperialism that compels everyone to transform their sexuality into a perpetual discourse, to the manifold mechanisms which, in the area of economy, pedagogy, medicine and justice, incite, extract, distribute and institutionalize the sexual discourse, an immense verbosity is what our civilization has required and organized.
It is in this way, then, that sexuality—far from being a timeless, biological essence—was “socially constructed” through the operations of this modern, productive form of power. What is especially remarkable about all this, Foucault notes, is that, despite the explosion of new, quasi-scientific discourses around sex, there was an official, collective denial that such “incitements” were really going on. Modern societies “dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.”
Through this process, Foucault argues, new types of “peripheral sexualities” were discovered. What were once construed as particular sexual acts (like sodomy, for instance), were now viewed as effects of a deeper, sexual identity (homosexuality). Accordingly, “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” Sexual perversions of all types could no longer be summarily dismissed as a catalogue of discrete and occasional minority practices, but as functions of substantive psychological and biological differences. The deep truths extracted from bodies became the data points for an ever-expanding sexual typology.
While Foucault seldom abandons his Hyperborean perch to offer normative judgments about the practices he describes, it is clear that what he is exposing is the dark underbelly of the ostensibly liberating Enlightenment project. One might say that Foucault plays the yin to Steven Pinker’s yang. What especially worries Foucault is the way in which the technique of confession is deployed to produce this discursive eruption around sex. While European Catholics have been disgorging their deepest (often sexual) secrets to eager priests every Sunday since 1215, this ritual had become, by the nineteenth century, the technology for producing truth about the self. To this end, we have set up entire disciplines and institutions devoted to our now scientific rituals of confession, where the knowledge/power tag-team compels individuals to speak their truths, thereby making possible the assessment, classification and normalizing correction of the confessing subject. The technology of confession has lost the innocence of truth speaking back to power, for the confession cannot occur outside of the deployments of power itself.
Foucault’s worry, then, is that as the confessing subject becomes an object of expert knowledge, the very practice of putting sex “through the endless mill of speech” will become so routine, so irresistibly normal, so central to our sense of what people are supposed to do, that we begin to internalize this frantic need, this incompletable task, of putting sex into words. And indeed, this is precisely what Foucault thinks has taken place. Once this modern form of power took over (became “systemic”) we could no longer rest from the grim imperatives of self-surveillance and the need to divulge our truths to a nodding expert, in a process that can never truly be finished.
So what does all this have to do with the multi-billion dollar, anti-racism cottage industry? Quite a bit. There are other good reasons for opposing both the framework and practices on offer from Robin DiAngelo and other members of the anti-racist training vanguard. Writers like John McWhorter have pointed out the degree to which this movement has taken on the solemn garb of old-time religion, with its updated doctrines of original sin, its moralizing liturgy, its saints and sinners, etc. Other empirically-minded social scientists have argued that there is no evidence that these training workshops have any positive effect whatsoever. Still others worry that an important line is crossed when the focus of such training shifts from behaviour to belief, thus leading to concerns about freedom of speech and thought. I agree with much of this analysis. But my argument is addressed to those people who are already at home with the still trending Foucauldian style of analysis at the core of critical race theory. What follows is for you.
First, recall that Foucault noted a profound shift from the focus on the “habitual sins” of discrete sexual acts to medicalized explanations of those acts by quasi-scientific discourses eager to discover ever deeper layers and classes of sexual identity. Something similar has happened in our analysis of racism. We have moved from simplistic definitions of racism (“the intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals,” as DiAngelo summarizes) to a new understanding according to which racism is systemic and, without exception, incorporated into the bodies of white people. White people are born into whiteness, which explains not only those intentional acts of racial discrimination, but also the privileges, tastes, values, beliefs—including deep, philosophical commitments, like individualism—shaping and moulding what is ultimately a white supremacist worldview. Since racism is the core of white identity and not merely a temporary aberration, the two predicable responses to such a claim will be denial or evasion on the one hand (so-called white fragility), and increasingly amped-up displays of extorted admission on the other. For individuals who do not relish the public charge of white fragility, the only acceptable response is the endless task of putting racism into discourse, turning ourselves into case histories, combatting the omnipresent scourge by ferreting out hidden biases and prejudices as the other nervous workshop participants look on. Wanting to get to solutions before experiencing the pangs of confessional labour, is yet another catalogued symptom of white fragility.
All this might not be as grim as it appears. While it might be hyperbolic to suggest that anti-racist training sessions may come to resemble parodies of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch (“You think you are racist … well”), Foucault himself slyly observed that power asserts itself in “the pleasure of showing off” and “scandalizing.” It is not hard to imagine how pleasurable it may be to achieve a moral status linked to the confessed depths of one’s racism. Robin DiAngelo’s pre-eminence as an anti-racist, for example, is at least partly secured precisely because her florid confessions could be taken out of context and confused with the diary entries of a remorseful ex-Klansman. When the anti-racism lady finds herself infused with racism, the participants in the workshop will need to have something rather impressive to confess if they want to get a pass from their colleagues.
Second, just as the early medical discourses around sex kept “discovering” new sexual identities (from “mixoscopophiles” to “sexoesthetic inverts”) and catching an ever-expanding set of phenomena (breast feeding, toilet-training) in their insidious webs, there is already within anti-racism discourse a vast taxonomy of ways that racism (systemic, institutional, interpersonal, aversive, cultural, etc.) can manifest itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It is good to know when harm is being done, so that it can be eliminated. But Foucault’s concerns about the devouring maw of sexual discourse apply here as well. Could it be that the suppression of racism may function as the advertised goal of anti-racist discourse, but in reality—and this is nobody’s intention—what we are witnessing is the racialization of policies, behaviours and speech acts (including silence) that might be, with the mildest application of the principle of charity, explicable as completely non-racialized phenomena? Could it be that, just as the nineteenth century made everything about sex, we in the twenty-first century are making everything about race, thereby making the elimination of actual racism even more difficult to accomplish? Would it not be better to get to solutions—like criminal justice reform, police reform or figuring out how to get potable water to a particular First Nation in northern Canada—than sitting around a corporate boardroom reflecting on whether objectivity or being overly nice are examples of white supremacy? As Foucault writes of the “entomologizing” of peripheral sexualities: “The machinery of power that focused on this alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible and permanent reality.” My fear is that the anti-racism theorists are unwittingly recapitulating precisely what their godfather warned us about—and for good reason: the DSMs of anti-racism will get thicker with each new edition.
And so, given the sheer numbers of people now employed in the anti-racism industry, given the dollars now involved, and given that large institutions—from corporations to universities to charitable organizations—already feel compelled to offer more and more training and endless confessional workshops, it is impossible to see how we could ever acknowledge any moral progress, any judgment about how we have actually become less racist. Any such optimistic claim would likely be met with a mixture of incredulity and condemnation. It would indicate that we aren’t looking hard enough, or that we aren’t focusing on the latest variety of racial infraction (nano-aggressions?), or that we aren’t talking about racism enough.
Recently, on CBC radio, I was listening to what was billed as a conversation about race, but beyond the usual throat-clearing and moral platitudes, the main take away was that we really have to start having more conversations about race. This takes us back full circle to Foucault’s insight that the ceaseless impetus to transpose sex into discourse took place within a culture that spoke emphatically of its own silence. Indeed, the reason why we need to have more conversations about racism is precisely because we have convinced ourselves that we aren’t already having such conversations all the time.
I have substituted the word racism for sex in this passage from Foucault. Judge for yourselves whether it accurately characterises the current time:
Surely no other type of society has accumulated … a similar quantity of discourses concerned with racism. It may well be that we talk more about racism than anything else; we set our minds to the task; we convince ourselves that we have never said enough on the subject, that, through our inertia or submissiveness, we conceal from ourselves the blinding evidence, and that what is essential always eludes us, so that we must always start out once again in search of it. It is possible that where racism is concerned, the most long-winded, the most impatient of societies is our own.
I’ve always suspected that Michel Foucault was at least partly and perhaps very largely motivated by a strong, perverse “contrarian” streak, by a compulsion to act as an “enfant terrible” always trying to upset and reverse the usual “conventional wisdom” of 20th century modern, liberal, progressive discourse. I’ve always felt Foucault most probably rather enjoyed the shock value and “lulz” of deliberately, purposely arguing at length that no, we never really became more liberated and permissive about sex than we used to be in the Middle Ages, Puritan times, or Victorianism, that no, we never really became more humane in our treatment of the insane, that no, we never really became less cruel or more humane in our treatment of criminals and social deviants, ether. I think he rather relished the “lulz” of proclaiming from the housetops that no, you don’t get a free pass from complicity in discourses and… Read more »
Salem-Wiseman summarizes the conventional history of modern sexuality attacked by Michel Foucault as claiming that “”by the nineteenth century, a dour, Victorian puritanism had settled in, superintending a vast network of prohibitions and procedures to censor sex, and, if sex could not be completely driven into hiding, it was certainly hidden behind the bolted door of the parental bedroom for its furtive, strictly utilitarian performances.” It was “this background,” he continues, “against which Philip Larkin could write that “sexual intercourse began in 1963,” as the revolutionary openness of the counterculture clapped back at the age of repression, and began speaking truth to power.” However, Salem-Wiseman goes on, Foucault argued that “this potted history, so superficially appealing from our knowing, post-1960s perspective, is neither the right nor the full story.” Could it be, I just wonder, if Foucault might have been (perhaps subconsciously) motivated by an anti-English and anti-American animus, by… Read more »
In her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin portrayed a somewhat Taoism-like extraterrestrial religion, the “Handara” on the planet “Gethen,” who preached that God is most faithfully, devoutly, and usefully served by NOT endlessly chattering about Him/Her all the time! Maybe it;s time some of us here on Earth adopted a bit of a “Handara” attitude toward race and racism!
The claim that our society does not discuss either race or sex enough is ludicrous. We are trying to talk both of these subjects to death, but race and sex are the zombies of our public conversations. Even knitting and sports are not exempt. When will we have to integrate race and sex into discussions about gardening? Any day now, no doubt.
Michel Foucault, originally brought up as a Catholic, may have blamed the Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins (including sexual ones) for helping giving rise to the “Classical Age” and Enlightenment medicalization and “discoursification” of sex. However, the current “woke” Critical Race discourse of universal white Western complicity in racism as preached by gurus like Robin Di Angelo, with no white Westerner granted any innocence from universal white guilt, is in fact far more similar to the Calvinist interpretation of original sin as total human depravity. While Catholicism has always described human nature as fallen, imperfect, and prone to sin, it has always also maintained that we still do retain some capacity for goodness and virtue, even if we still do badly need Divine grace. Calvinism, on the other hand, has portrayed human nature as fundamentally corrupt, wicked, and sinful through and through, arguing that even our so-called “good” or… Read more »
Point well made. His observations do seem to have been taken largely as presciptions by his progeny, How knowledge is legitimised in the University and passed on to the masses is painfully obvious to observe today. And all done in apparently the most cynical way, as they are the most well-versed in the game at hand.
We might very well have to start inaugurating new discourses of confession about the hitherto unacknowledged problems of constipation, bedwetting, and alien abduction that we all suffer from and all are complicit in though we have hitherto maintained a collective conspiracy of denial, silence, and forgetting. Even our confessions of sexual misconduct and white fragility are attempts to distract our attention from the awareness that we gave all wet our pajamas after being subjected to invasive medical and sexual procedures by the little gray big-headed men with wraparound eyes materializing in our bedrooms at night! :=) :=) :=)