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a u
800; J. J. Abrams, “Pragmatism, Arti¬cial Intelligence, and Posthuman Bioethics: Shuster-
man, Rorty, Foucault,” Human Studies, 27 (2004): 241“258; and Eric Mullis, “Performative
Somaesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 40, no.4 (2006): 104“117.
Body Consciousness

turn privileges heterosexuality. Foucault also repeatedly advocated strong
“drugs, which can produce very intense pleasure,” insisting that they
“must become a part of our culture” (FL, 384; cf. 378). And boldly prac-
ticing what he preached, Foucault tested his chosen methods through
practical somasthetics by experimenting on his own ¬‚esh and with other
live bodies.
Any criticism of these methods should not ignore the particular value
of drugs and S/M for certain projects of self-care with which Foucault
was personally most concerned: projects of radical innovation, gay liber-
ation, and his own extremely problematic quest for pleasure. However,
their apparent indispensability for Foucault neither entails the exem-
plary value of these methods for others nor precludes their having nox-
ious effects if widely practiced in society. The proverb “different strokes
for different folks” af¬rms a vernacular wisdom appropriate for more
than S/M disciples. To the extent that each particular self is the unique
product of countless contingencies and different contextual factors, we
should expect and respect a certain diversity of somaesthetic methods
and goals for self-cultivation. But since our embodied selves share sig-
ni¬cant commonalities of biological makeup and societal conditioning,
there should be grounds for some generalizations about the values and
risks of different somatic methods. How could philosophy or science (or
even practical life) be possible without such generalization?

Concentrating on the methods and aims of Foucault™s pragmatic somaes-
thetics, this chapter cannot give adequate attention either to his fasci-
nating genealogical studies in analytic somaesthetics or to the enticingly
controversial details of his actual bodily practices. Our critical study of
Foucault™s pragmatic program will go, however, beyond the particular
problems of his speci¬c recommended methods, extending to broader
issues concerning his aims of pleasure and aesthetic self-fashioning and
leading to even more general worries about the value of somaesthetics as
an interpretation of philosophical self-care. The arguments of this chap-
ter could be gravely misunderstood if three important points are not kept
clearly in mind.
First, critique of a particular program or method of pragmatic somaes-
thetics does not imply a refutation or rejection of the validity and value of
this ¬eld per se, which indeed is constituted as a complex, nuanced ¬eld
of comparative critique of competing methods and goals. Conversely, to
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 31

af¬rm the value of pragmatic somaesthetics is not to advocate that all
the diverse methods that this ¬eld covers are in fact valuable and should
be adopted for practice. Indeed, since some methods are clearly incom-
patible with each other, we could not consistently endorse all of them.
Such complexity, which is shared by philosophy itself, in no way involves
a vitiating contradiction. We can certainly af¬rm the value of philoso-
phy without af¬rming the truth and value of all of its theories, just as
the condemnatory critique of a particular theory or group of theories in
philosophy does not entail a rejection of philosophy per se, but rather
constitutes an af¬rmation of philosophy as critique.
Second, the principal strategy of our study is an immanent critique
of Foucault™s pragmatic somaesthetics, not a simple repudiation of
Foucault™s general somaesthetic program because of mere distaste for
his basic aims and the desire to advocate in their place radically differ-
ent somatic and cultural values. Rather than moralizing about the prob-
lems of violent drugs and sadomasochistic sex (whose somatic, ethical,
and social dangers I do not deny), our key arguments instead show how
Foucault™s recommended methods stand in concealed but fundamental
con¬‚ict with his professed aims (such as the multiplication of somatic
pleasures and forms of self-fashioning) and thus tend to undermine a
fuller realization of these aims.
Third, our purpose is not to discredit Foucault™s theories through
ad hominem attacks that demonize his aims, methods, and personal
practices as peculiarly perverse. Instead our arguments will suggest how
Foucault™s somaesthetic program, though transgressively unconven-
tional, is nonetheless representative of distinctive trends in contemporary
culture™s approach to somatic experience that tend toward technologies
of radicalization and violent sensationalism. Before criticizing the one-
sided celebration of these tendencies in Foucault™s pragmatic somaes-
thetics, we should underline the exemplary value of Foucault™s other
contributions to somaesthetics (such as his seminal theories of biopower,
gender construction, and somatically based social domination). This is
especially important because there is a regrettable tendency in recent
Anglo-American discourse to scandalize and thus neutralize the power
of Foucault™s ideas by linking them to his early death from AIDS in 1984,
as if this death represented a performative refutation of all his somati-
cally related theories so that there should be no need for serious criti-
cal engagement with them. Such attitudes form part of a more general
strategy to demonize yet trivialize a diversity of late-twentieth-century
French theorists who are falsely lumped together under the rubric of
Body Consciousness

“postmodernism” (even when those theorists resist association with that
From such a lamentably Francophobic bias, Foucault™s advocacy of
drugs and S/M would be ridiculed and rejected as simply signifying a
nihilistic French sophisticate™s jaded taste for narcotic, sexual perversion.
We must, however, emphasize that Foucault™s declared aim is quite the
contrary: to break our obsession with sex as the key to all pleasure, to
liberate us from our culture™s repressive fetishism of sex, which blinds us
from realizing other somatic pleasures that could render life more beau-
tiful and satisfying. Rather than fanatically focusing on the pleasures of
sex and the mystery of its true nature (which unhappily brands socially
deviant sexual expressions as abjectly unnatural), we need to advocate
more generally “the reality of the body and the intensity of its pleasures.”19
“We should be striving,”, Foucault repeatedly insists, “toward a desexu-
alization, to a general economy of pleasure that would not be sexually
normed.” Condemning what he called “the monarchy of sex,” Foucault
advocates “fabricating other forms of pleasure” through “polymorphic
relationships with things, people, and bodies” for which the traditional
“˜sex™ grid is a veritable prison.”20 Foucault explicitly recommends homo-
sexual S/M not for its sexual kick but for its creative “desexualization of
pleasure” by “inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of
[the] body “ through the eroticization of the body.” S/M, he elaborates, is

a creative enterprise, which has as one of its main features what I call the
desexualization of pleasure. The idea that bodily pleasure should always
come from sexual pleasure [which] is the root of all our possible pleasure. I
think that™s something quite wrong. These practices are insisting that we can
produce pleasures with very odd things, very strange parts of our bodies, in
very unusual situations, and so on. (“Sex, Power, and Politics of Identity,”
FL, 384)

How, one may wonder, can the body and its pleasures be simultane-
ously desexualized and eroticized? The paradox is muted by recalling
that the term for sex in French also denotes the genitals, so desexualizing
somatic pleasure can simply mean undermining the primacy of genital
grati¬cation by eroticizing other body parts. Eros remains fully sexual
but no longer focused on le sexe. This displacing of “genital-centrism” is

19 Michel Foucault, “Introduction,” in Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs
of a Nineteenth Century Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall (New York: Pantheon,
1980), vii.
20 Michel Foucault, “Power Affects the Body” and “The End of the Monarchy of Sex” in

FL, 212, 214, 218“219.
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 33

clearly one of Foucault™s major aims, a point where he compellingly cri-
tiques both de Sade and Wilhelm Reich. Can bodily erotics, however, also
designate something not merely independent from genital sex, but alto-
gether free from the grid of sexual desire, something to be understood
and cultivated “under a general economy of pleasure”? This more radi-
cal form of desexualized eroticization would more fully serve Foucault™s
goal to make the body “in¬nitely more susceptible to pleasure,” by devel-
oping its capacities for varieties of somatic pleasure that transcend the
Despite the possible creative import of its transgressions, S/M remains
dominated by sex and hence overly con¬ned in its palette of plea-
sures. Foucault™s own advocatory accounts betray these limits. In “Sex-
ual Choice, Sexual Act,” gay S/M is praised because “all the energy and
imagination, which in the heterosexual relationship were channeled into
courtship, now become devoted to intensifying the act of sex itself. A whole
new art of sexual practice develops which tries to explore all the inter-
nal possibilities of sexual conduct.” Likening the gay leather scenes in
San Francisco and New York to “laboratories of sexual experimentation,”
Foucault claims such experimentation is strictly controlled by consen-
sual codes, as in the medieval chivalric courts “where strict rules of pro-
prietary courtship were de¬ned.” Experimentation is necessary, explains
Foucault, “because the sexual act has become so easy and available . . . that
it runs the risk of quickly becoming boring, so that every effort has to be
made to innovate and create variations that will enhance the pleasure of
the act.” “This mixture of rules and openness,” Foucault concludes, “has
the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual nov-
elty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty which the simple
consummation of the act lacks. The idea is also to make use of every part
of the body as a sexual instrument” (FL, 330“331).
This is hardly a promising recipe for breaking free of the sexual grid
toward a polymorphism of pleasure that Foucault claims to be seeking. All
somatic imagination is instead narrowly focused on intensifying “the sex-
ual act” and reducing every segment of the soma to a “sexual instrument.”
No matter how transgressive and experimental, Foucault™s vision of S/M
unwittingly reinforces the homogenizing normalization of pleasure as
sexual and structured by “the act” (however deviantly consummated). Its
very tools and icons of bondage (chains, ropes, whips, dungeons, etc.)
ironically convey S/M™s captivity to the sexual norm of pleasure and its
eroticizing af¬rmation of painful enslavement. The monotony of these

21 See “Friendship as a Way of Life,” FL, 310.
Body Consciousness

old-fashioned images of discipline and the creative poverty of newer ones
like Nazi “boots, caps, and eagles” do not speak well for S/M™s imaginative
daring, a problem Foucault himself admits with some dismay, for such
imaginative weakness betrays its de¬ciency for creative self-fashioning.22
His one-sided advocacy of homosexual S/M, moreover, suggests the
severe limits of a narrowly masculinist sexuality focused on violence, as if
there could not also be equally creative and pleasurable erotics express-
ing differently gendered subjectivities and desires and deploying gentler
methods of sexual contact.23 What model of erotic, ethical, and social self-
fashioning is promoted by zealous immersion in a sexual theater wholly
devoted to celebrating violence, domination, and subjugation as the best
source of pleasure? What exemplar of one™s relation to others is pro-
moted by S/M™s ¬st-fucking? The polyvalent power of eros is reduced to
an erotics of dominational power that seems to leave no place for the
somatics of loving tenderness that surely plays (along with more violent
movements) a worthy role in erotic culture both East and West.24

22 Foucault complains: “The problem raised is why we imagine today to have access to cer-
tain erotic phantasms through Nazism. Why these boots, caps, and eagles that are found
to be so infatuating, particularly in the United States? . . . Is the only vocabulary that we
possess to rewrite this great pleasure of the body in explosion this sad tale of a recent
political apocalypse? Are we unable to think the intensity of the present except as the end
of the world in a concentration camp? You see how poor our treasure of images really
is!” (“Sade: Sergeant of Sex,” FL, 188“189). Insider studies of S/M, moreover, insist that
innovational surprise and daring are narrowly constrained by elaborate codes and con-
ventions that govern the so-called theatrical “scripting” of the encounter and are aimed
more at guaranteeing safety and satisfying expectations than at providing the real shock of
the new. See, for example, G. W. Levi Kamel, “The Leather Career: On Becoming a Sado-
masochist” and “Leathersex: Meaningful Aspects of Gay Sadomasochism,” in Thomas S.
Weinberg (ed.), S&M: Studies in Dominance and Submission (Amherst, NY: Prometheus
Books, 1995), 51“60, 231“247.
23 The implied, universalized masculine subject of Foucault™s somatic philosophy is some-

times criticized by feminists for its gender blindness, while his identi¬cation of the sexual
with violence surely re¬‚ects the masculinist erotics of de Sade and Georges Bataille. For
Bataille, it is “the feeling of elemental violence which kindles every manifestation of eroti-
cism. In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation. . . . What
does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? “ a
violation bordering on death, bordering on murder? . . . The whole business of eroticism
is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal
lives,” with sexual violence serving to break through such subjectivities so as to transform
them. The presumption seems to be that self-containment and interpersonal barriers
cannot be overcome through other, gentler ways. Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary
Dalwood (London: Penguin, 2001), 16“17.
24 Foucault makes commendatory references to the ancient Asian ars erotica as focused

on pleasure in contrast to Western scientia sexualis dominated by truth and the medical
model. See Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1 (New York:
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 35

Noting these limits in S/M is not to grant exclusive privilege to so-called
standard practices of lovemaking “ straight or gay; for all such practices
share with Foucault™s version of S/M precisely the same limiting sexual
frame. My principal point here is instead to underline the importance
of cultivating somatic pleasures that altogether escape the sexual frame
and thus more widely multiply our palette of delight. Such asexual plea-
sures, which more democratically provide joy also to celibates, include
more enjoyable modes of breathing, sitting, lying, stretching, walking,
eating, as well as the enjoyment of more speci¬c modes of exercise and
disciplines of heightened bodily awareness. These asexual pleasures are
not inconsistent with sexual delight. Indeed, through both the variety
that such pleasures introduce and the somaesthetic techniques of self-
mastery through which they are pursued, they can even intensify the
sexual pleasures from which they distinguish themselves.
If con¬ned both to the sexual grid and to a very conventional (albeit
transgressive and varied) repertoire of scripted practices, how could
homosexual S/M win Foucault™s ardent endorsement as the somaesthetic
key to creating a radically new (even “unforseeable”) way of life and self-
stylized ethical subject? First, S/M™s distinctively cultural character “ with
its challenge to the natural conception of sex and its theatrical play-
ing of reversible roles “ suggests that our erotic pleasures are socially
constructed. Moreover, it inculcates two crucial Foucauldian messages:
that our selves are not ¬xed ontological identities (naturally de¬ned
by a physically determined and determinate sex in terms of one™s sex-
ual organs) but are instead socially constructed roles that we play with
respect to others; and, therefore, that we can to some extent refashion
ourselves by deliberately adopting different role-playing performances.
But perhaps Foucault™s strongest reason for advocating S/M was the lived,
intense hedonic power of his actual experience. What does it matter if

Pantheon, 1980), 57“71; and his “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in
Progress” ¬rst published in English in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds., Michel
Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1983), but revised by Foucault in a more complete French version published in his Dits
et Ecrits, vol. 2: 1976“1988 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 1428“1450. Unfortunately, his brief
remarks on these erotic arts (which are extremely remote from gay S/M) suggest that his
understanding of them was rather limited, for he even seems to misconstrue the main


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