Archive for the ‘ Body Politics ’ Category

Annotation: Michel Foucault’s “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” (1990)

Peer-Review: 0

Foucault, Michel. “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 135-159. Print.

In this essay Foucault discusses the historical changes in sovereign power as the absolute “right to decide life and death” eventually came to be conditioned by exceptional circumstances where the sovereign’s life was threatened (135). In these instances, he would be able to “legitimately wage war, and require his subjects to take part in the defense of the state; without ‘directly proposing their death’” (135). Foucault asserts that in modern times sovereign power “as the ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live” (136). The sovereign exercises his power over life through the deaths that he can command and exercises his power over death by the lives he can spare. Foucault accentuates that in this framework power is exerted according to the model of “deduction, a subtraction mechanism,” that “culminate[s] in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it” (136). He notes, however, that since then power in the West has undergone a radical transformation.

No longer a deductive force that attempts to “suppress” life with the threat of death, now “power…exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137). Foucault calls attention to how wars have ceased to be waged in the name of an individual sovereign but rather for the defense and survival of whole populations. He emphasizes that modern states exercise power in this manner, stressing life even as they expose their subjects to death. Foucault asserts “that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death (138). He notes that because power can only exerts its influence over life, “death is power’s limit” (138). Foucault explains that suicide, as an individual, private act, subverts power, and classifying it as a crime is power’s grasping attempt to manage life.

He goes on to describe how “power over life evolved in two basic forms” since the 17th century (139). Foucault describes how the first form is “centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities…the parallel increases of its usefulness and its docility, [and] its integration into systems of efficient and economic control” (139). He groups all of these mechanisms of power under the heading of “disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body” (139). Foucault asserts that the second form is “focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality…life expectancy and longevity” (139). These mechanism he groups under the heading of “regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population” (139). Foucault emphasizes that power mobilizes to discipline the human body and regulate populations, giving rise to a “great bipolar technology—anatomic and biological” that works towards “invest[ing] life through and through” (139).

He further notes how this “bio-power” has been instrumental to the rise and expansion of capitalism. Foucault insists that the success of this economic system “would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (141). Capitalism, which demands growth—the creation of new markets, the production of more goods and capital, etc—ultimately relies on a power capable of fostering, optimizing, and regulating life rather than death (141).

Foucault argues that modernity is marked by mankind’s development of political measures to specifically maintain and perpetuate its own existence. But he suggests that one important consequence of “bio-power” is the normalization of power beyond the formal legal system. He asserts that “law operates more and more as a norm, and that the juridical institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (144). Foucault further notes how the right to life has become the underlining demand of most political struggles.

He finally concludes his essay with a discussion of how sex has gained so much political significance within this schema of power because it is tied to both “the disciplines of the body” and “the regulation of population,” a “means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species (145, 146). Foucault goes on to offer a fascinating argument about the management of sexuality and deployment of sex, which I have chosen not to go into detail about here.

Annotation: Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s “Good Politics, Great Porn” (2003)

Peer-Review: 0

Tu, Thuy Linh Nguyen. “Good Politics, Great Porn: Untangling Race, Sex, and Technology in Asian American Cultural Productions.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 267-280. Print.

In this essay Tu discusses how the online porn industry thrives from the presence and representation of Asian bodies. She emphasizes that contrary to claims about cyberspace as virtual and immaterial, web industries such as porn reaffirm that bodies really do matter online. Porn sites, in fact, make gender and race hyper-visible as users are encouraged to input these qualities in their search for a desired sexual object. Tu reveals that the online porn industry also problematically reinforces and perpetuates Orientalist notions about Asian women, “that they are exotic and hold limitless sexual knowledge, yet docile and eager to please” (268). With the Internet as the vehicle of information transmission, these stereotypes and fantasies regarding Asian women are even more troublingly circulated to a mass global audience.

Yet Tu does not view the Internet as merely a vehicle of oppression as she notes the work of people such as Mimi Nguyen. She deliberately names and describes her site, “Exoticize This,” in provocative terms to jam and disrupt digital pathways, redirecting users looking for porn to a web page that discusses Asian American feminist issues. Kristina Wong’s mock porn site,, strives to further a similar project as Nguyen, by displaying Asian female bodies that do not correspond to Orientalist fantasies, ultimately shattering those myths. Tu in addition describes Bindigirl, a fascinating work of digital art by Prema Murthy. She notes that in the bio of this pornographic Asian female avatar, Bindi recognizes her hyper-sexualization and the failure of technology to liberate her. Bindi’s pointed awareness of herself as a sexual object leads her to demand money from her viewers, which can be interpreted as some kind of resistance. Murthy’s use of CU-SeeMe technology, which requires people who view her art to specifically interact with it and become a part of the performance is also displaces users from the usual position of passive voyeur to literally experience how it feels to be watched and recorded. While Tu ultimately celebrates the work of these individuals who are introducing much-need politicized art to the Web, she also recognizes the potential danger of these artists relying on irony and humor to convey their messages, which can be easily misinterpreted.

Annotation: Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s “Assembling Asian American Men in Pornography” (2010)

Peer-Review: 0

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. “Assembling Asian American Men in Pornography: Shattering the Self Toward Ethical Manhoods.” Journal of Asian American Studies 13.3 (June 2010): 163-189. Print.

Analyzing two Asian American 2004 porn films–Darrell Hamamoto’s “Yellowcaust” and David Hou’s “Masters of the Pillow”–Shimizu underscores the risks and dangers in current projects of pornographic production that aim to reclaim Asian American sexual representation.  Producing these porn films to counter dominant representations of Asian American masculinity as lacking, the filmmakers privilege heteronormativity and same-race coupling.  Within these problematic frameworks, Asian American masculinity is privileged and defined through the domination of Asian American women–reclaiming them from interracial couplings on-screen–and rejecting queer and asexual Asian American men; of course, lesbians are once again excluded from this equation.  Shimizu argues that the visibility of Asian American men in such porn productions upholds gender hierarchies and heteronormativity; consequently, such representations ironically reinforce notions of Asian American masculinity as lacking and destructively closes off possibilities for exploring and representing sexualities beyond binaristic norms.

According to Hamamoto, dominant images in the media and in porn shape our desire for whiteness and instigate our self-hatred.  Framing Asian Americans as victims within structures of white power, he calls for the assertion of Asian American masculinity over Asian American women “as redemptive of racial wounding” (168).  Shimizu argues, however, that such a reading is overly simplistic and neglects to consider the complex dynamics in which the viewers process their consumption of porn.  She further critiques simplistic assessments of visibility which posit that the mere representation of opposite-sex Asian American couplings in porn is revolutionary.  On the contrary, Shimizu underscores the need for critical analyses of “gendered power” in such porn productions that deny Asian American women their sexual agency and portray gayness as undesirable (170).  Portraying heterosexual sex acts as “the actual order of things,” the filmmakers impose their own meanings through these films and deny viewers the ability to participate with representations as sites in which other possibilities for sexuality may be negotiated (173).

By “shattering of the self,” Shimizu calls for challenging dominant linkages between sex acts and identities such as penetration symbolizing masculinity.  She stresses the opportunity for reconstructing notions of self by first deconstructing such destructive linkages.  One means of doing so is understanding and deconstructing the different forms of sexualization based on gender and their manifestation on screen through porn.  For Asian American women in porn, Shimizu argues that they “use the tools of their subjugation to recast and rewrite their roles” whereas men assert domination over women (180).  The two porn films, Shimizu argues, reinforces notions of sexuality as inherent and coherent.  Therefore, their mission is for men to reassert their (coherent) sexuality over their victimization.  This emphasis and claim of a coherent masculinity as the key for liberation of Asian Americans as a whole represents male narcissism, which Shimizu connects to Hamamoto’s own capitalist ambitions of constructing a porn empire (which would necessitate the presence of Asian American male subjects).

The framing of sexuality as whole and purely in terms of domination and power represses understandings of sexuality as a production that could be negotiated.  In debunking this notion of wholeness and self, Shimizu calls for a productive discourse surrounding sexuality.  Shifted away from concepts of power, we may then redefine masculinity in terms of “ethical manhoods” to stress sexuality as an ethics of care toward the self and toward others.  This necessitates a clearer understanding of power and privilege among individuals, including Asian American men.  Instead of seeing themselves as mere victims, they must understand and acknowledge their own privileges and the powers that their actions may assert.