labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet /décembre / 2014  -julho/dezembro 2014


The Politics of Gendered Violence: A Foucauldian Approach

Johanna Oksala



The article studies the relationships between power, violence, and the subject through a discussion of violence against women. It is my contention that a Foucauldian approach to gendered violence accomplishes two things: it refuses to explain men’s violence against women in terms of inherent male aggression, yet it makes it possible to argue that it is not just incidental, but has structural and large-scale political aspects. Foucault drew a distinction between power and violence, but argued that the rationalities upholding practices of domination were often compatible with practices of violence. Culturally and historically contingent practices of violence must furthermore be understood as constitutive of specific forms of the subject. I will also problematize the possibility of providing any ahistorical or context-free definitions of violence. The example of domestic violence demonstrates that the very question of what is defined as and what counts as violence are central issues in politics.

key-words:power, violence,women, Foucault


While violence against women is a widely acknowledged problem of global magnitude, theoretically the question of the relationship between gender and violence remains complex, contentious, and emotionally charged. This holds true not only in our culture at large, but also within feminist theory. The positions in the feminist discussion vary widely and are characterized by provocative rhetoric and, perhaps due to the empirical nature of most of the research, strong personal involvement. At the same time the theoretical premises underlying the debate are surprisingly vague and underdeveloped. In contrast to the large amount of empirical research on domestic violence, for example, there is astonishingly little philosophical discussion on the topic. While numerous feminists have appropriated Foucault’s understanding of power, for example, the implications of his views on violence have been studied relatively little.

It is my contention that feminist theory needs to find ways to theorize forms of gendered violence, such as domestic violence, as political violence without reducing them to a manifestation of some kind of war between the sexes or as the unchanging foundation of patriarchy. In order to understand in what sense men’s violence against women could be understood as political we must attempt to understand the nature of men’s power over women and its relationship to violence. In other words, how is male domination—a fact that all feminists appear to agree on—related to violence? The key question in feminist debates on gendered violence has been whether male violence is essential or only instrumental in the process in which gender difference becomes constituted as gender hierarchy. I will show that this way of posing the question of male domination and violence is misleading. We have to ask a more fundamental question of whether violence is constitutive of gender difference in itself.

 The idea that violence against women is the foundation of patriarchy was implicit in many of the radical feminist texts of the early 1970s. It was clearly asserted by Susan Brownmiller in her classic book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975). Brownmiller argued that the threat of sexual violence was a way of intimidating and thereby curtailing the activities of all women, even those who had never personally been the victims of it. It was essentially terrorizing: the violence perpetrated against a few women was an effective way of exercising power over many.

The anti-patriarchal arguments following Brownmiller rest on the premise that men’s violence against women should be understood not as incidental or as an expression of personal pathology, but as essential for the maintenance of patriarchal power. Drawing on research that demonstrates the historical and systematic nature of male violence, these feminists have contended that violence is part of the system of coercive control through which men maintain dominance over women. Male dominance is founded on a continuum of force ranging from misogynistic murder to rape, battery, and sexual harassment. Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft (1996), for example, sum up the idea provocatively by writing: “Battering can no more be explained by proximate causes or characteristics of participants than can lynching be explained by the characteristics of the lynch mob or its victims” (Stark and Flitcraft 1996: 26).

In today’s political climate such anti-patriarchal analyses are rapidly losing ground, however. Researchers from other substantive traditions, family sociology for example, have argued that feminist scholars who focus on the importance of patriarchy in their explanations of phenomena such as domestic violence ignore the impact of other factors such as income, unemployment, and age. Gender is just one variable in a complex constellation of causes. These writers contend that violence is primarily linked to socio-demographic positions: both men and women who occupy low-status positions within the economic structure of society are more likely to perpetrate violence (e.g. Anderson 1997: 659).

The growing awareness of women-to-women sexual violence has also forced feminists to question the relationship between gender and violence further. Lori Girshick argues in her pioneering sociological study, Woman-to-Woman Sexual Violence: Does She Call It Rape? (2002), that lesbian partner violence is approximating the same frequency and the same abuse types as heterosexual marital violence.[1] Girshick notes that if she had substituted the pronoun “he” for the “she” in the stories she collected, she is certain that every reader would have thought that they were about heterosexual marital sexual abuse (Girshick 2002: 65). According to her, this suggests that feminist analyses have been wrong all along. Instead of gender privilege being the source of power and control for men, power and control are equal-opportunity variables, available to both women and men (ibid.: 99).

Philosophically the crucial question in this debate concerns the way we understand the relationship between power and violence. While researchers at one end of the spectrum, such as Girshick, assume that this relationship is incidental, in the anti-patriarchal analyses, on the other hand, it is presupposed that the true nature of male power is ultimately violence. The theoretical question I therefore suggest that we have to ask is this: is male violence inseparable from male domination, or is the relationship between male domination and violence external? It is my contention that the answer to this specific question will also help us to understand the connections between power and violence more generally.

The Rationality of Violence

At first glance it seems that a Foucaultian perspective does not lend any support to anti-patriarchal analyses. Foucault explicitly distinguished power from violence and denied that the essence of power would be violence.  In his seminal essay “Subject and Power” from 1982 Foucault poses the classic question of political philosophy—the same one as Hannah Arendt did in On Violence, for example—namely whether violence is simply the ultimate form of power: “that which in the final analysis appears as its real nature when it is forced to throw aside its mask and to show itself as it really is” (Foucault 1982: 220). He also follows Arendt in his negative reply, and puts forward an oppositional view of the relationship between power and violence. They are opposites in the sense that where one rules absolutely the other is absent: “Where the determining factors saturate the whole there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains” ( ibid.: 221).

Foucault distinguishes power from violence by arguing that a power relationship is a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others, but rather acts upon their actions: it is a set of actions upon other actions. This means, first, that the one over whom power is exercised is thoroughly recognized as a subject, as a person who acts. Second, he or she must be free, meaning here that when faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of possibilities—responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions—may open up and be realized. Violence, on the other hand, acts directly and immediately on the body. It is not an action upon an action of a subject, but an action upon a body or things. Foucault now also criticizes the war model that he had utilized in his lectures Society Must Be Defended in 1976 by writing that the relationship proper to power should not be sought “on the side of violence or of struggle, nor on that of voluntary linking (all of which can, at best, only be the instruments of power), but rather in the area of the singular mode of action, neither warlike nor juridical, which is government” (Foucault 1982: 221).

While many feminists have noted that the characterization of society as a whole as a patriarchy is too totalizing and static a notion, Foucault’s view on power seems to further undermine the usefulness of this conceptualization.[2] Against such a total view of monolithic power held by a clearly identifiable group, Foucault argues that power relations form a dense network that traverses the whole of society. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, for example, Foucault famously suggested that we should not start by looking for the center of power, or for the individuals, institutions, or classes that rule. Instead we should construct a “microphysics of power” that analyzed it at the extremities: in families, workplaces, everyday practices, and marginal institutions. Power relations should be viewed from the bottom up and not from the top down because power comes from below (Foucault 1978: 94).

Thinking according to the formula of a generalized patriarchy and its interests means reducing the multiplicity and variety of power relations to a simplistic opposition between two groups. We need to study the myriad ways in which subjects are constituted in different but intersecting networks of power, and must not be seduced into thinking that power functions only through repression and negation. The subordination of women consists of numerous micro-practices of male domination that operate through different mechanisms and affect different individuals in different ways.[3]

We can also appropriate Foucault’s late emphasis on governmental rationality to the question of gender oppression. He took as one example of a governmental practice—understood in a broad sense as the control and regulation of an individual’s conduct—the power exerted by men over women, and noted explicitly that it did not involve instrumental violence.

As for all relations among men, many factors determine power. Yet rationalization is also constantly working away at it. There are specific forms to such rationalization. It differs from the rationalization peculiar to economic processes, or to production and communication techniques; it differs from that of scientific discourse. The government of men by men—whether they form small or large groups, whether it is power exerted by men over women, or by adults over children, or by one class over the other, or by a bureaucracy over a population—involves a certain type of rationality. It doesn’t involve instrumental violence. (Foucault 2000: 324)

Foucault’s view here seems to explicitly support a gender-neutral view on violence: men have power over women in our society, but their power is not based on or upheld by violence. To govern is not to physically determine the conduct of passive objects. Government involves rationality, offering reasons for the governed to do what they are told, and this means that they can also question these reasons. Neither is male domination a static feature of society: it consists of a dynamic network of practices that always incorporate resistance. While power relations thus permeate the whole body of society, they are denser in some areas and less dense in others. There is no patriarchy understood as a rigid system of coercive controls. Society is a fluid network of changing power relations traversed by resistance.

A more careful reading of Foucault’s writings on power and violence complicates the picture, however. He argued that even though power relations were essentially fluid and reversible, what usually characterized power was that these relationships had become stabilized through institutions. This means that the mobility of power relations is limited, and that there are strongholds that are difficult to suppress because they have been institutionalized in courts, codes, and so on. In other words, the strategic relations between people have become rigid (Foucault 1997, 169).

In one of his final interviews in 1984 he also distinguished between power as strategic relationships between individuals and power as states of domination. Strategic relationships refer to the ways in which individuals try to determine the conduct of others, and they are not necessarily harmful in any way as long as they are reversible and based on mutual consent. States of domination, on the other hand, refer to situations in which individuals are unable to overturn or alter the power relations (Foucault 1997, 229). While Foucault argued that power as a strategic relationship could be clearly demarcated from violence, he held that domination and violence, on the other hand, were often essentially coupled. As Thomas Flynn (2005, 244–45, 250) writes, for Foucault, all violence is attached to relations of power, but not all relations of power necessarily entail violence. It is rather the species of power that Foucault calls “domination,” and which Flynn labels “negative” power, with which violence is necessarily associated.

Patriarchal power, or power of men over women in our society, provides clear examples of institutionalized and rigid power relations or states of domination. The ongoing feminist struggles have made it obvious that the subordination of women is difficult to eradicate because it is often codified in economic and institutional structures. The fluidity and reversibility of the individual power relations between men and women have, in many cases, been effectively blocked. In a situation in which a woman is unable to leave her violent husband because of economic reasons and child care arrangements, for example, the power relation is clearly a form of domination that is, furthermore, linked with violence.

Moreover, Foucault’s analyses of governmental rationalities open up a wider perspective on the issue of gendered violence. The practices and institutions of power are always enabled, regulated, and justified by a specific form of reasoning or rationality. The analytics of power technologies concentrates not only on the mechanisms of power, but also on the rationality that is part of the practices of governing. It is important to point out that while practices of power have rationality, so do practices of violence. Foucault repeatedly emphasized that there was no incompatibility between violence and rationality, but “what is most dangerous about violence is its rationality” (Foucault 2001: 803).

On this basis we could argue that what is most dangerous about gendered violence are those aspects of it that make it look like perfectly rational behavior. Even though male domination and male violence against women should not be theoretically conflated, feminist analysis must study the extent to which rationalities upholding male domination and those supporting forms of male violence against women are interrelated, mutually supportive, or even identical. When a form of rationality according to which a husband’s responsibility is to provide for but also to control his wife and children is coupled with the acceptance of physical force as a means of control, for example, the patterns of domestic violence are set. The rationalization of domestic violence is often not an attempt to legitimize violence as such, but is rather an attempt to legitimize men’s hierarchical control of women. Kathleen Ferraro (1993, 165), for example, has shown that historically violence is recognized and condemned most often when it violates existing power and institutional hierarchies. Violence inflicted by dominant groups, such as white, male property owners, against their subordinates, such as slaves, wives, and children, has been rationalized and accepted as socially necessary and morally just.

From a Foucaultian perspective, therefore, it is important to take seriously the feminist insight that inequality between men and women is a key factor in explaining phenomena such as domestic violence. The belief that women and children should fall under the social authority and economic responsibility of men upholds both practices of male domination and practices of male violence against women and children. Domestic violence is effectively depoliticized when it is viewed in gender-neutral terms and reduced to an individual pathology. What is required is a careful analysis of the functioning, maintenance, and legitimacy of the power technologies on which it rests. To view domestic violence as a political question does not imply treating it as a monolithic phenomenon of men as a class intimidating and violating women as a class. It consists of varied and specific practices of violence operating according to specific rationalities.

To conclude this section, I have suggested that we should try to think of gendered violence in Foucaultian terms, as historically constituted practices with context-dependent rationalities, ends, and means. Foucault drew a distinction between power and violence, but argued that the rationalities upholding practices of domination were often compatible with practices of violence. This emphasis on rationality makes it possible to argue that men’s violence against women is not just incidental, but has structural and large-scale political aspects, without reducing power to forms of violence. We should not view domestic violence, for example, as irrational acts signifying a pathological personality and loss of control. From a Foucaultian perspective, domestic violence is a specific practice upheld by specific power relations and a specific rationality.

This suggests that, despite Girshick’s claim that lesbian partner violence is essentially identical to heterosexual family violence in being primarily a form of control, the rationalities and the attached cultural meanings are not identical. Just as butch and femme couples are not copies of heterosexual couples, neither is lesbian partner violence a copy of heterosexual marital violence. This does not mean that it is any less painful or any less serious as a social problem. As Girshick notes, in many ways it is more serious because of the lack of appropriate services for the victims, for example. The fundamental difference lies on the level of rationality, however. It lacks an important form of legitimization, namely the historical and cultural framework that sees men’s natural role to be the head of the family whose responsibility is to provide for, but also to control, his wife and children. Limiting the discussion on partner violence to gender-neutral and individual, psychological explanations means excluding the important feminist task of contesting this framework.

Foucault’s thought should also alert us to the danger of uncritically embracing anti-patriarchal analyses. As Girshick’s study shows, women are not only and always the victims of violence, they are sometimes the perpetrators of it. Domestic violence is not a monolithic phenomenon of men as a class intimidating and violating women as a class. Neither is all male power over women ultimately reducible to violence or even to the threat of it. In fact, most of the everyday manifestations and instruments of male domination in our society do not involve any kind of violence or force. At the same time, they are extremely effective in keeping women in a subordinate position and reinforcing men’s superior social status.

The Constituted Subject

While Foucault’s understanding of power, domination, and violence thus provides crucial conceptual insights into the ways that power relations between men and women function and are upheld, his analysis nevertheless appears to have an important lacuna when it comes to theorizing the structural connections between male power and violence.

Whether we look at violent crime statistics or prime-time television, it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that men have a monopoly on violence in our culture. Men’s use of violence is not only tolerated, it is actively encouraged in many contexts. The same is not true for women—a violent woman is an aberration. In our culture idealized forms of masculinity importantly contain at least some capacity for violence: it is generally accepted that there are situations in which a man must be able to stand up for himself and his family and use physical force. In contrast, idealized forms of femininity do not typically include the competence to engage in physical combat. This means that practices of violence become culturally constitutive of our understanding of the gender difference itself.

Even if we argue that violence must be theoretically demarcated from power, domination is nevertheless often coupled with it. It is characterized by the fact that either the actual use or the threat of violence is often the ultimate means by which the relationship is established and maintained. When it comes to analyzing power, therefore, it is not irrelevant which social group has the monopoly on the use of violence.

The question could be formulated in terms of the distinction between power-over and power-to. Amy Allen argues in her seminal book The Power of Feminist Theory (1999) that despite many of its undeniable merits, Foucault’s conception of power is ultimately inadequate for feminist theory because of its exclusive understanding of power as power-over. The feminist interest in empowerment and resistance requires that we also understand power in a second sense, as power-to. Power-to is understood as a capacity that individuals have to do something rather than a dominance that is wielded over others. Allen emphasizes the importance of this second sense of power mainly in order to theorize empowerment. She argues that feminists must be able to account for empowerment and solidarity in order to understand how members of subordinated groups—such as women—retain the power to act despite their subordination.

We could argue, however, that the same also holds true in the opposite sense. In connection with violence, power understood as power-to would make it possible to understand why women sometimes lack the power to act and engage in forms of resistance against their subordination. They do not have the same capacity to use violence that men have, and this has concrete implications for their abilities and sense of empowerment. Many feminist theorists have contended that to be a woman in our society means that one’s life is circumscribed and controlled by the threat and fear of violence. An important aspect of men’s domination and sense of power over women, on the other hand, is the potential use of violence.

It is true that Foucault insisted that power was a relation: power-over in the sense that it always entailed relations between individuals and groups. He noted: “Let us not deceive ourselves: if we speak of structures or mechanisms of power, it is only insofar as we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others. The term ‘power’ designates relationships between partners” (Foucault 1982: 217). Capacity, on the other hand, refers to a force that we exert over things, our ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them. Violence is thus clearly a capacity in this sense, it is a force we exert over bodies and things, and it must therefore be demarcated from power.

Foucault’s refusal to theorize power as a capacity of the subject can be read as a consequence of his denial of the subject as the foundation and the starting point of philosophical analysis. We must instead adopt a relational analysis of power that does not start with a pre-given conception of the subject, but understands the subject’s capabilities as effects of power relations. Abandoning the deeply rooted framework of subject philosophy thus means that the distinction between power-over and power-to is misleading if we try to apply it to Foucault’s thought. Power in Foucault’s understanding is not power-over any more than it is power-to if the distinction relies on a fixed understanding of the subject. It means overlooking the crucial feature of his understanding of power: its constitutive relationship to the subject.

Foucault’s fundamental and radical critique of the subject did not amount to the abandonment or the denial of it. The rethinking and reconceptualization of the subject rather meant that the subject was at the center of his work. He claimed that to be a subject, a socially recognized individual with intelligible intentions, capabilities, desires, and actions, was only possible within the power/knowledge networks of society. All identities and subject positions are constituted through practices of power and knowledge. Rather than existing between subjects with predetermined identities, power relations are constitutive of the subjects themselves. We only become gendered subjects, for example, through specific discourses and relationships of power. From a Foucaultian perspective therefore, the key feminist question is not whether male violence is instrumental in the process in which gender difference becomes constituted as gender hierarchy. We have to ask the more fundamental question of whether violence is constitutive of gender difference in itself.

Foucault’s focus on practices rather than on the subject means that not only should violence be thought of as a practice, so should gender. If violence is something we do, so is gender. Judith Butler made this point most famously in Gender Trouble (1990), arguing that gender is an accomplishment that is continually enacted and performed. We construct the illusion of a stable and natural gender core by taking part and reiterating the normative practices of our culture that are appropriate to one’s sex category. Gendered subjectivity is constituted through the practices that form the power/knowledge networks of society.

As for my question of gendered violence, the essential idea is that practices of violence and practices of gender overlap in significant ways: practices of violence are an important means for doing masculinity in our culture. Boys are not merely taught to express aggression: they must do or accomplish masculinity by participating in practices of violence. James Messerschmidt, for example, has studied the connection between violence and the social production and reproduction of masculinities in his criminological study Masculinities and Crime (1993). He argues that masculinity is accomplished, it is not something done to men or something settled beforehand. Masculinities are constructed through practices that maintain certain types of relationships between men and women and among men. Idealized forms of masculinity are, furthermore, always constructed in a specific historical setting. Masculinity is defined in contemporary Western industrialized societies, for example, through work in the paid-labor market, heterosexism, competitive individuality and independence, and also, importantly, through the capacity for violence. This implies that practices of violence are an important means for doing masculinity. Moreover, they constitute a major resource that may be summoned when men lack other resources with which to accomplish gender (Messerschmidt 1993: 82–85).

Despite Foucault’s bracketing of the question of the subject’s capabilities in his analysis of power, the constitutive relationship between power and the subject means that analyzing forms of the subject is essential for understanding the functioning of power. Given the different ways that male and female subjectivities are constituted in our culture, a substantial difference in their capabilities is culturally built into the very forms of gendered subjectivities: gender difference is largely marked as the difference between those who are capable and, to a certain extent, socially sanctioned to use violence and those who are not. As Messerschmidt shows, male subjectivity is constructed and performed through the participation in violent practices. Female subjectivity, correspondingly, must be understood as a performance that is accomplished by displaying nurturing and caring behavior, for example. Feminist psychologists have demonstrated that gender differences in aggression, for example, appear after children develop a sense of gender identity, when male children increase their aggression and female children start to inhibit their aggressive reactions (e.g. Fagot, Leinbach, and Hagan 1986).

This is obviously highly relevant in terms of the institutionalization and stabilization of power relations: violence or the threat of violence establishes and transforms power relations into states of domination. As long as violence, understood as a social practice, is an essential and a socially sanctioned means for doing masculinity and not femininity, gender difference in itself is already a gender hierarchy.

The consequences of this insight for feminist theory are somewhat pessimistic. As the question of feminist empowerment cannot be reduced to the capabilities of the subject, the solution to the problem of gendered violence cannot be merely to increase women’s capabilities, simply to teach women combat skills, for example. The major challenge facing our culture is to sever the strong link between practices of violence and the construction of masculinity. This would be the crucial step towards not only a more peaceful society, but also gender equality. The optimistic consequence, on the other hand, of Foucault’s understanding of power and violence is that a radical transformation of power relations without violence is possible. Because power is never reducible to violence we do not have to teach women combat skills or to hand them weapons. The feminist movement, for the most part, could instead be viewed as a model for a remarkably successful but nonviolent liberation struggle.[4]

In sum, it is important to acknowledge that power and violence can be deeply connected not just on the level of cultural practices, but also on the level of the subject understood as the effect of those practices: practices of violence are importantly constitutive of forms of subjectivity. Because violence is often the ultimate threat through which a power relation is established and upheld, it is not insignificant what those forms are. The fact that in our culture practices of violence are highly gendered has important consequences for the power relations between men and women, as well as for the way gender difference itself is experienced. The way we do violence—the norms governing participation in violent and nonviolent practices—must be understood as an important factor in the process that establishes the difference between idealized forms of masculinity and femininity.

Feminist Critiques of Violence

I want to finish by briefly considering the implications that the Foucaultian perspective on violence has for feminist critiques of violence. It is my contention that it should caution us against constructing critiques that simply denounce violence, or that directly or indirectly revert to some form of essentialism by simply placing the blame for it on the fact that the perpetrators are male. The feminist aim must rather be to uncover the implicit, and sometimes explicit, rationality that upholds gendered practices of violence. This means treating with suspicion all general and context-free definitions of it.

When we analyze power on the level of individual acts we are often able to make fairly clear distinctions between acts of power and acts of violence. When we move to the level of governmental practices, however, the distinction becomes more problematic. One of Foucault’s seminal models for thinking about power was the notion of a game: relations of power were played, and it was these games of power that one had to study in terms of tactics and strategy ( Foucault 2001, 534–51). In our attempts to think of the power network as a practice or a game, we have to analyze both the implicit as well as the explicit rules to which the practice conforms. On this level it is difficult to start with a clear distinction between violence and power because the rules, to a large extent, determine what is understood as acts of power or as acts of violence in the specific game. Moreover, different rules or rationalities are compatible with different forms of violence.

Take the game of ice hockey, for example. To anyone not familiar with the rules and aims, it probably appears to be a succession of random acts of violence. It is only when one understands the rules and the aims that one is able to classify the actions of the individual players as either legitimate moves or punishable acts of violence. Similarly, we could argue in the case of domestic violence that it is only in a certain cultural and historical context that it even exists. Forms of behavior that we now conceptualize as domestic violence have only very recently been understood as forms of violence at all. Indeed, the very term “domestic violence” is fairly recent, and has been deemed a highly problematic notion by many feminists.[5]

Jeff Hern (1996) notes that in the United Kingdom, for example, the legal reform that made men’s violence against women within marriage a crime came into force as late as 1878, two years after the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Prior to 1878, the “rule of thumb” had operated in the courts, whereby husbands were not permitted to use a stick broader than a thumb. Despite the reform, in practice there was little shift in the nature of men’s authority over women in marriage. Their day-to-day domination was routinely reinforced by the state in its avoidance of police intervention in so-called “marital disputes.” Violence by husbands against wives represented a form of social control legitimated by conventional law and morality. Even when it became judicially recognized as a form of violence, in practice it continued to be conceived of as marital disputes.

Hern (1996: 25) argues that in attempting to make sense of the connections between gender relations and violence it is thus important to consider the problem in a historical context. This applies in particular to understanding how men’s violence against women has been accepted, condoned, normalized, and ignored by both individuals and institutions. It is only by considering the dismal historical context of men’s violence to women that it becomes possible to understand the way in which men generally perceive and define violence in everyday contexts. As far as men who are violent to women are concerned, the construction of what is meant by violence is part of the problem. The naming and defining of violence is a social rather than a natural process, and attempts at all-inclusive definitions have to be treated with caution because they are located in gendered social processes. The process of contesting definitions of violence is thus an essential element of critiques and interventions related to it. (Hern 1996: 27–29)

Hence, my claim is that, on the basis of Foucault’s analytics of power, it is ultimately impossible to secure any categorical, context-free definition of violence. On the contrary, the implication is that we must be wary of all such definitions. We must be mindful of Nietzsche’s assertion that “only that which is without history can be defined” (Nietzsche 1996, 60). All definitions of violence must be understood as political acts, and their extension and validity must be open to constant contestation. In my view, Foucault’s legacy is ultimately not so much in providing us with a philosophically accurate distinction between power and violence, but rather in demonstrating how all definitions and social objectivities, including the significance of violence, are constituted in power/knowledge networks, and are therefore matters of contestation and struggle.

Feminist analyses and critiques of violence must therefore take extremely seriously the political effects of their own discourse and definitions. The ability to name something a form of violence—as the example of domestic violence shows—is an effective way of politicizing an issue. In my view, this should not imply that we should call all forms of injustice that women face violence, however: on the contrary, it should be a reason to abstain from using definitions that are too broad. I would thus argue against feminist critiques of violence that insist on an integrated analysis covering not only its physical forms, but also forms of symbolic and structural violence, as well as extremely varied forms of social injustice and harassment.

Carol Sheffield, for example, has studied women’s experiences of obscene telephone calls as a form of male violence against women. She argues that such an integrated analysis rests on the theoretical premise that violence and its threat are the foundation of male domination. She calls this system sexual terrorism: men and boys frighten, and by frightening they dominate and control women and girls (Sheffield 1993: 73).

I do not want to belittle the harm that such harassment causes to women, but in my view, an integrated analysis means losing a clear analytical focus on the issue of power as well as violence—phenomena that are already complex and diffuse enough. Sexist practices and institutions that are intimidating, competitive, hierarchical, non-democratic, and essentially unjust are not therefore also necessarily violent.  To claim that means treating them as partaking in some kind of general substance of violence rather than being specific practices with specific rationalities. I therefore contend that we should try to be as exact as possible in our analysis and criticism of violence—for theoretical, but also moral reasons. People who have experienced serious physical violence could find an integrated analysis deeply insulting. My choice of opting for a very narrow working definition of violence as intentional bodily harm in feminist analysis should be understood against this background. I do not want to exclude other possible and theoretically fruitful definitions of violence or deny their validity categorically. However, it is my contention that for the important feminist task of exposing the mechanisms of male domination as well as gendered forms of violence, it is counterproductive to view all forms of domination on a continuum of violence. When everything is violence, then nothing is.


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[1] Girshick conducted a nationwide survey in the United States based on in-depth interviews with seventy women, and documented what happened to them, how they responded, and whether they received any help to cope with the emotional impact of their assault. The incidents ranged from acquaintance rape and sexual abuse by partners to sexual harassment in the workplace.

[2] To the extent that feminist analyses of patriarchy are modeled on Marxist analyses, Foucault’s views could be read as a direct attack on them in that both patriarchy and capitalism are conceived of as monolithic and total systems of oppression. While power relations are conceptualized in Marxist analyses as an antagonistic relation between two preexisting classes defined in terms of economics, feminist analyses of patriarchy appropriate this model by understanding women as a class that is controlled by men as a class. Women’s access to employment, education, reproductive choices, health care, and physical safety is controlled by the ruling class, namely men. Individual acts of male violence against women are further understood as gender-class actions over women. See, e.g., Bart and Moran 1993.

[3] Susan Bordo (1993, 190), for example, contends that Foucault’s re-conceptualization of power provides significant improvements over the “old” feminist oppressor/oppressed model that tended to subsume all patriarchal institutions and practices under it. This model provided no alternative to viewing women as passive victims, thereby reproducing the notion of female passivity. Neither did it provide ways of adequately theorizing the complexities of the situations of men, who frequently found themselves implicated in practices and institutions that they as individuals did not create or control.

[4] There are very few feminist texts advocating violence against men. Perhaps the most radical example is SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. Solanas later claimed that the text was intended as ironic, however. See Solanas 1996.

[5] Stark and Flitcraft (1996, 25), for example, argue that domestic or family violence is a problematic notion because it implies that what is to be explained is a private event. “Violence against women,” on the other hand, is problematic because it refers to a trans-historical phenomenon. They advocate the term “woman battering,” and argue that it refers to “a historically specific constellation of structural, cultural, and psychodynamic forces.”



Johanna Oksala is Academy of Finland Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki. She is the author of Foucault on Freedom (2005); How to Read Foucault (2007); Foucault, Politics, and Violence (2012); Political Philosophy: All That Matters (2013); and numerous articles on political philosophy, feminist philosophy, Foucault and phenomenology.



We thank the Northwestern University Press  for the permission to re-print this article, from Foucault,Politics, and Violence. by Northwestern University Press. Published 2012




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