Home » Modern and Post Modern » Butler and Foucault on creativity and self-invention

Butler and Foucault on creativity and self-invention


Butler’s idea of improvisation compared to Foucault’s notions of creativity and self-invention.

English: Judith Butler at a lecture at the Uni...

English: Judith Butler at a lecture at the University of Hamburg, April 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Butler and Foucault thought that people act within social norms because of the pressures of society. Our actions and reactions are not natural but the product of years of adjusting our comportment to be accepted within society. They feel that we need to break free of the invisible boundaries to behavior.

In ‘Undoing Gender’ Butler writes that gender “is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.’ The definition of the word improvisation is “a creation spoken or written or composed extemporaneously,” meaning without practice. But Butler sees the way we play out gender as being always within a social context this is our ‘scene of constraint’. She talks about it as “performance.”  This parallels with descriptions of how musicians might improvise a piece of music. They all know the piece and although they have not rehearsed it they can still play it together.  This view is closely aligned to Foucault’s, who talks in his interview (2) about the importance of aesthetic practices in particular with reference to the gay movement of his time.

On the first page of the introduction Butler talks about undoing “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life.” Concepts of what it is to be ‘normal’ restrict how we behave. Because we are afraid of being rejected or humiliated by society we behave accordingly. The whole book is dedicated to a discussion of this.

In chapter 4, “Undiagnosing Gender,” she talks about the problems faced by people who want sex change operations. To get funding from state or insurance companies the surgery has to be deemed necessary. On page 76 Butler says “To be diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) is to be found, in some way, to be ill, sick, …abnormal, and to suffer a certain stigmatization as a consequence of the diagnosis being given at all.” There has to be something ‘wrong’ with you to want to change sex and if you want to have the operation then you have to conform to societal norms and agree that you are sick. Even if you are taking a strategic approach Butler says (p82), submission to the diagnosis can make the person feel they are indeed mentally ill. Foucault also talks about the use of “medicalization” as a form of oppression in his interview (2), although he also sees it can be a means of resistance “people could say, ‘If we are sick, then why do you condemn us, why do you despise us?’”

In the final chapter Butler talks about guilt and confession with reference to Freud and Foucault. She talks of Foucault’s ‘pastor principle’ equating analysis to the confessional “in which the analyst is projected as a pastor and judge, and the activity of the analysand, a confession that leads to inevitable and recurrent punishment. Of course, it is this very fantasy of analysis that must be brought into the analytic scene, read for its investments, especially its defensive one.”  In this way the analysand conforms to the role of the guilty and the analyst to the benevolent pastor there to give absolution.

In Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?” he develops his argument of the formation of ‘the self’ which he explores through critiques of Kant’s discourse on the Enlightenment and Baudelaire’s on modernity. For Foucault the two views promise happiness an ideal that, for him, is false. For Foucault both show the emergence of a chosen way of behaviour. For example although he likes Baudelaire’s analysis of what it is to be modern he also sees that ‘modernity’ is formed by choice and willingness to behave in the way expected.  “Baudelairean modernity [is] an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.” In order to develop our true identities Foucault believes we must break free of the legacy of the Enlightenment and the creation of oneself as art of Modernity.”We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers.” He concludes that he does not believe this will happen “I do not know whether we will ever reach mature adulthood.” He again comes back to the role of the analyst in resolving issues.

Butler and Foucault also have similar ideas on the role of desire in building the ‘self’ as can be seen in their works (1&2). Unfortunately I have no space to discuss this.

Both these writers believe that the ‘self’ is not an original or natural creation but formed through external pressures. Our comportment is a ‘performance’. I will leave the final word to Butler “In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; ‘agency,’ then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation of that repetition. If the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility.


    1. “Undoing Gender” by Judith Butler 2004
    2. “Sex, power and the Politics of Identity” Foucault’s interview with B. Gallagher and A. Wilson (1982)
    3. “What is Enlightenment?,” Michel Foucault (1984)

This was my seventh writing assignment. I received the score of 8 for this from two peers and with no comments apart from ‘good’ and ‘satisfied the criteria’. I am pleased with the mark but would have liked some comments.

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