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Critique Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies (Studies in Feminist Philosophy)

By Cressida J. Heyes, 2007

Heyes’ monograph in feminist philosophy is on the connection between the idea of “normalization”–which per Foucault is a mode or force of control that homogenizes a population–and the gendered body. Drawing on Foucault and Wittgenstein, she argues that the predominant picture of the self–a picture that presupposes an “inner” core of the self that is expressed, accurately or not, by the outer body–obscures the connection between contemporary discourses and practices of self-transformation and the forces of normalization. In other words, pictures of the self can hold us captive when they are being read from the outer self–the body–rather than the inner self, and we can express our inner self by working on our outer body to conform. Articulating this idea with a mix of the theoretical and the practical, she looks at case studies involving transgender people, weight-loss dieting, and cosmetic surgery. Her concluding chapters look at the difficult issue of how to distinguish non-normalizing practices of the self from normalizing ones, and makes suggestions about how feminists might conceive of subjects as embodied and enmeshed in power relations yet also capable of self-transformation. The subject of normalization and its relationship to sex/gender is a major one in feminist theory; Heyes’ book is unique in her masterful use of Foucault; its clarity, and its sophisticated mix of the theoretical and the anecdotal. It will appeal to feminist philosophers and theorists.

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