Work, Sex, and Power: The Forces that Shaped Our History

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A very long Italian novel can seem an act of defiance; it is certainly an act of imposition. It became a best-seller in its native land, and was awarded the Strega Prize previously given to Bassani, Elsa Morante, Levi, Natalia Ginzburg , et al. The English translation, done with unflagging vigor by Antony Shugaar, presents readers with a very long novel that feels even longer than it is.

The effect is surely intended.

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This may be why Albinati, even as he gestures toward a generational saga, focusses tightly on adolescence. You may find yourself anticipating a work that does for Rome in the seventies what Ferrante has done for postwar Naples, and for male friendship what Knausgaard did for fathers and sons.

But the anticipation is premature, the comparisons misplaced. The brilliant friend Arbus soon drops out of the text.

Review: Work, Sex and Power: The Forces that Shaped Our History by Willie Thompson

So do the devices that novelists as different as Ferrante and Knausgaard rely on: characters, dialogue, incident, chronology, and, especially, the rendering of everyday life through precise, detail-flecked paraphrase. For a few hundred pages, nothing much happens. The most dramatic incident Albinati relates from his school days involves some bullies whipping a weaker boy, as in a rite of flagellation. The rape and murder is treated in a dozen unspectacular pages. Two young men who went to school with Albinati abduct two young women after a double date and take them to a vacation house on Monte Circeo, between Rome and Naples; joined by a third young man, they rape the women, kill one of them, wrap them both in plastic, and stuff them in the trunk of a car; then they drive to Rome and park the car overnight in the Quartiere Trieste, where the surviving woman, kicking and screaming in the trunk, is heard by a neighbor.

A century later, Albinati has fictionalized the crime his classmates committed and elaborated on it in the language of broad-brush cultural criticism. The crime, he writes,. Stigmatized in words, the horror became accessible, within reach of one and all. That reflection comes three hundred pages after the account of the crime. He rejects the usual conception of power as manifest in the laws of society written up as the legal code.

This usual conception has at least five features, and these features can be understood by applying them to the case of sex. Foucault then tries to account for the widespread appearance of power in this form he rejects. The reason for its success is a tactical one--because it is general in operation and silent in expression, its true nature as an oppressive force is hidden. Despite efforts to separate executive power i. Critics have been unable to change this state of affairs precisely because they accept the impossible separation as a worthy goal.

Not to despair. To understand the difference of this conception from the one he opposes, he offers a series of contrasts. Power is not a simple separation of binary relationships into the controller and the controlee; instead, the relationships are part of other relationships such as economic, knowledge, and sexual relationships.

He further characterizes power relations as intentional, but nonsubjective.

In understanding the history of the discourse on sex, one is to apply this conception to find the power relations that influence the discourse. The rule of immanence directs one to search for the shifting forces allowing an inquiry to take place. In any subject of inquiry, including sexuality, one must seek the relations of power which permit the subject to be opened as an object of inquiry.

The rule of continual variations seeks for patterns of shifting forces i. Finally, there is the rule of tactical polyvalence of discourses, in which any discourse must be conceived as involved in many different of the constantly shifting force relations. Applying these rules requires two standards for evaluating any discourse, including one into sexuality.

The first standard is tactical productivity--what are the effects of the discourse on power and knowledge in society? The second is strategic integration--what force relationships make the use of the discursive elements necessary in any given instance? Foucault intends to use these rules and standards to evaluate the discourse on sexuality since the 17th century. The Hysterical Woman is manifest in discourse in three ways.


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The Masturbating Child enters discourse in a complicated way via two opposing forces. Given this conflict between two contrary forces, there is a focus on controlling them by multiple actors such as parents and doctors. But why these unities and not others? Those structures which gain strength in the ebb and flux of multiple forces attain significance, and sexuality is one of these constructions. The construct continues to evolve, gradually replacing an older order with the new one.

Patriarchal legal systems in depriving women of control over their own bodies drive them to illegal abortions; it is estimated that between two and five thousand women die each year from this cause. Excepting a social license to physical abuse among certain class and ethnic groups, force is diffuse and generalised in most contemporary patriarchies.

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Significantly, force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence? Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialisation. Before assault she is almost universally defenceless both by her physical and emotional training. Needless to say, this has the most far-reaching effects on the social and psychological behaviour of both sexes. Patriarchal force also relies on a form of violence particularly sexual in character and realised most completely in the act of rape.

The figures of rapes reported represent only a fraction of those which occur, as the shame of the event is sufficient to deter women from the notion of civil prosecution under the public circumstances of a trial. Traditionally rape has been viewed as an offence one male commits upon another - a matter of abusing "his woman. In rape, the emotions of aggression, hatred, contempt, and the desire to break or violate personality, take a form consummately appropriate to sexual politics.

In the passages analysed at the' outset of this study, such emotions were present at a barely sublimated level and were a key factor in explaining the attitude behind the author's use of language and tone. Patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality, the latter often equated both with evil and with power. This is apparent both in the sexual fantasy reported by psychoanalysis and that reported by pornography.

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The rule here associates sadism with the male "the masculine role" and victimisation with the female "the feminine role''. Emotional response to violence against women in patriarchy is often curiously ambivalent; references to wife-beating, for example, invariably produce laughter and some embarrassment.

Exemplary atrocity, such as the mass murders committed by Richard Speck, greeted at one level with a certain scandalised, possibly hypocritical indignation, is capable of eliciting a mass response of titillation at another level.

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At such times one even hears from men occasional expressions of envy or amusement. In view of the sadistic character of such public fantasy as caters to male audiences in pornography or semi-pornographic media, one might expect that a certain element of identification is by no means absent from the general response.


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  5. Probably a similar collective frisson sweeps through racist society when its more "logical" members have perpetrated a lynching. Unconsciously, both crimes may serve the larger group as a ritual act, cathartic in effect. Hostility is expressed in a number of ways. One is laughter. Misogynist literature, the primary vehicle of masculine hostility, is both an hortatory and comic genre.

    Of all artistic forms in patriarchy it is the most frankly propagandistic. Its aim is to reinforce both sexual factions in their status. Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance literature in the West has each had a large element of misogyny. Nor is the East without a strong tradition here, notably in the Confucian strain which held sway in Japan as well as China. The Western tradition was indeed moderated somewhat by the introduction of courtly love. But the old diatribes and attacks were coterminous with the new idealisation of woman. In the case of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and some others, one can find both attitudes fully expressed, presumably as evidence of different moods, a courtly pose adopted for the ephemeral needs of the vernacular, a grave animosity for sober and eternal Latin.

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    As courtly love was transformed to romantic love, literary misogyny grew somewhat out of fashion. In some places in the eighteenth century it declined into ridicule and exhortative satire. In the nineteenth century its more acrimonious forms almost disappeared in English. Its resurrection in twentieth-century attitudes and literature is the result of a resentment over patriarchal reform, aided by the growing permissiveness in expression which has taken place at an increasing rate in the last fifty years.

    Since the abatement of censorship, masculine hostility psychological or physical in specifically sexual contexts has become far more apparent. Yet as masculine hostility has been fairly continuous, one deals here probably less with a matter of increase than with a new frankness in expressing hostility in specifically sexual contexts. It is a matter of release and freedom to express what was once forbidden expression outside of pornography or other "underground" productions, such as those of De Sade.

    As one recalls both the euphemism and the idealism of descriptions of coitus in the Romantic poets Keats's Eve of St.

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