Playing games/playing us: Foucault on sadomasochism

Philosophy and Social Criticism 33 (5):531-561 (2007)
The impact of Foucault's work can still be felt across a range of academic disciplines. It is nevertheless important to remember that, for him, theoretical activity was intimately related to the concrete practices of self-transformation; as he acknowledged: `I write in order to change myself.' 1 This avowal is especially pertinent when considering Foucault's work on the relationship between sex and power. For Foucault not only theorized about this topic; he was also actively involved in the S&M subculture of the 1970s. Although his explicit discussions of S&M are somewhat piecemeal, in this article I will show how they provide a useful point of access into his broader conception of power relations. Having first reconstructed Foucault's quasi-Sartrean account of creative self-transformation — specifically through one's sexuality — I will then explain why his defence of S&M (as embodying `strategic' power) is insufficiently sensitive to the inherent ambiguities of this `game'. Key Words: consent • desire • identity • limits • pleasure • power • role-play • subjectivity • trust.
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DOI 10.1177/0191453707078913
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