In discussing this topic, one first has to explore what is meant by the phrase ‘technologies of the self’, and then consider how useful this concept is when working with young people. I will also discuss the relationships young people have with their bodies and the purpose this concept plays in understanding these relationships
Technologies of the Self
‘Technologies of the self’ was a phrase coined by Michel Foucault in his book the History of Sexuality (1976). Technologies of the self are a set of techniques and practices employed by individuals and society, which can be deployed to modify or affect the self.
Foucault was of the opinion that our bodies were like blank canvases and only through the process of naming and coding or titleing our personalities and components of our bodies, do we then give purpose and meaning to who we are.
Foucault believed that we all have power over who and what we are. He believed that power and knowledge were inseparable and that the knowledge we have about ourselves and of others then gives us power over ourselves and of others. (Reader, Pini, p. 160)
This then opens up debates about how society sees and names people and how these people are then coded, due to socially constructed images of them. Foucault noted that a black man, because of the colour of his skin is often seen as a deviant, likewise, a teenager, because of their age as rebellious. These views then give society power in naming and categorising these people because of how they look, and not who they are. (Reader, Pini, p. 161)
I will use myself as an example; I am white, I have blue eyes, I am Scottish, I am female. These are predestined features, which determine who I am, but I have power to change many features relating to my body, like the colour of my hair, which at present is blonde, but in the past has been brown and black, also the style of clothes I wear can give different impressions to people about the kind of person I am. If I wear a smart suit, I could be seen as smart, businesslike, but if I dress in my old clothes, as I do often around the house, I may be seen as scruffy. These acts as Foucault suggest then gives me power over my body to create the person I am and also how others see and label me.
Other theorists like Sigmund Freud challenge this view. Freud was of the opinion that we all have inborn instincts and that these are the foundations which childhood experiences build our personality. He believes that our true motives are unconscious and hidden from us because these instincts and urges are very often socially unacceptable and as such are taboo and must be kept in the hidden part of the mind. Freud believed that our unconscious only lets itself be known to us directly through the behaviour that we exhibit in specific situations. (Topic 13, p 7)
Freud suggested that there are three elements, the Id the Ego and the Superego, which makes up the structure of the personality. Freud explained that the ID is the most primitive part of the mind, which holds the basic biological drive of life. The Ego develops gradually as it realises that not all needs can be met immediately. Freud went on to say that the Ego is the element of the personality that is in touch with reality. The Superego was the part, which contains the values and morals that we live by, knowing what is right from wrong. (Topic 13, p8)
Young people’s relationships with their bodies
Foucault said that ‘where there is knowledge there is power’ but also ‘where there is power there is resistance’. (Reader, Pini, p. 161) This can be seen very clearly when working with young people. Many young people are seen as ‘rebelling’ against the system, wearing different clothes, listening to different music etc. This may been seen as inappropriate behaviour, therefore these young people are labelled by society as troublemakers and the their image has been socially constructed.
Another way young people create their own identities is by they way they look, through the clothes they wear, hair colours and styles and also by getting piercings and tattoos. This was the case with Niall (Topic 14, p8), Niall had his hair dyed and nose pierced, I think that he was saying to society, “look, this is who I am, I’m different from others, I have my own identity”. This was echoed at school, when Niall was challenged for the way he looked, because he did not look the same as everyone else and did not conform to what the school thought was the norm.
Although I have said that Niall was forming his own identity, it is often the case that young people create an identity for themselves to enable them to ‘fit in’. It may be the case that a group of young people dressing in the same clothes, playing the same music, supporting the same football team, do so to be accepted by their peer group, even though to society, they are perceived as different.
Whilst working with young people in a residential setting, I have come across many ways in which young people have adopted to create their own identity and shape their personalities. I was key worker for J, a 14 year old girl who by her own admission is sexually active, drinking alcohol and smoking illegal substances. When challenged on this subject, J informed me that it was her body, and she and only she had a say to what happened to it. Although I cannot condone this behaviour, I understand that J sees herself as not a child, but as grown up, and this behaviour to her is seen as ‘adult behaviour’. By involving herself in these activities, J is not only bowing to peer pressure and conforming to what her friends think is normal behaviour, J is being labelled by society as yet another troublesome teenager.
J really isn’t the ‘troublesome teenager’ that society may label her, but a very unhappy, confused young girl with very little friends, who will do anything to feel, wanted and accepted by her peers. So it is important when working with young people to look beyond the clothes, makeup, piercing etc and see the young person behind the faï¿½ade.
J also self-harms on a regular basis, by cutting her arms. On one occasion I chatted with J after she had cut herself and she explained that when she is worried or upset or has rowed with staff, she cuts her arms. J went on to explain that after she has cut herself, she feels a sense of relief and has a feeling that she has then regained back some control over her body and in some way her mind. This is one way in which young people use their bodies to express negative feelings, the same way Ann Cox used her anorexia as a form of control over her body. (Anthology, Cox, p37).
Foucault analysed the popular Victorian concept of sexual experience, that sex was used as a means of repression and as a symbol of power. He questions the general belief of ‘repressive hypothesis’ to reach an understanding of the relations between power and sex. (Reader, Edwards, p. 169)
Foucault viewed the subject of sexuality as very important in terms of power. I think working with young people this is a very important point to take into account. Like J, many young people view their body as the only thing they have complete power over and when society constantly tells them not to involve themselves in sexual activities and that they are too young to have sex, this causes them to revolt and do exactly what society is telling them not to do.
Foucault was very much of the opinion that sexuality is a socially constructed term (Topic 14, p17). To understand this, we have to look at the differences between sex (gender) and sexuality. We are born either male or female, but the sexual practices and preferences we adopt and undertake pave way to the construction of our sexuality. In western society it is considered normal practice that men and women will be involved in heterosexual intercourse, and that homosexual relationships in general are though of as not normal practice and seen by some parts of society as morally wrong and sinful. This view has not always been the case, throughout history, relationships other than heterosexual were openly practices and considered the norm, the roman men openly had relations with men and women.
Freud has one of the most well-known arguments for social constructionism, claiming that, as humans are born prematurely, compared to most other animals, heterosexuality is not programmed into them and this is largely a role of the society they live in. He also asserts that sexuality does not, as most believe, begin at puberty, but in fact soon after birth, followed by an incestuous desire for the mother, which boys soon replace with a female partner. Girls, on the other hand, soon realise desire for a female and proceed to acquire a penis, firstly from their father and then, accepting this is wrong, from a male sexual partner.
Foucault was another key thinker but rejected Freud’s psychoanalyst approach and claimed sexuality was not repressed, but people such as Freud had created these norms and placed them on society, regulating sexual identity. He described history as a series of discourses, which dictated sexually acceptable behaviour to society; for example homosexuals have probably always existed but have only in modern times been labeled and recognised as sexually deviant. The claim was that sex experts created sexual categories as a way of controlling society
Though this is slowly changing, but there is still a certain amount of stigma attached to homosexuals. Society remains set in certain norms, and anything outside of this is deemed deviant, such as certain individuals who take homosexuality further by having operations to change their physical attributes to make them appear of the ‘opposite’ sex.
In summing up, I feel that the term ‘technologies of the self’ has some use in understanding young people’s relationships with their bodies, but I feel that it is limited. It helps explain how and why young people dress the way they do and adopt certain styles, to be accepted and also to fit in with their peers.
But in terms of sexuality, I feel that the arguments are so great, more research has to be made. For example, some people believe that our sexuality is a predestined occurrence, and that some people are born homosexual. To others this is unthinkable, to be anything other than heterosexual is going against religion and is a sinful act. The vast majority of people believe that sexuality is a personal preference, something that people have choice over. Personally I believe in the third view, we all have power over our own destiny and our own future.