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History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

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Michel FoucaultEdit

[October 1926 – 25 June 1984] Foucault was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought." Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Knowledge, power and discourse are primary topics of Foucault's analyses. In the 1960s Foucault was associated with structuralism, a movement from which he distanced himself. Foucault also rejected the poststructuralist and postmodernist labels later attributed to him, preferring to classify his thought as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. Foucault's project is particularly influenced by Nietzsche, his "genealogy of knowledge" being a direct allusion to Nietzsche's "genealogy of morality". In a late interview he definitively stated: "I am a Nietzschean." In 2007 Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by The Times Higher Education Guide. [text courtesy Wikipedia]

The History of Sexuality is the first of Foucault's 3 volume history of sexuality. The other two volumes are The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self. All 3 vols. were written between 1976-1984, making them his later works.

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 [French: 1976 | English: 1978]Edit

Foucault begins The History of Sexuality by framing a common historical perception that he will then set out to disrupt. He frame the prevailing notion: that 18th-century Victorianism enacted a rule of silence upon sex (3), in contrast to the rather frank and somewhat pastoral openness of sexual conversation still available in the early 1600s. Contemporary historians, in Foucault's account, connected this silencing with a repression hypothesis, in which the "injunction to silence" was based in a repression for which "there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know" (4). This practice of repressing sexual discourse in coeval with the development of early modern capitalism, and these two features become tied to the bourgeois order. The contemporary willingness to talk about sex invokes not just modern open-mindedness, but a believe that one is transgressing the law.

Ultimately, Foucault doubts these claims, suggesting that (10):

  1. Is sexual repression a historical fact?
  2. Do workings of power really belong primarily to the category of repression
  3. "Did the critical discourse that addresses itself to repressioncome to act as a roadblock to a power mechanism that had operated unchallenged up to that point, or is it not in fact part of the same historical network as the thing it denounces (and doubtless misrepresents) by calling it repression?"

Related to point three and in relation to the historicization of writing on sexuality, Foucault writes: I do not mainain that the prohibition of sex is a ruse; but it is a ruse to make prohibition into the basic and constitutive element from which one would be able to write the history of what has been said concerning sex starting from the modern epoch" (12).

Incitement to DiscourseEdit

Rather than a silencing on the subject of sexuality, Foucault notes that the Victorian period heralded a "discursive explosion" (17) about sexuality; however, this speech was different from pre-Victorian speech in that it involves the regulation of knowledge about sex and speaking its intricate details. This is a practice that begins with the monastic practice of penance that extends itself into a general rule that one must not just confess one's sins, but must "transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse" (21). Sex became a thing to be administered and rationalized for the public interest--sex came to be policed in the 18th century by the fields of medicine, psychiatry, criminal justice, etc. Foucault argues that there was a "policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses" (25). Examples of this include the emergence of "population", the rationalization of childhood sexuality, and the example of Jouy, the simpleton farmhand who, in 1867, is arrested for receiving sexual favors from young girls. Jouy is a symbolic example of Foucault's concern, and in some ways sums up the contours of his entire chapters:

"The thing to note is that they went so far as to measure the brainpan, study the facial bone structure, and inspect for possible signs of degenerescence the anatomy of this personage who up to that moment had been an integral part of villag elife; that they made him talk; that they questioned him concerning his thoughts, inclinations, habits, sensations, and opinions. And then, acquitting him of any crime, they decided finally to make him into a pure object of medicine and knowledge--an object to be shit away till the end of his life in the hospital at Mareville, but also one to made known to the world of learning through a detailed analysis. [...] this was undoubtedly one of the conditions enabling the institutions of knowledge and power to overlay this everyday bit of theater [the schoolboy's recitation of sexual knowledge] with their solemn discourse" (31-2).

Incitement to speech happens constantly as sex is "drive out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence" (33). It's not that sex wasn't spoken of; rather it was spoken of infinitately, rendering it "the secret".

Modern Sexuality and The Instrument-EffectEdit

The 18th and 19th century mark an inversion of sexual knowledge gathering. Rather than focusing interest of the married couple, heterosexual monogamy gets left alone while observation is intensified around the sexuality of children, the insane and criminals, sexual deviants and others. The "unnatural" becomes a specific dimension of sexuality, and sexual acts turn sexual participants into sexual perverts. Sodomy is no longer a category for unnatural acts; rather, its performer is a personage: "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species" (43). The power exercised over the expression of pleasure becomes itself a pleasurable exercise, a phenomenon Foucault describes a "perpetual spirals of power and pleasure" (45). Sexuality becomes a medicalized subject and must be sought out, investigated, wrested from the human experience and codified into fact, producing a pleasure in the researcher: "an impetus was given to power through its very exercise; an emotion rewarded the overseeing control and carried it further" (44). There is a pleasure that comes with exercising power that questions, and a pleasure that "kindles at having to evade this power" (45). [Does Foucault believe these power practices are inherant to humans?--that man has no way but to seek pleasure in one's power?]. Sexuality becomes saturated into the landscape as homes are built to seperate parents and children, hygenie reform emerges, and institutions enact surveillance on desire: everything is constructed with sexuality in mind. The growth of perversions documented in the 18th and 19th centuries is a product of their very observation--the instrument-effect of surveillance. Perversions do not exist to flaunt the law; rather they are constructed by the law that seeks to regulate and "know" them.

Scientia SexualisEdit

In part 3, Foucault attends to the complications of sex and truth--"the sex was constitued as a problem of truth" (56). Historically, the two modes of producing "the truth of sex" are the ars erotica (the erotic arts, "truth drawn from pleasure itself") and scientia sexualis ("procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret") (57-8). The key example of scientia sexualis is, for Foucault, the confession. We are a "singularly confessing society" in which the act of confession plays a part in "justice, medicine, education, femaily relationships, and love relationships" (59). It constitutes a production of truth. Literature mirrors this in the transition from narrations of heroic deeds to literature that explores one's depths before the reader (59). The production of truth is imbued with the relations of power, and confession is its primary example. Confession is a "ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship" (61). One must always confess to someone who requires the confession. In the 19th century, this "immense and traditional extortion of the sexual confession" comes into scientific formulation via (65-67):

  1. Clinical codification of the iducement to speak (confession + examination)
  1. Posulate of a general and diffuse causality (all sexual acts had etiology)
  1. Principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality (sexuality tried to remain hidden, even from the sexual actor)
  1. Method of interpretation (truth was produced in the recording and validating of the sexual confession)
  1. Medicalization of the effects of confession (no longer sin or excess, sexual "perversion" is pathology rendered through therapy)

The history of sexuality then, is a history of what "functioned in the 19th century as a specific field of truth" and can only be written as a history of discourses. Sexuality becomes yoked with the burden of speaking the truth and also speaking our truth: "we tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us" (69-70). In the conclusion of this chapter, Foucault suggests that the scientia sexualis has functioned as our ars erotica; the production of truth could potentially have multiplied and intensified our own pleasure (71). Ours is the pleasure in the truth of pleasure--a discursive pleasure. Our erotic art is in "this multiplication and intensification of pleasures conected to the production of the truth of sex" (71) (presumably both pleasures of avoidance and power). As a method, we must "begin with these positive mechanisms, insofar as they produce knowledge, multiple discourse, indice pleasure and generate power; we must investigate conditions of their emergence and operation [...] we must define the strategies of power that are immanent in this will to knowledge" (73).

Right of Death and Power Over LifeEdit

In this final section, Foucault writes that the 17th century there was a "power over life" that took two basic forms in the nation-state. First was the focus on body as machine, the disciplining of its body, "the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility; second was the species body, the body of biological processes (health, reproduction, life expectancy, etc). The supervision of these processes was managed through regulatory controls and the biopolitics of the population (139). Whereas sovereign power was once associated with the power of death, it now became the "administration of bodies and the calculated management of life" (140). This corresponds with the explosion in universities, barracks, secondary schools, workshops, as well as observation of economics, demography, public health, housing and migration. The deployment of sexuality would be the most important concrete arrangement that joined these two forms. Biopower becomes indispensible to capitalism, as bodies had to be available for the machines of production; institutions formed as instruments of the state, to create a docile and useful population through the implementation of techniques of power. Control over life was established (through agriculture, politics, medicine), and this relaxed the impending terror of death. These were no longer people destined to die, but citizens with self-mastery over their life; biological existence reflected political existance.

Foucault defines bio-power as what designates "what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life" (143).

When the life of a species can be "wagered on its own political strategies" it has crossed a threshold of modernity: "For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question" (143). As the state values its own life, and must be in charge of lives, regulatory and corrective institutions become necessary, and the law operates through them (144). The right to life was "the political response to all these new procedures of power which did not derive, either, from the traditional right of sovereignty"--man dreams of a state that protects his right to his life (145).

Sex was the means through which national sovereignty gained "access both to the life of the body and the life of the species" (147). An analytics of sex replaces a symbolics of blood (blood being aligned with the power of death wielded by the old sovereignty--whereas sex was on the side of "the norm, knowledge, life, meaning, the disciplines, and regulations") (148). (Perhaps these tensions somehow play out in current hysteria over gay marriage--whereas the state is properly only interested in reproduction (which no longer even necessitates sex), some have misrecognized the state's role as one administering blood lines). Foucault affirms that sex is constituted by sexuality, not the other way around; it is but "an ideal point made necessary by the deployment of sexuality and its operation. We must not make the mistake of thinking that sex is an autonomous agency which secondarily produces manifold effects of sexuality over the entire length of its surface of contact with power. On the contrary, sex is the most speculative, most ideal and most internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies, sensations, and pleasures" (155). By making sex that which we desire at all times, the deployment of sexuality created its most basic operating principle: the desire to access and wring truth from sex. "We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality" (157). Counterattack to this system must be done not through "sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures" (157).

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