Foucault – History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume One

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

This was a tougher read than Discipline and Punish. To get our morale up, let’s enjoy some Salt-N-Pepa first.

Also, we should let Kanye West set up the other big theme of the book:

Foucault the haters

Foucault wants to dispel the myth that in the Victorian era, sexuality was so repressed we couldn’t even talk about it. Supposedly, in our more enlightened era, we have been steadily shaking off our Victorian repression. Foucault says, no, the Victorians didn’t stop talking about sexuality; they just changed the way they talked about it, and the reason they talked about it. We talk about sexuality now with greater frankness not because we’re more liberated, but because we’re using our discourse around sexuality to apply social control.

It is true that sexual repression exists, and that we have been working to resist it. However, the crucial discourse around sexuality is not the illicit language of resistance; it’s “the multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself.” Sexuality has become a subject of intense interest to authorities: governments, medical professionals, educators, social workers.

Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expur­gated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite (20).

Sexuality has become just another aspect of panoptic discipline.

An imperative was established: Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse. Insofar as possible, nothing was meant to elude this dictum, even if the words it employed had to be carefully neutralized. The Christian pastoral prescribed as a fundamental duty the task of passing everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech. The forbidding of certain words, the decency of expressions, all the censorings of vocabulary, might well have been only secondary devices compared to that great subjugation: ways of rendering it morally accept­able and technically useful (20-21).

Discourses on sexuality get produced within medicine, psychiatry, criminal justice, and all their unofficial counterparts in everyday life. Everyone has to confess. And sexual proclivities become categories of person, not just behaviors.

Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).

Meanwhile, authority gets off on all this sexual inquiry. Remember the Starr report? Why did the government spend so much money investigating the tawdry details of Bill Clinton’s office blowjobs? Why did we all enjoy reading it so much?

The pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting. Capture and seduction, confrontation and mutual reinforcement: parents and children, adults and adolescents, educator and students, doctors and patients, the psychiatrist with his hysteric and his perverts, all have played this game continually since the nineteenth century. These attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure. On the face of it at least, our civilization possesses no ars erotica. In return, it is undoubtedly the only civilization to practice a scientia sexualis; or rather, the only civilization to have developed over the centuries 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: I have in mind the confession (57-58).

We turn sexuality into discourse via confession, not just in church, but to doctors and government officials and everyone else. The interesting thing here is not so much how we exert power over sexuality, but what that says about how we exert power over everything.

Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. Would power be accepted if it were entirely cynical? For it, secrecy is not in the nature of an abuse; it is indispensable to its operation. Not only because power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates, but because it is perhaps just as indispensable to the latter: would they accept it if they did not see it as a mere limit placed on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom­–however slight–intact? Power as a pure limit set on freedom is, at least in our society, the general form of its acceptability (86).

Power is so much bigger than laws and institutions backed by shows of force, or the subjugation of one class by another.

The analysis, made in terms of power, must not assume that the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the over-all unity of a domination are given at the outset; rather, these are only the terminal forms power takes. It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies (92-93).

Power is a process, not a thing. It’s local and unstable. Like The Force, it permeates everything.

[Power] is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere (93).

Power isn’t something you possess. It emerges from your relationships. It’s generated from below as well as from above.

[L]et us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the re­stricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power), tactics which, becoming connected to one an­ other, attracting and propagating one another, but finding their base of support and their condition elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems: the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decisionmakers are often without hypocrisy (95).

Resistance to power is not separate from power of itself; they’re both part of the same dynamic.

Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, ram­ pant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations… Are there no great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions, then? Occasionally, yes. But more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society… Just as the network of power relations ends by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities (95-96).

There is no discourse of power opposed by a discourse of resistance. It’s all just arrows in a continually fluctuating field of force.

Sexuality must not be described as a stubborn drive, by nature alien and of necessity disobedient to a power which exhausts itself trying to subdue it and often fails to control it entirely. It appears rather as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population (103).

Foucault describes “a completely new technology of sex” (116) appearing at the end of the eighteenth century.

Through pedagogy, medicine; and economics, it made sex not only a secular concern but a concern of the state as well; to be more exact, sex became a matter that required the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals, to place themselves under surveillance (116).

At first, this technology of sexuality was not practiced by the ruling class on the workers, but rather on the ruling class by themselves.

Was this a new avatar of that bourgeois asceticism described so many times in connection with the Reformation, the new work ethic, and the rise of capitalism? It seems in fact that what was involved was not an asceticism, in any case not a renunciation of pleasure or a disqualification of the flesh, but on the contrary an intensification of the body, a problematization of health and its operational terms: it was a question of techniques for maximizing life. The primary concern was not repression of the sex of the classes to be exploited, but rather the body, vigor, longevity, progeniture, and descent of the classes that “ruled.” This was the purpose for which the deployment of sexuality was first established, as a new distribution of pleasures, discourses, truths, and powers; it has to be seen as the self-affirmation of one class rather than the enslavement of another: a defense, a protection, a strengthening, and an exaltation that were eventually extended to others–at the cost of different transformations–as a means of social control and political subjugation (122-123).

And now, enter Freud.

The history of the deployment of sexuality, as it has evolved since the classical age, can serve as an archaeology of psychoanalysis… Around it the great requirement of confession that had taken form so long ago assumed the new meaning of an injunction to lift psychical repression. The task of truth was now linked to the challenging of taboos (130).

Power doesn’t just repress, limit and “deduct.” Power is positive and productive. It doesn’t just threaten you with violence if you disobey; it asserts positive ownership over your life in its entirety.

“Deduction” has tended to be no longer the major form of power but merely one element among others, working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them… This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life. Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations. But this formidable power of death–and this is perhaps what accounts for part of its force and the cynicism with which it has so greatly expanded its limits–now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital… If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population (136-137).

So, if I understand him correctly, Foucault is saying that power is in every relationship, in everything we talk about, in all of our organizations and ideas? Is there the slightest possibility of anyone being able to step outside the force field, or resist it in a meaningful way? At the end of this book, I have no idea.

On a more trivial note, I wonder what Foucault would say about our culture’s bottomless obsession with stories about the police chasing sexual murderers. I won’t lie, I absolutely love the genre of “gritty police dramas in the former British commonwealth with tough female leads,” most recently this one.

The Fall

What is the point of the “realism” of this show and others like it? Why lavish so much quality production design, cinematography, acting and directing on such a disgusting subject? What are we trying to work out for ourselves? Do we identify with the detectives? The victims? The murderers? All of the above? What are we hoping to find out about ourselves?