Sunday, November 2, 2008

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

While I find Foucault interesting, I have never really obsessed over his writing. But, returning to The History of Sexuality: An Introduction this semester, I was taken by his work in a manner I have not previously been before. Below is a brief outline I wrote of the book's conceptual framework:

Foucault, History of Sexuality V1, “Part I”

The introductory section of Foucault’s book outlines the general framework of his argument as it proceeds through the remainder of the text. The focus of his work, then, is to “define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world” (11); such a focus will necessarily attempt to reveal “who does the speaking” with regard to sexuality and from which “positions and viewpoints,” as well as “the institutions which prompt…store and distribute the things that are said” (11). As one would expect with Foucault, the author claims that the discourse on sexuality is inherently a historical matter, in that our general understanding of the subject is one that has been constructed within in a particular temporal and spatial context. To wit, the question, then, is not “Why are we repressed,” but instead “why do we say…we are repressed?” (8-9).

Foucault states at the opening of the section that, before the Victorian era, specifically at “the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was common,” and it was not until afterward that sexuality was “carefully confined” and relegated to “utilitarian and fertile” uses within “the parents’ bedroom” (3). But to regulate sexuality in such a manner meant that sexual practices that did not adhere to this imperative need to be silenced; as such, repression became a dominating feature of this period. Repression, as a control mechanism, “operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know” (4).

Of course, this was, in Foucault’s estimation, only one-half of the story: there were the “other Victorians” (4). The other Victorians were those who did not conform to the normative sexuality, those for whom repression failed to reign in. As such, “to make room for [these] illegitimate sexualities,” or more precisely, “to reintegrate them into…the circuits of production [and]…profit…the brothel and mental hospital” (4) were fostered and sanctioned as limited spheres of tolerance. Such integration into a system of production and profit are no small matters for Foucault, in that the entire concept of modern sexual repression coincides with the development of capitalism (5). The linkage was one of necessity, due to the fact that sex “is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative” (6).

Yet, there is, in some sense, an irony inherent to repression as it manifested itself during the Victorian era and proceed through to modern society: concomitantly with the silence, regulation, and absence which repression produces, society “speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function” (8).

Toward the end of the opening section, Foucault embeds within his writing three critiques of his own argument; they are 1) “Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact?” 2) “Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression?” and finally 3) “Did the critical discourse that addresses itself to repression come 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?” (10) This rhetorical gesture by Foucault, of self-critiquing his own argumentation, serves, in his words, to put his repressive hypothesis “back within a general economy of discourses on sex in modern societies” (11).

Foucault, History of Sexuality V1, Part II

Central to the second section of Foucault’s introduction to sexuality is the claim that, contrary to the popular conception that the Victorian era “ushered in an age of increased sexual repression” (49), it actually, “through a network of interconnecting mechanisms” aided in the proliferation of “specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities” (49). To this extent, the nineteenth-century, so often characterized as prudish, is nothing of the sort.

As matter of explanation, Foucault begins by examining the prohibitions and restrictions that were implemented during this time period. As he writes in the incipit paragraph of the section: “it had been necessary to subjugate [sex] at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech,” and as such create “instances of muteness which, by dint of saying nothing, imposed silence. Censorship” (17). This fact, taken in isolation, would seem to support the common perception we hold vis-à-vis the Victorian era; but, Foucault demonstrates that, concomitantly with such regulations of language, there was an “opposite phenomenon” occurring at the level of discourse, in that: “there was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex” which fostered “a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). What made these discourses even more pervasive was the fact that they not only considered sexuality to be a manifestation of the body, but a manifestation of desire as well (i.e. the soul). Discourse, then, “had to trace the meeting line of the body and the soul” because “everything…might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts which…had some affinity with sex” (20).

After tracing a brief history of sexual discourse from the Catholic practice of confession through its secularization, evidencing itself in the politics of “population control,” Foucault transitions into the latter half of the second section by stating: “sex did not multiply apart from or against power, but in the very space and as a means of its exercise” (32). It is in this second half of this section, then, that Foucault goes to great length in mapping out the manner in which discourses and their material actualizations (e.g. “the medical examination, the psychiatric investigation, the pedagogical report, and family controls” (45)) necessarily interwove power and pleasure, or as the author writes: “Power operated as a mechanism of attraction; it drew out those peculiarities over which it kept watch. Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered” (45). Furthermore, pleasure derives from power in a voyeuristic manner, through those “questions, monitors, spies, searches” that “bring to light”; likewise, there parallel pleasure of evasion “that kindles at having to…flee from it, fool it, or travesty it” (45). Foucault refers to this back-and-forth as “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” (45).

To this extent, power mechanisms never were intended to eradicate the behavior it sought to monitor, but in fact sought to create “indefinite lines of penetration” so that power “advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded subdivided, and branched out” (42). In addition to the aforementioned monitoring, sexual discourse also sought, through the “machinery of power…to give [aberrant sexualities] an analytical, visible, and permanent reality” so as to develop “a natural order of disorder,” or “the specification, the solidification of each one of them” (44). The expansion of discourse on sexuality in the Victorian era was not moralizing, so much as it was “the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures” that, ultimately, were “ensured and relayed by the countless economic interests” of the time (48).

Foucault, History of Sexuality V1, Part III

In section three, Foucault traces the manner in which “truth,” with regard to sexuality, was produced within Western societies; specifically, he plots out how the “scientific” exploration of sex was “subordinated in the main to the imperatives of morality whose divisions it reiterated under the guise of the medical norm” (53).

Before he describes the historical formation of said “truths,” Foucault references two important distinctions: first, the difference between “a biology of reproduction…and a medicine of sex.” The former “would partake of that immense will to knowledge…whereas the other would derive from a stubborn will to nonknowledge” (54-5); between the two was little, if any, interplay. The latter of these two disciplines entailed “an enormous apparatus for observation” (55), around which its practitioners attempted to construct, not just a taxonomy of “sensation and pleasure, or law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood” (56).

Additionally, Foucault addresses the difference between the primarily Eastern concept of ars erotica and the Western concept of scientia sexualis. In ars erotica, “truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated through experience,” or stated in other words, “pleasure, evaluated in terms of intensity” (57). In contradistinction to ars erotica, Western culture developed scientia sexualis, which worked to create procedures “for telling the truth of sex which are geared to form a knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret [i.e. ars erotica]” (58).

At this juncture, Foucault delves into a detailed explanation in which he demonstrates the origins of scientia sexualis are to be found in the Catholic ritual of confession, and the church’s belief that such confessions centered on “the production of truth” (58). Moreover, the practice of confession has became so pervasive and “so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us” (60). After detailing the specific power relations immanent to the confession, Foucault writes: “with the rise of Protestantism…[confession] gradually lost its ritualistic and exclusive location” (63), spreading into the discourses of medicine, psychiatry, and pedagogy. Vis-à-vis the scientific community, confession rooted itself within the discourse through 1) “a clinical codification of the inducement to speak,” 2) “the postulate of a general and diffuse causality,” (65), 3) "the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality,” 4) “the method of interpretation” (66), and finally through 5) “the medicalization of the effects of confession” (67).

What ultimately needs to be understood within Foucault’s understanding of sexuality is that the “essential functions of this sexuality are not the expression of a representation” (68), which the practitioners of psychoanalysis believed, but were in all actuality “functional requirements of a discourse that must produce its truth” (68). In other words, the techniques employed by the confession-driven, Western discourse of sexuality were an effect of the discourse’s desire to produce “truth.” Confession-based investigations of sexuality that seek the “truth” are paradoxical, due to the fact that “we demand that sex speak the truth…and we demand that it tell us our truth” (69), or “we tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth” (69); in a sense, a dog chasing its own tail. Again, what Foucault wants to make clear is that these “truth-seeking” mechanisms are, in all reality, “the tactics of power immanent in this discourse” (70).

The section closes with Foucault asking, rhetorically, whether or not scientia sexualis retains vestiges of ars erotica. The answer, it would seem, is yes, in that “this production of truth…multiplied, intensified, and …created its own pleasures…pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing the truth,” thus creating “a sublimated version of that lost art” (70-1).

Foucault, History of Sexuality V1, Part IV

Foucault divides section four of his study into four subsections: objective, method, domain and periodization. Subsection one, entitled “Objective,” in a very narrow sense, states that the purpose of his series will be to demonstrate that “the history of the last centuries in Western societies did not manifest the movement of power that was essentially repressive” (81); but, on a macro-level, the aim of the inquiry will be to “move less toward a ‘theory’ of power than toward an ‘analytics’ of power” (82). In this section, Foucault attempts to describe what power is NOT (i.e. the “juridico-discursive” model). The representation of power that he finds faulty has been formulated, over time, within the context of five principle features: 1) “negative relation” that establishes connections that are always of “rejection, exclusion, refusal, blockage, concealment, or mask”; 2) “insistence of the rule” that necessarily “placed power in a binary system…prescribes an order…[and] acts by laying down the rule”; 3) “cycle of prohibition,” which is renunciation induced by punishment; 4) “logic of censorship” that affirms “that such a thing is not permitted, [prevents] it from being said, [and denies] that it exists”; and finally, 5) “the uniformity apparatus” that states that “power over sex is exercised in the same way at all levels” (83-4).

“Method,” or subsection two, may be the singularly most important section of the entire book, in that Foucault goes to great lengths to explain exactly what he means when he refers to power, but before he does, he states one more time what power is NOT: “I do not mean ‘Power’ as a group of institutions and mechanism that insure subservience of the citizens of a given state.., a mode of subjugation which…has the form of rule.., or a general system of domination exerted by one group over the other” (92) Instead, he posits power as something entirely different: a dynamic entity, as opposed to the static model previously conceived (side note: in many ways, the manner in which Foucault conceives of power intersects with the rhizomatic model employed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus). Due to the importance of the concept, and the specificity with which he explains it, I quote Foucault at length: “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 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 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” (92-3). Furthermore, power is everywhere “because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another” (93).

Vis-à-vis his definition of power, Foucault also proposes a series of propositions that are immanent to the concept of power: 1) “power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared,” instead it is “exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations”; 2) “relations of power are…immanent to the latter” (i.e. not exterior to power) and are the “immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums of these relationships”; 3) “power comes from below,” meaning that there is no binary opposition that divides (e.g. rulers and subjects); 4) “power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective,” or stated in other words, power relations, while calculated, cannot be ascribed to an individual subject as their source; and 5) “where there is power, there is resistance…[which] is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (94-5). Moreover, with regard to resistance, its “existence depends on a multiplicity of points,” as such “there is no single locus of…revolt” (95-6).

Foucault closes the “Method” subsection with a list of four “cautionary prescriptions.” The first, which he labels “rule of immanence,” states that sexuality was deemed worthy of investigation because “relations of power had established it as a possible object” due to the fact that “techniques of knowledge and procedures of discourse were capable of investing in it” (98). The second rule is that of “continual variation”; which claims that “relations of power- knowledge are not static forms of distribution [but] matrices of transformations”. The “rule of double conditioning” proposes that “no pattern of transformation could function if…it did not enter into an over-all strategy. And inversely, no strategy could achieve comprehensive effects if it did not gain support from precise and tenuous relations.” Finally, the “rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses” purports that “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together”; additionally, “discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines it and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart.” As such, discourses are “tactical blocks operating in the field of force relations” (98-102).

Subsections three and four, “Domain” and “Periodization” respectively, while important, serve as more practical outlines to the series that will follow. In “Domain,” Foucault itemizes the specific areas of sexuality he will investigate; they are: “the sexualization of children, the hysterization of women, the specification of the perverted, and the regulation of populations” (114). In the final section, Foucault constructs two separate arguments: the first attempts, through a brief cause-and-effect strategy with regard to specific, historical moments, to “cast doubt on the idea of a repressive cycle” (122); the second demonstrates how the discourse on sexuality, far from working within a paradigm of repression, was employed to prolong and enhance the quality of life for the bourgeois and only later was passed on to the proletariat when it was in the former’s best interest (i.e. the preservation of society). To this extent, sexuality formed “a political ordering of life, not through enslavement of others, but through an affirmation of self” (123).

Foucault, History of Sexuality V1, Part V

The primary development found within the concluding section of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume 1 is the introduction of the concept biopower. Biopower, as conceived by Foucault, functions as a means to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (136) through a complex network of generative strategies. As such, the concept of biopower differs from earlier forms of power that focused on stifling force by “impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them” (136). Yet, while the two types of power employ different elements to produce their given effects within a particular context, one should not view these as antithetical operations. Indeed, the juridical mode of power and biopower form, “rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations” (139); it is just that, given the context of a post-18th-century world, the latter of these has taken precedence.

To further explain the concept of biopower, one must understand that it focuses “on the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and morality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity…their supervision…effected through a series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population” (139). These regulatory controls, manifesting in themselves in “political practices and economic observation” (140), are inextricably linked to the cultural-economic context of capitalism, in that the “latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (141). Finally, to re-state the definition of biopower in other words, as it is an important concept, it is that which 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).

Foucault lists several consequences of the development of biopower. First, due to its formation, the answer to “the question of man” is “sought in the new mode of relation between history and life: in this dual position of life that placed it at the same time outside history, in its biological environment, and inside human historicity, penetrated by the latter’s techniques of knowledge and power” (143) . An additional consequence of biopower was the growing importance of the “norm.” Normatives became integral to this new mode of power because it focused on “distributing the living in the domain of value and utility. Such power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize”; therefore, instead of creating designations, such as enemy or villain, etc., “it effects distribution around the norm” (144) and such a normative standard dictates what is acceptable or privileged. Finally, it develops within a subject-position, “the ‘right’ to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and beyond all the oppressions and ‘alienations,’ the ‘right’ to rediscover what one is and all that one can be” (145).

Foucault closes the first volume by, once again, posing self-generated critiques of his investigation on sexuality. The counter arguments that he raises, and then refutes are: 1) his theory of sexuality transposes “to the level of diffuse processes mechanisms which psychoanalysis has identified with precision at the level of the individual” (151), and 2) his history of sexuality ignores the materiality of sex, or the “idea of sex in itself” (152).

1 comment:

Molly Gaudry said...

Good work. Plenty of grad students are going to google the title of this post and find their lives so much easier! So...why are you reading Foucault? For me, it was: Foundations in Feminist Theory, offered by the Women's Studies department.