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SHIVELY, Charles. Review of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction
Article published on 24 December 2006
last modification on 27 April 2015

by r-c.
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Michel Foucault (Pantheon, New York City, 1978)

Foucault begins The History of Sexuality by poking fun at the contemporary Faustian pact which would "exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and the sovereignty of sex." Yet he himself now devotes his life (or a considerable part of it) to this very project. And if the six projected volumes live up to the promise of the introduction, Foucault will have written something on the order of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind addressed not to art, intellect, philosophy, history or politics but to sexuality.

Foucault dismisses the standard history of progress from medieval superstitution to twentieth century sexual enlightenment. Instead of experiencing an expanding freedom, people have been circumscribed in new ways which pass as liberation. Two great thrusts are identified: first, during the sixteenth century with "the development of procedures of direction and examination of conscience; end at the beginning of the nineteenth century, [with] the advent of medical technologies of sex."

The common end of society has been control; the unspeakable or unnoticed has come more and more under supervision. Thus talk about sex has seldom made it more enjoyable or available; only more circumscribed. In this systematic development, four figures, divisions, amusements emerged: "the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple and the perverse adult." Before the sixteenth century, concern had centered only on the marriage contract and its fulfillment; everything else had been left more or less alone (according to Foucault); then suddenly each of these became a central focus of interest and control.

Doonesbury, by Trudeau
On September 2003, this strip, based on a study by the New Scientist, was "edited",– the polite word for "censored"–, by about half of the 700 newspapers that syndicated it.Source

None of these four had even been recognized as topics earlier; their definition itself became a form of tyranny. "Hysteria" became a way to define and control women. Masturbation also enveloped the world of children whose sexuality suddenly came under massive scrutiny. And birth or population control, sensible as it might at first sound, allowed the government to develop policies for reproduction just as they have for the economy (mercantilism, imperialism, corporate capitalism, etc.). And the study of perversion has not been undertaken with any other aim than the control (if not extermination) of the perverse. In each of these, Foucault places great emphasis on the importance of definition as a way of imprisoning, institutionalizing activities which earlier went along quite generally and quite happily.

Foucault’s work deserves careful study by anarchists or those concerned with power and dominance. His commitment to fighting systems of power is exemplary. Earlier writings—Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)— attack two central institutions: "mental hospitals" and prisons. "Revolutionary action," Foucault says, "is defined as the simultaneous agitation of consciousness and institutions; this implies that we attack the relationships of power through the notions and institutions that function as instruments, armature, and armor. Do you think that the teaching of philosophy — and its moral code — would remain unchanged if the penal system collapsed?" (November, 1971 interview, Actuel)

Most English-speaking readers will have difficulty following Foucault’s Hegelian analysis. Anarchists, in particular, have little respect for a philosopher who concluded with remarkable obscurity that the state and god are one. Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies) has argued that both Stalinism and Fascism originate in Hegel. The core of Hegel’s argument is that freedom is the identity of the individual’s personal goals with those of the general government. In this process, laws and regulations are supposedly created by each and all; these in turn are expressed and realized in the mind and action of the corporate society.

Foucault might be identified hastily as a Hegelian or a Structuralist (the two are related, if not the same). But he rejects such labels, I think, because he enters this realm of discourse only to demonstrate the dangers contained therein. Thus Hegel’s description of how society and the individual merge describes precisely the program that has been implemented in regard to sexuality. What is so alarming is the way society has convinced everyone that they must monitor and control sexuality both in themselves and in others. Anita Bryant no less than Dr. Benjamin Spock conspires to keep everyone in line. The dangers in modern society thus come less from a few father figures or institutions than from this all-encompassing dialectic of a right line on sexuality.

Basically Foucault argues that most writing about power is pre-Hegelian. We still think in terms of a monarchical society, where the sovereign "exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing." But today, Foucault argues that sovereignty is exercised in a much more diffuse and effective way. Suicide is forbidden; even capital punishment uncommon; "it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body." And in gaining this control over life and the body, the discourse on sexuality has been a major instrument.

Foucault claims that sexuality is not a great reservoir of rebellion waiting to strike out against constituted authority; on the contrary, those who think they rebel in pushing for sexual liberation only reaffirm the system of power. "It is the agency of sex that we must break away from if we aim — through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality — to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance."

Central to Foucault’s discussion is his rejection of the "Repressive Hypothesis." He sidesteps any clear confrontation with Sigmund Freud’s or Wilhelm Reich’s analysis of the unconscious, repression and the return of the repressed material in uncontrollable ways such as neurosis or fascism. Foucault can dismiss the idea of "repression" in a limited way with examples of censorship and bowlderization. But the activities of the unconscious have been too often demonstrated—in dreams, slips of the tongue or other "irrational" behavior—to be dismissed without more discussion. Freud may be tainted with nineteenth century thermodynamics (although the reproductive glands, organs and tubes do utilize a hydraulic system); nonetheless, psychoanalysis has done more than any other body of writing to explain what sexuality is and how it functions. And by contrast Foucault’s analysis of sex as a political issue seems lame: "It was at the pivot of two axes along which developed the entire political technology of life. On the one hand, it was tied to the disciplines of the body: the harnessing, intensification, and distribution of forces, the adjustment and economy of energies. On the other hand, it was applied to the regulation of populations, through all the far-reaching effects of its activity."

In two areas, Foucault shares major weaknesses in his analysis of sexuality with Sigmund Freud: women’s sexuality and class. In any history of sexuality, the insights of feminists cannot be ignored. Foucault has had the text of Simone de Beauvoir available since publication of The Second Sex 1949 How can he leave aside the power men have exercised over women and the forms of resistance women have forged through the centuries? His blindness appears in an earlier analysis (with his students) of Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother.. (1973). Their learned commentary like that of the earlier doctors overlooked Pierre’s quite explicit explanation of why he did it: "I would die for my father, that no matter how much they [the magistrates] were in favor of women they would not triumph... it is the women who are in command now in this fine age ..."

Foucault manifests similar difficulties with class as he does with feminism. Perhaps he shares the view that "anarchist analysis is concerned with domination as such, and not merely or primarily exploitation." But the exploitation of women no less than that of workers entails deeply rooted institutions within society that may be simply special examples of domination, but in fact appear in such a pervasive form that they require special analysis (and organization).

Women or workers, dominated by their status (or caste), need to arm themselves with more than a little ideology. Foucault allows that there are class relationships (and his comments on them are quite extraordinary) but he first subordinates all relationships to ideology and intellect.

As a final point on this question of ideology, let me consider Foucault’s analysis of perversion and homosexuality. Here I think such factors as social organization, oppression of women and sexual repression carry more weight than ideology. At any rate, Foucault’s conclusion that homosexuals simply suffer from the invention of the idea of perversion is a perverse notion. To me. this seems only another argument for our nonexistence. We in fact are more than the misconception of some Victorian doctors. Whatever the argument might be which would say we don’t exist, there are in its place myriads of us exploring and finding each other’s bodies, searching for fun, pleasure and fulfillment in sexual and other acts. Among those acts are the organization of homosexuals into fighting -groups. No theory will dissolve these groups: concentration camps, churches, "asylums," laws, persuasion, cold showers, metaphysics, hard work, electro-shock, behavior modification, police, teachers, beatings, primal therapy, prayer, proper diet, exercise. None of these have been able to destroy us.

Foucault leaves a lot to be desired in his removed attitude. No thinker or author stands outside the subject he/she analyzes; that is an illusion he of all people should recognize. Foucault himself is a homosexual and has contributed in practical ways to the gay movement in France; fighting for repeal of anti-gay legislation passed under Hitler and DeGaulle and supporting the independent gay French press. While he scorns confession and autobiography because they fit into the power system, he cannot escape so easily his own relation to the history of sexuality. Anarchists in partic- ular admire the propaganda of the deed; thought emerges not from thinking but from living and struggling. In the area of sexuality for instance, why doesn’t Foucault talk about how it feels to suck a cock, get fucked, fuck, or whatever he does? Why should he pretend his thought is separated from his sexuality? It isn’t; the brain is a sexual organ.

Charley Shively

arrow On web : First published in Black Rose #2.

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