Michel Foucault

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Mark Poster

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[In The History of Sexuality] Foucault has attempted to redefine completely the question of sexuality by removing it from the paradigm of repression. Instead, sexuality for him must be considered in terms of concepts of knowledge and power. In this manner Foucault places sex in relation to the emergence of the administered society of the twentieth century. He challenges both Marx and Freud by shifting the grounds of the debate: the concepts of labor and repression no longer serve in the critical comprehension of history; the privileged places in social theory and social life are no longer the factory and the unconscious. Foucault suggests nothing less than a basic reconceptualization of the logic of history, one that promises to revitalize critical theory.

Before analyzing The History of Sexuality I shall situate Foucault's thought by suggesting some principles of interpretation that apply to all his main works. Foucault is first a critic of Marxism. In The Order of Things he diminishes the stature of Marx's thought by placing it in the context of an earlier paradigm…. Foucault's accomplishments undercut the privileged place of labor as developed by Marx. Foucault's books analyze spaces outside of labor—asylums, clinics, prisons, schoolrooms, and the arenas of sexuality. In these social loci Foucault finds sources of radicality that are not theorized by Marx and Marxists. Implicit in Foucault's work is an attack on the centrality of labor to an emancipatory politics. His thought proceeds from the assumption that the working class, through its place in the process of production, is not the vanguard of social change. Foucault may take this as a fact of life in advanced capitalism, or more interestingly, he may be suggesting that the working class is, in its practice and through its organizations (the Party and the union), an accomplice of capitalism and not its contradiction. Radical change may come instead from those who are and have been excluded from the system—the insane, criminals, perverts, and women.

The second general characteristic of Foucault's thought is that he looks at discourses/practices. Discourses are not simply texts but also patterns of action. Foucault has defined the principles that organize discourses at different times as epistemes. Epistemes are the unconscious rules through which words, things, and actions cohere. They are the grids which make possible discourse/practice. On the level of the episteme, Foucault maintains, Marx is not a radical. Indeed Marx does not provide a critique of the established rules of discourse, and his thought cannot offer a way out of the established system.

The third trait of Foucault's thought is the search for the Other. Without proclaiming it an explicit goal, in each of his studies Foucault defines what is different from the present. If it is true that Marxism is part of the present system and not its negation, if it has been incorporated in the order of society, contained and shorn of its negative potentials, then the goal of social thought must have been to set the limits of contemporary society. Theory must define the horizons, the boundaries of an order that is no longer captured by older positions. Marxism loses its grip on the present because it cannot define how the past was other than the present…. The insane of the Middle Ages, the criminal of l'ancien régime, the ars erotica of the East—these people, discourses, and practices are indeed different from ours. By analyzing them Foucault gives a definite shape to the present order. He undercuts the illusion generated by one-dimensional society: that everything has always been thus and must remain so.

Fourth, it can be argued...

(This entire section contains 3283 words.)

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that the place from which Foucault theorizes, the reference point of his work, is a world of which Marx knew little. Foucault is the social theorist of a society characterized by information. The late twentieth century is no longer the world of little factories with hard-working manual laborers. It is a world of science, information, computers…. And this world is Foucault's world, the one whose history he implicitly seeks to trace and the shape of whose antecedents he attempts to define. Each volume he has written is a treatise on how it once was and how scientific, technological, informational discourse/practice arose and displaced what once was. As Marx theorized from the vantage point of the classic proletariat, so Foucault theorizes from the perspective of an emerging world of information processing.

The role of structuralism in Foucault's thought may now be clarified. Foucault is often lumped with Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida as a post-structuralist, but this designation hides as much as it reveals. Foucault has rejected the structuralist label, and properly so. He is not a formalist seeking only to plot the binary oppositions that form the logic of texts. He treats discourses and practices. Nevertheless, there are certain features associated with structuralist thought that are found throughout Foucault's works. There is the emphasis on the synchronic as opposed to the diachronic, the tendency to trace the intricate play within a discourse rather than focus on its origin. Foucault is more interested in how a given society organizes punishment, for example, than in how that practice arose and evolved. There is his stress on the discontinuity between social orders, on the absolute break or rupture separating one discourse from another, rather than on the dialectical or homogeneous development of one thing into another. Finally there is a decentered view of the totality in which no one place is privileged. In all these respects—decentered totality, discontinuity, synchrony—Foucault takes his lead from the structuralists. The consequence is the elaboration of a logic of history that is neither progressist nor evolutionist, neither Marxist nor Hegelian.

The History of Sexuality provides an arena in which my view of Foucault's work can be assessed. Foucault promised six volumes devoted to the topic. In 1976 the introductory first book appeared with the subtitle The Will to Knowledge, a transparent allusion to Nietzsche's The Will to Power. There have been rumors from Paris that Foucault has abandoned this project in favor of further studies of crime and punishment.

The History of Sexuality opens with an attack on the Freudo-Marxist position. The concept of repression, Foucault charges, is a false guide to the problem of sexuality. It suggests that sex disappears in the nineteenth century, that sex was pushed out of consciousness and out of practice as the bourgeoisie came to power. Even a superficial reading of history, Foucault counters, demonstrates the opposite: that sexuality flourished as never before in the nineteenth century. This surprising assertion refers not to erotic fulfillment but to the expansion of the discourse on sexuality. For Foucault sex cannot have been "repressed" and at the same time talked about so much. (pp. 155-57)

Foucault's main argument against [Freud's] doctrine of repression is that it is a false model of the relation between power and sex. Following Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Foucault contends that the law does not act as a negative obstacle to the positive, natural drive of sex, as the doctrine of repression implies. Things happen quite differently. For Foucault power is positive: it creates the form of sexuality. In his words, "the law is what constitutes both desire and the lack on which it is predicated." This important shift in the argument requires elaboration. (p. 158)

According to Freud, children have natural erotic drives for their parents which become repressed. Anti-Oedipus, however, argues that the sexual attachments of children for parents is a coding initiated by the parents which elicits the desire and then prohibits it. There are thus no natural sex drives. All sexuality is "always already" coded by a law…. Without citing Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault takes this model as the essence of power. But if that is so, the project of a history of sexuality cannot proceed by searching for prohibitions against sex; it must look instead to power as the creator of sexuality. Foucault provides extensive examples of such a view of power taken from the history of medicine.

Rather than treat the history of sexuality as a documentation of acts of repression, Foucault directs his attention to the operations of power. At this point he introduces the notion of discourse…. Discourse for [Foucault] is not some idealist representation of ideas; it is, in materialist fashion, part of the power structure of society. Power relations must be understood in the structuralist manner as decentered, as a multiplicity of local situations. Discourses are important because they reveal the play of power in a given situation. They are not "ideological representations" of class positions but acts of power shaping actively the lives of the populace. The history of sexuality must study discourses on sexuality to uncover the shapes given to it. Foucault rejects the distinction, which derives from the episteme of representation, between ideas/discourses and action/sexuality. (pp. 158-59)

Foucault is in search of "true discourses." His definition of truth is not the philosopher's. He is not after the best-argued, the most logically coherent text…. The level he is after is much more mundane, much closer to the pulse of social life. His discourses are those of ordinary doctors; they are the files of clinics that treat sexual "disorders"; they are the letters of local priests; they are the dossiers housed in bureaucracies; they are grant proposals for the study of sexuality; they are the psychotherapist's file; they are the files of social welfare agencies. At these locations, in these discourses, the play of power and the question of sexuality reveal themselves. This is where "the political economy of a will to knowledge" of sexuality is constituted.

In the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality Foucault offers an outline of the history of sexuality that merits the attention of historians. The concept of discourse leads Foucault directly to the Christian confession as the locus of sexuality. Here he finds two phases. In the earlier period, before the seventeenth century, the priest was concerned with what people did. The faithful were asked in detail about their sexual activities. In that period sexuality concerned the body, which was allowed certain positions and denied others. The discourse of sexuality was rudimentary and crude; talk, in the society, was open and frank. (pp. 160-61)

With the Reformation and Counter Reformation the discourse on sexuality takes another form. In the confession the priest begins to inquire not only about actions, but also about intentions. Sexuality begins to be defined in terms of the mind as well as the body. The scope of the sexual expands to include the least thoughts and fantasies. A loquaciousness about sexuality emerges. Everything must be pored over and examined in great detail. A similar pattern of change is discovered by Foucault in his history of crime and punishment. Discourse intensifies from a concern with action and the body to a concern with the mind and its intentions. But the important change in the discourse of sexuality does not take place until later, during the capitalist period. At this time, although by no means because of the mode of production, the confession becomes scientific. Foucault offers as a hypothesis that the great alteration in sexuality occurred when the discourse on sex became a matter of science. Once that happened, sexuality became a major preoccupation and began to assume its current shape.

The major example of a modern discourse on sexuality, a new scientific confessional, is of course psychoanalysis. Perhaps Foucault's major accomplishment in The History of Sexuality is to treat Freud as part of history rather than to study the history of sex from a Freudian vantage point. The conceptual point d'honneur of the Freudo-Marxists—that Freud treats the instincts as outside society and therefore as a source of social criticism—is shorn of its scientific power. Freud's concept of the instincts becomes, in Foucault's hands, just another device to control and shape sexuality. The concept of the instincts is a power strategy by the new medical profession which allows them to inquire into sex, to explore it by the method of the "talking cure," to examine dreams and fantasies, the recesses of the mind, in a way never before contemplated. The Freudian view of the instincts does not provide a reservoir of resistance against the ruling class. It does not promise a sexual revolution. For sexuality, to Foucault, is not something outside society waiting to burst through the layers of repression. On the contrary, by positing a sexual instinct Freud opened up a new realm for the domination of science over sexuality.

Foucault's sexual liberation comes not with Freud but against him. To exult in sexuality is not to break with the ruling powers but rather to fulfill their prescription. Foucault charts the course of revolution not as the vanguard of sexuality against the ruling powers but as the insertion of the body against "sex" and power. (p. 161)

The heart of the matter for Foucault is that the history of sexuality amounts to a continuous increase, beginning in the seventeenth century, in the "mechanisms" and "technologies" of power. During the course of this history the locus of power shifts from the confessional to the research laboratories and clinics where sexuality is the subject of scientific investigation. Historians are directed by Foucault to explore in detail the "true discourses" on sex generated under the sign of science. In particular he calls attention to four "mechanisms of knowledge and power" on sex. These are: the hysteriazation of women's bodies, the pedagogization of children's sex, the socialization of procreative behavior, and the psychiatrization of perverse behavior. These mechanisms are directed at four "figures": hysterical women, masturbating children, Malthusian couples, and perverse adults. Taken together these "mechanisms" constitute the "production of sexuality" in the modern period.

Anyone familiar with the history of the nineteenth century will be impressed by Foucault's choice of subjects. The literature on sexuality is indeed concerned with these four figures to a very great extent…. One might question … Foucault's exclusion of the sexually diseased male, since some historians think that syphilis was epidemic in the nineteenth century. The aggressive female was another major concern of doctors and parents…. These topics would serve as well as those chosen by Foucault to examine discourses on sexuality, and Foucault's selection must therefore be regarded as somewhat arbitrary. (p. 162)

Attention to these "true discourses" on sexuality does not necessarily constitute a history of sexuality. It is doubtful that these figures could be generalized to serve as conceptual guides for a history of sexuality at any time other than the nineteenth century. Worse still, these figures and their attendant discourses only apply to one segment of the population in Europe and the United States. The bourgeoisie fits well into Foucault's categories; but the working class in the cities and perhaps the peasantry in the countryside do not. These latter groups were not subject to the knowledge/power of the medical and psychiatric professions, nor were they avid readers of discourses on hysterical women and perversions. Foucault might respond to the objection that his analysis does not account for class differences by pointing out that the spread of the discourse on sex through society took time to unfold. Yet the question remains how to account for class differences in the first place.

Foucault is cognizant of the importance of social class in the history of sexuality. He presents a fascinating discussion of the differences between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie on the topic of the body. For the aristocracy the body meant blood. Lineage was the all-important consideration for them. For the bourgeoisie, however, the body was instead a question of life and health. (p. 163)

For Foucault the distinction between the aristocratic and bourgeois discourse on the body serves to strengthen his critique of the Freudo-Marxists. Far from repressing the body, he contends, the bourgeoisie devoted a great deal of attention to it. Nevertheless, while his argument is well taken, it does not really speak to the issue of sexuality. The bourgeois concern with the body was not an erotic one; good diet and hygiene are not the same as sensuality. The bourgeois body may have been cared for and tended better than that of the aristocracy, but it was far less a vessel of sexuality. One suspects in fact that the bourgeois attention to health was a utilitarian and economic quest. Energy for this social class was marshaled for the great battles of the market and the factory, not for the gentlemanly pursuit of a woman's favors. Although Foucault addresses the question of class and sex, he has not reached the heart of the problem.

The emphasis on knowledge/power leads Foucault against himself to a totalistic view of the history of sexuality. Although he asserts that there is no "unitary sexual politics," he does not offer a basis on which to comprehend sexuality in a given society in any way other than collectively. Discourses on sex may differ in a particular epoch, but they are the discourses of the society as a whole. Yet the history of sexuality cannot be pursued at the level of the total society. Social groups and regions differ too markedly in their sexuality to be considered together in one general framework. (pp. 163-64)

Foucault's account of the history of sexuality goes astray in overlooking the importance of the family. If the emotional structure of the family is taken into account, differences among classes regarding sexuality become intelligible. In the stifling air of the private bourgeois family of the nineteenth century, where the feelings of each family member have no outlet other than the family, the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the pervert, and the Malthusian couple emerge with clarity. Although sexuality in the bourgeois family was open to the influences of medical discourses, the structure of everyday life in the family itself is of at least equal importance in the task of explanation…. Foucault's program for the history of sexuality deflects too much attention away from the family in favor of more distant agencies of power. (p. 164)

Commentaries on Foucault's earlier works have pointed out that his concept of power is vague and ambiguous. The power embodied in discourses on sex is not the clearly defined power of the state or even the discernible power of the "helping professions." Power, Foucault proclaims, is everywhere. In all the relations of society, power—especially the power of discourse—is exercised. Foucault is sensitive to the force of opinion on people's action. He sees clearly the way all practice is subject to the pressure of what he calls discourse. In everyday life no action is innocent; no project is carried out from the pure intention of the actor. Individual reason is not the power that determines what happens. Especially people who do not conform to dominant social values—the handicapped, racial minorities, those with unusual sexual preferences, the physically deformed—can feel the influence of what Foucault calls "force relations" or "technologies of power."

The irony of Foucault's position is that although he is acutely aware of "power relations" in society he pays little heed to the "power" of his own discourse. He does not pose the fundamental question, What is the role of his own discourse in the history of discourses on sexuality? If discourse is a mode of power that elicits sexuality and shapes it, will not the same fate befall Foucault's discourse? Foucault seeks to liberate society from the power of "true discourses" on sex and thereby to contribute to the "counterattack" of free "bodies and pleasures." Yet nothing prevents Foucault's project from becoming but another "true discourse." (pp. 164-65)

Mark Poster, "Foucault's True Discourses," in Humanities in Society, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 153-66.




Alan Sheridan