Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: Michel Foucault's "The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I"

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I've read bits and pieces of this from readers as well as excerpts for courses. This is the first I've read it from beginning to end. Overall, Foucault attempts to make three very broad points. The first is that there was never any sexual repression in the Victorian age to present. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Instead of forcing various sexualities underground to the point of non-existence, Victorian culture produced these sexualities through discourse. They talked about what hadn't before been talked about: "If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression" (6). Within this broad argument against repression, Foucault lays out three inner arguments:
One can raise three serious doubts concerning what I shall term the ‘repressive hypothesis.’ First doubt: Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact? . . . Second doubt: 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? . . . A third and final doubt: 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 (and doubtless misrepresents) by calling it ‘repression’? (10)
The first two he answers in the negative. A perfect example of the social construction of sexuality, as opposed to the social repression of an already existent sexuality, can be found in the medicalization of sex. Here is a perfect example of how physicians and psychiatrists helped to "expose" what had before not even existed:
So too were all those minor perverts . . . entomologized by giving them strange baptismal names: there were Krafft-Ebing’s zoophiles, and zooerasts, Rohleder’s auto-monosexualists; and later, mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women. These fine names for heresies referred to a nature that was overlooked by the law, but not so neglectful of itself that it did not go on producing more species, even where there was no order to fir them into. The machinery of power that focused on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality . . . (43)
Foucault spends a good deal of time focusing on confession and penance within the Christian traditional as an important discursive act that constituted sexuality in the 17th-19th centuries. It is through this pivot that Foucault shifts to his second major exploration -- that of power. Confession and power are intimately linked, as he shows by stating that "the 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, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile . . . (61-62). For me, it is the section on power that is the most interesting. For Foucault, power is not something that is possessed and disposed of. It is something that exists in relationships. All parties can act out power, but there is often a dissymmetry of power. When that dissymmetry is consistently lop-sided, oppression results. It is also on power where Foucault is most easily understood. A series of aphorisms prove the point:
Power’s condition of possibility . . . must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty . . .

[What makes power possible is] the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable.

[Power] is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society (93).

Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations. Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter; they are the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter, and conversely they are the internal conditions of these differentiations; relations of power are not in superstructural positions, with merely a role of prohibition or accompaniment; they have a directly productive role, wherever they come into play.

Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix—no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body (94).
What is also important about discourse in power is that the hegemonic theme can often be turned against it. Power often has an amorphous motivation which can easily flip and become counter-hegemonic. Foucault illustrates the repression of homosexuality as an example:
There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic hermaphrodism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified (101).
Last of Foucault's major point is an abstract exploration of what he would come to call bio-politics. Here he refers to sex not for its desire or passion, but rather for its reproductive and economic ends. The state came to view reproduction as an economic technique. From this comes to focus on demography as well as the attempt to confine sex to reproductive ends. For more on this side of sexuality, I highly recommend the College de France lecture series "The Birth of Biopolitics."

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