Monday, August 8, 2011

Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction

Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. of New York, releases a book of philosophy entitled The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction by Michel Foucault. Robert Hurley translates this volume from the French language in 1978. This Vintage Books Edition comes out in March 1990. The original text is La Volenté de savoir and published by Éditions Gallimard of Paris in 1976. This edition has five parts, and parts two and four are subdivided into two and four chapters, respectively. The book also includes an index.

This history does not exactly concern the complete history of sexuality, but rather a cultural trend within the past few centuries. Particularly, Foucault looks at how the discourse of sex, or the lack of it, leads people to think constantly about it. Brain Drain sums it up best saying that “oppression leads to obsession.” (If that is so, then this book review is just another example of an oppressed individual obsessed with a physical phenomenon.) What Foucault sees in the past few centuries is a sort of power shift among the populace that tries to control who can and cannot discuss sexuality. Foucault’s observations show how our discussion of sex falls into “taboo, nonexistence, and silence” (4-5). When sexuality is talked about, it is in a subversive dialogue, because participants think they are breaking the rules by wanting “a knowledge of pleasure, a pleasure that comes of knowing pleasure, a knowledge-pleasure” (77).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the political theater. There is always a tension between the rulers and the ruled regarding sexuality, and all covet the power that sexuality entails and carries with it. “Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it” (26). These controls have relevance in our political discourse today. Take the tension between those supporting traditional values and others supporting the freedom to marry, as just one example. As Foucault develops his theory, he implies that Western society’s attitudes of sexuality come about through bourgeois utilitarian policies to keep the workforce amply supplied and the profits rolling in. “All this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?” (36-37). (Maybe, but I think communist and socialist politics have also thought of politically useful ways to deploy their agendas of sexuality.)

Foucault then focuses on power over sexuality by discussing the religious and secular jurisprudence. This got me thinking about the leader of the FLDS community, Warren Jeffs. Many followers believe his word is law, and especially so when wives are distributed among the faithful priesthood authority. On the other side, courts in various states at local and federal levels attempt to enforce their own laws regarding sexuality. The courts assert that their legal definitions of sexuality override the verbal pronouncements of a religious leader. All this boils down to discourse, or who has the power to proclaim what is legal. Foucault writes, “And finally, power acts by laying down the rule: power’s hold on sex is maintained through language, or rather through the act of discourse that creates, from the very fact that it is articulated, a rule of law. It speaks, and that is the rule. The pure form of power resides in the function of the legislator; and its mode of action with regard to sex is of a juridico-discursive character” (83).

Further, I found one passage very poignant, especially when Foucault mentions a theory of repression. Again, Warren Jeffs comes to mind. In a system of repression, “the theory would justify its authoritarian and constraining influence by postulating that all sexuality must be subject to the law; more precisely, that sexuality owes its very definition to the action of the law: not only will you submit your sexuality to the law, but you will have no sexuality except by subjecting yourself to the law” (128). I guess the poor underage girls in the FLDS religion do not have their say in the matter.

The discussion of sex in this book is quite speculative in nature, only because I do not know enough history to corroborate with Foucault’s observations. However, the discussion becomes more credible when the reader reaches part five of the book. Part five is the crux of Foucault’s thesis. In the past, the monarchical systems had the power to administer death. Noble blood qualified the ruler to gain this power. Now, noble blood has shifted to another qualifier of power, that of sexuality. Many Western societies now have some form of democratic government or policy, and since democracies rest political power on many individuals, sexuality takes over noble blood’s place. “One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (138, emphases in original). This shift brings on a terrible consequence. Before, if one wanted to change government drastically, he deposed the monarch. Now, if one wants to do the same, the power needs to destroy a whole democracy. “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” (137). What a sobering thought!

For the individual, he or she may want to know how sexuality pertains to him or her. Foucault uses a literary figure to apply the individual to the circumstances. He answers the individual as to why sex is such a powerful force. “The Faustian pact, whose temptation has been instilled in us by the deployment of sexuality, is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and the sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for” (156). It is the expression of one’s will to life, even if it leads to death.

This book is a difficult one to swallow. I do see evidence of repression, power, and discourse in today’s culture. I understand how Western society has adopted a scientia sexualis to propagate the mechanisms of sexuality, rather than an ars erotica used by Eastern cultures (57-59). However, something feels to be missing from Foucault’s analysis. What about people who have someone else’s sexuality thrust upon them, as in the case of rape victims? In their cases, it is not a question of repression, but of instigation, or a usurpation of their will.

This book belongs to the collegiate crowd. It deals with a mature subject matter that, although not explicit in details pornographically, may leave impressionable readers feeling bewildered.


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