The publication of Michel Foucault’s first volume of the The History of Sexuality thoroughly transformed theoretical thinking around sexuality. A range of Foucault’s longstanding concerns around power, knowledge, discourse, truth, and subjectivity culminate in this text about the genealogy of sexuality in Christian western societies. With this book, Foucault attempted to write the history of sexuality ‘‘from the viewpoint of the history of discourses.’’ In Foucault’s work, the concept of discourse is intrinsically interwoven with what he perceived to be distinctively modern forms of power. The insistence that modern power is productive rather than simply repressive is one of the central assets of his novel theory of power. Premodern forms of power were based on the idea of power sovereignty or power law. They were derived from monarchical techniques of government and drew upon the binary ruler/ruled. From within this paradigm, power is conceived as negative. It works through measures such as censorship, prohibition, prevention, exclusion, or spectacular forms of punishment. In contradistinction, power as a modality of discourse is positive in that it is productive of social relationships, forms of knowledge, and modes of subjectivity. Moreover, it is more difficult to pin it down clearly or to identify its origin in any particular agent, institution, or social space. Foucault describes discursive power as having a dispersed, contradictory, and all pervasive character.
Foucault (1990) applies this understanding of power to the subject of sexuality in order to challenge what he calls the repressive hypothesis. By questioning the dominant historical narrative of sexual repression, he undermines commonsense views about the interrelationship between power and sexuality. Whereas in the traditional understanding, power is exerted to repress, silence, censor, or erase sexuality, Foucault starts to conceive of sexuality as being an immediate effect of power. From this point of view, the most significant strategies of power in modern societies are not the exclusion of sexuality from discourse, but its regulation through the production of public discourses on sexuality. Foucault identifies an institutional incitement to speak about sex at the heart of western culture (s). It is in the multiplication of discourses on sexuality and the assumption that sex would reveal the truth of our innermost selves that the power–sexuality relation is realized. Thus, Foucault speaks of ‘‘confessional power’’ to designate this ‘‘putting into discourse’’ of sex in the Catholic tradition of confession or the secular discourse of psychoanalysis.
With his insistence that power is productive of sexuality rather than repressive, Foucault attacks the basic assumptions of sexual liberationism that had a strong hold in the New Left, the counter culture, and the feminist and lesbian and gay social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Foucault suggests that it would be naive to assume that it is possible to revolutionize society by fighting off sexual restrictions and freeing our repressed natural sexual selves. Discussing the repressive hypothesis, he occasionally refers to the ‘‘Reichians’’ in order to characterize the discourse that he wishes to challenge. The German psychoanalyst and communist Wilhelm Reich emphasized the instrumentality of sexual repression through state, churches, and authoritarian family structures for class domination in capitalistic societies. As a theorist and activist, Reich was a core figure in organizing the so called Sexpol movement, a working class (youth) movement for class struggle and sexual liberation in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Sexpol had a short history. It was allowed to work within the ranks of the GCP only until 1932, when Reich was excluded from the party and some of his controversial publications were banned. The ideas of Reich gained an enormous popularity in the revival of sexual liberationism in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Freudo-Marxist theories of Herbert Marcuse were widely endorsed in progressive social movement contexts.
Like other historians of sexuality, Foucault emphasizes the enormous relevance of medico-psychiatric discourses for shaping modern thoughts on human sexuality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Weeks 1990). The notion of sexuality was produced in this period through an engagement of early sexologists with sexual deviance or ‘‘perversion.’’ What was previously seen as a sin or temporary aberration in Christian canonical law became reinterpreted as a matter of character or mental pathology. In sexological discourse the sexual norm was carefully defined in a process of increasing specification of sexually perverted types. This provides the backdrop to Foucault’s famous thesis of the ‘‘invention of homosexuality.’’ The ‘‘homosexual,’’ according to Foucault, came into existence as a form of being through the self-affirmative appropriation of these sexological knowledges in a kind of ‘‘reverse discourse.’’ Sexuality, consequently, presents (nothing more than) a discursive formation, a power/knowledge configuration, or an apparatus in the service of power.
Foucault coined the term bio power to conceive of the strategies of modern nation states to regulate human life through expert techniques. He describes the working of bio power on two levels: the ‘‘anatomo-politics of the body’’ (i.e., disciplinary power governing sexual identities and acts) and the ‘‘bio politics of the population’’ (the regulation and control of the life of the population, through statistics, eugenics, demographics, etc.). In light of the concept of bio power, sexuality can be understood as a ‘‘technology of government.’’ Since Foucault ascribes a wide range of meanings to the concept of government, he also applies it to phenomena not directly linked to political and bureaucratic processes. In its most generalized meaning, government designates the ‘‘conduct of conduct.’’ This definition does not only refer to the conduct of others, but also the regulation of our own conduct in the ‘‘relation to ourselves.’’ At this point, Foucault’s writing on sexuality conjoins with his critical work on subjectivity.
While Foucault’s work on sexuality chimes in well with the historicizing and anti-essentialist arguments advanced within social constructionist scholarship, it also points beyond it. His method of critical genealogy opens up a set of new and different questions aiming to explore the (historical) context of the emergence of certain social and sexual phenomena. In that he conceives of the sexual subject as an effect of discourse and power his work further contains an anti-identitarian element that has fueled the deconstructive endeavor of recent queer theorizing (Halperin 1995).
The pathbreaking influence of Foucault’s thought notwithstanding, a range of criticisms has been leveled against his work on sexuality. Although being primarily concerned with the complexity of power, he failed to address the centrality of gender and race to the bio politics he studied. Some have further complained that his thesis of the ubiquity of power would not be helpful to theorize agency or resistance and that his claim that ‘‘there is no relation of power without resistance’’ would at best be tautological. Foucault tried to address the latter issue in his work on ethics in volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality. Here he claims that the imperative within classical Greek ethics to ‘‘take care of yourself’’ would bear the potential for a non-prohibitive ethics based on the ‘‘techniques of self-stylization’’ or an ‘‘aesthetics of existence.’’ Foucault labels these practices alternately ‘‘practices of freedom’’ or the ‘‘government of self.’’ It is an issue of contention in how far this work stands in an unbridgeable tension with his earlier claims. A high degree of ambivalence certainly remains.
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