Michel Foucault's 'The History of Sexuality' pioneered queer theory. In it he builds an argument grounded in a historical analysis of the word "sexuality" against the common thesis that sexuality always has been repressed in Western society. Quite the contrary: since the 17th century, there has been a fixation with sexuality creating a discourse around sexuality. It is this discourse that has created sexual minorities. In 'The History of Sexuality', Foucault attempts to disprove the thesis that Western society has seen a repression of sexuality since the 17th century and that sexuality has been unmentionable, something impossible to speak about. In the 70s, when the book was written, the sexual revolution was a fact. The ideas of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, saying that to conserve your mental health you needed to liberate your sexual energy, were popular. The past was seen as a dark age where sexuality had been something forbidden.
Everywhere there is an apparent desire to render a simple thought
It almost becomes funny, except that it tells us something about how loosely his ideas are rooted in reality. Some people seem to think that complex prose must conceal a profundity of thought, but good readers and writers know that the reverse is usually the case. A thought which is impenetrable is not easily rebutted, and so it may only seem correct by default.
For example, Foucault has the following idea: that talking more about sex is really an attempt to get rid of any sexual activity that isn't focused on having children. It wouldn't be hard to pick holes in that argument, partly because it uses terms we all immediately understand and which we can very quickly relate to reality. But Foucault puts the theory like this:
For was this transformation of sex into discourse not governed by the endeavour to expel from reality the forms of sexuality that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction [...]?
And you'll see from the square brackets that I've left half the sentence out! Here the argument is harder to refute, not because it's any stronger, but because it takes some effort to work out what the fucking hell the man is talking about.
Where he cannot think of a roundabout way of saying something, Foucault instead opts for words which might at least slow his readers down a bit, like erethism. And if no suitably obscure word is at hand, he simply makes one up, so we get a lot of these ugly formations which the postmodernists seem to love, such as discursivity, genitality, or pedagogization.
Here I should point out that from what I can tell, all of this complexity exists in the original French, and is not simply a fault in the translator (Robert Hurley, in my edition). In fact sometimes Rob helps us out a bit, such as when he translates the typical Foucaultism étatisation as the more helpful phrase ‘unrestricted state control’. But there's only so much he can do. If he'd put all of Foucault's prose into natural English the book would be a quarter of the size.
On the few occasions when he does deign to explain himself, he only makes matters worse. After several pages in which he makes much confusing use of the word ‘power’, he finally defines this vague term as
the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies.
My point is not that Foucault makes the reader do unnecessary work, although that's certainly an inexcusable flaw in anyone who wants their view to be taken seriously: a reader should be working to engage with an argument, not having to rewrite the whole damn thing in his head as he goes along. No, my point is that Foucault not only confuses the reader, he confuses himself. Having decided, as a mathematician decides that x equals four, that ‘power’ equals a whole range of ‘force relations’, he then combines it with other comparably dense terms and juggles them around and puts them together until you have to at least suspect that the underlying reality has been lost to Foucault as well as to us.
Evidence of his own confusion therefore seems built into the texture of his sentences. He calls the family unit, for instance, ‘a complicated network, saturated with multiple, fragmentary, and mobile sexualities’. The idea of multiple sexualities is fairly clear: an assertion that, for example, homosexuality and paedophilia play their part in family life along with heterosexuality. He offers no evidence for it, but at least it is a proposition we can examine. But what about fragmentary sexualities? What on earth is a fragmentary sexuality? Perhaps one which is in some way both hetero and homo? How does a fragmentary sexuality manifest itself in terms of behaviour or desire? There are no answers. And then we also have the ‘mobile sexualities’, which sounds like some kind of wonderful bus service but which presumably we are meant to understand as sexual feelings that keep changing. To deal with any one of these ideas is problematic. To deal simultaneously with all three, and then to imagine such concepts ‘saturating’ a ‘network’, is just not a serious argument – it's a huge act of intellectual masturbation.
Anyone can play this game. The opposing view to Foucault's is the traditional idea that the Victorians were frightened and offended by their sexual feelings, and that consequently their society worked to repress sex. But if we wanted to protect the argument from attack we could easily rephrase it and say that the dominant narrative of Victorian social constructs was characterised by a repressive power projection whose motus was the twin stimuli of (psycho)logical terror and physiological disgust. This is harder to argue against, because it has less meaning. Similarly many of Foucault's arguments are, to paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli, so badly expressed that not only are they not right, they're not even wrong.
And how does that story go again? You think our sexuality has been "repressed" by Church controls and then bourgeois medicalization? And that the cultural movement since, oh, 1890 or so is toward the alleviation of said repression and the "freedom" and "self-relization" we currently enjoy? You poor fool. I challenge anyone reading this to say that sex doesn't control their expression of self and even determine their actions in powerful and direct ways. Was it Aristotle who was happy to be freed of the specter of sex in his old age? I can't remember, but certainly the bulk of our lives it is, hook or crook (sexy as that sounds), probably the prime motivator for the huge bulk of Western humankind. Maybe it is being replaced by a direct, distilled consumerism (and one that incorporates sex into itself, if you think about the injunction to look sexually appealing even if you're not on the market, or the consumerization of pornography)--maybe it is, or supplemented certainly. But for the last century, it has been the prime strategy of control--biopower.
And Foucault's biggest insight, and there is maybe a little poststructuralism in this, is that that's what was going on all along. We are obsessed with sex, and all our revolutionary energy is disappearing into it (the glory and tragedy of the '60s--Leonard Cohen lyrics: "The only man of energy / Yes, the revolution's pride / he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child". Such a virile, castrated, freakily sanitized figure--transformation and sex without strings, overlying a fetus in a dumpster). And the Church knew this, and what we see now as repression was really obsession--the crackdown on premodern carnival animality, the huge increase in frequency of confession, the invitation to spend all your time feeling guilty about sex instead of just committing one of a multiplicity of premodern sodomies and taking your lumps (or being burned at the stake) just like old lady Postlethwaite did for being a witch or young Senor Salazar for being a secret Jew. And of course that isn't sustainable, that heavy exercise of control, so we see the medicalization of the 19the century, that stigmatizes but also provides an explanation and a legitimation, a foundation on which a ever-less-secret garden of discourses can proliferate--that starts with electric shock treatments for gays and firehose stimulation for "hysterical" women, and ends with BDSM and sex toy parties--the flip side of the same coin. But all along, more partners, more performance requirements, more disruption of human relationships, more discourse, (less time devoted to art and family and politics), more more more of our lives devoted to it. Is that sexual freedom?
I mean, wow, right? Foucault walked the talk in a way too many of his "progressive" contemporaries didn't--starting Paris VIII, hitting the barricades in Tunis, etc.--and this first volume of his huge and unfinished study demonstrates the same commitment--not to a political programme--but to truth and right, which it should not be at all problematic to interpret situationally (so no scarequotes around those terms), because we have to believe and strive and my truth can be as real as I need it to be. What I mean to say is that he confronts you with it--throws it in your face: "Can you honestly say that you are free from the disciplining injunctions of your sexuality?"
And you answer no, of course.
"Well here's how it happened."
The interesting bits are more general and more abstract: in 'objective' and 'method,' Foucault comes as close as he ever did to actually defining what he means by power, with a nice discussion of how it relates to other political theories of sovereignty. In 'Right of Death' you get some tentative steps towards the concept of bio-politics or bio-power, which people are making such a big deal about these days, and, it must be said, it's pretty intriguing.
The major and unavoidable flaw, as you may already know, is that Foucault is deeply ambivalent when it comes to the function 'power' plays in his own thought. On the one hand, he wants it to be an almost universal analytic tool: power can be productive, power is used just as much by the resistance as it is by the oppressors and so on. On the other, power is something to be negotiated around and, if not avoided, at least confronted and undermined. It's just possible that the concept is meant to split the difference between these two hands, but if so, I'm not sure how- he certainly doesn't spell out a case for it here, or in anything else of his I've read. My preference would be to give up the 'let's subvert power' aspects of his work, take him as a descriptive theorist of modernity, and look for values elsewhere: which aspects of power need to be criticized and, if possible eliminated? Which should we support? The other option leads, both in my personal experience and in theory, to a pretty silly politics of opposing Them and The Man and The Law... ad infinitum.
A special plus, as always, is that Foucault is far and away the best writer of his generation, so you can read this in a day and get pretty much everything he says; and that, despite (because of?) this, his thought is just as complex and fruitful as Deleuze or Derrida or any of the Heideggerians.
The basic premise and arguments of this work are nearly omnipresent in the academy, in the fields of the humanities, so any student of literary or cultural theory is given much of this book second hand, as I have been, but it is best to actually read it rather than pretend to know it through a professor's lecture notes. The ideas are compelling, and the book is remarkably readable for a seminal work of theory.
This is not to say that there are no