Monday, July 30, 2012



FOUCAULT'S HISTORY OF SEXUALITY

I always loved reading Foucault for the alternative slant he gives you on things: you don't necessarily always agree with him--but he is always intellectually stimulating. In particular, I admire him for his anti-statist points of view. Big brother is watching: but most of us are not fully aware of just how great the surveillance is-- and Foucault, in this respect, can be an eye-opener.
I wasn't sure what I'd get from this late work: but the themes are much the same as elsewhere in Foucault. He is concerned with the way the state uses sex--or sexuality as he prefers it--to control bodies. He begins, contradictorily, by negatively critiquing the most prominent discourse on sex in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century: the state does NOT want to repress sex to consolidate its own power so as to stop emotional libertinism from getting out of hand and causing a rebellion. Rather (according to Foucault), the power of the state wishes to direct the multiple discourses on sex in order to control its power. Repression would be too simplistic a tactic. Foucault moves into uncharted territory as he begins to make his essential argument that since the Enlightenment, the great confinement and emphasis on a sterile medicalization of discourse, the state has had to look at the big picture of what it wants when it comes to population, birth control, demographics, genetics, etc. Clearly, many of the most essential areas for state control are bound up with sexuality in one way or another. In these circumstances the state has found it expedient to medicalize the ever increasing number of discourses on sex. Therefore sexuality has become, essentially, discourse-based at the present time: more so than at any other point in history--and the ones who can control the discursive debates on sexuality will have the real power. Often, there is a hegemonic and Gramscian aspect to Foucauld's ideas, where the superstructure of a society begins to work in an independent and subliminal manner, unconscious of its adherence to state power structures. For example, though Foucauld doesn't say it directly, one conclusion to be drawn from the way the state may wish to regulate the sexual activities of its citizens could be to encourage gay people to "marry" (gay marriage) within the existing structures as this is better than having them "infect" the demographic equation, having biological kids, mentoring them with advice based on tolerance, anti-state ideas etc., which would destabilize the rules-based heterosexual production of compliant children. Perhaps Foucault felt this quite deeply as a gay writer himself--or as a writer who happened to be gay. According to Foucault, the state surrounds us with so many discourses about sexuality because this is something hidden that must be made known for the state to manifest full control. Keeping an individual and silent space for sexuality would be to escape the power of the state as it would no longer know what its citizens were doing in this potentially explosive area. Therefore, the state prefers to have all the fantasies and compulsions out in the open where the medical industry can classify it into "appropriate" and "abnormal" behavior. In a sense, secret discourses about sex is what the state fears most as its control would no longer be guaranteed over people as individual agents took responsibility for their own lives and went off in different moral directions. For the state, it is essential that "sexuality" remains monolithic even though the discourses about it must constantly multiply in order to keep things under control. According to Foucault, one concomitant of this is that the state encourages us to define our essential nature in terms of our sexuality--a way of submitting one's essential bodily reality to the supervision of the state. In a society regulated by psychiatrists and psychotherapists who are (hegemonically) encouraged to convince us that all aspects of our lives and nature are founded on sexual impulses, there can be no escape for the tormented, individual psyche which, when it tries to revolt, is quickly brought back into the sheep pen by whichever discourse on sex can best indicate the subliminal sexual impotence of the subject. Foucauld makes it clear that beyond the needs of this bio-power of sex, there is no independent logic or reason for people to define their essential natures in terms of sexuality; no more than there would be for them to define it in terms of musical taste or personal diet preferences. In a more neutral place, our sexuality would just be one aspect of who we are: but the modern "bio-state" wishes to convince us that everything we do, everything we are, can be traced back to our sexuality--as this is the most effective way of controlling large numbers of regulated bodies.
Volume 1 was an exciting trip. I fancy vols. 2 and 3 might be a little slower, with their emphasis on the uses of pleasure in classical antiquity.

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