Michael Foucault: The History of Sexuality Vol 1 and “power”

A quick follow-up to our discussion of Foucault’s social constructionist theory of sexual identities (and, incidentally, in case you know her book, Judith Butler could not have written Gender Trouble without Foucault).

Classic theories of power (e.g. Marx’s) assume that those who wield economic power wield social power as well, and therefore control representations of social relations. Such theories assume that if the oppressed can wrest control of the means of production from those in positions of economic power they can then represent their own interests. Such revolutionary thinking (and it’s been true of feminism as well as Marxism) assumes that economic control = control of representations, that is, control of how your group is represented in literature, art, advertising, journalism, etc. It’s what lay behind movements such as William Morris’s artisanal production in the late 19th century and feminist presses in the 1970s.

F contests both the model of revolutionary thinking and the notion that power comes from those who wield control of the means of production. He is also a theorist of the pleasure that comes with power.

As you said in class, he talks instead of “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” (45) and of “a network of pleasures and powers linked together at multiple points” (46). The spatial metaphors here — spirals, networks — suggest a much more diffuse model of how power operates. It’s linked to what he argues about the proliferation of discourses about sexuality from the late 18th century onwards. As various institutions (medicine, psychiatry, demography, criminology, etc.) developed ever more intricate ways of talking about sexuality, measuring sexuality, putting sexuality into discourse, providing labels for an array of sexualities that didn’t exist before as sexual identities, so the web of discourses allows for an intrusion into people’s lives, a mapping of people’s lives, a constant questioning of their practices, that makes it hard to see all this as a way of simply, sternly saying no to wayward sex, of forbidding people to behave in certain ways (though I agree that it absolutely did proscribe and regulate sexual behavior) because it also involves pleasure: the pleasure of the interrogators and scientists and social regulators.

F is trying to make the point that the forbidding itself is pleasurable because it allows for multiple ways of relishing the exercise of power (see pp. 44-45 in particular). It’s a critique of Victorian prudishness because it underlines the fact that we get a kick from talking about what is forbidden: in specifying a range of new, aberrant sexual identities the inventors and users of these 19th-century emergent discourses were not just saying no to these identities: they took pleasure in drawing them out and implanting them in bodies. Power and pleasure were linked.

I can think of several objections to this model. But we can discuss these ideas in class.

One important point is that those who protest against sexual repression, who demand liberation from sexual restraint, need to understand that it’s not just a simple case of demanding that sex be spoken openly about – because it already IS being endlessly spoken about, albeit in a range of specific discourses.

But I’d also hang on to F’s main point about sexual identity being a 19th-century invention. This is a powerful insight. It raises all kinds of questions about whether or not premodern subjects though of themselves as having sexual identities. Undoubtedly, they practiced many sexual acts, but were these the expression of a prior or essential identity, as we feel so strongly today?

F’s book is about what constitutes the “truth” of the self. It may be that premodern subjects did not feel that sexual identity was the “truth” about themselves, did not feel that their sexuality (had they been able to conceive of this as what Foucault calls a “singular nature”) was the expression of their innermost being.

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About Ruth Evans

I am a medievalist and I work in the Department of English at Saint Louis University. My research interests are Chaucer, medieval drama, medieval women writers, feminist criticism, sexuality, critical theory, and memory.

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