Foucault and the history of sexuality

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foucault and the history of sexuality

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

This is a perfect example of the kind of writing characterised by Clive James as prose that ‘scorns the earth for fear of a puncture’. Foucault may be able to think – its not easy to tell – but he certainly cant write.

Everywhere there is an apparent desire to render a simple thought impenetrable. When he wants to suggest that the modern world has imposed on us a great variety in the ways we talk about sex, he must refer to ‘a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse’. When he advances the theory that the nineteenth century focused less on marriage than on other sexual practices, he talks about ‘a centrifugal movement with respect to heterosexual monogamy’. When there is only one of something he calls it ‘markedly unitary’.

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 isnt focused on having children. It wouldnt 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 youll see from the square brackets that Ive left half the sentence out! Here the argument is harder to refute, not because its 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 theres only so much he can do. If hed put all of Foucaults prose into natural English the book would be a quarter of the size.

On the few occasions when Foucault 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 thats 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 – its a huge act of intellectual masturbation.

Anyone can play this game. The opposing view to Foucaults 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 Foucaults arguments are, to paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli, so badly expressed that not only are they not right, theyre not even wrong.
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A previously unpublished work by Michel Foucault, in which the French philosopher takes on sexuality among the early Christians, has been released in France , 34 years after his death. Foucault published three volumes of the History of Sexuality , which explored the experience of sexuality in western society from the ancient Greeks to the modern day: The Will to Knowledge , The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self both
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Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume series of books written between and by French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. The first volume of the book is titled An Introduction while the second volume is titled The Use of Pleasure , and the third volume is titled The Care of the Self. The books were written during the sexual revolution in the United States. Thus it was a popular belief that up until this point in time, sexuality was something that was forbidden and unmentionable. That is, throughout history, sex had been treated as a private and practical matter that should only take place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside of these boundaries was not only prohibited, but it had also been repressed. Throughout the book, Foucault questions the repressive hypothesis.

I lift the term "hedgerow" from Doonesbury , as much to characterize my own ambiguous position as the author of a piece on what Foucault's influence on the writing of the history of sexuality has been and ought to be, as to characterize what I will argue that influence should be. In a series that ran sometime after Saving Private Ryan had opened, Mark Slackmeyer, one of the original baby-boomer cast of characters of that strip, is visiting his dying father. Slackmeyer was, of course, an opponent of the Vietnam War and had famously judged all the Watergate conspirators to be "Guilty, guilty, guilty. But now Slackmeyer suddenly feels sympathetic interest in his father's wartime experiences. In one of those ripostes Trudeau frequently gives to his conservative characters when they capture the hypocrisies of his contemporaries, Slackmeyer's father refers to the baby-boomer, post- Ryan elegiac attitude to World War II veterans and the Normandy invasion as "hedgerow envy. Because it is a nostalgia for danger held from a safe, theoretical distance, the term also captures the uncomfortable position of claiming to have a position on a matter of critical dispute that is also a matter of political dispute, without any expertise in that field, based on the tenuous applicability of a larger theoretical position and a comfortably unthreatening fellow-feeling with those political ends.

Foucault argues that we generally read the history of sexuality since the 18th century in terms of what Foucault calls the "repressive hypothesis. As a result, sex has been treated as a private, practical affair that only properly takes place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed. That is, there is not simply an effort to prevent extra-marital sex, but also an effort to make it unspeakable and unthinkable. Discourse on sexuality is confined to marriage.

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