Sanguinity to Sexuality
Part V of Foucault’s History of Sexuality v.1 traces an interesting path regarding the politicized nature of sexual discourse. The privilege of a sovereign power, in ancient times, was that of life over death. A king or queen had the right to “dispose” of the lives he controlled; suicide became a crime in the nineteenth century because it usurped the right of the government to control the lives, the very blood of its citizens. This power of life and death was both direct and indirect. A citizen could be put to death for crimes or misplaced loyalties, but they could also be sent to fight and die for causes in the name of that power. This power was not absolute privilege in Foucault’s view, but rather was conditioned by the criteria of defense and survival. The sovereign’s power over life was dissymmetrical, in that the power exercised over life was passive— to take life, or to let live. Power was a rite of seizure, a subtraction mechanism— a deduction.
Foucault proposes that this deductive power has been reduced to only one element of power among many— power now seeks to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (136). Interestingly enough, the power to take life asserts itself individually only in limited and highly disputed forms, such as capital punishment, whereas genocide and starvation are regularly applied to whole populations. The power to take life or let live has been replaced by the power to foster life or disallow it. The power to control life, in Foucault’s view, is constituted by two poles of thinking regarding the human body.