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History of Sex (5)

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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 The power to take life or let live has been replaced by the power to foster life or disallow it.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.

History of Sex (4)

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Notes on Part 4 of The History of Sexuality v.1. (cont.)

Near the end of the chapter entitled “Objective,” Foucault offers four basic prescriptive rules regarding any inquiry onto the nature of sexuality:

  1. Rule of immanence

  2. Rule of continual variations

  3. Rule of double conditionings

  4. Rule of tactical polyvalence of discourses

I think these rules are the self-constituting assumptions which underlie any critical technique which can be called “Foucaultian,” and personally, I find them easy to accept.

The first rule is an avoidance of dealing with transcendent concepts as an “easy out”— sexuality exists as a present sphere of discourse, not as an “essential” concept outside any mode of inquiry. It has been established as a possible object, as a target for discussion, and for that reason alone sexuality is immanent rather than transcendent. It its location as a “target” that allows us to examine it in this fashion, and Foucault then assumes that the examination of the “power centers” where discourse happens— the relationship between penitent and confessor, or members of society and those who make the rules, which localize this immanent power. Examining them is his primary objective. It is the discourse which is the focus, not a philosophical inquiry into origins.

History of Sex (3)

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Notes on Part 4 of The History of Sexuality v.1.

I’m easily distracted. Foucault’s brief allusion to Diderot in the preface to this section had me tied up for a long time today. The problem with departmentalizing literatures by language is that it’s hard to have a clue about major figures in languages you haven’t studied. Of course, there doesn’t appear to be a translation of the work he alludes to— Les Bijoux indiscrets — which sounds like something I’d really enjoy.

In Diderot’s tale, the good genie Cucufa discovers at the bottom of his pocket, in the midst of worthless things— consecrated seeds, little pagodas made of lead, and moldy sugar-coated pills— the tiny silver ring whose stone, when turned, makes the sexes one encounters speak. He gives it to the curious sultan. Our problem is to discover what marvelous ring confers a similar power on us, and on which master’s finger it has been placed; what game of power makes it possible or presupposes, and how it is that each one of us has become a sort of attentive and imprudent sultan with respect to his own sex and that of others. (79)

I’m sure this is just a tiny episode in the book, magnified for rhetorical ends. But the question I have with this translation regards the word Foucault uses translated as sex. Is it equivalent to genitalia? If that is the case, then the story really sounds good. I suspect that is what it is, because Foucault goes on to lament that while we seem to be involved in conversation with other people’s “sex” we are “ineloquent towards one’s own mechanism.” It’s a curious image, to think of genitalia conversing. It’s a grand image to sum up the progress thus far.

What I found out in my limited research on Diderot was that he appears to be one of the pioneers of technical writing, and that he changed his philosophical viewpoint considerably across his career. Diderot connects with my project on representation significantly, and I need to find out more— however, for Foucault’s purpose, its just an anecdote. Silly me, when I run into yet another rhetorical theorist completely outside the conventional English and American canon, I get heavily distracted. But, back to the matter at hand. What Foucault has primarily attempted to establish up to this point is that discourse regarding sex has multiplied significantly since the seventeenth century.

More Sex

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More Notes on The History of Sexuality V.1 by Michel Foucault

Part three of The History of Sexuality turns to consider the Western European view of sexuality, which Foucault labels as “Scientia Sexualis.” However, the opposition used by Foucault seems deeply flawed— what he speaks of is the “procedure for producing the truth of sex,” which in the case of societies of China, Japan, India, Rome, and the Arabo-Moslem societies is described as “ars erotica,” to contrast them with the Western medical/theological view. This makes no sense to me. Who in their right mind would consider Muslim or Japanese views of sex as somehow more libratory? In Foucault’s view, these societies are closer to the truth of sex because “truth is drawn from pleasure itself” (57). Whose pleasure? Obviously, these societies pursue a patriarchal view of sex, and contain similar structures which disguise the power of sex, empowering women in some respects (The Tale of Genji comes to mind), but subjugating them in other ways. While the medical/theological view does seem vastly different, it seems to me that Foucault surrenders himself to wishful, “the grass is always greener” thinking when it comes to other societies. There are different closets for different societies, but most societies contain closets.

History of Sex

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Notes on The History of Sexuality V.1 by Michel Foucault

Part one, “We ‘Other Victorians’” sketches a fairly fanciful history with little or no historical grounding. The mythic hypothesis begins by asserting that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” I would argue that what Foucault argues as a frank sexuality was indeed concealed through layers of aristocratic wit, and though the juridical apparatus was clearly not as developed, the societal oppression of deviant behavior was deeply in place from the Middle Ages. Contrary to his previous and later theoretical assertions, the proclamation that “twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie” seems hopelessly mired in golden age thinking (3). His framing of “history” is contrary to his theorizing against the “repressive hypothesis.” It’s a curious way to begin.

Foucault’s idea that “repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication an admission that there was nothing much to say about such things” marks an interesting disjuncture— with the rise of repression came increasing levels of discourse regarding sex. The act of marginalizing behavior actually creates communities where discourse in “illegitimate sexualities” begins to be reintegrated through institutional means. The brothel, and psychiatric hospital begin to be instruments that authorize deviant behavior by providing a place where the forbidden discourse can occur (4). However, moving this legitimizing contradiction forward into the seventeenth century seems altogether too pat, too easy— placing it next to the rise of capitalism (5).

However, framing the problem in these terms— that the power structure, once instituted, facilitates the deviance is shrewd. It provides a deep explanation for the growth of provocation as a heroic characteristic. To speak against repression is to assume that there is a libratory discourse which can slip the bonds of power— that by saying (or performing) the prohibited we can reach outside the system that has caused the condition. It provides “opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights” (7). Deviance gains a market value, created through its own devaluation.