History of Sex (3)

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.

As was the focus in the previous section, the emphasis in the preface is on differentiating the types of discourse generated by sex. Foucault argues that the Western discourse on sex is really a “Logic of Sex rather than a Physics” (78). The amazing thing about it is that though people assert that sex is a drive operating outside of reason, our discourse regarding it attempts to impose a rational framework upon it— we seek to make sex intelligible. We seek the “truth” in sex. In order to evaluate the “will to know” Foucault begins to sketch out a fascinating theoretical framework.

From my recent readings in gender theory, it seems that his assertions which open the chapter “Objective” are right on the mark. Most of these theories begin with the presumption that it is the law itself which constructs desire— we want what we are conditioned to want through societal injunction. This is opposed to the previous simplistic theories that sex is a natural energy welling up from below, which is curbed by injunction— that sex by definition is unruly, and restrained for the productive ends of society. Instead, what Wittig, Butler, and many other argue is that it is our assumption of the law, our internalization of the law, which creates desire in the first place. These are contrary notions of sex as “power”— power is then either internal (natural) or external (societal). However, what these ideas have in common are deeply seated ideas about how power functions. The western features of power listed by Foucault are:

  • The negative relation

  • The insistence of the rule

  • The cycle of prohibition

  • The logic of censorship

  • The uniformity of the apparatus

The negative is easily demonstrated— thou shalt not. Western juridical structures prohibit directly, and yet only indirectly promote modes of behavior. The insistence on intelligibility means that there must be defined rules. The functioning of prohibition results in a punishment system whose ultimate goal can only be forcing sex to renounce itself. Your existence can only be maintained through nullification, and these features inevitably result in an economy of censorship. The assumption also follows that since there is an “objective” power subjugating society, placing it in the subject position, the mechanism must be uniform. The end result can only be obedience to this juridical relation of power. The complexity of these relations are explained through a masterful leap on Foucault’s part:

Let me offer a general and tactical reason that seems self-evident: power is tolerable only under the condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms. Would power be acceptable if it were entirely cynical? For it, secrecy is not the nature of an abuse, it is indispensable to its operation. Not only because power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates, but because it is perhaps just as indispensable to the latter: would they accept it if they did not see it as a mere limit on their desire, leaving a measure of freedom— however slight— intact? Power as a pure limit set on freedom is, at least in our society, the general form of acceptability. (86).

His reasoning here, backed up by the transition from monarchy to much more complex forms of government seems entirely correct to me. The rise of contract theory in government points out the oppositional nature of power and freedom. We are conditioned to accept that there is a necessary trade-off between the two. This creates a trap, built upon this notion of voluntary submission to power, which seems inescapable. There can be no libratory discourse which emerges from the cycle of prohibition. Any form of escape must be predicated on a completely new concept of power.

This is precisely what Foucault sets out to do in the next chapter, “Method.” In his perception, power is not a group of institutions or mechanisms which compel subservience. These are only the terminal form of:

Power must be understood in the first instance 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 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. (92)

The core argument is that power comes from everywhere, it moves and changes and coalesces into institutions— it is not a structure or an individual attribute, but rather a network of relationships that are unstable and constantly changing. To counteract the Western concepts listed previously, Foucault proposes:

  • Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared

  • Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority— power is not prohibitive, but rather constitutive.

  • Power comes from below

  • Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective

  • Where there is power, there is resistance

Making power a force independent of those who attempt to use it is distinctive. I really must agree that resistance is indeed a part of power, a built in feature. It follows fairly easily that power is never exerted without intention. Power is imbued with calculations of desired effects. I’m having difficulty accepting the tenet that it is nonsubjective— this makes a certain amount of sense in modern democracy, but I don’t think that it really fits that well into the puzzle. In order to be accepted, law is separated from an individual will, in theory, yet in practice this really doesn’t seem to be the case. Many laws are indeed self-serving— tax cuts for supporters, subsidies, etc. I would hardly call them nonsubjective, though they are usually justified in those terms. However, I find myself just fascinated by the implication that resistance is an integral part of power. No assertion of influence is without an equal and opposite reaction. Why don’t governments, or people, ever figure that out?

Foucault then asserts some preliminary “prescriptive” rules of power, which I will return to soon.