History of Sex (5)

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 The power to take life or let live has been replaced by the power to foster life or disallow it.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

The first pole is anatomo-political, the body as a part of the machine of efficiency. The second, bio-political— propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, and life-expectancy (139). The anatomic concern seems to be related to the development of architecture, schools dormitories and barracks, occurring simultaneously with increasing concern over the biological body functions. Foucault ties this closely to the rise of capitalism, and the notion of populations as capitol. Rather than exercising power through dominion over death, the mastery now reaches to embrace life itself. In this, Foucault sees the rising power of the norm to dictate through a juridical system of law (145). This displaces the power from sovereignty and sanguinity, into a newly politicized system of capitol and sexuality. The politics of capitalism and the politics of sex are deeply linked. Foucault proposes that the increase in discourse about sex since the seventeenth century is tied to the displacement of the power over death with the assertion of a power over life:

We, on the other hand, are in a society of “sex” or rather a society “with a sexuality”: the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it to proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity for being used. Through the themes of health, progeny, race, the future of the species, the vitality of the body, power spoke of sexuality and to sexuality; the latter was not a mark or a symbol, it was an object or target.

Moreover, its importance was due less to its rarity or its precariousness than to its insistence, its insidious presence, the fact that it was everywhere and object of excitement at the same time. Power delineated it, aroused it, and employed it as the proliferating meaning that had always to be taken control of again lest it escape; it was an effect with a meaning-value. (147-8)

Foucault traces the change from a blood to sex as a move from a symbolic economy to an analytic one. This fits well into the transition of modernity, as it appears to me. However, the definition of what constitutes sexuality is still vague. Is sexuality an agency? An object over which we might gain objectivity? I have more questions than answers. However, his exploration in this first volume leads me to agree with much of his logic. Sexuality becomes a currency subject to regulation and definition, even though it has little in the way of objective status. Needless to say, we certainly attribute it with a great deal of meaning-value. It is this material aspect that is Foucault’s project:

I do not envisage a “history of mentalities” that would take account of bodies only in the manner they have been perceived and given meaning; but a “history of bodies” and the manner in which what is most material and vital in them which has been invested. (152).

I am troubled by this approach, though I see its merit. The mystery of sex to me is the mystery of desire, not merely use-value. The mystery of valuation is what compels me more, and I agree with Foucault’s assertion that “It is through sex— in fact, an imaginary point determined through the deployment of sexuality— that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility” (155). I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.


I had not read the introduction to volume 2 when I wrote the preceding paragraph. It addresses exactly this point— that any history of sexuality must address the problem of desire. Sometimes, I scare myself.