Michel Foucault Overview

 (Part 1 of Sexual Personae Research, first submitted 03/05/2008)

Michel Foucault was an out-gay philosopher, theorist, activist and professor. He held an academic chair at the College de France and also taught at UC Berkeley. He was born in 1926 and died in 1984 of health complications that were AIDs-related.

Foucault is known as a structuralist, even though he rejected the label, and his writings are often associated with the postmodern movement. His writings on sexuality, mechanisms of control and his opinions and critiques on social institutions are widely read and examined in sociology courses, women’s studies classes, queer theory classes, as well as media arts and communications theory courses.

Foucault was concerned about the ways in which human sexuality was discussed in dialogues in the Western world, and also the ways in which it was policed and controlled – even in speaking about sex and sexuality.

In the first volume of History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, (part of a trilogy, along with volumes The Use of Pleasure, Histoire de la sexualite, II: l’usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self ) Foucault examines how the Western world, since the 17th century, seized the discussion, freedom, exploration and education about sex and sexuality, and “closeted” it.

In An Introduction, Foucault discusses the ways that speech about sex and sexuality were controlled. He notes that to openly discuss sex, for most of the last three centuries, was an act of subversion. Foucault was also concerned about the ways that any sexual activity that occurred outside of prescribed norms was subjugated – relegated to the status of being bad, evil, dirty, taboo – not ordained. According to Foucault the purpose of this control over the knowledge and talk of sex and sexuality was policed and monitored as a mechanism of control to support the needs of building a capitalist state.

As Foucault explains, sex had to be controlled because free sex is the antithesis of being productive. Essentially, the capitalists and great profiteers needed the working public to cease in their diversions, and focus on the means of production. So sex became closed into a tiny, private space that had to be silenced in the public sphere. Foucault says that prior to the Victorian ages, sex had been out in the open: men, women and children talked about the functions of bodies freely in parlors and public spaces. With the change, sex was moved “into the parents’ bedroom,” Foucault says – and only one kind was recognized as holy, legal, normal and productive, that of the heterosexual married couple. Any acts that fell out of this sphere were marked as taboo.

Foucault goes further explaining that there had to be an authority for such censor, and that’s where the church comes in. The “wrong” or “bad” forms of sexual conduct were relegated to the realm of sin. And, he says, something that was ushered in as a way to manage sin around 1695/the early 17th century, was the church’s new strange obsession with the idea of confession. But to be acceptable, confession was not simply a personal acknowledgement of sin – a person had to do it verbally in front of a member of clergy. And the weird preoccupation was that the parishioner was encouraged to go into great detail. It is almost like the beginning of voyeurism in film or in art – the “sinner” would be encouraged to sit down with his or her priest and go into the minutest of details confessing their acts, but not only acts – the details of their fantasies, their daydreams, if they had an “impure thought” or a “dirty dream.” Dwelling on the details was almost a way of the church psychoanalyzing the person for his or her sexual sin, and also, immediately prescribing a way to correct that sin (do a dozen Hail Mary’s, or drink Holy Water, or recite The Lord’s Prayer).

This led to all sorts of ways that sexual feelings and desires suddenly became weighted with guilt. Foucault says this was a systematic method of controlling and suppressing desire – leading the populace to only participate in those behaviors that were approved by the church and approved by patriarchal social structures.

Foucault was a critical theorist whose ideas about the ways in which human sexuality is constructed, shaped and controlled have opened doors for provocative discussions about everything ranging from sex in art, to gender identification to sexual politics and control. However, some critics find it a weakness that so much of Foucault’s thoughts are based on experience, or patterns from history, instead of empirical research.

Scientia Sexualis

… is considered the Western approach to sex studies. 19th century discourses of sex transformed sex into a search of discovering the truth. Scientific discourse on sex regularize it, interpreting it without taking into consideration the human response to sex, but rather interpreting it as a means of reproduction, our experience of it not being much different from animals’ experience of it. It depicts sex from a distant, observatory perspective. 19the century discourses combined this scientific approach with matters of morality. Sexuality was viewed as an innate drive or natural force. Throughout the 19th century, sex has been incorporated into two distinct orders of knowledge: a biology of reproduction and a medicine of sex (Foucault) There was no union between these two orders. Foucault argues that this gap exemplifies “that the aim of such a discourse was not to state the truth but to prevent its very emergence.”

Sexual scientific theories of the time reinforced society’s existing oppression of women. They enforced gender separations, claiming that women were not as developed as men.  Many of the centuries sexologists, such as Havelock Ellis, considered women’s sexuality to be weaker than the man’s, and “less fulfilling” (Irvine, 7). Women were considered to be passion-less, and reproduction was considered the defining point of a woman’s sexuality. In Ellis book, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he argued that differences the sexes were biological, with male sexuality being simple and aggressive, and women being mysterious and passive. Because women had a more intricate sexual anatomy consisting of her clitoris, vagina and internal organs, a female’s sexual response was more complex than a male’s. He argues that needed to be more aggressive in courting the female in order to conquer female reservations. This ideology will play into the creation of hard core cinema.

Moreover, the study of the differences of the genders led to an examination of sexual nature. 19th century views on sexuality relied on biological determination.  Therefore anything that strayed from the classical biological structure, like homosexuality, was considered aberration from the norm (Coleman, L Gooren, and Ross). All sexuality was categorized as either natural normal or deviated.

Discussion Questions:

How does Foucault conceive that those in power maintain this hold? How does the “repressive hypothesis” fit into his ideas about sexuality and its relationship to power?

How does Foucault see sexuality being yielded to maintain power and form alliances and divisions? How long, does Foucault hypothesize, has this system been in power?

What does Foucault mean when he speaks of sex and sexuality as social constructs?

Works Consulted

Foucault, Michel. The History of  Sexuality, Volume 1. “Part One: We ‘Other Victorians’” Random House, Inc. London. 1978. Vintage Books, New York 1990. p. 1-15.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. “Part Two: The Repressive Hypothesis” Random House, Inc. London. 1978. Vintage Books, New York 1990. p. 15-35.

“The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1.” Sparknotes. Accessed Feb. 25, 2009.< http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/histofsex/study.html.>


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