Foucault: History of Sexuality/ A Reading

According to Foucault, power from the 18th century began to be exercised in two dimensions. The first one was formulated by the disciplinary techniques and methods of ‘bio-power’, the power over life which increased the capacities of the human body, and at the same time enhanced its economic utility. The second dimension focuses around the exercise of bio-power over the body and its vitality.

Foucault focuses on relations of power and knowledge but his immediate object of analysis was sexuality because it concerns with both, the relations of power of the individual as well as the society. Sex was supposed to be located at the centre of the two axes of the development of political technology of life. Sexuality in Foucault’s work thus achieved an important means of addressing the question of formation of the subject. The issue of sexuality emerges at several points in Foucault’s works but it is only approached in a limited and sustained manner in ‘History and Sexuality’.

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The essays constitute the central theme of the history of sexual conduct and behaviour, and the analysis of philosophical and religious ideas on sexuality so as to reach an understanding of the formation and the development of the experience of sexuality in modern societies. He keeps shifting from keeping a historical focus to more analytical concerns in his work on sexuality. The Introduction of the essay provides an analysis of sex as an historical theory rather than as the most basic innate human element.

Foucault compares and analyses sex and sexuality in relations to power and knowledge and extends the study further to dissect the modes of what he calls the ‘objectification’ through which human beings are made into subjects. In the beginning, the historical focus moves from the post-enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th century events to a period encompassing the centuries immediately before and after the death of Christ right up to the middle ages, further onto an analysis of Greek and Christian texts.

In the following volumes relations of power, through which individuals form and change themselves through the techniques of the self are focused upon. Foucault begins by analyzing the popular Victorian concept of sexual experience that sex was used as a means of repression and as a symbol of power. He questions the general belief of ‘repressive hypothesis’ to reach an understanding of the relations between power and sex. As an effect to that he formulated a set of questions like, why has sexuality been so widely discussed? , what are the links between these discussions and the pleasures and power effects that were caused by them?

Etc. This hypothesis describes the history of western societies after the 17th century as a period in which a series of prohibitions laid down on the individuals and their physical behaviour. By the coming of the Victorian age, sexuality was confined and controlled to home and marriage, except for the licensed access to sex in markets and brothels. This prohibition of sexuality is seen by Foucault as having some similarity to the general repression due to capitalism and its class related problems. Foucault argues that another sexual tendancy is also evident in the increase of discourses concerned with sex.

There emerged a political, economic and technical incitement to talk about sex. From this point onwards, sex became an object of administration, management and the government. He argues that a proof that sex was implicitly present as an object of inquiry was the government’s focus on population. Population became an object of government and administration with the realization that it had its own limitations. The governments became more aware and concerned of the economic, moral, health and political problems of their populations.

This in turn lead to a study and a minute analysis of various influences on population like birthrate, legitimacy of births, age of marriage, frequency of sexual relations, fertility etc. Therefore as on one hand, sex became confined to home and the licensed married couple, on the other hand, it also became a governmental matter between the state and the individual. Sex became a public issue open to discourses, analysis and a matter of gaining knowledge in. This resulted in the emergence of the 18th and 19th century discourses on sexuality through the fields of medicine, psychiatry, criminology and social work.

Foucault comments that the past three centuries reveal a vast accumulation of endless discourses on sex and sexuality. We can thus say that modern western societies were distinct not for their repression and censor of sex, but rather for their simultaneous subjection of sexuality to never ending discussions and their curiosity for exploring of the secrets of life and birth. We may then conclude that all different legal, medical and moral discussions had in the end, cultivated a reproduction of labour capacity and the preservation of the prevailing form of social relations.

Foucault argues that if the increase in these discussions was governed by the intention of eliminating fruitless pleasures, then they had failed as the 19th century saw a bifurcation of sexualities into many perversions. Foucault suggests that power did not prohibit or eradicate extra-conjugal, non-monogamous sexualities, on the contrary they were multiplied. The form of power to which sex was subjected did not set boundaries for sexuality. It extended the various forms of sexuality, pursuing them according to lines of uncertain analysis.

It did not exclude sexuality, but rather included it in the body as a mode of specification of individuals. It did not seek to avoid it but attracted its varieties by means of complex gyre like structures in which pleasure and power reinforced one another. Thus the manifold sexualities, sexualities of different ages and those fixated on particular tastes, all formed equations of power. Perverse forms of sexuality are then seen as the effects or the products of the exercise of a type of power over bodies. This extension of power over bodies, conduct and sex, does not produce repression, but an incitement of unorthodox and perverse sexualities.

Thus Foucault’s argument that we need to abandon the hypothesis of increased sexual repression associated with the development of modern industrial societies. Power in its exercise has not taken the form of law, it has been positive and productive rather than negative, and has ensured an increase of pleasures and a multiplication of sexual perversions. In the 19th century, sexuality was constituted in scientific terms. Within western societies, there developed a ‘scientia sexualis’, whose objective was to produce real and honest discourses on sex, the truth on sex to be precise.

At its centre was a technique of confession, whose history may be traced back through the middle ages in western Europe to the first centuries of Christianity. From the Christian penance to the psychiatrists couch, sex has been the central theme of confession. Foucault argued that with the rise of protestant religion, anti-reformation and the 19th century medicine, confession spread beyond its traditional Christian usage and entered a diverse range of social relationships, an effect of which was the constitution of archives of the truth of sex inscribed within medical and psychiatric discourses.

Within modern societies this intersection of confession with scientific investigation constructed the domain of sexuality as problematic and thus needing interpretation and therapy. In short the object of investigation became to uncover the truth of sex, to reveal its secret and thus to gain knowledge of individuals and their behaviours. As a result of this, sex became not only an object of knowledge, but the focus of our being, our truth.

Although the concept of power is central to both the analysis of penal incarceration and the preliminary work on sexuality, in no sense does Foucault’s work constitute, or even attempt a formulation of a theory of power. At the most what is presented is the critique of the prevailing formation of the exercise of power which lies at the foundation of both sexual repression and alternative hypothesis in which desire is conceived to be constituted in the form of law like rules. Such a conception of power has structured the analytical field of inquiry in terms of problems of right and violence, freedom and will and the state of sovereignty.

According to Foucault’s view power is relational. It is not born from a particular site or location. It is a concept which refers to an open, organized, hierarchical group of relations which are both unstable and local and the analysis of sex proceeds by analyzing the complex relations between the discussions on sex and on the multiplicity of power relations associated with them. There emerged four strategic unities associated with the production of the discourses on sexualities in the 19th century. These constituted of the specific mechanisms of knowledge and power, centred on sex and the four sexual subjects.

The strategic unities were: a hysterization of womens bodies, a pedagogization of childrens sex, a socialization of procreative behaviour and a psychological analysis of perverse pleasures. And the subjects were hysterical women, a masturbating child, a Malthusian couple and a perverse adult respectively. According to Foucault, these four unities do not represent mechanisms for controlling or regulating pre-existing forms of sexualities, rather they represent the relations of power and knowledge articulated in medical, pedagogical, psychiatric and economic discourses.

In Foucault’s view, from 19th century onwards the ‘Deployment of Alliance’, a system of rules and practices defining the permitted and the forbidden relations between sexual partners, has been paralleled by the development of sexuality operating through techniques of power rather than a system of rules. Whereas the former is concerned with the link between partners, the latter, the deployment of sexuality manifests a different connection to the economy through the cultivation of the body, ‘a body that produces and consumes’.

The family gradually became a transmission of the strategies of ‘sexualisation’ that emerged in the 19th century. Foucault’s theory is that in the first instance, it was in the ‘bourgeois’ or the aristocratic family that the sexuality was given a status of a medical problem. The psychological convergence of sex thus began with the bourgeoisie with a sexualisation of the idle and the nervous woman with the self-abusing child. The objective was to constitute a body and a sexual identity for the bourgeoisie to ensure the vigour and longevity of the classes that ruled rather than a repression of the class that was exploited.

This new distribution of pleasures had as its initial purpose the self affirmation of the bourgeoisie by a specifically political ordering of life in which a technology of sex was fundamental. Just as the aristocracy constructed a sense of itself, its special qualities and its difference from other social classes in terms of concept , so did the bourgeoisie, through a conception of a sound body and a healthy sexuality articulated in biological and medical discourses, sought to affirm its present and future specificity.

Turning to the lower orders, the working classes, Foucault argues that just as the Christian technology of the flesh had exercised a little influence over their rude sensuality, so for a good while they remained untouched by deployment of sexuality. But gradually from the 18th century however, a series of developments like the identification of problems of birth control and the development of juridical and medical measures to protect society from perverse forms of sexuality, precipitated a diffusion of mechanisms of sexualisation throughout the society.

This effected in the working class being subject to the deployment of sexuality. However the sexuality of the working class was in no way synonymous to the bourgeoisie, there is no sense in which Foucault’s analysis brings us to this interpretation. The practice of sexuality in modern western society is not conceived by Foucault to be either collective or united. On the contrary, the forms taken and instruments employed are conceived to have varied in relation to the social class.

The domain of sexuality in Foucault’s works is presented as one of the most important concrete arrangements through which power has been exercised over life in modern western societies. It is the key element in the emergence and development of the measures of supervision which have constituted the foundation of forms of public provision and welfare. The exercise of a pastoral or caring power over life in general and in particular is presented as a fundamental or defining characteristic of modern societies and as a necessary precondition for the distribution of capitalist economic relations throughout social life.

It is because of this articulation of the phenomenon of human existence that the general social significance of the deployment of sexuality is initially focused on by Foucault. The specificity of modern western societies is associated with a particular historical transformation or shift of the emphasis from exercise of absolute power by or in the name of the sovereign, literally to take life, to the emergence and development of governmental technologies of power directed towards an administration of the processes of life in order to increase their economic utility.

The two basic forms in which power began to be exercised over life from the 17th century are: * An anatomo-politics of the human body, * A bio-politics of the population. The first form according to Foucault concerns the exercise of power over the life of the body and is exemplified by the disciplines and techniques directed towards the increase of bodily forces and capacities. The second form in which power has been exercised over life is that of the management and regulation of the population, the body as a species and its mortality and fertility issues.

The emergence of the technology of bio-power constituted an important event and signified a shift away from unstable, dramatic and ceremonial exercises of sovereign power towards an investment of the processes of life by an economic and efficient form of power. The emergence of bio-power designated the moment at which the phenomena of human existence were submitted to the calculation and order of knowledge and power.

At the intersection of the two axes along which the exercise of power over life developed, namely the disciplines of body and the regulation of populations, lies the political issue of sex. Sex achieved importance as a political issue because it offered access to both life of the body and the life of the species so that we comprehend the pursuit in dreams, behaviour and beyond the truth of sexuality. Foucault deals with various modes of explaining the relations of power and knowledge through which human beings are made subjects.

Foucault not only rejected the belief that sexuality is predicated on a biological given sex, but argued that the autonomy given to sex was an effect of the deployment of sexuality. Foucault argued that the category of sex established through the deployment of sexuality in the course of the 19th century performed a number of functions. It offered a principle of unification through which anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations and pleasures could be presented as the underlying cause of behavioural manifestations, as a secret to be discussed and interpreted.

Through such proximity to biology and physiology, the knowledge of sexuality gained a semi-scientific status and contributed to the development of a process of normalization of human sexuality to the determination of normal sex and its various pathological corollaries. The idea of sex as the latent, secret force repressed within us allowed power to be conceptualized solely as law and taboo and thereby hiding the positive relation of power with sexuality. The corollary of this position is of course that it led to the equation of human liberation with the discovery and expression of the secret of sex and sexuality.

The final section of the idea of sex outlined by Foucault focuses on the process by which human beings become subjects. It is through the idea of sex that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility, to the whole of his body and to his identity. Thus Foucault’s position is that the exercising of power over life has advanced through the deployment of sexuality and its construction of sex as the secret of existence to be discovered and articulated, as a force to be liberated and realized, and be synonymous to our very being.

This arises from the fact that in his view sex-drive cannot be free of power. It is an effect of the deployment of sexuality and of the exercise of technologies of power over life. Sex is not the underlying reality beneath the illusory appearance of sexuality, on the contrary, sexuality is a typical historical formation from which the notion of sex emerged as an element central to the operation of bio-power. In western civilization there has been a tendency to associate the theme of sexual austerity with various social or religious taboos and prohibitions.

Foucault argues that in fact it seems to have been quite different. To begin with, moral considerations of sexual condition were subject to a fundamental gender dissymmetry. The moral system was produced by and addressed purely to free men, to the exclusion, to the exclusion of women, children and slaves. A second significant feature of the moral system is that it did not form fundamental prohibitions or taboos in relation to forms of sexual austerity, rather it intended to present or propose modes of conduct appropriate and relevant for men in view of their right, power, authority and freedom.

Foucault states that in the texts of Greek or Gaeco-Roman antiquity, the emphasis as far as moral considerations are concerned tends to be placed on practices of the ‘self’, rather than on codes and conducts in terms of the permitted and the prohibited. I have tried to make a thorough reading of Michael Foucault’s essay the ‘History of Sexuality’ and found that it effectively establishes that the roots of our modern sexual ethics go back to ‘Antiquity’.

Although the emergence of Christianity did not introduce a novel code of sexual behaviour, it did transform people’s relationship to their own sexual activity. Although the essays address themselves explicitly to the question of the so called ‘problematization’ of sexual activity, they also are important for their implications for an understanding of the art of government which developed in modern western societies.

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