Notes on: Foucault, M.  (1979) The History of Sexuality, vol. 1.  Guildford: Allen Lane Press

[This is a useful source for discussions of discourse and power, the links between power and knowledge in mobilizing fragment of discourse.  It also has the usual very flowery French style with lots of illustration from literary figures, which I have largely ignored or brutalized.  Morris, M. 1982 “A review of Michel Foucault’s La Volonté de Savoir”. In Human Sexual Relations, M.  Brake (ed.), 245—73. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books is an excellent review.  There have been some good feminist critiques in Ramazanoglu and Fraser, and a general critique in DeCerteau  focused on the 'evidence']

Part one.  The normal view is that sexuality has been heavily repressed and only recently liberated, but this is mistaken.  It is the other way around—a long history of invitations to discourse about sex.  This is seen in examples such as prolific Victorian pornography, including the amazingly detailed daily account by ‘Walter’, in the development of various confessionals, and in the emergence of sexology (sex was discussed and depicted in scientific terms in the West, and in artistic forms in the East).

Part two.  We can see in Walter, de Sade and other examples of this invitation to discourse, a ‘political, economic and technical invitation to talk about sex’ (23).  This was combined with a desire for an ‘accounting’, linked to a concern with population and procreation, and the perceived need, obsession even, to control the sexual activity of children.  Speaking openly about sex is a way of domesticating it, and this was grasped early—in 1776, there was a public demonstration of French adolescents speaking of sexuality without shame or embarrassment (29).  At the same time, there were legal campaigns to restrict actual sex with underage people: so we have a number of discourses at work, not just legal regulation, but ‘efforts at adjustment and retranscription…  a regulated and polymorphous invitation to discourse’ (34).

It was the apparently purely biological nature of sex which was to be repressed and replaced with a discursive dynamics.  Sex was seen ‘as a secret whose discovery is imperative’ (35), needing to be forced into the open by language.  It’s possible to see this in FreudoMarxist terms as driven ultimately by a need for social control, but if so, this happened through multiplication not reduction, multiple ‘implantation’.  For example, the replacement of the old definite rigorous categories of perversion, embodied in Christian law before the 18th century, with a much more multiple and ‘scientific’ classification, shifts in the terminology of the perverted in terms of the physical and moral sources of their deviations.

Discursive power does more than just simply forbid.  It can wield different power mechanisms as well.  For example the crusade against children’s onanism joins in a general demand for educational and moral reform.  This facilitated a general and widespread control of the child, eternal vigilance and policing even by its parents.  More explicitly, the discourses on perversions led to whole new definitions of individuality: the sodomite became not a permanent criminal but a ‘case’, with a history and a ‘singular nature’, not possessed by ‘a perpetual sin’ (43).  Discourse provides these new definitions with reality rather than just suppressing sexual activity.  In a way it solidifies the perversions by classifying them.

These new identities require talk, interrogation, investigation and so on, as in the general process of medicalization.  There is another odd relation between pleasure and power revealed here—taking pleasure in the power to classify on the one hand, and pleasure and evading or resisting classificatory power on the other.  Power serves to ‘anchor’ [solidify, realize] this pleasure (45).

So sexual discourses create lots of oppositions and polarities, and do not just insist that everything should be reduced to the norm of heterosexuality.  Families are seen as a network of pleasures, a system of powers affecting adults, children and servants.  Discursive power extends the form of sexuality and pushes sexuality into more and more aspects of life.  It both produces perversions and confines them to their proper physical and social space.

Part three.  The emergence of a science of sex clearly shows the influence of values and morals.  Early forms were openly medical and condemnatory, connected to biological and racist world views (54).  Approaches were very limited and confined, mechanisms of misunderstanding (56).  This was partly because of the limits of definite apparatuses used to force sexual disclosures.  The best example is the catholic confessional, which is a technique for producing truth, but a very limited one, having to follow definite rules of procedure.  Power was marshalled to force the confessant, an example of a power/knowledge nexus (60).  Confession is also a form of constructing the subject, who has to submit to the rules for power of the confessional [rather Althusserian here?].  The confessant is in the presence of an authority who guides and prescribes, urges obstacles to be overcome, and forgives only at the end. 

Confessional techniques were widespread and became transformed producing an interest in explaining sexual acts.  The same techniques became solidified in psychiatry, for example.  This needed a change in discourse away from religious conceptions of the juridico – legal.  This happened following clinical codification of symptoms and so on; a ‘postulate of general and diffuse causality’ which saw sex as at the bottom of every act and every malady, which justifies an exhaustive examination; sex needs to be forced into the open because it is inherently obscure and elusive; there is a need for interpretation not just forgiveness, as in the Freudian process of transference; there is a medicalization of effects so that sexual pathologies can be cured.  The whole exercise needed complex discourses to get at the truth.  The effort also led to suspicion and fear of the effects of sexuality, which tended to be self confirming.  We can still see them in the notion of the subject with an [unruly] Unconscious.  Again, there are pleasures for the analyst (including the narrative pleasures of developing the true discourse) (71).  Once again, there is no underlying mechanism of repression here, and these can be seen as positive [as in constructive] results of the mechanisms of power.

Part four.  There is a history of the will to truth and what energises it.  We need some way of analyzing power which breaks with the juridical and explains the connections between power and desire.  This would overturn the argument that says there is only a negative relation between power and sex, that power blocks or bans; that power attempts to order sex by rules; that power prohibits, offering a choice between the denial of self or suppression, an ‘alternative between two nonexistences’ (84) [sounds a bit like Irigaray’s suspicions here].  This corresponds to accounts of how censorship works in various stages—sex does not exist, it is not allowed to appear, it must remain silent.  Power does not operate with a uniform approach at all levels, it is not a combination of legislative power and obedient subjects (85).  This notion of power is integral to legitimation, however, and appears as the final limit set on an otherwise free subject.  [There is a hint of connotations of freedom from, as modern forms abolish feudal constraints, 87]. The legal basis of power actually was confused, for example in terms of the role of the monarch, and this led to complex forms even though the old power/sovereignty model remained.

Power is not just exercised in institutions or by particular groups, nor is it nonviolent subjugation, nor a general system of domination.  It is rather a process, a system, or a collection of struggles and force relations crystallized in apparatuses.  It is omnipresent, found in every relation, producing the notion of a ‘complex strategical situation’ in which we can detect it.  It is not confined to one personal position, and not exterior to other relationships.  It is directly productive.  It comes from below rather than from any binary or basic [class] opposition.  It produces ‘major dominions…  the hegemonic effects that are sustained by all these confrontations’ (94).

Power relations are therefore intentional in that they are imbued with calculation, but they are not just tactical: they are connected to theoretical systems.  There is always resistance, but this is still active inside power, it is itself relational.  There is therefore a plurality of resistances, distributed irregularly.  These can be codified and combined to produce a revolutionary situation.  [It all sounds very much to me like a fancy French version of good old ‘conflict theory’ associated with Dahrendorf and others, and even hijacked by the gramscians: power is everywhere, so politics is everywhere, and we must all do our best to struggle.  However, if everything is saturated with power, we can’t really prioritize, and we seem committed to spending as much energy struggling over the labelling on packets of seeds as we do going on strike].

What we should be studying is the power relations at work in sex, how they have been deployed and linked in terms of general discourses [or moral panics as we normally call them], their interconnections and crystallizations especially those focused on women or children.  In particular, we should: start with local centres of power/knowledge, such as relations between confessors and penitents, or children and parents; investigate distributions of power/knowledge not as they appear in individuals but as ‘matrices of transformations’ [pretty much like figurations]; examine links between local and overall strategies and tactics, the ‘strategic envelope’, how local figures assist the maneuvers of larger bodies (100).  We need to see that ‘in discourse, power and knowledge are joined together’ (100), producing multiple discursive elements using various strategies.  Discourse is both an instrument and an effect of power (101).  Discourses transmit power but can also undermine it—so that naming homosexuals aids the control of them but also lets them speak.  Power is thus understood as mostly focused on tactics, as a multiple and mobile field of force relations (102), not just a matter of juridical institutions or sovereignty.

Sexuality is the transfer point for relations of power, and this has produced different sorts of sexual politics.  Four basic ‘unities’ have been especially important: the hysterization of female bodies, seeing women as thoroughly sexual with effects on their nerves; the pedagogization of children’s sex, seeing children as leading to control their dangerous sexual potential, especially with onanism; the socialisation of fertility with its effects on population and society; the psychiatrization of perverse pleasure and the development of clinical analysis.  Overall, we have four figures: 'the hysterical female, the masturbating child, the malthusian couple, and the perverse adult', each one ‘corresponding to one of these strategies’ (105). The emergence of these figures show the importance of historical constructs of sexuality, instead of some continual campaign to control a natural level of sexuality.

The argument is linked to notions of  ‘alliances’, for example where formal marriages were replaced by those based on sexuality—these two options can be contrasted in terms of ‘juridico – legal relations and polymorphous power relations’ (106).  The latter emphasizes the body that produces and consumes these relations: this is not just the reproduction of the dominant group, but a more general social programme.  The modern family anchors and supports sexuality, it is the meeting point of alliance and sexuality (108), it develops sexuality, excites it, and invites discourse about it—initially obsessed with incest.  This conception is supported by doctors and psychiatrists who have produced notions of pathological types of husband and wife, helping to explain and resolve the conflict between alliance and sexuality.  Again, the confessional mechanism is important, for example in sexual science [brilliant examples in the Masters and Johnson laboratories – in Brake ibid] [or family counselling].  Individuals have been extracted from families and then ‘cured’ by being made compatible with them.  In France at least, the parent child relation was at the heart of sexuality, clearly linked to social control and the shift to the body.  Social control clearly related to the need for a labour force managed in late capitalism through the politics of sex [pretty standard Freud/Marx then?]

There were two ‘ruptures’ in the history of sexuality, however, one in the 17th century (greater prohibitions) and one in the 20th (relative tolerance).  This is still not the old repressive hypothesis though because there were multiple datings and sequences.  This history is connected with changes in racism and eugenics, where the perversions initially resulted from a flawed ancestry, and this turned into more demographic themes later (118). Freud’s liberating side is apparent since he also opposed genetic theories.

It was the sexuality of young working class men that was seen as particularly in need of control.  Family controls developed first in bourgeois or aristocratic families, and this spread to the working classes in a number of complex articulations: there is ‘no unitary sexual politics’ (122).  The ruling classes restricted themselves first through an ‘intensification of the body’ (123), stressing health, vigour, self affirmation, and ordering of life itself.  Sex here was seen as the essence of the body, responsible for its dangers and future (124).  Sexuality for the bourgeois is the equivalent of blood for the aristocracy [further discussed 145-50 as an important symbol, appearing for example in Nazism].  Again this is not all negative, but provided a ‘dynamic racism of expansion…  The “spontaneous philosophy” of the bourgeoisie is…  not as idealistic or castrating as is commonly thought’ (125).  There was an indifference to the bodies of the other classes initially, but then an interest in reforming legislation, focused on proletarian bodies with themes of health and education and so on. Sexuality was ‘foisted’ on to the proletariat, and met with an initial refusal to accept bourgeois ‘garrulous sexuality’.

The repressive parts were actually found more in the politics.  Psychoanalysis was a comfort for the bourgeoisie, for example allowing them to represent their incestuous desires in discourse.  There was legal repression for others, including the development of child welfare.  These policies show a mixture of repression and tolerance at the same time, according to which different classes are the target.  Similarly, psychoanalysis is both liberating and repressive. Sexual liberation as a grand strategy is doomed to failure, since the shifts in sexual politics have only been tactical: campaigns against repression have simply been incorporated into the history of its deployment (131).

Part five.  The power over life and death is invested in the sovereign, who took life or let people live, power as the right of seizure or deduction.  Power shifted to emphasize life and the role of society in enhancing it—for example the concept of total war saw the very survival of society at stake.  Sovereign power shifted to concern itself with [demanding] deaths in war or rather than death on the scaffold.  Even the death penalty was latterly seen as entirely negative, in terms of withdrawing life.  This emphasis on life produces a fear of death which we have today.

Power over life itself focuses on the poles of both the individual body and the species body or population.  We see the development of disciplines to foster both and the growth of administrative systems accordingly.  Control is an essential prerequisite for capitalism, ‘via investment of the body, its valorization and the distributive management of the forces [affecting it]’ (141).  This tendency is more important instead of, say, Weber’s protestant ethic in the development of capitalism.  Once nature had been subdued, bodies had to be controlled and this became the focus of developing power and knowledge.  Norms replaced laws, and this was an extension of power, based on ‘the basic needs’, involving claims well beyond the law.

Sex is important for both poles, and this raised many possibilities for surveillance and power, including micro power exerted on the body.  This is biopower [which looks suspiciously reductionist here, for example in having the major role in explaining Nazism].  Ideologies only ‘revitalise types of political power’ (149).  All this ends by being grounded in the body.  Sex becomes an anchorage, although sex involves more than just bodies [with further reductionism of economics and politics to sexual economy and politics?  154f].  Sex is a ‘unique signifier and universal signified’ (154).

We see sex as life itself.  We like to assert it against power but it is an effect of the deployment of power.  Sexuality is not simply real, but is an historical formation.  For this reason, we should not invest resistance in sex but in ‘bodies and pleasures’ more generally.  The irony is that the development of sex/power is seen as crucial to human liberation

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