Sex and the witty – Foucault’s History of Sexuality


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The History of Sexuality is Michel Foucault’s three-volume study on the sexuality of the western world. The Will to Knowledge (la volonté de savoir) or the first volume was first published in 1976 and became an instant talking point in most conversations across the world (for all those who understood this really dense book).

Foucault was a French philosopher, historian, social theorist and literary critic. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions.  This volume focuses primarily on the 18th and 19th centuries in, and the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power related to the emergence of a science of sexuality, and the emergence of biopower, or the practice of modern nation states to regulate their subjects by controlling their bodies and hence the population, in the West.

It’s divided into five parts, each dealing with an aspect of control, power and sexuality. The main principle that Foucault built on is that of the “repressive hypothesis” or the notion that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century; he argues that this hypothesis is an illusion, and that in actuality, discourse on sexuality multiplied during this period.

The History of Sexuality is also, among other things, considered to be a foundation text for the relatively new field of queer theory which studies the intersection between politics, gender and sexuality; (This theory contests the idea that our identities are somehow determined by our gender or sexual preference).

To understand repressive hypothesis, one has to be really adept with the history of 18th century Europe as well as the history of the Church for these are the main forces which provided the impetus for such discussions on sex to take place (or as people tend to think – for the discussions to not take place). Part I of the book begins with the repressive hypothesis described as a by-product of the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. Here, sex, except for the purposes of reproduction, is taboo. Foucault disagrees with the claim that sex has been repressed and silenced.

From history, Foucault assiduously picks out the instances that actually encouraged sex and discussions on sex rather than suppress it. Firstly, he argues that the desire to talk so enthusiastically about sex in the western world stems from the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. Secondly, in that century, governments became increasingly aware that they were not merely managing ‘subjects’ or ‘a people’ but a ‘population’, and that they had to concern themselves with such issues as birth and death rates and so on. As he says, sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered.

The book is written in a very serious manner that doesn’t really help when you’re frustrated and trying to see through the density of the theories he’s propounding. But there are sparks of his wittiness that shine through which again seem redundant because for one to understand his level of humour and sarcasm, one must also be as knowledgeable as him (at the least).

For instance, he tells us of how one’s sexuality was also thought to explain a great deal about one’s character. Foucault argues that prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focuses on the productive role of the married couple, which is monitored by both canonical and civil law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he argues, society ceases discussing the sex lives of married couples, instead taking an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union; the ‘world of perversion’ that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual. This, he says, resulted into the adverse mind-set that exists in many societies today – that anything perverse such as homosexuality is “sick” or “wrong”. Therefore, a homosexual is therefore either mentally ill or a criminal – this explains to us the sources of the discussions on sex: first, there was medicine through the “nervous disorders”; second, there was psychiatry so a homosexual could be ‘mentally ill’ and third, there was the criminal justice system which was concerned with sexuality by way of heinous crimes and “crimes against nature” so a homosexual could also be a criminal.

Foucault then goes on to tell us of how sex became an object of knowledge, arguing that scientists begin to trace the cause of all aspects of human psychology and society to sexual factors.

Now here’s the part where it gets way out of hand. For a 19 something trying to tell herself that she should read more, this book as a starter is a terrible mistake. The opulence of his theories (which he somehow stretched over to 3 volumes) and the genius in them only occasionally stood out to me. This is obviously because I am handicapped in terms of European canonical history and other ideas on power and sexuality.  To put it one way: it is very difficult to figure out what to make of this work. When one says it is a “post-structuralist masterpiece”, I can only nod in concurrence without knowing what that means because the problem with this book is, although its only 169 pages, it’s a lot more than that. I had to pause after reading a page, to understand what Foucault is saying. I’m no intellectual myself, but this book gives you a different meaning after every read.

It’s thoroughly fascinating to read and attempt to understand the foundational work on sexuality and the society – it’s almost thrilling to see how Foucault breaks down popular notions and brings an absurd alternative into the picture. The book makes for a fascinating read but I daresay you’ll have to read it more than once to understand it through and through, or even the slightest bit. And once you do manage to break through this one, there are two more to go after this!

“When a long while ago the West discovered love, it bestowed on it a value high enough to make death acceptable; nowadays, it is sex that claims this equivalence, the highest of all.”

 

 

 

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