Michel Foucault
Born 1926

Poitiers, France

Relevant Work The History of Sexuality, Volume 1


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Born in Poitiers, France in 1926.
  • Studied philosophy and psychology at France's top university, École Normale Supérieure.
  • It was here that Foucault met his teacher, Louis Althusser, who, in 1950, convinced Michel to join the Communist Party. Michel cut his ties to the Communist Party only three years later (1469). [1]
  • Published first book in 1960, Folie et deraison,
  • In 1961, the work was translated, in part, into English under the title Madness and Civilization.
  • This was soon followed, in 1963, by his second book, The Birth of the Clinic, which, like its predecessor, heavily criticized modern medical institutions (1469). [1]
  • Foucault's 1966 work translated as, The Order of Things, earned him reputation and renown in intellectual circles and made his career.

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Foucault argued that modern power operates "...through continual classification, surveillance, and intervention" (NATC 1472). In turn, modern power, in Foucault's mind, is responsible for the production of sexual categories that "structure the world in certain ways." He observes the history of sexuality from the seventeenth century onward, including how views of sexuality were shaped by religion, capitalism, and bourgeois society. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the shift on sexuality switched focus from married couples to the sexuality of those outside that sanctity of marriage., or what society would consider as "perverse" sexualities. This, Foucault argues, had three impacts on society. "Firstly, there was increasing categorization of these 'perverts'; where previously a man who engaged in same-sex activities would be labeled as an individual who succumbed to the sin of sodomy, now they would be categorized into a new 'species,' that of homosexual. Secondly, Foucault argues that the labeling of perverts conveyed a sense of 'pleasure and power' on to both those studying sexuality and the perverts themselves. Thirdly, he argues that bourgeoisie society exhibited 'blatant and fragmented perversion,' readily engaging in perversity but regulating where it could take place.[7]" (Wikipedia)

Key Words and Terms Edit

Epistemes - "Deep-rooted, unconscious structures for organizing knowledge" (Simon 1469).

Subject - Foucault uses the word in two different meanings: 1. the noun, the "subject position" 2. the verb, as in being "'subjected' to power" (1471).

Power/Knowledge - "the term Foucault uses to indicate how the production of knowledge is wedded to productive power. Modern power requires increasingly narrow categories through which it analyzes, differentiates, identities, and administers individuals" (1473).

Classical Period - Foucault's term for (roughly) the period from 1650 to 1789" (1502).

Bourgeois - In English, the term bourgeoisie is often used to denote the middle classes. In fact, the French term encompasses both the upper and middle classes, bourgeoisie in France and many French-speaking countries consists of four evolving social layers: petite bourgeoisie, moyenne bourgeoisie, grande bourgeoisie, and haute bourgeoisie.[2] In the context of "The History of Sexuality/ Foucault (1519), it was a "Nineteenth-century "bourgeois" society" or answer to "Sexual repression".

Expurgate - to cleanse of something morally harmful, offensive, or erroneous; especially :  to expunge objectionable parts from before publication or presentation <an expurgated edition of the letters.

Key Quotations Edit

"Power is exercised rather than possessed" (1472).

"Calling sex by its name thereafter became more difficult and costly. As if in order to gain mastery over it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present" (1502).

"I'm not talking about the obligation to admit to violations of the laws of sex, as required by traditional penance; but of the nearly infinite task of telling--telling oneself and another, as often as possible, everything and thoughts which, through the body and the soul, had some affinity with sex. This scheme for transforming sex into discourse had been devised long before in an ascetic and monastic setting" (1504).

"It was essential that the state know what was happening with its citizens' sex, and the use they made of it, but also that each individual be capable of controlling the use he made of it. Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less: a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it" (1508).

"Sex was driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence" (1511).

"But as this first overview shows, we are dealing less with a discourse on sex than with a multiplicity of discourses produced by a whole series of mechanisms operating in different institutions" (1512).

"At the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birthrate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile, and effects of unmarried life or of the prohibitions, the impact of contraceptive practices—of those notorious "deadly secrets" which demographers on the eve of the Revolution knew were already familiar to the inhabitants of the country-side" (1507).

Discussion Edit

Sexuality and Institutions Edit

In Chapter 2 of "The History of Sexuality," Foucault briefly mentions the role that sexuality plays in the economy. However, he fails to provide an in-depth exploration of the ways looser sexual regulations impacted the economy and labor practices of the 19th century. He argues that sexuality's multiplication throughout the 19th century and beyond has a primary objective of ensuring population, reproducing labor capacity, perpetuating the form of social relations, and constituting a sexuality that is economically useful (NATC 1513). This Marxist interpretation of sexuality reduces sexuality to an economic apparatus designed to reproduce the systems of production. Although Foucault does not explicitly link the expansion of socially accepted sexual practices during the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution's demand for labor, that is an interesting path to explore. Rules about sexuality were initially defined and regulated by the Church, but as the world became industrialized and science gained power and credibility in the 19th century, sexual authority shifted to the medical field. As the church lost power over citizens, the State and Science gained it. It could be argued that the State and Science were more relaxed regarding sexuality since fewer restrictions would likely equal an increase in the production of workers.

Foucault discusses the Catholic church and the sacrament of penance as an example of an institution that pushed for sex-related discourses. In an effort to draw people to the church more frequently for confession, the church wanted people to participate in penance by discussing all aspects of “the flesh” including “thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and the soul” (NATC 1503). By getting people to examine their sexuality closely, sex became a necessary discourse. The issues of institutions, power, and speech in relation to discourses around sex link to censorship and tracking. Foucault discusses how “Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered. It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytical discourses. In the eighteenth century, sex became a ‘police’ matter” (NATC 1506) so that it could be regulated. Sex discourses became intertwined in schooling (an institution) so that children could be controlled (power play by institution) to make sure they would speak and act in the manner they were supposed to in regards to sex-discourses.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

The NATC explains that one of the reasons that Foucault talks about selves and the ways that they "produce themselves" in Volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality was due in part to the criticism he received regarding Volume 1 (1472). It is also explained that Foucault's work as a whole was criticized most greatly because of his preoccupation with the connection between power and knowledge; Foucault even began to diminish the conviction in which he had previously discussed this nexus later in his career.

"Foucault struggled to find ways to get out from under the compelling logic of 'there is no outside' without returning to naive appeals to 'truth' or 'selves' that exist independently of the discursive and social networks in which they appear. His efforts in that direction focused on 'the care of the self' and are suggestive, but are not fully worked through. Since his death, the ever-increasing incorporation of individuals into the bureaucratic slots of a 'globalized' world of transnational corporations, nation-states, and international organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and newly prominent nongovernmental organizations like the World Trade Organization makes Foucault's account of a supervising, norm enforcing, disciplinary power appear more pertinent" (NATC 1474).

In addition, Foucault's work, History of Sexuality in particular, has been heavily criticized by feminist scholars for the dismissive way in which he writes about a grown man having sex with a young girl. To such scholars, he is considered sexist and biased.

Related Works Edit

  • Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."
  • Anonymous, My Secret Life (New York: Grove Press, 1966)
  • Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle."
  • Freud, Sigmund. "Three Essays on Sexuality" (1905)
  • Horace. Ars Poetica.
  • Lacan, Jacques-Marie. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience."
  • Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1.
  • Plato. Republic.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism.

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.
  2. "The History of Sexuality." Wikipediaˆ.