The notion of Victorian bourgeois society as sexually repressed weighs heavy on the general understanding modern society has of that by-gone time. Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, seeks to dispell this unimaginative notion. Rather, he envisions the very notion of sexuality as a bourgeois invention, meant to negotiate between “power and knowledge,” between “truth and pleasures” in a way which eludes as simplistic an understanding as that of societal repression based on law.
That understanding, Foucault defines through two tenets: “Power represses sex,” and “law constitutes desire”. A lawful framework alone does not have the strength necessary to hold desire back. “One should not think that desire is repressed,” Foucault writes, “for the simple reason that the law is what constitutes both desire and the lack on which it is predicated.”
The hypothesis Foucault offers early on is this:
The society that emerged in the nineteenth century—bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will—did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex. As if it suspected sex of harboring a fundamental secret. As if it needed this production of truth. As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.
What follows is a dogged intellectual pursuit of this hypothesis and an examination of that first tenet I mentioned, the repression of sex by power.
Power and sexuality are interwoven so tightly together, Foucault argues, that they cannot be separated. By examining one, touching upon the other is an inevitability. This, then, isn’t only a book on sexuality–it is a book on power:
At bottom, despite the differences in epochs and objectives, the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy. In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king. Hence the importance that the theory of power gives to the problem of right and violence, law and illegality, freedom and will, and especially the state and sovereignty (even if the latter is questioned insofar as it is personified in a collective being and no longer a sovereign individual). To conceive of power on the basis of these problems is to conceive of it in terms of a historical form that is characteristic of our societies: the juridical monarchy.
But not power as it is liable to be understood. No, Foucault carefully defines every term he uses; so, for example, power is not “a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the citizens of a given state,” nor “a mode of subjugation which…has the form of the rule”. But what is it?
Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies.
Big thoughts here, folks.
Foucault’s arguments redefine the way sexuality is examined. There’s elegance to his writing that persuades and the logic he uses to reformulate questions of power and sexuality, of the relations that defined (and continue to define) this bourgeois society we live in, and the power relations we are all subject and party to.
It’s but the first piece of a larger puzzle–one I’m excited to piece together over the coming months.
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