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Foucault and the History of Sexuality: A “Queer” Overview

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – Volume I (p. 6)

Although Michel Foucault did not work within an established queer theory framework, he is undoubtedly one of the most important precursors to queer theory and the study of gender. His ideas and approaches not only helped to develop a useful framework to understand and contest normativity, but I would go as far as to posit that the ideas discussed in the three volumes of The History of Sexuality have become integrated with the gestalt of human culture and consciousness. His work has enabled conversations of the constructed nature of sexuality and the role of power, culture, and society in this construction. Furthermore, his work has served as a theoretical platform for prominent queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butlter. Foucault’s ideas have particularly helped Butler to approach gender as a construction, and to develop the concept of performativity as a way of exemplifying how language and discourse are reiterated in order to produce the very phenomena that discourse regulates and controls. Performativity is a very Foucaldian notion, developed partially from Foucault’s concept of genealogy (derived from Nietzsche’s approach), which outlines the development of discourses not on the basis of their linearity, but rather, on their relationships, their paradoxes, and their fixations.

The History of Sexuality is in essence, a three-volume study of sexuality, power, and regulation in the Western World. The most influential of these volumes is the first, often referred to as the introduction of the study. This first volume focuses its attention on attacking the preconception that discourses of sex were suppressed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and how sex was very much an integral component of religious, scientific, and political conversations.

As mentioned previously, one of the most influential ideas discussed within this first volume was the notion of sexuality as a construct with social and cultural origins. This very much went against essentialist views of sexuality, in which sexual desire was exclusively deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Foucault does a similar move in terms of approaching power as a hegemonic distribution that is not inherently present within a being or a thing, but rather, that is generated through discourse and through complex relationships that defy easy categorizations. Although to some extent sexuality is based on biology and desire, Foucault stresses that ultimately, these biological drives are shaped and influenced by institutions and discourses, thus creating the phenomenon of sexuality. The notion of sexuality as a construct inspired Foucault’s contemporaries and successors to focus their attention not on what produces sexuality, but rather, on what sexuality produces.

Another prominent concept discussed within the first volume of The History of Sexuality is the development of Scientia Sexualis, which is the introduction and proliferation of sexuality into psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourse—which in turn illustrates the spread of sexual discourse despite its supposed repression prior to the 20th century. Psychoanalysis, for instance, focused much of its attention on ascertaining the source of sexuality through the processes of confession and truth-sharing. Confession has important connotations in terms of sexuality, its religious contexts, and even its contemporary contexts (as Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, confession is crucial in terms of the coming out process that queer individuals face during their day-to-day lives). Because of the linkage between confession and sexuality, sexuality becomes closely associated to discourse, and consequently, truth. As Foucault posits, the evasive scientific discourse of sexuality

set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myths with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardized populations. In the name of a biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (54)

Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity. In other words, the practice of sexuality became tethered to truth, thus becoming an ontological categorization no different from racial or ethnic typologies. In order to evidence this notion, Foucault alludes the invention of the concept of homosexuality (and in tandem, the invention of the homosexual), arguing once again that homosexuality was not discovered, but rather, produced through dialectical exchange: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).

Although it is known that people engaged in same-sex relationships prior to the invention of the concept of homosexuality, this ontological category encouraged people to identify themselves or to view others as homosexual. The emergence of homosexuality as a “species” led to unfortunate developments, such as the classification of homosexuality as a pathology that had to be suppressed or regulated. It also led to the demonization of sexualities that were not deemed to be “productive.” It is here that we begin to see the roots of what Lee Edelman would call reproductive futurity, in which procreation is deemed necessary to meet the needs of a system based on production, capitalism, and futurity. Society’s increasing linkage to capitalism, thus, incremented the need of reproductive futurity in order to assure that the capitalist machine continues to run smoothly:

There emerged the analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and their effects at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains. There also appeared those systematic campaigns which going beyond the traditional means–moral and religious exhortations, fiscal measures–tried to transform the sexual conduct of couples into a concerted economic and political behavior. (26)

The 19th century, in particular, witnessed the emergence of doctrines and scientific approaches that had an intense focus on eradicating or handling forms of sexuality that deviated from the notion of reproductive futurity. Crucial to the development of identity politics, Foucault discusses how the categorization of homosexuality led to the emergence of a reverse discourse that challenged the negative valences associated with individuals who were now approached as homosexuals. Although people labeled as homosexuals did deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, this opened up the opportunity for these communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition. Discursively, the fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon—homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way.” The reverse discourse generated by the advent of homosexuality goes on to exemplify the circuitous nature of power established by Foucault, in which every instance of power also presents some form of resistance.

To what extent can Lady Gaga’s Born This Way be approached as a form of discursive resistance?

Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, respectively titled The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, focus more on earlier establishments of culture that surfaced before the advent of Western modernity—particularly Greek and Roman cultures. Within volume II, Foucault addresses how Christianity changed the Western view of sexuality and partnership not only from a moral stance, but also from an ethical stance:

it will be said that Christianity associated [sexuality’ with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values. Or the definition of the legitimate partner: it would appear that, in contrast to what occurred in Greek and Roman societies, Christianity drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends within that conjugal relationship. Or the disallowance of relations between individuals of the same sex: it would seem that Christianity strictly excluded such relationships, while Greece exalted them and Rome accepted them, at least between men. (14)

While it may initially seem that Christianity completely radicalized sexuality, Foucault posits that there is actually a continuity between “paganism” and Christianity in terms of the discourses of sex. A particularly illuminating example was the image of same-sex relationships. In the 19th century, homosexuals were pathologized as “inverts” and were deemed to have stereotypical and feminized behaviors and traits. The term invert actually alludes to an inversion of the subject’s sexual role–a motif that was very much present in Greco-Roman literature, in which the young boys who donned the passive role are approached as spineless, delicate, and ornamental. Foucault posits that

It would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or of what we generally refer to as homosexual relations; but at the same time, one cannot fail to see in it the effect of strongly negative judgments concerning some possible aspects of relations between men, as well as a definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role. (19)

Thus, although same-sex relationships were deemed to be “freer” in Greco-Roman cultures, one can still genealogically trace negative valences towards homosexuality–thus exemplifying the discursive nature of sexuality even before the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, when comparing Greco-Roman cultures to later European cultures, there are some differences in terms of how sexuality was approached from a moral, ethical, and stance. Within volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, the notion of individuality is quite important, especially when it came to its conjunction with concepts such as ethics and morality. Interestingly, morality in Greco cultures was not viewed as a norm or a standard under which people had to comply, but rather, it was viewed as a relationship between the individual and the self—thus making ethics an individualized process rather than a struggle of the individual versus society:

moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of [severe self-discipline] than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. (31)

However, the advent of Christianity broke with this individualistic model of the moral and ethical world. Christianity, according to Foucault, produces the meaning of sex rather than focusing its attention on the meanings sex produces—thus making Christianity a regulating and hegemonic force. In these latter volumes, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind that Foucault has hesitation in terms of approaching sexuality, ethics, and individuality through the perspective of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. This is because he does not necessarily approve of them in their entirety—especially when it comes to their perspective of who can or cannot be an individual (slaves and women, for instance, were very much excluded from being approached as individuals).

There is much more to be said in terms of the rich concepts and ideas discussed in Foucault’s work, but it is my hope that this overview has given you a substantial look at the most prominent ideas and concepts discussed in The History of Sexuality–especially the ideas that I deem most useful for queer theory and gender studies.

You can purchase The History of Sexuality by clicking here (Volume 1), here (Volume 2), or here (Volume 3).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

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