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What the Foucault?

August 8th, 2005 · No Comments

This weekend, I finally got around to reading volume one of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. This volume, at least, is not so much a “history” as an interpretive lens or framework for thinking about a history that Foucault assumes a fair amount of familiarity with on the reader’s part. Though infinitely more intelligible than most of the pomo theorists with whom he’s frequently grouped (Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari) this still makes Foucault maddeningly hard to pin down here. The book ends up being—aptly enough—like soap in the shower: You can get a loose grip, you know pretty much what he’s getting at, but if you try to get a firmer grasp on what exactly he’s claiming at various points, it slips away from you. This is largely because where you’d expect most scholars to follow a broad assertion about how (say) public discourse about sexuality evolved over time with a series of examples or citations from contemporaneous writings, Foucault gives only the briefest hint of a reference to what, concretely, might count as instances of the abstract processes he’s describing. This creates a double problem for the reader: First, you’re not entirely sure, in the absence of examples, precisely what his claim is. (By the “deployment of sexuality” does he mean mainly theoretical developments, institutional changes reflecting them, alterations in the self-understanding of the average person, all of the above? What kinds of things count as “power” in his sense of “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the speere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” and which do not? By which mechanisms is this kind of power “self-reproducing”?) Part of the problem here may be in the translation: I’m told, for instance, that “power” isn’t a great rendering of the French pouvoir, which has all sorts of subtle connotations that get lost in translation. (Puissance apparently corresponds more directly to “power” as we normally think of it.) The second problem, of course, is that it makes it exceedingly difficult to actually evaluate his claim. Foucault sets up as a foil to his view the still-commonplace idea that the 18th and 19th centuries saw a renewed sexual repression, from which bold thinkers in the 20th century have been trying to free us. Not so, according to Foucault: Rather, that era saw not a silencing of discourses about sexuality, but their multiplication, and the novel deployment of “sexuality” as a category of identity rather than mere behavior. This is where enters his famous claim that “the homosexual” (as opposed to people who committed homosexual acts) was “created” in the 19th century. His various arguments here are certiainly intriguing, but it’s frustrating in the extreme to see what are ultimately two empirical claims about what went on historically set up in opposite corners of the ring without, as it were, getting to witness the evidentiary boxing match.

Incidentally, a while back I interviewed Louis Crompton, author of the superb and wide-ranging Homosexuality and Civilization. Crompton takes serious issue with Foucault’s claim, offering as evidence the pejorative Roman term cinaedus (from Greek kinaidos) as clearly designating a certain type of person. On the other hand, though, Crompton cites a series of philosophical dialogues in which the characters spar over whether men should prefer traditional heterosexual marriage or instead sexual relations with young males. This seems to me to count as a point in Foucault’s favor: To someone with the typical modern understanding of sexuality as being a matter of different, deeply-entrenched identities, the idea of arguing over which kind of relationship to pursue seems absurd. Whether he’s right or wrong, this is the kind of marshalling of evidence one would want to see—I’m hoping he does in fact get around to it in the later volumes.

All that aside, reading HoS:1 made it clear why Foucault was so interested in Friedrich Hayek in his later years. This description of Foucault’s conception of pouvoir obviously has a strong affinity with Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order:

[There] is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power), tactics which, becoming connected to one another, attracting and propagating one another, but finding their base of support and their conditions elsewhere, end by forming comprehensive systems: the logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the gret anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decisionmakers are often without hypocrisy.

Tags: Sexual Politics