Dr. Nabil al-Tasnimi sends me this:
I'm supposed to give a lecture tomorrow on the first two parts of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, but I have a plane to catch and won't have time to read it, so I was wondering if you could provide me with a summary of the work.
Well, here's what I had time to put together. Hope this helps:
In parts one (“We Other Victorians”) and two (“The Repressive Hypothesis”) of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976-1984), Foucault gives a broad overview of the history of sexual discourse in Europe, which he sees as beginning in the 17th century and continuing to develop up through the present. Rather than focusing on the particulars of sexuality practices and tendencies, Foucault is instead concerned with two larger questions: how and why did this discourse develop, and what is the relation of this discourse to power? Thus, the first half of Foucault’s argument outlines the history of the idea of sex, while the second part is focused on the relationship between this sexual discourse and the institutions of power that create and apply it.
Foucault takes aim at the "repressive hypothesis," the notion that after the Enlightenment Europe entered a puritanical phase in which sexuality was suddenly silenced and repressed. Foucault argues that in fact the opposite is true-- that the West, far from being mum on the subject of sex, actually became increasingly articulate as it invented whole new systems of discourse to talk about the subject. Foucault sets the date for this shift somewhere in the mid-17th century, when sex began to transform itself from act to discourse, from being something that was done to something that was talked about. "Rather than a massive censorship," he explains, "beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse" (Foucault, 34).
It was not long after this that a new scientific idiom was created to systematize all forms of sexual behavior, and to define the "norms" of sexual practice. The discourse continued to be refined within elite circles in Europe, so that by the late 19th century we begin to see publications such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which describes in extensive detail “abnormal” sexual behaviors (broadly defined as any act in which the goal is something other than procreation). Though originally confined to elite circles, this discourse slowly trickled down into the public sector, and popular novels such as Herbert Spencer Ashbee’s My Secret Life (1890) marked the beginning of a the new literary genre: the tell-all confessional, which was quickly assimilated into the popular consciousness.
The Catholic confessional also played an important role in spreading this new discourse to large segments of the public, helping to lay the foundation for the creation of a new modern phenomenon, “sexual subjectivity.” Churches, rather than shying away from the subject, began to participate like never before in the discussions, often using descriptive if not explicit language to explain to its parishioners the lines between what is acceptable and what constitutes sin. Schools, too, joined in on the fun, as they established sex education programs with the intent of regulating children’s sexuality in unprecedented ways. "It would be less than exact,” Foucault notes, “to say that the pedagogical institution has imposed a ponderous silence on the sex of children and adolescents. On the contrary, since the eighteenth century it has multiplied the forms of discourse on the subject; it has established various points of implantation for sex; it has coded contents and qualified speakers" (Foucault, 29).
Thus, rather than being repressed, sex in fact became something widely talked about, managed, put in terms of utility, administered, and even, by the mid 18th century, made into a police matter. Given these new regulatory responsibilities, the state suddenly found itself with an excuse to increase its size and scope; and, in turn, practicing regulated sex became a form of service to the state. Done properly, fornication could be an important way of contributing to the production, growth, and population increase of the nation (25-6). Whether planned or not, this new role of sexual regulator had the effect of radically increasing the size and power of state apparatuses (24).
Certainly, sex seemed to be a convenient tool for expanding state and institutional powers; but was this power really exercised through repression, as critics claim? Foucault’s short answer is no, it wasn’t. Rather than using methods of repression, states in fact wielded and maintained power through production: of life, governances, medical control, intellectual power, media, and the manufacturing of knowledge, most importantly sexual knowledge. States began to realize that to steer the discourse on sexuality meant, in many ways, to steer the population.
Foucault argues that categories of “sexual identities” are, for the most part, arbitrary constructions that do not accurately reflect any real phenomena, but instead serve only to conceal a whole set of nuanced and complicated truths about human sexuality. By challenging the validity of this discourse, Foucault is moving away from the Marxian-Freudian premise that "all is sex," i.e., that one’s sexuality is the true indicator and center of the self. Foucault rejects the “strap-on” identities of the modern discourse, which he sees as false labels that, instead of providing people with the “liberation” they claim to offer, in fact confine people to rigid and uncritically inherited categories from the past, many of which are based upon prejudices and false assumptions. Most of these identities were in fact created and defined by an elite corps of technocrats, scientists, and the medical industry, each of which was driven by their own self-serving agenda.
Foucault concludes that the whole notion of "liberation"— the buzzword of his day— is wrongheaded because it calls for the liberating of things that do not exist, or, at best, are rough approximations of actual phenomena.
The Kenny G Fallacy
Some claim that the global proliferation of this Euro-American model of discourse is proof of its inherent truth and merit, and that Foucault's argument is, at best, misguided. This line of reasoning reminds me of what I call the “Kenny G fallacy,” which says that the fact that Kenny G has sold millions of records around the world irrefutably demonstrates that his music is of great value (a fallacy held by my father, an avid Kenny G fan). Following the same logic, some claim that the recent rise in the number of subscribers to the Western discourse on sexuality automatically legitimates the discourse.
To me, however, it seems that the recent “globalization” of the discourse actually validates Foucault's second thesis, namely, that sexual knowledge has from the beginning been a handy tool for institutions of power. Seen from this angle, it seems perfectly predictable that the exportation of this particular brand of sexual discourse would accompany the rise of the U.S. as the dominant global power over the past sixty years. Had, however, the hegemonic global power of the last sixty years been, say, the Netherlands, and not the U.S., then the global model of sexual discourse would have been something altogether different.
It is also important to note that the “globalization” of this discourse is not a truly global phenomenon, as it is limited for the most part to those regions of the world under direct American influence. For example, one might see a prevalence of this discourse in countries aligned politically to the U.S. (e.g., South Korea, Japan, Estonia, or Poland), but would be a bit more hard pressed to find similar movements in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Serbia, or other non-client states.
Take for instance the notion of “gay identity,” which along with black, Jewish, lesbian, bisexual, and other “identity movements” arose out of particular historical circumstances in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, when the melting pot suffered one of its major crises of retribalization. Though the notions of both race-as-identity and sexuality-as-identity can be traced back to earlier roots, such movements are a particularly American phenomenon, for which there were previously no equivalents elsewhere in the world. (Is this even true? Somebody correct me if I'm wrong!)
One case that comes to mind is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech last year at Columbia University, in which he made the statement, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country." Predictably, he was roundly condemned for homophobia. But, in a sense, his statement was not altogether inaccurate, if taken in proper context and with due attention paid to the word “like.” Surely homosexual activity exists today in Iran as it has always existed. The difference, however, is that the Persians, like the Japanese, have not felt it necessary to define themselves by sexual acts in the same way we in the U.S. do. In other words, engaging in a certain act does not categorically define who the person is. What Ahmadinejad seemed to suggest was that, in Iran, sexuality and identity are not always conflated, there is room for ambiguity, and a defiant proclamation of identity is unnecessary, even laughable. Themes of pederasty, sodomy, and homosexuality are in fact quite common in both the pre-Islamic and Islamic literature of Persia (up through the present), and, like the Greeks and the Japanese at particular times, Persian poets often praised homosexual relationships, which they considered to be among the purest expressions of human love.
Other cases abound which show the degree of variance regarding interpretation of human sexuality. In Thailand, the conceptions of homosexuality and “kathoey” are so nuanced that their discourse defies in many ways the Western discourse (Manderson, Sites of Desire). Papa New Guinea is another case in point, where men of pre-marital age are required to engage in sexual acts with older male members of the community as a sort of rite of passage (Nagel, Race, Ethnicity and Sexuality). One could go on forever citing examples of cultures where the notion of “sexual identity” is still a mostly meaningless concept. But for us Westerners who already are saddled with these identities, it is too late to go back to the pre-discourse phase of history. What is needed now is a reconfiguring of the existing categories, so that they may more accurate reflect this complex phenomenon of human sexuality.