Monday, January 18, 2010

Aimless Reading: The F's, Part 19.4 (Michel Foucault)

Foucault, Michel
The History of Sexuality,
Volume 1

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

I am in danger of violating my rule to not start re-reading books as I attempt to catalog them. In fact, I think I am in flagrant violation at the moment. I am currently reading The Brothers Karamazov, which I previously catalogued; I am also re-reading The Interpretation of Dreams, which I will catalog in the coming weeks; and, having glanced at the incredible introduction to this book, I began reading it again this morning. I suspect I will continue with all three. So much for rules.

Of this book I can say this morning that I am experiencing the exact same thing I did the first time I read it, some 10 years ago -- that is, I find myself so completely engrossed that I could read the whole thing in one sitting. I am pretty sure I did that the first time I read it. I don't think I read the second volume, and I don't even own the third, but the first one is some of the most compelling analysis I have ever read.

Just reading the first few pages again, I am struck at how tricky Foucault's arguments are. To characterize his thought as revolutionary – in the sense of arguing toward revolutionary action in the streets – is as dangerous as it is to see it as an apolitical analysis of power that ultimately upholds the structures it seeks to examine by providing a historical description thereof which could ultimately be used to justify that power.

Sentence to sentence, I find myself entertaining both views, while getting the feeling that Foucault himself is more than equally aware of these dangers and is already ten steps ahead of me.

That said, I have always suspected that Foucault intends to describe rather than to prescribe, and that his analysis ultimately seeks to become a kind of science of discourse, one whose rigor knows no political bounds. His work has not often been read as such, for the most part, I suspect, because its (revolutionary) analyses came of age during a period of revolutionary upheaval and so it seemed natural to read him in that context.

Foucault's knack for overturning any kind of accepted meaning – progressive, capitalistic, psychoanalytic, Marxist or otherwise – in the search for truth is revolutionary. What the nature of that revolution is is still up for debate. I remember asking a professor once if Foucault had at any point enunciated some kind of ethical imperative to revolutionary action. No, she said, he stops short, which is one of his failings. I wonder if it is.

from The History of Sexuality, Volume 1

But there may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker's benefit. 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. This explains the solemnity with which one speaks of sex nowadays. When they had to allude to it, the first demographers and psychiatrists of the nineteenth century thought it advisable to excused themselves for asking their readers to dwell on matters so trivial and base. But for decades now, we have found it difficult to speak on the subject without striking a different pose: we are conscious of defying established power, our tone of voice shows that we know we are being subversive, and we ardently conjure away the present and appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making.


RD Pohl said...

This is, of course, is just Volume One, of a proposed six volume study on the subject Foucault embarked upon at the end of his too short life. I was still and undergraduate when this was translated into English in 1977, but I had the opportunity to review Volumes 2 (The Use of Pleasure) & 3 (The Care of the Self) for The News in when they appeared in English in 1985 and 1986, after Foucault's unfortunate death of AIDS in 1984. I think you're correct, Mike, that to say this reflects the culmination of all Foucault's rich, subtle, and ultimately revolutionary thinking on the Body and Self as historical constructions and the evolution of the powers of religion and modern state as regulators of "sexual" matters. I wish Foucault had lived long to complete Volume 4 (Confessions of the Flesh)which was he completing at the time of his death. It reportedly had much to do with sexuality and narrative, and would doubtless would have been of enormous value to writers and artists.

rdeming said...

"To characterize his thought as revolutionary – is as dangerous as it is to see it as an apolitical analysis of power that ultimately upholds the structures it seeks to examine by providing a historical description thereof which could ultimately be used to justify that power."

Well, it can be political _and_hegemonic. And it would be dangerous _not_ to see the potential, wouldn't it?

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Potential for what, Richard?

rdeming said...

that [it] ultimately upholds the structures it seeks to examine by providing a historical description thereof which could ultimately be used to justify that power."

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Richard -- I guess my point was that Foucault's value, to me, is as a truth-teller, and that truth he tells would likely undermine most of the "Foucauldian" analysis that has followed in the wake of his thought. It is more radical than radicals on the right or left would think, and I think that if most radicals really thought about what he was saying it would likely undermine the confidence they have in their own arguments about "the way things are." Are we on the same page here or are you pointing out something else?

rdeming said...

I guess I'm saying that he is also less radical. In other words, Foucault himself (or his texts, anyway) is also subject to (in every sense of the word) the forces that Foucault describes. The danger lies in not seeing that possibility that his work (more the early mid-career material, less the later work) can feed back into power differentials and ideological mechanisms.

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

I hear you, Richard. On some level I think we are saying the same thing -- I see his radicalism as being constituted in the fundamental questions he poses about the conditions under which a discourse might appear. These are philosophical questions, not necessarily political ones. Thus, they can be read/used in different ways, for good or ill. Think of Reagan borrowing "Born in the USA" for the GOP Convention in '84. Who's to say he misinterpreted the song, just b/c the Boss said he did?

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Also, I think one of the most interesting things about his analysis of power (and the most radical/fundamental/dangerous/maddening) is that in his analysis, power is simply a condition without an intentionality. People operate within the matrices of power, and power is invested with strategies, tactics, needs, but not with intentional ends other than the impersonal exercise of itself. It's sort of like trying to imagine the universe expanding without expanding within something else. There's not there out there, so ultimately all political action can be read as futile in the face of the impersonal, indifferent operations of power.