Monday, January 18, 2010
The History of Sexuality,
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.