For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.
With this quote, Foucault begins The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. These 2 sentences neatly sum up the Repressive Hypothesis, which claims that we continue to live with the pressure of a widespread silencing of sex. Foucault writes these sentences in a way that makes the Repressive Hypothesis feel at once familiar and ridiculous.
What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they confined sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.
In this provocative quote, Foucault turns the Repressive Hypothesis upside-down: what is significant to modern societies is not the silencing of sex, as the Repressive Hypothesis claims. Instead, Foucault argues here that sex was ever-present in discourse. The idea of “the secret” is central to Foucault’s argument: instead of suppressing our sexual acts and desires as secrets within ourselves, our talkativeness about sex has made it our fundamental identity.
The nineteenth century and our own have been rather the age of multiplication: a dispersion of sexualities, a strengthening of their disparate forms, a multiple implantation of ‘perversions.’ Our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities.
In this quote, Foucault elaborates on what he has been insistently calling the “inducement to discourse” of sex, beginning at the end of the 17th century and continuing to this day. The inducement to discourse involves all manner of institutionally-codified talk about sex, from the clinical identification and description of sexual types, to the diagnosis and treatment of perversions.
Instead of adding up the errors, naïvetés, and moralisms that plagued the nineteenth-century discourse of sex, we would do better to locate the procedures by which that will to knowledge regarding sex […] caused the rituals of confession to function within the norms of scientific regularity: how did this immense and traditional extortion of sexual confession come to be constituted in scientific terms?
This quote sums up the stakes of scientia sexualis, the discourse that tried to learn about sex with scientific objectivity. Using Foucault’s trademark maneuver of shifting what we habitually find interesting about sexuality, he asserts that what is noteworthy about the 19th century sciences of sexuality is not that they were driven by an oppressive morality. It's a scientific rather than a moral force that shapes the inquiry into sex. So the question, Foucault suggests is how exactly the Catholic practice of confession came to form the basis of scientific approaches to sex in the 19th century.
Several centuries ago, [sex] was placed at the center of a formidable petition to know. A double petition, in that we are compelled to know how things are with it, while it is suspected of knowing how things are with us.
The “double petition to know” showcases the power dynamics at the heart of modern sexuality, and is a central concept in Part 4. The petition to know is described as double because we simultaneously believe that we must discover and account for the truth of our sexuality, and that the truth of our sexuality will say something that we did not know about ourselves. Both sides of the double petition destabilize our ability to know ourselves on our own terms.
"Sex, the explanation for everything"
Issued somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the Introduction to Part 4, this statement encapsulates much about how modern society has treated sexuality as an underlying answer or cause for any given social phenomenon. Even today, we can often ascribe underlying sexual motivations to apparently non-sexual human behavior, while ascribing great significance to the influence of early sexual thoughts and experiences on our development as human beings.
Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.
This quote comes from the chapter on Method in Part 4. “Power is everywhere” is one of Foucault’s most famous quotes, and here he is careful to make sure it is not misinterpreted. Foucault does not mean that power is everywhere because it is overwhelming and all-enveloping; instead, he means that power is everywhere because it can be wielded from all sides and in any direction.
This is a question of orienting ourselves to a conception of power which replaces the privilege of prohibition with the viewpoint of tactical efficacy, the privilege of sovereignty with the analysis of a multiple and mobile field of force relations, wherein far-reaching, but never completely stable, effects of domination are produced.
This slightly dense quote can be found in the chapter on Domain in Part 4. Although the language is complicated, its claims are straightforward: Foucault is calling for a conception of power that thinks less in terms of unilateral sovereign power, and more in terms of intricate and softer tactics of general control.
Sex is not that part of the body which the bourgeoisie was forced to disqualify or nullify in order to put those whom it dominated to work. It is that aspect of itself which troubled and preoccupied it more than any other […] The bourgeoisie made this element identical with its body...
This quote, from the “Periodization” chapter of Part 4, helps Foucault to argue that the 19th century bourgeoisie deployed sexuality as an analog for aristocratic blood. Arguing against the commonplace idea that the prudish bourgeoisie of the 19th century disowned their sexuality, Foucault states the very opposite: that they made it part and parcel of their bodies.
Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its domination; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most ‘private.'
This quote, found in Foucault’s concluding chapter, articulates the concept of biopower and what distinguishes it from older regimes of social control. In a biopolitical regime, power is exerted through forms of fostering and encouraging life—such as population management, regulation of birth rates, and the promotion of public health. This marks a significant change from premodern forms of government, in which the ultimate expression of political power is the right to administer the death penalty.
The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.