The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Foucault and Deleuze

Foucault had a close personal and intellectual relationship to with the French thinker Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, Foucault wrote a preface to one of Deleuze’s most important books, Anti-Oedipus (written in collaboration with the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari), hailing the work as “An Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life.” Although a very different thinker from Foucault, Deleuze also sought to identify the ways in which bodies might recuperate pleasures, feelings, thoughts, and energies that were appropriated by regimes of power. Both Foucault and Deleuze were actively involved in the May 1968 student uprising that took place across France, and which shaped their generation of intellectuals (indeed, members of this intellectual generation are often nicknamed les soixante-huitards in reference to the French word for the number 68).

In 1992, Deleuze wrote a short essay called “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” where he makes an argument about modern society that engages with how control works in Foucault’s thought. Deleuze points to the ways in which bureaucratic institutions are constantly undertaking “reforms” in the name of efficiency, turning to processes of constant flux and change in order to keep people in line and confused at the same time. Like Foucault, Deleuze recognized that political power cannot be understood solely in terms of unilateral or top-down relationships. Deleuze sought in his work to be attuned to the forms of soft power and self-policing that constitute “the society of control” to be anchored in modern forms of subject-formation. Indeed, Deleuze suggests that the contemporary subject is best understood not as an “individual” endowed with agency as a conscious, working subject, but rather as a “dividual,” able to participate in society only as a bundle of data, market activity, work skills and academic qualifications. The modern dividual subject is able to be controlled so effectively because her composite parts all belong to someone other entity—to the bank that controls her accounts, to the authority of the university that confers her degree, to the companies that profit off of her personal data.

It is a helpful exercise to imagine not only what the unwritten 4 volumes of The History of Sexuality would look like had Foucault lived to write them, but also how Foucault would have understood uniquely contemporary aspects of our current political society. How would Foucault understand the rising power of Silicon Valley, or the ways in which social media and cell phone apps provide new platforms for the formation and experience of sexuality? How would Foucault understand contemporary trends in online surveillance? Such questions prompt us to reflect on the ongoing usefulness of the critical vocabulary that Foucault has equipped us with, but they also prompt us to consider what the limits of Foucault's ideas might be.