One of the most central terms in Foucault’s thought, “discourse” refers most simply to a way of talking about something. In Foucault’s work, a discourse is a coherent and organized mode of discussing something, which shapes how we understand what is being discussed. Sexuality is a discourse, which draws from a variety of other institutional discourses in order to shape and define how we talk about and understand the relationships between selfhood, sexual desire, and sexual pleasure.
Meaning “erotic art” in Latin, the ars erotica is one type of method for exploring and discovering the purported truth about sex. The ars erotica aims to discover the truth about sex through practiced personal experience and intimate knowledge, rather than through scientific study. Most civilizations across the world and throughout history have developed some kind of ars erotica.
Contrasting with the ars erotica, the scientia sexualis is another type of method for exploring and discovering the truth about sex. Unlike the ars erotica, the scientia sexualis does not trust unmediated personal experience, and instead treats sexual knowledge as a matter of distant and impersonal scientific study. It usually involves people studying the sexual habits and experiences of other people, rather than themselves. Foucault argues that the modern West is the first civilization to create a scientia sexualis.
Arguably the most central concept in Foucault’s thought, “power” is nonetheless an elusive idea. Power, in Foucault’s thought, is the most basic building block of all relations between people, and thus the basis of political society as we understand it. Foucault saw “power” as being “everywhere” which means that power is always being engaged and exerted at all times within society. Everyone has some degree of power in any given social situation, a degree of power that changes constantly.
Power-knowledge is a specific form of power based in knowledge about other people. Power-knowledge is the principle relationship of power, for example, between a psychiatrist and her patient; the psychiatrist has authority and knowledge about the patient, who knows nothing about the personal life of her psychiatrist. For Foucault, power is obtained not only by knowing about people, but also through institutional codifications of what counts as knowledge in the first place, and of what counts as a viable method for obtaining knowledge.
The Classical Age
The Classical Age is an originally French term that refers to the onset of European modernity in France during the 18th century. Beginning roughly in the 1710s, the Classical Age is associated with the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, including Diderot and Voltaire, and with the corresponding rise of secularism, empirical science, and the middle class.
A complicated concept in Foucault, “truth” is never treated as stable or objective. In Foucault’s thought, the notion of the truth is always strategic. This means that it always plays a role in guaranteeing the authenticity of one way of understanding the world. The ars erotica posits a different kind of truth than the scientia sexualis, for instance. The discourse of sexuality argues that sex is at the inner core of the truth of ourselves.
Biopower is a key concept of Foucault’s later thought. It refers to a mode of power that expresses itself through the large-scale management of the life of a population. In distinction to sovereign power, which staked its authority in the right to kill citizens, biopolitical regimes seek to foster and control the development of life.
Anatamo-politics is a mode of power that accompanies the rise of biopolitics. Whereas biopolitics focuses on the management of populations, however, anatamo-politics works on the level of individual bodies. Anatamo-politics is about training human bodies to achieve new potentials of productivity, and can be found in such situations as repetitive industrial labor.
The keystone of Foucault’s book, “sexuality” is not what we commonly think it is. Rather than assuming that we all possess something called sexuality, as a simple and universal aspect of being human, Foucault argues that sexuality is the result of complex political processes that shape how we understand ourselves. Roughly, we might define sexuality here as a framework for coordinating our deepest desires and activities, which has the capacity to disclose the innermost truth about ourselves and about our place in the world.
When Foucault states that “power is everywhere,” he means that power can come from any place, in any direction. But his account of the history of sexuality nonetheless identifies 4 specific unified strategies through which the deployment of sexuality works. These are the hystericization of women’s bodies, the pedagogization of children’s sexuality, the psychiatrization of perversion, and the management of the modern family.
Understanding sexuality to be the product of power relations, Foucault sees sexuality as something that has been strategically deployed in modernity. The deployment of sexuality refers to the ways in which modern society has mobilized, or put into practice, or engaged sexuality as a means of attaining control over the population and of consolidating institutional power.
Pathologization is the treatment of a phenomenon as a medical pathology. Pathologization is an important concept in Foucault, where he traces gradual shifts in modern society from moral or legal ways of understanding such phenomena as sodomy and incest, to medical ways of understanding these phenomena as ultimately pathological. Pathologization is essentially the practice of treating a social problem as a medical one.
The Repressive Hypothesis
The Repressive Hypothesis is Foucault’s way of formulating the unexamined idea that the history of modernity has seen the imposition of repressive silence onto the discussion of sex and on illicit sexual practices. Foucault’s argument throughout this book is the opposite: that modern society has, in fact, witnessed an absolute explosion of sexual discussion and debate.
Although Foucault acknowledges that what we might call “perverse behavior” has taken place throughout all of history, the concept of perversion is specific to a society that has modern sexuality. Perversity is not only the inclination to commit certain taboo sex acts, but also the implication that this inclination should be treated as a medical problem, and that it is part of the pervert’s very personality.
One of the four “strategic unities” of sexuality that Foucault discusses in Part 4, the hystericization of women’s bodies refers to the ways that women’s sexuality was made an issue of medical and social concern. The 19th century medical establishment in Europe was highly concerned with “hysteria” as an affliction that affects supposedly oversexed women, and “hystericization” refers to the ways in which this medical concern policed and regulated women’s behavior more generally.
Psychiatrization is the process by which sexual feelings or desires become issues of psychiatric attention. The psychiatrization of non-normative desires and pleasures is part of the process that gave rise to perversity as we currently understand it. Foucault audaciously traces the origin of psychiatrization, which provides a context in which the patient’s truth can be safely divulged, to the moral practice of the Catholic Confession.
When reading Foucault, it is important to maintain a very broad understanding of what constitutes politics. Foucault’s notion of power is far too wide-reaching to allow us to think of politics only in terms of the relationship between, say, a voting public and the institution of the state. For Foucault, politics is at play even in the relationship between a young child and her authoritarian father, between a student and a teacher, or in the decisions a professor makes when she includes certain books in a course syllabus.
Just as the concept of the political needs to be understood in very broad terms, Foucault’s concept of the institution is also very capacious. Foucault understands societies as configurations of many institutions, which simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, smaller-scale social relations. Institutions of power can be consolidated in the form of states, hospitals, associations, and armies. They can also lack central organization, such as the medical establishment, psychiatry, or certain religions. The ideal of the normative family can also be understood as a kind of institution.
Bodies and Pleasures
Foucault concludes The History of Sexuality by suggesting that our liberation is not to be found in speaking openly about sex, but by thinking harder about “bodies and pleasures.” While not a key term, per se, “bodies and pleasures” reveals Foucault’s investment in reaching towards the notion of a more abstract, and more indeterminate, space for erotic experience. While it is not possible to liberate ourselves from power, Foucault suggests that we might reconfigure our relationship to power by seeking new experiences with our bodies.
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.