The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Summary and Analysis of Part 4, Chapter 2: Method


In this chapter, Foucault explains more fully what he means by "power." He has been arguing that we need to understand sexuality in terms of power and not in the familiar terms of repression or law, as advanced by the Repressive Hypothesis. But Foucault explains that by “power” he means something a little different from the commonplace understanding of the word. Power is not just the full collection of institutions engaged in exerting the dominance of the state over the public. Instead, Foucault gives a much more complex, somewhat elusive definition of power, which he unpacks throughout this chapter. Power, in Foucault’s definition, is “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate, and which constitute their own organization.” Inherent to every social relation, power is the most basic force or process that shapes organizations and institutions; it is not the law, but the basis on which the law is founded; and it is the range of strategies that govern how subjects and institutions interact with each other in a broad social context. In other words, power is a profound force that lies at the base of all social formations. Power precedes all social formations, which are therefore always unstable to some degree. Power is everywhere, Foucault argues, because it comes from everywhere, from every subject and every social situation. Foucault proposes a point-form list of propositions in order to better explain his definition of power:

-Power is not something that can either be shared or acquired. Rather, power is diffuse and exercised from innumerable points. Power is exercised through the interplay of social relations characterized by inequality and mobility.

-Relations of power are immanent (inherent) to other types of social relations, including sexual relations, economic relations, and relations of knowledge. Relations of power produce the differentiations and disequilibria inherent to these other forms of relationship.

-Power comes from below. Relations of power cannot be explained in binary terms of ruler and ruled. Instead, we have to understand the most basic and local interplay of forces—on the levels of the family, small groups and institutions, etc.—as forming the basis of widespread social divisions. Major dominations in society should be treated as the hegemonic effects of this general process, by which small-scale power imbalances feed into far greater social cleavages.

-Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective. Operations of power are always motivated by some kind of intent; they always have some aim. Nonetheless, individual subjects can be agents of power, and involved in carrying out their aims, without knowing it. The aims of certain power operations can supersede the conscious will of individual subjects implicated in these operations.

-Resistance and power are always found together, but resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. This doesn’t mean that resistance to power is always futile. More specifically, it means that we should understand resistance as local and strategic, part of the much wider field of local power relations that constitute a society. Resistance is part of the complex dynamics of power.

Foucault further refines the specific demands of a history of sexuality by distinguishing its most central question from the more obvious questions that we might ask out of habit. We are not asking why power needs to establish a particular discourse of sex, given a particular state structure. We are also not asking what overarching dominating structure ultimately benefited from the project, inaugurated in the 18th century, to produce a discourse of the truth of sex. Lastly, we are not trying to find out which laws regulated sexual behavior and what could be said about it. Instead, Foucault’s question is more demanding: what were the most immediate and most local power operations at work within a specific type of discourse on sex, a discourse that is both historically-specific and centered on specific sites or objects (such as the body of the child, the conduct and desires of women, or the regulation of birth)?

In other words, what were the most basic processes of power at play within the modern discourse of sexuality, with its particular mode of postulating and extorting the truth? Foucault’s question gives way to related questions: How did these processes shape and reshape the modern discourse of sex? How were these processes linked to each other according to the logic of a great strategy, which allows us in retrospect to undertake a politics of sexual liberation as we understand it today? Addressing these questions will allow us to understand the expanding discourses of modern sex in the “field of multiple and mobile power relations,” and not according to the black-and-white narrative of state violence against docile subjects.

Foucault proposes 4 rules to follow, in order to analyze the place of sexuality within this ever-changing field of multiple and mobile power relations:

1. The Rule of Immanence: we will look at local centers of power-knowledge where discourses and practices of knowledge-production intersect. One example Foucault gives of a local center of power-knowledge is the relationship, in the Catholic church, between penitent and confessor (between sinner confessing his or her sins, and the priest presiding over the confession). Foucault reminds the reader that it was in the context of this relationship that different forms of discourse—from self-examinations, to interviews, to ways of interpreting them—were able to take shape. Another example is the body of the child, where anxieties over childhood sexuality led to new forms of surveillance, educational reforms, etc.

2. Rules of Continual Variations: instead of viewing relationships of force in terms of static imbalances of power, we have to view these relationships as matrices of constant change and transformation. Once again, Foucault’s example is childhood sexuality, with its attendant parental and institutional anxieties. Foucault reminds us that the power to disclose the truth changed hands over time. While educators had once had the power to dictate how parents should manage the sexuality of their children, it eventually became the case that the what the child said to her or his psychiatrist, whether about sexuality or not, could reveal the deepest truth about the parents’ sexuality. We should not concern ourselves with issues of who had the most power over whom, but rather with the question of how complex relations of force—such as the relation between parents, children, educators and psychiatrists—functioned to produce knowledge about sexuality and selfhood.

3. The Rule of Double Conditioning: we need to understand the relationship between local centers and over-all strategies of power-knowledge as overlapping, but not identical. For instance, we need to understand the role of the sovereign in a patriarchal government as conditioned, or made possible by, the organization of families around the authority of a father-figure. But we nonetheless cannot say simply that the father is the representation of sovereign power, or that the sovereign is simply the father on a much grander scale. Nonetheless, the patriarchal family structure was seized on, variously throughout modern history, to justify various operations of power. Double-conditioning refers to the ways that small and large-scale operations of power make each other possible and influence each other.

4. The Rule of the Tactical Polyvalence of Discourses: because it is through discourse that sex and knowledge are most firmly linked together, Foucault stresses that we see discourse as fragmented and multiple, with an uneven and unstable tactical function. Instead of seeing discourse as unified by a strict separation between the acceptable and the unacceptable, Foucault urges us to understand the discourse of sexuality as made up of different strategic currents that produced sometimes-contradictory results. Discourse produces power, but can also thwart it by making it too visible. Foucault considers the example of sodomy as a category. Even in the 19th century, sodomy was considered such a grave sin against nature that it was only ever discussed in very discreet, even vague, terms. Paradoxically, this extreme intolerance of sodomy produced a kind of tolerance; it was so unspeakable that it was also rarely prosecuted. With the introduction of different kinds of “homosexual” in the discourse of pathology towards the end of the 19th century, homosexual subjects were also endowed with new powers to advocate for their cause.

In conclusion, Foucault suggests that these 4 rules can operate as guidelines for a new “strategical” model of power, one that examines the interplay of diffuse and heterogeneous discourses, rather than a “legal” model of power that looks at the top-down exercise of authority.

Analysis Part 4 reads as decidedly more manifesto-like than previous parts of Foucault’s book. Here, Foucault seems to quicken the pace of his thought and writing, introducing many terms without always clearly defining them. For instance, 4.2 outlines a “strategical model” of power, whereas 4.1 had focused on an “analytics” of power. The speed at which these chapters progress makes it difficult to feel as though one has the closure of a firm grasp on either concept.

It is helpful here to remember the origin of the word “analytics”: it comes from an ancient Greek word that meant to break something into its constituent parts. If we bear this fact in mind, it makes it easier to track the continuity between the first two chapters of Part 4. The previous chapter, appropriately titled “Objective,” had sought to determine the aims of a historical study of sexuality, determining the need to analyze the operations of power rather than theorizing them. The first chapter. thus posed the question of what might be the smallest manifestation of power within a much larger system (like the state). Chapter 2, titled “Method,” attempts to put an analytics of power in practice by arguing for a new model of power in which we can examine the most basic and most local operations of power within a given social formation. The strategical model, which sees power as something that operates at every level and on every scale, sets the stage for an “analytics” attuned to the sheer diversity of constituent parts that make up our social organism.

“Power is everywhere” is one of Foucault’s most famous quotations, and it holds the key to a great deal of his thought, in The History of Sexuality and elsewhere. It also holds the key to Foucault’s sense of what political action ought to be like. Foucault’s oblique discussion of the rise of the lesbian and gay rights movement, as an example given in his discussion of the “tactical polyvalence of discourse,” provides a window into how Foucault understands the relationship between sexuality and political activism.

In this very brief account of the rise of gay rights, the position of the homosexual is not so much conceived in the context of a trajectory towards progress, from the unspeakability of sodomy to the eventual acceptance of gays and lesbians in modern life. Rather, Foucault encourages us to understand the changing position of the homosexual as the result of historical negotiations between sexual agents and institutions of discursive power. Foucault’s more nuanced understanding of the rise of gay rights sees homosexuals as having strategically occupied the wiggle room provided by the authorities’ refusal to discuss homosexuality explicitly. In time, homosexuals were then able to establish discreet social groups for themselves by taking advantage of their own unspeakability; and in time, they were also able to appropriate the labels that the medical establishment had otherwise oppressively assigned to them. For Foucault, the activism of sexual minorities should be a matter of strategic appropriation and mobility across the terrain of discursive power, and not a matter of militating against some blanket notion of “oppression” by asserting their inherent and inborn identities. Foucault would argue against the grain of many LGBTQ people who claim to be “born this way.”

In his book Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiograhy (2002), David Halperin suggests that a case study of Foucauldian activism might be found in the way that gay men reacted to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s. According to Halperin, Foucault had equipped gay men with a certain power to recognize the ways in which medical power sought to control and pathologize their sexuality. Despite the relatively recent legalization of “sodomy” in major western countries (the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973), the AIDS crisis seemed to find a whole new way to identify male homosexuality as a unique pathology. And this insistence on gay sex as the origin of pathology opened a door to aggressively homophobic public policies, supposedly in the name of public health alone. These policies forced gay bars and public sex venues such as gay bathhouses to close; thus they had a broad effect on gay people's lives. The example of the 1982 police raids of Toronto’s gay bathhouses is especially prominent in history.

As Halperin notes, the AIDS generation was also the first generation of queer activists to be informed by Foucault’s work on the study of sexuality. Those associated with such groups as ACT UP were unprecedentedly equipped with a sense of the historical contexts in which homosexuality has been bound up with medical, scientific, and juridical operations of discursive power. Their aim was not only to resist the weight of policies that shut down their clubs and cast stigma on those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, but also to expose the political mechanics of medical authority.