The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Summary and Analysis of Part 5: Right of Death and Power Over Life


Foucault begins the fifth and final part of the book by illustrating an ancient concept of legal right. Dating back to Roman times, an essential characteristic of sovereign power was the right to take lives. Pre-modern societies thought of the exercise of power in terms of a diminished form of the ancient Roman concept of patria potestas (“power of the father”), which granted a father the right to dispose of the lives of those in his household as he saw fit. Because the father was at once parent, breadwinner, and employer to his children, wife, and slaves (respectively), the father was seen as providing life to his family. It was on this basis that he could take it away. Although sovereign power was considerably less extreme throughout most of history, Foucault suggests that a version of patria potestas informed how sovereign power was exercised in Western society, up till the Classical Age.

For Foucault, this concept of legal right reflects an understanding of power as something to be wielded primarily in the form of “deduction” (French: prélèvement), which means that power was mainly exercised through the removal of rights and privileges. Taxation and the death penalty both fit into logic of power exercised as prélèvement. However, since the Classical Age, the West has changed the logic of how it exerts power. Institutions of power increasingly aim to support, promote, and control life, rather than predicating their power on threatening to take life away. Contemporary power is about managing and optimizing the life of the population. In place of the old system of “letting live” or “taking life away,” modern power either “fosters life” or “disallows it to the point of death.”

To be sure, this does not mean that modern society is less violent than its predecessors. Foucault notes that more people die in modern wars than was ever possible in pre-modern wars. The difference rather lies in how power understands the focus and purpose of violence. Instead of treating people as disposable agents of the sovereign, modern power increasingly treats the population itself, in general, as that which violence serves to protect. Wars are fought to protect a people, and not to pursue the interests of the king. Similarly, we have seen a reduction in the use of the death penalty around the world, but this is because the circumstances around the death penalty have changed. In Western countries, criminals are typically executed because they are seen to pose an extreme danger to the population in general, and not because of the monstrosity of their crimes, as in the past.

Starting in the 17th century, the power over life that Foucault is talking about evolved in two forms. Both forms are strongly linked to the rise of capitalism and its processes of production. One of these focused on the human body. Power treated the body as a kind of machine, which could be disciplined and “optimized” to produce economic and other kinds of useful results. The desire to understand the capabilities of the human body, as an economic machine, resulted both in the creation of disciplines of knowledge centered on the human body, and of disciplines that enabled subjects to train and optimize their own bodies. Foucault calls this form of the power over life an “anatomo-politics of the human body,” because it links the exercise of power to an attention to the body and how it works.

The second form came somewhat later and takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on individual bodies and their distinct capacities for economic integration, the second form of modern power focuses on the species-body. Foucault calls this a “a bio-politics of the population”: it treats individuals not only as members of a community, but as members of an essentially biological species. This is a politics of regulating birth rates, increasing life expectancies and overall health, and of managing such threats to a population’s safety as degeneracy and hereditary disease (140). Foucault sums up the new paradigm of power over life by citing Aristotle, who had famously referred to the human being as a “political animal” (zoon politikon) in his Politics. Under a bio-political regime, however, human beings are no longer animals equipped with a capacity for political organizations; rather, we have become a kind of animal whose political organization foregrounds and questions our existence as living beings.

Such a shift gave way to a few major consequences. One of these is that societal norms began to replace laws as a force for regulating people’s behavior. Instead of referring aberrant behavior to the law, which could decree punishment by violent means, bio-political society formed “regulatory mechanisms” at the level of diffuse institutions and techniques of knowledge (one example might be the way that criminals are increasingly sent to rehabilitation programs that sit somewhere between the correctional, medical, and legal systems. In the past, the same criminals might have simply been put to death). Institutions of modern power in the West have shifted emphasis, from legislating acceptable behavior, to invoking a complex entanglement of ethical and medical norms in order to control people for the sake of the population in general.

Foucault argues that this is the context in which we should understand how sex became so important as a political issue since the Classical era. Sex sits at the intersection between two different ways in which institutions of power can seize upon the human body: on the one hand, sex was tied to practices of discipline by which people could harness, expend, and control their productive and reproductive energies; on the other hand, sex also allowed power to pivot between two different scales of application, moving from a concern with the individual to a concern with the biological status of an entire population. It might be helpful here to remember Foucault’s argument, in Part 4, Chapter 3, that sex is an especially-intense “transfer point” for a range of power relations.

The construction of sexuality allowed a new form of power to consolidate its hold on a population. Through themes such as race, progeny, health, degeneracy, and the future of the human species, power “spoke to sexuality and of sexuality.” Sex was ceaselessly aroused across discursive contexts, where it was invoked and provoked. Because sex was made to be the reason for everything, and the underlying secret of everything, it became the object of a constant arousal and fear. Foucault returns to a point that he had made in the previous chapter, arguing that the symbolic function of blood, as a guarantor of social status and familial ties, was beginning to cede grounds to the symbolic function of sexuality.

We have moved, Foucault argues, from a “symbolics of blood” to an “analytics of sex.” The terminology notes differences in the method by which power is exerted, between a politics that treats blood as a symbol for codified relations, and a politics that generates knowledge about the custodianship of a population based on ongoing discoveries about their sexuality. Foucault places this point in the context of the shift from a juridical to a bio-political organization of power: the deployment of sexuality allows power to envelop and work through bodies far more effectively than the deployment of (blood) relations, which relied mainly on laws of alliance and heredity.

In conclusion, Foucault notes a possible objection on the part of the critical reader: is it not possible that, in his attention to the diffuseness of sexuality as a vector of power, Foucault has lost sight of sex itself? When we talk about relations of power and knowledge, of scientific classifications of perversity, of the hystericization of women’s bodies, are we really talking about sex? Foucault answers these potential criticisms by arguing that even the concept of sex does not precede social determination. It is by insisting that there is a particular domain of activity known as sex, and a particular range of desires known as sexual desires, that the deployment of sexuality takes hold of bodies and of populations.

Indeed, Foucault reminds the reader that the deployment of sexuality does not deal in abstractions of human experience, which have little to do with the lived experience of sexual desire, or pleasure, etc. The deployment of sexuality is so powerful precisely because it seizes upon the materiality of the body. And it is especially powerful because it allows us to think that we have a sexuality that precedes its social construction. The irony of our sexual politics, Foucault suggests, is that we can become fooled into thinking that our liberation can be achieved if we free our true sexuality from the sexuality imposed upon us by a repressive authority.

Foucault concludes The History of Sexuality, Volume One, by offering a glimpse at what a more informed kind of sexual activism could look like. Instead of focusing on liberating ourselves from repression, he argues that we think harder about our bodies and pleasures. An implication of this strategy is that we might reclaim more autonomy over our own bodies if we recognized the mechanisms by which our bodies become appropriated in the deployment of sexuality.


“For a long time,” Foucault writes, “one of the characteristic privileges of the sovereign was to decide between life and death.” The phrasing of this sentence echoes the very first sentence of the book, where Foucault asserts that “for a long time, [as] the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime.” This repetition is a literary gesture that gives the book a sense of coherence as a project. One might argue that Foucault’s rhetorical use of repetition seems out of place for a straightforward book of history, lending it a somewhat lyrical tone. While we remarked that Part 4 can occasionally seem to read like a manifesto, Part 5 is arguably the most manifesto-like in the whole work, concluding with suggestions for better strategies by which subjects can re-appropriate their bodies and pleasures. It is helpful to pay attention to the ways in which Foucault’s rhetoric allows him to move between the registers of a historical account and a tentative plan of political action.

Part 5 is notoriously difficult. It also seems confusing at first; it takes Foucault till halfway through to mention sexuality explicitly. Rather, Foucault charts the emergence of “biopower,” a term that has immense significance for his later thought. First developed in lectures delivered in the 1970s at the Collège de France, in Paris, biopower refers to Foucault’s conception of how modern political power regulates and controls life. It is notable that The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 is the first place in which Foucault discusses “biopower” in print. Indeed, this chapter highlights how the rise of sexuality facilitated the shift from the “Right of Death” to the “Power over Life” (i.e., biopolitical) model. In other words, sexuality plays a significant role in a new mode of political power that “fosters life,” takes up a scientific and managerial concern with “the population,” and uses medical technologies to refine its control over people.

Sexuality is at the center of how all of these processes came into being. The construction of sexuality is what allows us to be subject to the interrogation of psychiatric medicine about the secrets at the core of our being. Similarly, it is the construction of sexuality that allows the state to produce and refine policies of population management, with an eye on birth rates and the management of hereditary diseases and sporadic perversions. It is also the construction of sexuality that gave the middle classes a new technology for conserving and refining their mental and emotional fitness, in distinction to the working masses. Foucault’s most provocative gesture in The History of Sexuality is perhaps not the assertion that sexuality is a social construct, nor even that the emergence of sexuality can be traced to a configuration of knowledge-power specific to modernity. Rather, the most provocative gesture might be Foucault's assertion that sexuality was the main conduit through which modern (i.e. biopolitical) knowledge-power was elaborated, and through which modern subjectivity was formed.

Although not Foucault’s most used word, “control” is a helpful term by which to grasp the difference between prebiopolitical and biopolitical regimes of power. A simplified version of Foucault’s argument is that Western societies used to experience power as the application of repressive force on behalf of a sovereign with absolute power, while modern societies experience power as the softer, but nonetheless far more intrusive control of a diverse set of institutions that claim to have a stake in every asset of our mental and physical wellbeing. Foucault has a knack for revealing the ways in which apparently softer forms of power can be all the more controlling, or all the more violent.

Consider the example of the death penalty: while liberal societies consider the abolition of the death penalty to be a humane gesture, modern wars tend to be far more devastating than premodern ones ever could be. One reason for this is obviously developments in modern technology, but even these developments relate in important ways to how we have come to understand war as waged on behalf of an entire population, and against an entire population. Another example can be found in the situation of the married couple: in premodern Europe, married persons were entitled to privacy, but faced brutal punishments if caught committing such crimes as adultery or sodomy. Today, neither adultery nor sodomy are a punishable offense in most Western countries, but married couples nonetheless find themselves under the restrictive pressure of medical and psychological discourse, which dictates rules about what a healthy marital or parental relationship should look like. An extremely important aspect of how biopolitical power operates is that it induces people to control themselves. Remember that Foucault’s study of sexuality points out the ways that the discourse of sexuality constructs specific forms of subjects, who are in turn susceptible to its influence.

As the conclusion of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 in general, Part 5 concludes by imagining a new horizon of sexual politics, in which people concentrate less on speaking the truth of their sexuality, than on finding new and more radical ways to experience and release pleasures. Much of Foucault’s own practice centered on the subcultures of queer sexuality that thrived in the 1970s, especially in San Francisco, where he spent a considerable amount of time as a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. A Foucauldian practice of sexual liberation entails a constant questioning of what we consider acceptable and unacceptable pleasures, and demands that we never accept the categories by which we identify ourselves as natural or inherent.