love, sex, truth

Modern society, according to Foucault, “put into operation an entire
machinery for producing true discourses concerning sex”.
By Roy Hornsby

Michel Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” is an undertaking in nullification
of the notion that Western society has experienced a repression of sexuality
since the seventeenth century. Further to this he dispels the idea that sexuality
has not been the subject of open discourse. The purpose of this paper is an
attempt to explain, through the reasoning of Foucault, that modern society has
implemented the mechanisms necessary for generating true discourses relating
to sex.

Foucault raises three doubts in “A Will to Knowledge”, volume one
of the trilogy “The History of Sexuality”. Firstly, is sexual repression
an established historical fact? Is what first appears to our view really the
accentuation or establishment of a regime of sexual repression beginning in
the seventeenth century? Secondly, do the workings of power in our society belong
to the category of repression and is power exercised in a general way through
prohibition, censorship and denial? His final question asks, does the critical
discourse that addresses itself to repression act as a block to the power mechanism
that has operated unchallenged to this point or is it in fact a part of the
same thing that it denounces and misrepresents by calling it ‘repression’? Was
there really a rupture between the age of repression and the critical analysis
of repression? (Foucault, 1998).

Foucault’s doubts about the conception of repression were stimulated by evidence
of an emerging proliferation of discourses on sex since the seventeenth century.
His analysis begins with an examination of the widely held belief that in the
Victorian era, sexual experience and practice were subjected to a power of repression
(Smart, 1985). Smart (1985, p.95) cites Foucault as formulating a radically
different set of questions;

“Why has sexuality been so widely discussed and
what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by
what was said? What are the links between these discourses, these effects
of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them? What knowledge (savoir)
was formed as a result of this linkage?”[1]

Foucault initially directed his work on sexuality to questions such as these
although there was evidence from the seventeenth century onward of a whole new
set of proprietary rules in the domain of sexuality and a growing sense of prohibition,
censorship and general silencing of sexual discussion. He argued that there
was another tendency that became apparent in the increase of sexual discourse
(Smart, 1985). According to Smart (1985, p96), Foucault stated that as the seventeenth
century drew to a close;

“there emerged a political, economic and technical
incitement to talk about sex. And not so much in the form of a general theory
of sexuality as in the form of analysis, stocktaking, classification and
specification, of quantitative or causal studies”[2].

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a diversity of discourses on sexuality
in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, pedagogy, criminal justice and social
work emerged. This occurred as sex became increasingly an object of administration
and management through government inquiry. The analysis of population demographics
led governments to focus on investigations into birthrate, legitimate and illegitimate
births, age of marriage, frequency of sexual relations, fertility and so on.
The effect of these analyses was a grid of observations that related to sexual
matters. In that manner, sex became confined to the privacy of the home and
the procreative couple and at the same time it became an enmeshment of a web
of discourses and forms of analysis between the state and individuals (Smart,

Foucault shatters the illusion that from the Middle Ages onward a prudish Victorian
culture did everything that it could to silence sexuality when he claims that
sexuality was, in that period, the subject of immense verbosity. He states that
the desire to speak about the repressed nature of sex participated in the very
structure that it was seeking to decipher (Bristow, 1997). Foucault argues further
by suggesting that it is peculiar to modern societies not to consign sex to
a shadowy existence but to speak about it ad infinitum whilst at the same time
exploiting it as the secret. Foucault states that rather than a prudishness
of language or a uniform concern to hide sex, what distinguishes these last
three centuries is the proliferation of devices that have been invented for
speaking about it, having it spoken about, inducing it to speak of itself, for
listening, recording, transcribing and re-distributing what is said about it:
a whole network of varying, specific and coercive transpositions into discourse.
Rather than censorship, what evolved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement
to discourse (Foucault, 1978). Foucault has no patience at all with what is
termed the ‘repressive hypothesis’ as he feels that a society cannot be sexually
repressed when there is such an incitement to discourse upon this very belief
(Bristow, 1997).

According to Foucault, until Freud, the discourse on sex that scholars and
theoreticians engaged in never ceased to hide the thing that they were speaking
about and by speaking about it so much, by multiplying it and partitioning it
off there was created a screen-discourse, a dispersion avoidance meant to evade
the unbearable and too hazardous truth of sex. It began to be spoken about from
the rarified and neutral viewpoint of science, a science that refused to speak
of sex itself but spoke of aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological
abatements and morbid aggravations. It stirred up peoples fear as it claimed
to tell the truth as it ascribed an imaginary dynasty of evils destined to be
passed on for generations (Foucault, 1978).

During the nineteenth century Western civilizations developed a scientia sexualis
the goal of which was to produce true discourses on sex. The ‘Right to Reconciliation’
or the ‘confession’, the history of which may be traced back to the first centuries
of Christianity, was the technique at the centre of this production of truth
about sex. Sex has been the central theme of confession from the Christian penance
to the psychiatrist’s couch. Through the confessional process truth and sex
have integrated and knowledge of the subject has evolved (Smart, 1985). Foucault
desired to trace the thread through so many centuries that has linked sex and
the search to identify the truth for our societies. He said;

“how is it that in a society like ours, sexuality
is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family and the individual?
Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come
to be considered the privileged place where our deepest “truth”
is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: Since Christianity,
the Western world has never ceased saying: “To know who you are, know
what your sexuality is”. Sex has always been the forum where both the
future of our species and our “truth” as human subjects is decided.

Confession, the examination of the conscience, all the insistence on the
important secrets of the flesh, has not been simply a means of prohibiting
sex or of repressing it as far as possible from consciousness, but was a
means of placing sexuality at the heart of existence and of connecting salvation
with the mastery of these obscure movements. In Christian societies, sex
has been the central object of examination, surveillance, avowal and transformation
into discourse” (Michel Foucault, Politics Philosophy Culture, 1988)[3]

This intersection of the technology of the confession with scientific investigation
and discourse has constructed the domain of sexuality within modern societies
as being problematic and in need of interpretation. Indeed to construct a knowledge
of the individual the object of the investigation has become to uncover the
truth of sex and to reveal its assumed hidden secret. Sex became our privileged
locus or secret of our being – our truth, and the pursuit is now for the ‘truth
of sex’ and the ‘truth in sex’ (Smart, 1985).

The confession has spread its effects far and wide; we confess our crimes,
our sins, our thoughts and our desires. Whatever is most difficult to tell we
offer up for scrutiny with the greatest precision. We confess in public and
in private to parents, educators, doctors, loved ones in pleasure and in pain,
things that would be impossible to tell anyone else. The confession can be voluntary
or wrung from a person by violence or the threat of it. Sex, albeit hidden we
are told, has been the privileged theme of confession from the Christian penance
to the present day. The transformation of sex into discourse along with the
dissemination and reinforcement of heterogeneous sexualities are all linked
together with the help of the central element of the confession which compels
individuals to express their sexual peculiarity no matter how extreme it may
be (Foucault, 1978).

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also
the subject of the statement and it is also a ritual of power manifested by
the presence of another. The other becomes the authority who requires the confession
in order to arbitrate upon it. Through the complete expression of an individual
secret, truth and sex are joined but it is the truth which serves as the medium
for sex and its manifestations. The end result of this ritual produces fundamental
changes in the person who expresses it as it exonerates and liberates him with
the promise of salvation. It is the bond between the one who speaks and what
he is speaking about within the intimacy of discourse that warrants the integrity
of the confession. The dominant agency does not reside within the constraint
of the person who speaks but rather within the one who listens and says nothing;
neither does it reside within the one who knows and answers but within the one
who questions and is not supposed to know. The discourse of truth takes effect
finally however, from the one from whom it was wrested and not from the one
who receives it (Foucault, 1978).

The possibility exists that sexual discourses merely served to provide a foundation
for imperatives aimed at the eradication of ‘unproductive’ forms of sexuality.
That perhaps all of the forms of discourse had as their end the cultivation
of a vital population, reproduction of labour capacity and the prevailing social
relations. Foucault argues that if the discourses were aimed at eliminating
fruitless pleasures then they had failed, for by the nineteenth century a multiple
implantation of perversions and a dispersion of sexualities had occurred. He
suggests that non-conjugal, non-monogamous sexualities were not prohibited or
eliminated by the power of the discourse of the confessional but that they were
incited and multiplied. As a consequence a proliferation of unorthodox sexualities
has eventuated. It is the sanctity accorded to the heterosexual monogamy in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that has as its natural consequence
the incitement to confession of a multitude of sexual perversions that were
deemed as unnatural or abnormal equivalents to the ‘regular’ sexuality of the
‘acceptable’ couple (Smart, 1985).

Foucault informs us that historically there have been two main procedures for
producing the truth of sex. Societies such as China, Japan, India, Rome and
the Arabo-Muslim societies granted to themselves the ars erotica, and from this
erotic art, truth is drawn from the pleasure in itself. The practice is understood
and experienced while pleasure is not defined in relation to the permitted or
the forbidden. Our society has broken with the tradition of ars erotica and
bestowed upon itself a scientia sexualis by adapting the ancient procedure of
the confession to the rules of scientific discourse. Nearly one hundred and
fifty years have gone into the making of the complex machinery for producing
true discourses on sex and the enablement of the truth of sex and its pleasures
to be embodied in a thing called ‘sexuality’ (Foucault, 1978).

The immense extortion of the sexual confession came to be constituted in scientific
terms in the following ways; a clinical codification of the inducement to speak,
the postulate of a general and diffuse causality, the principle of a latency
intrinsic to sexuality, the method of interpretation, the medicalisation of
the effects of confession (Foucault, 1978, pp 65-67). Foucault has rationalized
that contrary to the opinion that the society of the nineteenth century had
little dialogue relating to sex, that they did in fact put into operation an
entire machinery for producing true discourses about it. To Foucault the censorship
and taboos on the mentioning of sexual topics are secondary, or perhaps even
complimentary to the explosion of discourses on sexuality (Cousins & Hussain,
1984). This society conceived a new type of pleasure as it endeavoured to create
the homogeneous truth concerning sex: pleasure in the truth of pleasure.

[1] Smart is citing a passage from The History
of Sexuality, Vol 1, p 11, Hurley, R. (trans). back

[2] Ibid., pp. 23-4 back

[3] Originally published as “Foucault:
Non au sexe roi” in Le Nouvel observateur, March 12, 1977, this interview
was translated by David J. Parent as “Power and Sex,” in Telos 32
(1977), pp. 152-61 back

References:Bristow, J. 1997, Sexuality,Routledge, Great Britain.Cousins, M. & Hussain, A., 1984, Michel Foucault, Theoretical Traditions
in the Social Sciences,
Macmillan Education Ltd., London.

Foucault, M., Levy, B-H. 1988, Michel Foucault, Politics Philosophy Culture,
Kritzman, L., ed., Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., New York.

Foucault, M. 1998, The Will to Knowledge, The History of Sexuality Volume
Hurley, R., trans., Penguin Books, Great Britain.

Smart, B. 1988, Michel Foucault, Routledge, London.

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