A small piece of work from my second or third year at university (I can’t quite remember these days). A Précis or summary of the first chapter of Foucault’s History of Sexuality:
The first chapter of Michel Foucault’s work The History of Sexuality (1998) aims to refute the idea of the repressive hypothesis of sexuality through a post structural and genealogical argument. He believes that ‘our standard view of the history of sexuality is distorted’ (Gutting 2001, p.282). By following trends in discourse on sex throughout several centuries Foucault is able to show, unlike the repressive hypothesis suggests, that discourse about sex has in fact proliferated over time, and that this is not in order to repress it, rather it is to gain knowledge and thus exercise power over certain aspects of sexuality.
Foucault begins his argument by addressing discourse on sex in the Seventeenth century, when controls on sex began to increase. This was largely down to the church. The ‘evolution of the Catholic pastoral’ (Foucault 1998, p.18) called for more detailed, albeit less explicit, confessions regarding sex. With this new, more invasive form of penance people were expected to confess not just physical sexual relations, but also any feeling, desire or thought that was deemed impure. This bourgeois, repressive relationship between power and sex, for Foucault, in fact seems not to have controlled sexuality. Rather, by expanding the scope of the confessions, discourse on the subject appears to have augmented as a result of the fact that nothing was deemed too small or insignificant to confess.
Just as discourse on sexuality increased, so did the range of subject areas that concerned themselves with it. Discourse on sex was no longer reserved for the confession booth; it became a matter of public interest. The ‘secularization of this concern for knowing and expressing the truth about sex’ (Gutting 2001, p.283) showed a move from the bawdy discussions of sex in earlier times and thus a new type of discourse appeared. Sex was rationalized and discourse about it became analytical and statistical. Issues of demographics such as birth and fertility rates were important to society in a way that they had not been previously, and they were used to keep track of an ever-rising population. In studying people’s sexual habits, governments were able to ensure that they could provide sufficiently for society.
One example expressed by Foucault of this rise in the study of sexuality, is the alteration in the way that the sexuality of children was discussed. Foucault calls our attention to secondary schools in the Eighteenth Century. Although, Foucault states, we may assume that discourse on sex was somewhat left at the gates of such institutions, in fact it was intrinsic to the layout and running of them. Sex was a ‘constant preoccupation’ (Foucault 1998, p.27) of the schools with ‘the space for classes, the shape of the tables, the planning of the recreation lessons, [and] the distribution of the dormitories’ (Foucault 1998, p.28) all designed in reference to child sexuality. There arose a more technical sex education for children, allowing them to talk about sex in a rational way, showing an understanding of it, in contrast to the more jovial attitude towards sex shown by earlier generations.
Foucault identifies many different modes of discourse on sex. Discourse on sex found its way into institutions such as medicine, and criminal justice. Certain types of sexual practice found themselves coming up against new and tighter laws prohibiting or regulating them. Foucault uses an example of a simple-minded farm hand in the Nineteenth Century who had ‘obtained a few caresses from a little girl’ (Foucault 1998, p.31). Foucault states that this was not an isolated case, and that the farm hand had witnessed others do the same thing. However, the girl’s parents reported the simple man to the authorities. Eventually this case went to court and the farm hand was referred to doctors and experts. Foucault points out the ‘pettiness’ (Foucault 1998, p.31) of the action taken; the authorities proceeded to ‘measure the brainpan, [and] study the facial bone structure’ (Foucault 1998, p.31) of the man in accordance with new beliefs that sexuality is intrinsically linked with illness. He was made into an object for examination, both mental and physical, allowing people in positions of power to gain knowledge of these, as Foucault calls them, ‘barely furtive pleasures’ which would previously have been overlooked.
Foucault does not deny some elements of the repressive hypothesis. He agrees that attitudes towards sex have dramatically changed since the Middle Ages, and that this is due to an increased desire to control it. However, how and why this has changed is where Foucault’s views differ from those endorsed by the repressive hypothesis of sex. Foucault believes that it is just not a silencing of the discourse on sex that was prolific in earlier times; rather it is a move from one form of discourse to another. There was a change from bawdy discourse to a scientific and analytical way of discussing sex. Although agreeing that the Bourgeoisie is partially responsible for this change, Foucault attributes this move to a ‘multiplicity of discourses… operating in different institutions.’(Foucault 1998, p.33) According to Foucault, we cannot assign the change in discourse to one cause, as is done by the repressive hypothesis, instead we must acknowledge that there is no singular cause, and in fact there are many different platforms for discourse be those medical, psychological or judicial.
Overall, Foucault uses this first chapter of The History of Sexuality (1998) to set out a description of the way that discourse regarding sex has changed. His refutation of the repressive hypothesis leads him to show that discourse on sex has proliferated and the ways to control sex have become intertwined with knowledge of it rather than the repression of it. For Foucault, the people with the most knowledge of sexuality are those who are able to exercise the most control over it.
Baggini, J &Fosl, P.S., 2003. The Philosopher’s Toolkit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Blackburn, S., 2008. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Foucault, M., 1998. ‘The Incitement to Discourse’ in The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality 1, pp.17-35, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Gutting, G., 2001. French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
I stumbled across this website (www.philosophersguild.com) full of philosophy related novelties and gifts. The Michel Foucault magnetic finger puppet (above) and Neitzsch’s ‘Will to Power’ energy bar are probably my favourites, I love them! Its definitely worth a look if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift for the philosophically minded, or just as a treat for yourself. After all, “Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving.”– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The Myth of Sisyphus watch is also amazing! And I loved the description on the website:
“Why wear a watch that just tells you the time, when you can wear a watch that constantly reminds you of the futility of your very existence — and tells you the time!”
Click on any of the images to go straight to the sight.