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The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

Michel Foucault

Part Five, cont'd

Part Five

Analytical Overview

Summary

Foucault has suggested that the two major forms of bio-power are the discipline of the body and the regulation of population. Sex has become such a preoccupation in the modern world because it deals with both these forms of bio- power.

The four main lines of interest taken by sexuality all combine these two forms of bio-power. The interests in both child sexuality and female hysteria are directed toward a kind of discipline of the body: they try to control the behavior of children and women. Further, this discipline is enforced in the name of regulating the population. Children need to learn socially acceptable behavior, and women's health is closely tied to reproduction. The interest taken in birth control and sexual perversion aim at regulating the growth and behavior of the population (regulation of population), and do so by demanding certain forms of self-discipline (discipline of the body).

Foucault characterizes the transition between the right of death and power over life as a transition from a "symbolics of blood" to an "analytics of sex." Previously, blood was taken as a symbol of power. Blood lines and purity of blood were all important, the right of death was exercised by spilling blood, and so on. Now, power is exercised through sex. This interest in sexuality has rendered possible unprecedented knowledge, power, and control over a population. This transition was far from smooth, and Foucault identifies a symbolics of blood lingering in the racism of the Nazis and their demands for racial "purity." In psychoanalysis, sexuality is also read as being born out of earlier laws based on blood ties.

In all this talk about sexuality, has Foucault forgotten about sex itself? In portraying sexuality as a social construct, is he ignoring the simple, organic and instinctive fact of sex? Foucault replies that no; on the contrary, "sex" is more of a social construct than sexuality. When we talk about "sex," we are not talking about anything quite so objective as body parts, bodily functions, or physical sensations. We are speaking more generally about the meaning these things hold for us in particular contexts. Sex serves as a general causal principle that makes the deployment of sexuality possible. It is an ideal point invented by (and not existing prior to) the deployment of sexuality.

We have imbued sex and sexuality with so much importance that we now see it as the key to explaining who and what we are, much in the same way that past generations might have tried looked to astrology or metaphysics. We have become so caught up in the deployment of sexuality that we see the very possibility of our "liberation" as hinging on a healthy sexuality. The irony is that this belief that sex holds the key to our liberation is a manifestation of the power that is being exercised on us. If we want to resist this power, we should not focus on sexuality but on the body and the physical pleasures that sexuality tries to appropriate.

Commentary

What is "sex"? Sex is not sexual intercourse; it is not the genital organs; it is not the pleasure derived from intercourse; it is not the gender people have; it is not their reproductive capacity. Certainly, all these things have something to do with sex: people can "have sex," and "male" and "female" are two distinct "sexes." But what is sex, the thing, itself?

Foucault answers that there is no such thing. It is a figment of our imagination. It is a word we have developed to help us talk about the various deployments of sexuality. The deployment of sexuality links the human body and physical sensations to all sorts of epistemological and political considerations like education, population growth, public health, scientific knowledge, and so on. What do these things all have in common? Sex. The word "sex" has become the cornerstone of a new kind of discourse that has appeared in the past three centuries.

Let us take a few examples. People today often talk about their "sex life." The idea of a "sex life," according to Foucault at least, would be totally alien to people in the Middle Ages. Sex is a part of one's life, but so is sleeping: no one asks, "how's your sleeping life?" The act of sexual intercourse has become a central part of a larger discourse that sees "sex" as somehow fundamental to who we are, and a source of knowledge and power. Sexual intercourse used to be something people just did; now it is an important aspect of a realm that has its own kind of specialized knowledge. It is an aspect of one's "sex life."

Another example: the word "sexy." We should note that "sexy" is not at all the same thing as "good looking," nor does it necessarily have anything to do with sexual intercourse. Clothes can be sexy, cars can be sexy, stories can be sexy, nights out on the town can be sexy, computers can be sexy. Calling something or someone sexy generally says more about power and influence than physical attractiveness. The girl- or guy-next-door can be very good-looking and very desirable without being sexy, because he or she has no mystique, no power. On the other hand, people who are not particularly good-looking, but who carry themselves with a certain degree of confidence, or who are rich and powerful, can be very sexy. The concept of "sexy," like the concept of "sex," could only exist in an age where the physical sensations of sexual intercourse are conceptually linked to notions of power and knowledge.

These examples show the extent to which we have come to understand the world around us in terms of sex. This is so because sex has been such a convenient point from which power could be exercised. Foucault shows how the deployment of sexuality always serves the political interests of the discipline of the body and the regulation of population. Though sex is simply a construct used for the exercise of power, we have come to think of it as an existing "thing." And because this power has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, we think of sex as something that infiltrates every aspect of our lives. Consequently, we take it as being of paramount importance that we know what this "sex" is, that we discover it, liberate it, enjoy it. Foucault's conclusion is that there is no "thing" to discover, liberate, or enjoy. If we truly want liberation, we should stop thinking of our body and of physical pleasure as a part of a "sexuality" that explains who we are. That way we can break the hold that the deployment of sexuality has on us and appreciate physical sensations for what they are.

There is something perhaps a little contradictory about this conclusion. Foucault has earlier characterized power as something that does not simply repress, but is also productive; he says that power is everywhere and comes from everything. We cannot resist power because there is nothing that is not power. Now he seems to be telling us that we can resist power, that by abandoning our concept of sexuality we can resist the power this concept has exercised on our bodies. It seems now Foucault is talking about power as existing only on the level of discourse, and is characterizing the discourse on sexuality as dominant over other forms of discourse. Underneath all this discourse, however, there is a mute body that is pushed around by different discourses. Freedom, it seems, consists in liberating the body. But in implying that the body is somehow outside the realm of power relations, isn't Foucault contradicting his earlier claim that nothing exists outside the realm of power relations?

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