I’m largely interested in the ways that intelligibility and futurity are tied together in Foucault’s History of Sexuality—and I have more questions than answers. I want to interrogate how Foucault thinks about the future (differently from the linking of futurity with liberation that he critiques, though always in relation to it) and in what ways this relates to how the available terms of intelligibility govern what kind of subjects we can become and how we experience our various subjectivities.
Foucault writes on our intelligibility as particularly sexed beings:
“It is through sex—in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality—that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility (seeing that it is both the hidden aspect and the generative principle of meaning), to the whole of his body (since it is a real and threatened part of it, while symbolically constituting the whole), to his identity (since it joins the force of a drive to the singularity of a history)” (156)
This gets at the heart of his understanding of power: that it is productive rather than merely repressive, and that it produces a matrix of intelligibility that governs how bodies are created and recognized. Foucault offers a critique of the dominant conception of identity by showing how identities are mediated by and through power, which operates through the discourse of sexuality and which produces what is felt to be an interior identity that would exist prior to the working of power. However, Foucault also accounts for the way that we experience our subjectivity by allowing us to think about the ways in which we are always in a bind: to know ourselves, to be legible not only to others but also to ourselves, is to inhabit a sexed body. We must move “through” sex in order to be intelligible. We cannot get outside of power—it operates in the very creation of ourselves as subjects who think, feel, and act in certain ways.
His use of masculine pronouns throughout this moment of the text—a moment so crucial in understanding how “sex” as it has been constituted comes to work and re-work ourselves—is indicative of, and yet does not account for, how we are produced as very particular subjects. In a moment in which he is talking about the experience of social and personal legibility, he makes the masculine stand in as the universal, disallowing the particularities of individuals who are differently (il)legible. For, as beings living in this system of sex-gender, we experience the world and ourselves differently if we are assigned male or female, as well if we are intelligible to the world or experience ourselves as a man, a woman, or neither. It is thus important to interrogate the ways in which Foucault does or does not account for the subjective experience of being in a body that is (or is not) legible in particular ways. How does Foucault allow us to understand the various subjectivities that are formed in and through the terms of intelligibility that are given to us at any moment? The stakes of this argument are incredible. For to be “human” is to be a particularly sexed, gendered, and racialized body. If our subjectivity is produced in and through the available terms of intelligibility, those terms are something that are incredibly fraught with often violent contestations.
The ending of this text offers possible readings—and yet also many more questions—about how bodily intelligibility and futurity might be intertwined. Foucault writes:
“Moreover, we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow.
The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our “liberation” is in the balance” (159)
The end of the text seems to address “us” – those who “get it” now, who know that sex is not some biological function that is either embraced or rejected by power, but rather something produced and reproduced by the discourse of sexuality. Does he envision this future that he so vaguely articulates as one in which the terms of intelligibility are opened up, as one in which there are different terms of intelligibility? Does the valuing of differently-oriented bodies and pleasures disrupt the intelligibility of “sex” at the same time that it offers more and different ways of moving through the world?
It is, importantly, an ending that rejects imperatives (unlike Marx) and does not propose some programmatic campaign toward some “better” society that is more just or more liberated (unlike those who believe in the repressive hypothesis). It seems as though the only thing he proposes is for a displacement of the terms of intelligibility, where the “counterattack” to the deployment of sexuality is not liberation in the form of “sex-desire,” but rather in the various formations of “bodies and pleasures”—perhaps, he suggests, of feeling pleasure differently, of being a body in the world differently (157). His “perhaps” works against any stable conception of the future; perhaps, at some unspecified time, things will be different, and perhaps we will have a different “economy of bodies and pleasures.” What discursive work does this positioning of the future do? Does it leave the future radically open? Does it assume that there will, at some point, be a different “economy of bodies and pleasures” and yet refuse to determine what that would look like?
Foucault seems, though, to disregard the continuities between the present and future with regard to the relationship between sex and intelligibility: for, if we move on to another economy of bodies and pleasures, will we not continue to grapple with the problem of intelligibility, with a different way that bodies are classified and put to use in various ways? Foucault seems to reinscribe certain problematic conceptions of present and future as those who argue for liberation through sex—though his “future” is a much less determined future than theirs—by opposing the future to the present, and by assuming that one day we will look back at our current preoccupation with sexuality as almost quaint and misguided. How does this ending of the text allow us to (or fail to allow us to) grapple with the terms of intelligibility in the present? How might it disavow present struggles over intelligibility (both for opening up the terms of intelligibility and for resisting it altogether) by figuring the future as a place that will look back on the present with knowing eyes?
(Perhaps I am taking too much on here! Feedback would be great. I will try to edit later if I’m able to clarify my thoughts.)