Sunday, August 17, 2014

Précis #2: Foucault's "History of Sexuality"

            Michel Foucault explains discourse as designating both linguistic and non-linguistic forms of representations, signs, and language that produce particular studies and fields of meaning about an object of study. In The History of Sexuality Foucault adapts this conception to present sexuality as an assemblage of a plurality of discourses; these constitutive discourses produce sexuality rather than merely speak of it. Of these discourses, he argues that the repressive hypothesis—that we have been sexually repressed by juridical powers in the form of law—incites the individual to speak of their sex as an innate and totalizing attribute of the body, and has them believe they are working against those repressive powers. Sex demonstrates the stratagems of a productive power that operates through inducing confession, not of a representation of power as a silencing judiciary force. Along with a proliferation of scientific, medical, and educational discourses, this further draws the self as corollary to one’s sex. By the nineteenth century, sexuality had become both an innate and totalizing attribute of the body, from which a furtive understanding of it could be uncovered through confessions of one’s sexual practices, deviations, and desires.
These discursive fields each deploys itself through a suffusion of discourses, though the methodologies and effects of their respective powers function on widely different levels. Scientia sexualis concerns itself with both the individual and the population, regulating its subjects through scientific and medical practices. For Foucault, sex has become the common focus for scientific and medical discourses, and so power affects it by consolidating the individual and the population. By the eighteenth century, the population became a unit by which to measure workforce and control demographics, and so governments had made sex—particularly sexual reproduction—the center of its problems; the body was now under surveillance in “schooling, the politics of housing, public hygiene, institutions of relief and insurance, the general medicalization of the population, in short, an entire administrative and technical machinery made it possible to safely import the deployment of sexuality into the exploited class” (Foucault 127). These variables contain their own discourses and are constitutive of scientia sexualis, and the individual here is tied to them insofar that they do not recognize them as such. Since power operates as a productive force—having produced regulatory institutions that intersect at almost every part of an individual’s life—and for a population both unconscious of and complicit in such power relations, the importance that these institutions may have become to an individual’s life and perceived sexual well-being prevents one from identifying them as being part of an economy of discourses. The effects of power appear objective, and individuals overlook with indifference that it is constitutive of bio-power, an insidious mode of regulation operating on a demographic scale.
            As someone who is interested in post-colonial discourses, I am an avid reader of Edward Said, a writer who often refers to Foucault for support. Just as discourses of sex produce sexuality, and for it its own economy of discursive methodology, so too do discourses of Orientalism produce the Orient/the East and its own set of representations and methodologies. Like sexuality for Foucault, in Said’s Orientalism the Orient and its representations are produced by discourses derived from hegemonic ideologies that posit the “West” as superior to the “East.” While the fields share methods of producing discourse and representation, I think it is more possible for one to disavow Orientalist discourses than to rid oneself of the effects of power behind discourses of sexuality. Still, Foucault characterizes the contemporary discursive practice of sexuality as scientific—aptly named scientia sexualis—made up of an economy of scientific, medical, and technological discourses tied to the body, whereas Orientalism’s economy—comprised primarily of representations of the Orient and techniques thereof—is tied more to the hegemonic ideologies of Western supremacy than to the reality of the people and places that have been consolidated as the Orient.

1 comment:

Allyn Benintendi said...

This is an excellent précis. What I find to be very thought provoking is the statement you used, "governments had made sex—particularly sexual reproduction—the center of its problems; the body was now under surveillance in “schooling..."

For some reason, this feels all too familiar in my memory. I remember being a sophomore in high school, before summer, suffering in the sweltering heat. I took off my sweater (was only wearing a tank top) and was sent to the principal's office for breaking the dress code.

I guess what I find to be most interesting about this is that it seems that the suppression of sexuality is teeming with discourse. The rejection of teenage sexuality is but an example of such a larger discursive circumstance. The discomfort of others, the male agenda of distraction, the fear that sex was such a problem- all took precedence over my comfort in the heat. Such a simple situation represented so much.

I could say more, but that was quite a tangent. Anyways, like I said, this was an excellent précis. Very well done.