The philosopher and social critic, Michel Foucault, began lecturing in the early 1950s on key topics that gave rise later to his major publications, including The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality. Sexuality presents Foucault’s lectures on sexuality for the first time in English. In the first series, held at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in 1964, Foucault asks how sexuality comes to be constituted as a scientific body of knowledge within Western culture and why it derived from the analysis of “perversions”—morbidity, homosexuality, fetishism. The subsequent course, held at the experimental university at Vincennes in 1969, shows how Foucault’s theories were reoriented by the events of May 1968; he refocuses on the regulatory nature of the discourse of sexuality and how it serves economic, social, and political ends. Together, the lectures span a range of interests, from abnormality to heterotopias to ideology, and they offer an unprecedented glimpse into the evolution of Foucault’s transformative thinking on sexuality. NOTCHES is grateful to Columbia University Press for permission to publish an extract from Sexuality, the first translation into English of these key lectures.
The two sets of lectures on sexuality in this volume—the first from 1964, the second from 1969—address two very different political moments, separated by the upheaval of the student revolution of May 1968. Both of those moments, moreover, differ greatly from the political situation in 1976, when Michel Foucault published the first volume of The History of Sexuality, or in 1984, when he published volumes 2 and 3 and made final revisions to volume 4. Those earlier moments differ even more radically from our political times today—even putting aside the digital revolution that gave birth to our expository society and the myriad ways it intersects with sexual regulation and prohibitions. The term “transgender”—in its current connotation, using the notion of “gender” rather than “transsexual”—would not even have been entirely comprehensible at those earlier times. As Jack Halberstam remarks, “only a few decades ago, transsexuals in Europe and the United States did not feel that there was a language to describe who they were or what they needed.”
The first set of lectures—Foucault’s 1964 lectures on “Sexuality” delivered at the University of Clermont-Ferrand—were delivered at a time marked by a resurgence of a soft humanism surrounding sexuality following the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s influential book The Second Sex (1949) and the rise of second-wave feminism. This was a humanism that sought to place sexuality within the ethical framework of loving, equal, respectful relations between men and women; but in the process of ethicizing and equalizing heterosexual relations, it further entrenched homosexuality and other “perversions” into officially diagnosed mental disorders, as in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, first published in 1952, in which homosexuality was listed as a sociopathic personality distur- bance. The new humanism of sexuality went hand in hand with a demonization of alternative forms of sexuality—of anything that did not fit comfortably in a film like A Man and a Woman (released at around the same time, in 1966).
In the face of this mounting sexual humanism, Foucault turned to the writings of Georges Bataille and, before him, the Marquis de Sade to highlight the experiences of sexuality that were excluded from the dominant ethical conception of sexuality and human nature. Foucault deployed the notions of exclusion, limits, and transgression in 1964 in order to more precisely delineate the character of contemporary Western culture. The spaces of transgression identified precisely the limits of social acceptance—what could not be allowed to be seen or heard in Western society. Foucault shone a light on “perversions” precisely to reveal how Western culture idiosyncratically developed its own unique troubled consciousness of sexuality: how it alone had developed a “science” of sexuality on the basis of those very behaviors; how that science of sexuality had given birth to the social sciences and, at their head, psychoanalysis; how psycho- analysis had begun, thanks to Freud, to reintegrate those “per- versions” into more ordinary conceptions of sexuality; in sum, how Western culture had transformed sexuality into an object of scientific knowledge in order to regulate it. Foucault held a mirror up to contemporary Western society to expose the cunning, hidden devices it used to judge and regulate human behavior— and at what cost.
In the second set of lectures—“The Discourse of Sexuality,” delivered at Vincennes in 1969—Foucault deployed a Marxian framework to motivate his own new unique philosophical method, as applied once again to the domain of sexuality. Foucault developed an analysis of the discourse of sexuality, focusing on the literary, philosophical, scientific, medical, and juridical texts and practices that made sexuality their object—a method we would come to call “discourse analysis.” He built common ground with his audience on the basis of a structural analysis of economic forces, tracing the emergence of capitalism from “primitive accumulation” to the “need for labor for the reserve army of capitalism” and discussing “forces of production,” “ideology,” and “ideological effects.” These are all Foucault’s words, or rather Marx’s—clear catchwords from the hegemonic Marxist discourse that permeated the times—none of them used ironically by Foucault.
Foucault extends his new archaeological method to the domain of sexuality and, in the process, displaces the traditional notion of ideology in order to underscore both the amount and the pervasiveness of the social practices necessary to achieve the invisibility of cultural norms, and to expose how the latter undergird, even more invisibly, our deepest judgments of moral- ity and truth. In the place of Marxian notions of ideology, of false consciousness, of Althusserian theories of ideological effects, Foucault excavates the layers of discourse that limit our ability even to judge truth or falsity. As Foucault would emphasize a year later, on December 2, 1970, in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France: “before [a proposition] can be pronounced true or false it must be, as Monsieur Canguilhem might say, ‘within the true.’ Critiques of ideology that merely invert the base and the superstructure do not adequately take account of the deeper epistemological structures of discourse that would allow someone even to articulate a legible claim to truth, one that could be heard by their contemporaries.
Here is where we must remind ourselves to eschew the naïve idea of philosophical progress or linearity. The philosophical texts in this volume are political interventions. They are punctual, of the moment—a new theoretical method to address a new political conjuncture. They are philosophical acts.8 They constitute a form of praxis.
In the end, philosophical praxis is a political intervention. It addresses political problems. It constitutes a political engagement. This is especially true for a philosopher and social critic like Foucault, who so adamantly believed, with Nietzsche, that knowledge can never be divorced from relations of power in society—and that we must do everything we can to liquidate, in every aspect of our theorizing and praxis, the naïve belief that knowledge is only true when it is detached from power.
The text reproduced above has omitted historiographic citations. They can be found in the original volume.
Bernard E. Harcourt is a chaired professor at Columbia University and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and has edited a range of works by Foucault in French and English.
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