Thursday, November 23, 2017

Short Summary: "The History of Sexuality" by Foucault Explained

At the beginning of his "History of Sexuality" Michel Foucault criticizes the long held convention according to which the 19th century expelled sexuality from public discourse. Foucault calls this notion "the repressive hypothesis" since it holds that sexuality was repressed and therefore in need of liberation. Instead of the repressive hypothesis Foucault suggests the proliferation of the discourse on sexuality. He argues that technologies of power that were employed on 19th century sexuality by doctors, psychiatrists and educators were not technologies of repression but rather of excessive speech. Sex was indeed viewed as something private and internal but was still constantly discussed and addressed. Foucault says that the discourse on sexuality, even when dealing with restrictions and prohibitions, in fact articulated sexuality, classified it as normal and abnormal and positioned in as a predominant focus of the individual's relationship to himself.

Through his theory on the discourse on sexuality Foucault tries to understand sexuality and the history of sexuality as the product of discourse within a certain context. This means that our innermost drives and desires are shaped by social structures. Sexuality for Foucault is not "natural" but rather constructed by discourse. Foucault argues that in history sexuality was viewed and experienced in manners very different from our own.

Another important point  in the introduction to "The History of Sexuality" is the "birth of homosexuality" in the 19th century. Foucault holds that the classifying discourse on sexuality identified and in fact formed sexual identities. Sexuality moved from being a matter of law and morals and into a matter of identity. Those who tried to expel homosexuality just gave it a name and allowed for it, nowadays, to become excepted.    

"The History of Sexuality" expresses some of Foucault's post-structuralist tendencies in viewing the human subject and all of its features not as fixed, essential and determinate structures but rather as historical products subjected to discourse and the power and knowledge it incorporates. Another important methodological aspect of "The History of Sexuality" is it genealogy of discourse, retracing its development in history, which is characteristic of Foucault's work (inspired by Nietzsche). 

More about Foucault:

Recommended books by and on Foucault: