Did Foucault cripple the history of sexuality?


If you’re interested in the history of sexuality and whether or not Foucault said that the concept of being gay arose in the nineteenth century, there’s something of a discussion about it here.

The author, Chad, describes how he was “driven” out of literary studies by Lacan wielding ideologues (quite an image!) and then goes on to say:

For instance, instead of seeing it as a foundational work, I strongly believe Foucault’s History of Sexuality was destructive, a crippling strike against the nascent field of the history of sexuality that has needlessly complicated and obscured the search for gay identities and discourses in history. Scholars are still working to repair the damage and revive the notion that, yes, homosexual identitites did indeed exist before the nineteenth century. Foucault may have been a great philosopher, but he was absolutely horrid as a historian.

This is at first sight a reprise of the Scull line of attack, but I think there’s another impression to be gained by reading Foucault’s lectures which are after all very accessible and give their historical sources.

Ezrael, in the comments then says this:

Honestly, I’ve said it before: the notions of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’, the idea that you’re one of those or the other of those, are among the most destructive ever created by man. Every human being’s sexual identity is in great part based on a myriad of tastes, influences and biological imperitives, and the notion that there is an other to even be is manifestly untrue and destructive. It’s clear that, whether or not Foucault was correct in his dating, there was no clearly defined notion of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ in ancient Greece, in Persia, in Babylon or the Sumerian states before that – men and women entered into a variety of relationships with no clear demarcation of identity and no expectation that who they were engaged in sexual congress with today would shape and inform who they were expected to engage in sexual congress tomorrow. Many Greeks didn’t even believe a man and a woman could truly love one another at all, and that the highest possible love was always between two people of the same gender because only two people who shared that perspective could truly understand one another.

That seems a better take to me.

Update. Here’s the key quote that people often point to and what Foucault actually said is a bit different:

We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized–Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth–less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphorodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (History of Sexuality, Vol I, p. 43).

[Compare also the references in Abnormal, p. 168 and p. 310 where MF says “this is the first time that homosexuality appears as a syndrome within the psychiatric field”].

This passage clearly indicates that Foucault is talking about the medical view of homosexuality in a specific manner; that of the mixture of female and male aspects. this passage appears as part of a discussion of the increasing attention being paid to “perversity” and whether it was due to laxness/permissiveness or as an object of concern, requiring surveillance.

Foucault finds four operations of power on these perversions that clearly indicate it was not a question of things being just simply forbidden, but rather worked on:

1. Marriage issues (incests, consanguinity, adultery) and control of infantile sexuality;

2. The new “specification of individuals” (which is where the passage above is situated), and is based on the formation of certain kinds of subjects;

3. Medicalization and the gathering together of discourses and knowledges of the “sexually peculiar” and the intersection of power with pleasure (elsewhere he says that pleasure must come first and maybe desire will follow);

4. Sexuality as really disparate, contrary to its image as being located in the heterosexual couple. As much as anything, a network of sexuality was produced by these concerns:

Educational or psychiatric institutions, with their large populations, their hierarchies, their spatial arrangements, their surveillance systems, constituted, alongside the family, another way of distributing the interplay of powers and pleasures; but they too delineated areas of extreme sexual saturation, with privileged spaces or rituals such as the classroom, the dormitory, the visit, and the consultation. The forms of a nonconjugal, nonmonogamous sexuality were drawn there and established.


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