Foucault, sex, discourse

Submitted by admin on Wed, 08/10/2016 - 23:03

photo of Michel FoucaultI am interested in the perspectives of Foucault. In his trilogy “The History of Sexuality”, Penguin Books, London, 1979, Foucault describes several key epochs where culture has changed due to changes in sexuality, which have happened in fairly unusual ways. It is a form of forensic history.

To attempt to summarise about 800 pages in half a page:-

In ancient Greek times (taken from Plato – apparently Foucault learned ancient Greek to be able to read Plato in the original) the ‘free man’ could basically do whatever he wanted sexually - with men, women, slaves or boys. However, there was a philosophy of moderation (care of the self), and a practical and economic reality that most families of citizens had estates, which were normally managed by the man and his wife, and the man would also be active in the government of the city, however, this would depend on his reputation. There was a need to train and raise descendants in a way that was “useful to the City”, so a free man would want his wife and children to be protected from being tarnished by his affairs and scandals (most free men had slaves, but if there was a scandal, the slaves could be cheeky and difficult to manage !)

However, some of the later Greek philosophisers show the first signs of the moralising which has later developed and dominated, that is, they began to use ideas of 'right and wrong' rather than practicality or reputation.

Next, Foucault deals with the middle ages. Here he has a “dream image” of  everything being fairly free and easy sexually for almost everyone.

But, a new impetus came from the Church, where the rich were gradually pressed and persuaded to Confess more and more of their sensations of sexuality, going deeper and deeper in an attempt to “analyse away” all sexuality except for that needed for the procreation of children. Foucault suggests that this had an opposite effect of greatly amplifying sexual feelings and sensitivity. This increased sensitivity has gradually spread through society to nearly all classes, and also the idea of confession has similarly spread, creating the present “confessional society” (which reaches its peak at Findhorn ??!!).

Foucault also emphasises a shift at the end of the 18th Century where mental hospitals, prisons, army barracks, hospitals and factories began to be organised and brought a much greater systematisation to all areas of life. People began to be ‘standardised’, and ill-treated until they could fit in ‘the system’. However, this system process not seem deliberate or designed, it seemed to develop more at the whim of Army Sergeants and factory foremen who wanted lines to be straight and everyone to dress correctly -the officers and factory owners were not especially interested in this.

There was also an unusual point of greatest repression in Victorian times, where fainting fits, corsets and hysteria were associated with sex, many people (women) were put in hospital for minor ‘sins’, and reportedly, many people lived without ever seeing themselves naked. How were people persuaded to do this ?

These are some of the basics behind our recent sexual revolution, and put our permissive age in a very different perspective. Foucault himself was openly gay, and was one of the first people to die of AIDS, and his interest in the Greek times was partly because it was a time when love between men was the preferred form of sexuality for many, and there was a system of patronage for boys.

The key terms which he uses in his discourse to describe the evolution of society are power, discipline and organisation, and it seems that people may have developed sensitivity and self-awareness through these ‘treatments’, in a way that was never possible before. I find that he deals with his material in a very fair and open way – he does not appear to have major pre-conceptions or prejudices, and if he does, he is open about them – he lets his source material speak for itself, but watches carefully for deeper patterns and ideas.