Michel and me
In fact, Foucault began his literary career with a ponderous tome of almost 600 pages, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961), the printed version of his French doctoral thesis. For a long time this work circulated in English in the guise of a poor abridgment. Finally, in 2006, Routledge issued a full English translation entitled The History of Madness.
At first glance one may ask how can one write a history of madness? That Foucault approached the topic of mental illness from this standpoint was an early indication of his capacity to reformulate conventional ideas in ways that are challenging. However, the theme was in the air; one need only think of the contemporary work of R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz.
Foucault begins his account in the Middle Ages, with the social and physical exclusion of lepers. He argues that with the gradual disappearance of leprosy, madness came to occupy the empty niche, so to speak, that had been vacated. The 15th-century motif of the ship of fools is a literary version of one such exclusionary practice, that of sending mad people away in boats. In 17th-century Europe, in a movement which Foucault famously describes as the Great Confinement, "unreasonable" individuals were locked away and institutionalized. Continuing the story, Foucault explains that in the 18th century, madness came to be perceived as the reverse of Reason (that is, déraison) and, finally, in the 19th century as mental illness.
Foucault also argues that madness was silenced by Reason, losing its power to signify the limits of social order and to point to the truth. He examines the rise of scientific and "humanitarian" treatments of the insane, notably at the hands of the alienists Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, who he suggests began the conceptualization of madness as “mental illness.” He maintains that these interventions, ostensibly a humanistic mitigation of the earlier harsh methods, were in fact no less controlling than previous practices. Pinel's treatment of the mad amounted to an extended aversion therapy, including such drastic treatments as freezing showers and use of a straitjacket.
This account is probably the first surfacing of a recurrent stratagem on the part of Foucault: things are not what you think, but rather the opposite. This is the device known to historians as Revisionism.
Because of its length and seeming abstruseness, the doctoral tome attracted little attention at the time. Five years later, though, matters took a dramatic turn with Foucault’s next book, which created a sensation in France.
Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines, just noticed, was published in 1966. It was translated into English and published by Pantheon Books in 1970 under the title The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Somewhat startlingly, the book opens with an extended analysis of Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas (Museo del Prado) and its complex manipulation of sight-lines, hiddenness, and appearance. This piece had originally been a separate study. However, Foucault’s editor perceptively suggested that it could serve as an overture to the monograph. The book’s central thesis proposes that all periods of history have possessed specific underlying conditions of truth that demarcated the realm of what was deemed acceptable, as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period's "episteme" to another. It is evident that the term episteme is simply a repackaging of Hegel’s concept of the Zeitgeist or Spirit of the Age. In recent centuries, according to Foucault, the Renaissance episteme yielded to the Classic episteme, and that in turn to the modern episteme. This terminology indicates a recurrent problem with Foucault--his preference for provincial French concepts not readily translatable into other languages. What he terms the “classical era” is what is known in most European countries as the Baroque.
L’archéologie du savoir (1969) is essentially a sequel to Les Mots et les choses. In this book Foucault makes reference to Anglo-American analytical philosophy, particularly speech-act theory. Seeming to address the criticism of Francophone parochialism, Foucault shows a certain willingness to break out of the constraints of national boundaries.
In the new book, Foucault directs his analysis toward the "statement" (énoncé), the basic unit of discourse. The iconic notion of “discourse,” how we talk about things instead of the things themselves, was to become a hallmark of Foucaultian research and speculation, and of structuralism in general.
A few years later Foucault’s interest took a new turn, one which was in keeping with the sexual revolution and also a new wave of books on the subject, such as Jonathan Ned Katz’s “Gay American History” (1976), a massive collection of documents; and Sir Kenneth Dover’s “Greek Homosexuality” (1978). At the same time Foucault’s own homosexual orientation became generally known.
La volonté de savoir (1976) bears the supertitle “Histoire de la sexualité.” This introductory volume, a kind of big pamphlet, was to inaugurate a series of six, to be entitled: 2) La chair et le corps; 3) La croisade des enfants; 4) La femme, la mère et l’hysterique; 5) Les pervers; 6) Population et races. Even though some of these themes recur in Foucault’s later work, as far as I can see none of the five promised sequelae ever appeared.
What we have instead is a different set that conscripts the 1976 volume to serve as the prologue to something quite different. The volumes are individually titled The Will to Knowledge (Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonté de savoir--which we have already noted), The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualité, II: l'usage des plaisirs), and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi). The last two appeared as a pair in 1984, the year of Foucault’s death.
Ignoring the two major contributions of 1984, most readers restrict their attention to the first, programmatic volume, which focuses primarily on the last two centuries. In this rapidly sketched account, the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power is traced in terms of the rise of a science of sexuality (scientia sexualis) and the emergence of “biopower” in the West. In this volume he questions the repressive hypothesis, the now-conventional belief that we have, particularly since the 19th century, "repressed" our natural sexual drives. This repression meme was of course widely held at the height of the Sexual Revolution. Foucault seeks to show that in its heyday what we think of as sexual "repression" did not function as a way to dismiss the subject. Instead, the accompanying discourse, the incessant chatter if you will, actually elevated sexuality to a new status. It became recognized as a core element--perhaps THE core element--of our identity.
In Volume One, Foucault posits a watershed in human history, between the Counter-Reformation and the Industrial Revolution, when the Catholic church and the state sought to control people's sexuality for the stability of the church and the benefit of the economy, respectively. He points to a realignment of the Vatican's views on sexuality during this period as an attempt to make people feel the need to attend confession more often, thus increasing the church's dominion.
Characteristically, Foucault shows little interest in contemporary Protestant Europe. He detects a shift in focus by the French government from viewing citizens as "subjects" to "a population,” a quasiscientific concept that could be manipulated according to the needs of the economy. He claims that his francocentric analysis was emblematic of a process that spead across Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. However, since the Industrial Revolution began in England, would it not be better to start with that country?
As I have noted, the original plan for completing the series effectively vanished. The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualité, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) deal with attitudes towards sexual behavior in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both appeared in 1984, the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986.
After the first volume came out in 1976, Foucault's thinking had indeed shifted. He extended his analysis of government to its "wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behavior of men," which involved a new consideration of the "examination of conscience" and confession in early Christian literature. These themes of early Christian literature began to loom large in Foucault's work alongside his study of Greek and Roman literature, perhaps not unreasonably because Christian moralism stands athwart us and the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Secularists, who idolize Greece and Rome, wish that matters were otherwise; but this is the way things are.
Foucault's death from AIDS left his undertaking incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, the one on Christianity, was never published. That fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). In fact the text was almost complete before Foucault's death intervened. The manuscript lingers in the limbo of the Foucault archive; under restrictions established in Foucault’s will, it cannot be published.
We must now return to the first volume of Foucault’s sexuality series. A particular passage in this work turned out to have an amazing career in the field of gay scholarship. Beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s a kind of prairie fire swept the field, which was attracting many adherents, some academic, others not. This was the Social Construction (SC) approach, about which I have written elsewhere. Few could object to its moderate form, namely that individual human behavior is strongly conditioned by the social context, and that scholars must avoid the temptation of anachronism.
However, many SC scholars embraced a more controversial notion. In a nutshell they held there was no homosexuality prior to its “invention” in Western Europe about 1870. Of course these savants did not deny that same-sex behavior had been occurring since time immemorial: how could they? Yet they maintained that only in the second half of the 19th century did a sense of homosexual identity emerge, THE HOMOSEXUAL in short. Thus was born the thesis of the “modern homosexual,” a somewhat redundant expression, because adepts insisted that there was no other. A few scholars, especially those involved with data from Britain, pushed the origins of the complex further back, to about 1700. Common to both schools, however, was the notion that at some specific point in time, “the homosexual” was i n v e n t e d.
This ploy drew upon several models. In another much contested view, Denis de Rougemont and other historians had asserted that there was no such thing as romantic love until the 12th century. For his part, Philippe Ariès claimed that childhood was invented only after the close of the Middle Ages. At this point I am not concerned with the historical accuracy (or not) of these proposals, but simply with their (generally unacknowledged) role as precedents.
The Social Constructionist students of same-sex behavior found their charter in a short section of the first volume of Foucault’s series. Since few of these scholars, who tend to be anglophone monoglots, read French easily, their interpretation relies on the faulty 1978 English-language translation. In order to show the distortions that have crept in as a result of this second-hand sourcing, it is necessary first to turn to the French text.
“La sodomie--celle des anciens droits civil ou canonique--était un type d’actes interdits; leur auteur n’en était que le sujet juridique. L’homosexuel du XIXe siècle est devenu un personnage: un passé, une histoire et une enfance, un caractère, une forme de vie; une morpholgie aussi avec une anatomie indiscrète et peut-être une physiologie mystérieuse” (top of page 59). Shorn of its rhetorical flights, the import of the passage is clear. Foucault contrasts two historical types. Under the first regime, same-sex behavior is understood in terms of acts; under the second--when the homosexual person appears--it is understood in terms of actors.
Subsequently, some observers have pointed out that the contrast is not so stark, because after all the “sodomite” was a person too. At all events, except for the literal rendering “personage” (when “person” would be better) Robert Hurley’s translation of this first passage is acceptable and need not detain us further.
Not so the conclusion of the same paragraph, at the bottom of page 59 of the French edition, where we read the now-famous words: “Le sodomite était un relaps, l’homosexuel est maintenant une espèce.” Hurley: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” This rendering is not acceptable. The sodomite was not an “aberration.” a term that belongs to a much later context, but a “backslider.” Worse is the choice of the word “species” for espèce. In ordinary French the latter word is generally used to signify sort or kind, as in common expressions such as “espèce de snob.” It is true that in certain contexts the term can mean species. Yet the fact that Foucault is not using it in this sense is shown by the extraordinary catalogue of “espèces” amassed in the following paragraph, which includes zoophiles, auto-monosexualists, mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophles sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women. These terms are outlandish, and that is the effect that is intended. Still,they are subcategories that can be named, or were once thought to have this quality. At best they qualify as sorts or kinds, not separate species.
Let us proceed a bit further. If we were to grant, for the purposes of argument, that these oddities are in fact separate species, why have the Social Constructionists not turned their attention dutifully to writing the history of each one? As constituents of the reorganization of knowledge that took place around 1870 surely it would be important to do so instead of ignoring them.
In fact, these latter “espèces” are but remnants from the Old Curiosity Shoppe of sex research. That is decidedly not true of homosexuals, who have always existed in some sense or another. As we have noted, the sodomite, supposedly so radically different, was a “personnage” also. During the European Middle Ages, and at other times and places, there were more than just same-sex acts, there were actors as well.
In fact changes in ways of thinking about human behavior rarely take place with the suddenness that SC advocates claim. Establishing such neat and clean caesurae may be an effective classroom technique, but it does not meet the challenge of the reality principle. That this is so is shown by the fact that there are two SC schools: the majority, the Bolsheviks if you will, accept a date of about 1870 (the term “homosexual” itself was introduced in 1869), while the Mensheviks, the minority, propose 1700. This divergence in chronology signals that something must be wrong.
In fact the great sea change in attitudes to sexuality in the Western world took place much earlier, during late antiquity. At that point, Christianity, taking its cue in part from certain pagan ascetic thinkers, forced society into its torture chamber of sexual tabooing, a dungeon from which we have only recently begun to emerge.
Foucault refrained from taking an explicit stand on the Social Construction question. However, he chose to ally himself with John Boswell, SC’s most prominent opponent. So the appeal to Foucault as the “godfather” of SC seems to be mistaken.
Today we do not hear much about Social Construction in the field of sex research. However, its unfortunate heritage lives on in "son of SC," that is, Queer Theory, a protean topic to which I will return.
Labels: Foucault Social Construction