Saturday, July 19, 2014

Foucault in a nutshell

Thirty years after his death, the reputation of Michel Foucault is still high, perhaps still even ascendent. Is his status as the greatest thinker of our age deserved? I don’t think so. In what follows I will confine myself to one sentence that has caused a lot of harm. In the first installment of his projected five-volume work on the History of Sexuality, Foucault states “Le sodomite était un relaps, l’homosexuel est maintenant une espèce.” (La volonté de savoir, Paris, 1976, p. 59). Since he is writing about an 1870 Westphall article, this momentous change, he suggests, must have occurred about that time. This is how Robert Huxley translated it: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species.” (The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, New York, 1978, p. 43).

Setting aside the minor gaffe of rendering “relaps” as temporary aberration, the big mistake of this version is translating “espèce” as species. In French the connotation of the word is much broader than that of the English expression: the two words are in effect false friends. Here evidently Foucault is not making a pseudoscientific observation, singling out the appearance of some new biological species, but is employing the term in the broader sense of “sort, kind, or category.”

On this slender foundation a whole school of scholars known as Social Constructionists built their edifice, a kind of inverted pyramid based on a single point. Concededly, though, there was another point: K. M. Kertbeny’s introduction of the term “homosexual” in 1869. But there can be no doubt that uncritical Foucault worship has played a major role in the rise of the absurd notion that “there were no homosexuals before 1869.”


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