Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Michel Foucault and The History of Sexuality

Michel Foucault (1926-84)

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher and social theorist who has become a major figure in critical theory.  His central thesis is that the social construction of ‘knowledge’ is really an emergent process serving the preservation of power relations in society.  Power as defined by Foucault is not a simple political or economic process, but emerges from the social order by controlling discourse about social reality.  As such, he expands on the work of the earlier social constructionists in sociology, Marxists, and the structural-functionalists, all of whom he would later partially disavow.   It is fair to say that Foucault’s ideas about power required Marxist, existentialist, Nietzschean and Kantian insights to flourish.
Foucualt’s central idea about sexuality, as outlined in History of Sex, an Introduction, published in English in 1976, is that the central hypothesis preoccupying academic study of sex in the 18th and 19th centuries; that social order was primarily about sexual repression, was wrong.  Actually, during that period, sexuality became freer, was much more openly discussed than previously, and that the encouragement of confession, discussion, professionalization and commercialization of sex served emergent modern power structures.  In this blog, I will be using the term ‘medicalization’ frequently to describe the process by which sexuality came to be construed as a medical problem to be defined, diagnosed and treated by medical doctors and allied health care professionals. 
Foucault was concerned with the philosophy of knowledge and power much more broadly than this focus on sexuality.  He wrote works explaining how man came to be the focus of academic study, and how medicine came to define the madness as defective reason and segregate ‘lunatics’ in asylums away from ordinary social discourse during the 18th century.  As such, he was a seminal thinker in the growing criticism of psychiatry.  This process will get some attention in this blog as well.

The Rake's Progress: the Rake in Bedlam (1735) William Hogarth
A Freudian interpretation might subsume Foucault’s energetic deconstruction of the repressive hypothesis as an elaborate rationalization of his homosexuality.  They might present as evidence Foucualt’s confession that he became smart by energetically doing a high school classmate’s homework because of Foucault’s attraction to his male beauty.  Or cite his criticism of the concept of perversion as affording professionals pleasure and power over sexual deviance (like homosexuality) through study!  But Foucault’s idea’s are far too influential to dismiss, whatever their psychogenesis.  Foucault was an ardent homosexual with many affairs.  Foucault lived a polyamorous lifestyle, and was among the first prominent French persons to die of complications associated with HIV/AIDS.

Reference:  History of Sexuality: An Introduction: http://www.amazon.com/The-History-Sexuality-Vol-Introduction/dp/0679724699/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369188649&sr=8-1&keywords=history+of+sexuality+foucault 
© Russell J Stambaugh, May 2013, Ann Arbor, MI.  All Rights Reserved.

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