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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Foucaults work in understanding current discourse of sexuality?


This short paper will attempt to shed light on one of the major theoretical works by celebrated French Poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), by engaging with his treatment of sexuality as one of the three major case studies he designated to explore after having done so with modernist medicine and the modern penal system. Dealing with principal notions in Foucauldian philosophy such as power, knowledge, and discourse, it will attempt to critically analyse the main contributions and shortcomings of his thought in his treatment of sexuality through those particular conceptual spectacles. In doing so it will turn to secondary literature on his work and other alternative points of view such as Feminist, Marxist and Postcolonial thought.

Mainly focusing on the body and our understandings of it, this paper will essentially entail a theoretical outline to argue out the strengths and weaknesses in his understandings of sexuality and the body. This shall be presented in this paper in three sections which will include a primary introductive and descriptive portion in which the main body of Foucaults treatment of sexuality will be put forth and to the best possible extent explained, considering the capacious volume of his literature on the matter. Secondly, having fleshed out the main points in his analysis of sexuality some counterarguments to those will be addressed and applied including a view that extends beyond Foucaults untimely death examining possible returns to his philosophy by contemporary thinkers and his own retreats in his theories. Finally, the third part will conclude in summary of the hitherto established Foucauldian claims and their counterclaims with an eye on their collective legacy in shaping our current understanding of sexuality and how it is being lived, experienced, and governed.

Explaining Foucault

Michel Foucault was raised in a time when French philosophy took centre stage in the field as the particular strand of existentialism was blooming in his home country and the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty

were enjoying prominence. Especially Sartre, who crafted a particularly strong and sound synthesis of French existentialism and Husserlian phenomenology was at the forefront of French philosophical thought at the time. Foucaults future work, and indeed the entire Structuralist and Poststructuralist movements were to be cemented in direct opposition to Sartres thought but it is safe to say that, regardless of their theoretical differences, Sartres philosophical stance, particularly that on the subject, constituted a philosophical point of departure for Foucault in later years. It is important to note that the period of Foucaults upbringing was the intervening years between the two World Wars and so a specifically passionate humanist consciousness was being developed in war-torn France which transferred itself into Marxism in academe and existentialism in philosophy. Within the milieu of German-occupied France in the early 1940s and in its wake, the existentialist credo of existence precedes essence was a powerfully attractive and redemptive one in a Europe ravaged by mass-scale war, torture, and death carried out through -and legitimised by- bigoted discrimination based on race, religion and sexuality. This is to say that human essence was understood as the conjecture of human misery as a population devoid of a choice in determining its individualised selves fell victim to oppressive and repressive regimes.

Within this fertile ground for humanism and social uplift, the next wave of French intellectual thought, that of Structuralism and subsequently Poststructuralism, took a decidedly Postmodern turn in that it attempted to wrestle the emancipative onus from

the subject, or the self, and further problematized humanist tenets. Rather than endowing the self with an overemphasised facility for liberating itself against outside forces, the above mentioned axioms formulated a system of public signs and a move away from the subject as a centralised positionality from which to view the world. Poststructuralism constituted the final step in this move from subject to object embodying a complete break from subjective centrality, and even Structuralism, in assuming a self-reflexive posture towards the objectivity of public signs and symbols (structuralism) stating that language does not just represent reality but, through its categories and differences, also constitutes it. This subject-object dialectic would prove to be a decisive factor in contributing to the highly original intellectual work set out by Foucault as we shall see.

Power and Epistemology

One of the most important Foucauldian notions to note gained its significance as a direct result of this self-reflexivity in treating sociological and philosophical problems; that is the notion of power. To understand his other theorizations around knowledge and discipline, one must first digest how power (political, social, religious etc) is, in the Foucauldian sense, exhumed from its old understanding as sovereignty of a single subject (for instance a king) over multiple subjects into a reconfigured mechanism of power (dispositif) whereby said power becomes deferred to the phenomenon of

surveillance. Through the spectrums of the hospital, mental asylum, and prisons Foucault identifies a new modality of power that exerts itself through the

objectification process of the body via the act of surveillance. To compare and contrast for instance with a Marxist or Postcolonial understanding of power, power in these traditions is understood as being dialectically positioned. It is viewed as a strictly repressive and/or oppressive apparatus and therefore a removal of power would reconstitute the identities and self-worth of those previously marginalised, as the working class (in Marxism) and the native (in colonialism) form the loci of emancipation in this strict dialectic. In the Foucauldian school of thought however, it is through the doctors stethoscope or the prison guards binoculars in large panoptical architectures that the body is surveilled and in the very act fabricated as such. This Foucault calls disciplinary power. Within this schema all bodies are circumscribed by power in relation to one another and the removal of power would constitute the removal of the body itself if one were to follow a Marxist understanding of resistance. David Armstrong summarizes that it is only the power mechanisms that surround the body which constitute and maintain it (1994: 23).

Within this very process of power manifestation one can also ascertain the actual production of knowledge, and more specifically, knowledge of the body. Along these theoretical lines we come to know about the body via apparatuses and medical procedures that seek to uncover concealed truths about our bodies. Yet these can only be unmasked via the physical exposure of human tissue which can only be reached in its

total grandeur after death in autopsy. For Foucault, medicine becomes the closest of the human sciences to come towards an understanding of the corporeal body free of a universalised reading albeit yielding the irony that this is only achieved post-mortem. However, in a move from the corporeal to the cognitive utilization of the medical gaze (knowing), as in psychoanalysis, Foucault recognizes a new form of scientific surveillance that has taken over from middle age authorities of confession and temperance such as the church. Psychoanalysis, under the guise of a human science, aims to render the body legible just as much as its religious predecessors that analyzed and detailed, and deduced forms of further surveillance. Armstrong notes that the very formalization and institutionalization of knowledges of psychological and social spaces (particularly psychology and sociology) around the turn of the (19th) century is evidence enough of the emergence of new techniques for making the body legible (ibid:25). The danger in this for Foucault is that these give new possibilities for language to promote a universalistic stance and flee from any individuated renderings of the body. As was mentioned earlier, concepts such as subjectivity, universality, and totality lie in direct opposition to Foucaults poststructuralist thought as they all hint at a totalizing truth.

In regards to the construction of power and knowledge then, Foucault identifies whole a priori systems of knowledge, or rather ways of knowing, that exist in, and define an epoch and in which individuals and societies and their language, culture, politics, values etc are locked into. These specifically temporally defined discourses he calls epistemes. Multiple epistemes within power and knowledge structures may co-exist and integrate

with one another and can also be construed as strategic versions of the aforementioned power mechanisms or dispositifs. More precisely an episteme is the dispositif that within a given field of understanding of science (rather than a specific scientific theory) can be deemed acceptable, and allows not just to differentiate the truth from the false, but the scientifically qualifiable from the scientifically non-qualifiable. Therefore Foucaults work can be understood as a self-reflexive archival engagement with the past that not only debunks totalizing myths about natural truths but ingeniously illuminates the pervasiveness and overlooked significance of the constructed discourse that churns out these fallacies.

Sexuality and Discipline

As was mentioned above, Foucault undertook genealogical research on a series of case studies to prove his hypotheses of epistemology and power. These mainly centred on the genealogy of the medicinal sciences (in The Birth of the Clinic: 1963), the genealogy of the penal system (in Discipline and Punish: 1975), and finally the unfinished series of volumes that explored the genealogy of sexuality (in The History of Sexuality: 1976). All these works essentially were treated under the theoretical foundation laboriously expounded upon in both The Order of things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) in which his excavation of discourses was at its most rigorous. It is hoped that by now the main Foucauldian concepts of power, knowledge, and discourse are lucid

enough to apply in a more intentioned and direct fashion towards sexuality. These concepts should become more accessible after this undertaking.

Through the understanding of how power inscribes knowledge and how these in turn create discursive regimes one can then apply it to particular hypotheses by analyzing historically the field in question. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault addresses such a discourse in sexuality, and a hypothesis in the liberation of a repressed state of sex in Western society. The book was meant to be the introductory volume in a series of editions that would further specialize on the topics within sexuality outlined here. In Sexuality Foucault traces back to the 19th century and isolates four dispositifs that at the time were preferred subjects of scientific inquiry, particularly psychoanalysis. These were homosexuality as being perceived as an act rather than a fundamental state of being, hysteria of women as invented to denote a sexual problem, masturbation in children, and perversion. He contests the repressed sex hypothesis that stipulates that sex was demonized and shunned outside of the public sphere by political and social power. To him this would be treating sex as some predetermined natural force that necessitates some form of physical exercise of repression. Ever true to gleaning discursive meaning out of the perceived materiality of the world, Foucault understands sex as being a construct that is the result of power mechanisms, or dispositifs, producing sexualities within given parameters of an episteme that naturalize sex. Sexuality becomes the primary juncture of power and knowledge which in this case speaks truth about the politics, and more importantly, the science of sex.

The specific dispositifs applied in this case are the complex networks of power that are exerted on the society via the primary centre of moral authority at the time, the church, and particularly the practice of confession. By situating bodily pleasures and desires into the deep-seated materiality of the body and denying that desires exist independent of sex and its purported natural state these mechanisms conjure an epistemological problem about, and of, sex. Sex is rendered taboo. This inversion of the power-sex relationship, Foucault contends, is the major coup in the institutionalized disciplining process of bodies. By the interchanging of the effect of sexuality and power it affects the notion that power becomes distinctively repressive and sexuality instinctively primal. In Foucault and Feminism Lois McNay quotes Foucault; it disguises the true productive nature of power. Power and sexuality are not ontologically distinct, rather sexuality is the result of a productive bio power which focuses on human bodies, inciting and extorting various effects (1992: 29).

This misapprehension of discourse as actual truth produces the doubly misleading artifice of simultaneously falling under the authority implied by knowledge by others and of oneself. This means that liberal humanist campaigns seeking sexual liberation for womens and homosexuals under the pretence of escaping a repressive regime becomes absurd for Foucault as it still situates sex as natural and bubbling under the tea pot and rather functioning within the parameters of the same power structures that produced them. For Foucault psychoanalysis ushered in this practice of finding universal

legibility and meaning in order to exert discipline through confessionals and catharsis taking over from the priest in church.

Problems and Critique

As we have observed, Foucault evades dialectical approaches such as those found in the Marxist tradition to tackle problems of power relations, hegemony, and repression and defers all of these factors as discursive regimes that produce problems rather than being problems in and of themselves. He therefore runs the danger of effacing social truisms of inequality based on class, race, and particularly with this papers focus, gender and sexuality for instance to whom an emancipation project along the lines of Foucault would not particularly be effective. For each and every one of these subjectivities both as a group that stand dialectically marginalized in opposition to a dominant other and as individuals with a distinct lived experience and socio-historic reality, their freedom dreams stand in direct antipodal struggle in order to bear fruit. That is to say it neglects the presence of a disenfranchised, and powerless real subject by claiming that what is understood as reified power in a material world is in actuality an illusory concept of power produced by discourse which robs the subject of true empowered self-fashioning and liberation. This renders the social equality movements of underprivileged groups such as homosexuals, women and ethnic minorities moot as this overemphasis on discourse denies these groups their experiential worth. This has led to

Walter Kendrick to condemn him for being non-responsive to the deep-seated moral and ethical repercussions of his work that circumnavigates the ills of the marginalized and the subaltern and more so renders their problems invisible (1979: 81-82). Peter Conrad also levels his critique at Foucaults pure structuralism all the while dodging questions about the basic aspects of human life (1979: 451-52). This critique of Foucaults overextending of an illusions and creating an over-stable theory is further expounded upon in Richard Vines The History of an Illusion (1979) in which he again criticizes the insistence of making every problem a linguistic one, in this case, sex and sexuality.

Furthermore, the case studies as well as the power mechanisms that Foucault brings forth in order to make his argument seem to be too selective as confessionals are a strictly Catholic practice and he fails to evince what roles other widespread Christian denominations such as Protestantism may have played in post-17th century Europe and North-America. The exploration of Judaism may also have yielded different results in his overall theories about power and knowledge schematics.

These criticisms above largely relate to the methodology of Sexuality and do not necessarily make extensive alterations to contemporary understandings of sexuality but nevertheless may have an effect of degree as to the full applicability of Foucaults work. However, there are further problematiques in his work in how they mistreat gendered constructs (a subjectivist would acknowledge these) in sweeping fashion. For instance,

women in his book are juxtaposed as monolithic beings against the whole genealogical narrative of his study. Denise Riley notes If its taken for granted that the category of women simply refers, over time, to a rather different content, a sort of Women Through the Ages approach, then the full historicity of what is at stake becomes lost. We would miss seeing the alterations in what women are posed against, as well as established by - Nature, Class, Reason, Humanity and other concepts - which by no means form a passive backdrop to changing conceptions of gender (1988: 7). This touches on the Marxist understanding mentioned above and develops the critique further into a construction of women by virtue of non-treatment as docile and passive bodies if not totally bypassing the materiality of their bodies. Although compared to such other Postructuralists such as Judith Butler, who is a major proponent of the pre-discursive/post-discursive tradition of theorizing, Foucault does take into account

the mate-reality of the body, the neglect towards womens individuality and non-passivity reveals gaps in his work.


In outlining the key aspects of Michel Foucaults scholastic origins and seminal theories it is hoped to have cleared a path into answering the main question at hand by putting Foucault the subject, into context. Positing him in the Poststructuralist age of the 1960s for example situates him in a time when huge governmental power apparatuses were in effect by which he surely was influenced. Furthermore, the cultural temperature of the

time with sexual liberation movements and new doctrines of hedonism rampant may also have played a role in picking up the very issue of anti-repressivism. This is not say that Foucault runs afoul of being a contextualized subject who engaged in an archival research of the past but was self-reflectively entrenched in present day affairs, but that in writing about the elusive power of discourse constructivism he is being constructivist himself in the constitutive role his own language plays in his thought.

On the other hand his deeply abstract theorizing about discursive regimes one can find perhaps the most potent and strongest hegemony-denting criticism of unquestioned normativity. This yields immense value towards starting deeply healing conversations between communities of the privileged and their ethical gestures towards the sexualized Other as rendering such deeply internalized normative aspects as masculinity not only conceptually fallacious but also as discursive illusions. Indeed his new formulations on how power works to produce rather than to destroy are sound enough to have stripped science of its formerly unquestioned objectivity and Butler, among others has gone on from Foucauldian ruminations of sex as an act and attitude, to theorize about sex as matter, defying previously upheld scientific and anatomical understandings of the sexed body. Perhaps his most important insight is that liberationist progressivism under the false understanding that power is constituted at the centre and the base rather than by what they exclude at the margins is on a destructive path to replace the oppressive regimes existent at the time. With this warning he may have made his most illuminating statement: he opened our eyes to the

possibility of locating disruptive forces within the very circles that assert to be progenitors of the subaltern in not only LGBT movements but in all political movements. Its this invaluable new tool that he adds to our awareness which is the most potent in understanding, first and foremost, that proliferate visibility of previously secluded and shunned sexualities does not equate true emancipation as the spectre of power, and its influence on our knowledge of these sexualities, looms large.


This section constitutes a list of works conferred if not all referenced.

Blumenfeld, J.W. and Breen, M.S. eds., 2005. Butler Matters: Judith Butlers Impact on Feminist and Queer studies. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

Clark, M., 1983. Michel Foucault: An annotated Bibilography. New York and London: Garland.

Foucault, M., 1973.

The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception.

London: Tavistock

Foucault, M., 1978. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. London: Penguin.

Jones, C. and Porter, R., eds., 1994. Reassessing Foucault: Power, Medicine, and the Body. London: Routledge.

Kendall, G. and Wickham, G., 1999. Using Foucaults Methods. London: Sage

McNay, L.,1992. Foucault and Feminism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Salih, S., 2004. The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.