Most of my leisurely writing lately has been dedicated to baseball, but I spent some time this morning preparing the following for a undergraduate student reading Foucault for the first time. Her project this semester has been dedicated to queer rights, and this is her first encounter with queer theory. I suggested she start with either Foucault or Butler, and she chose Foucault. My undergrad students are required to do am 8 to 10 page final paper on any topic of their choosing, so long as it meets specific criteria (more on that later). Here's what I gave her to help her think of how to use Foucault for a project inline with her semester long project.
Foucault and Sexuality
Here’s a few specific passages to help you think your way through this material. First, from page 105 of the 1990 Vintage Books edition (Part 4, Chapter 3 “Domain”):
Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (105-106)
These long sentences essentially say the same thing—that “sex” isn’t something either a) completely natural or b) entirely cultural. Hence why sex isn’t something “real” and “really hidden” that we can uncover. Rather the act of trying to “uncover” sex produces (or, if I was using Foucault’s language, discursively constructs) sexuality itself. Hence his statement of a “great surface network.” In short summation, we can’t really know anything about sex, but we can pay close attention to the ways in which people talk about, represent, practice, and contest sexuality. This work was written in France in the mid-1970’s. You might want to look at sexual politics and representations in the 1970’s and then compare them to today.
The second passage comes from page 56:
The important thing, in this affair, is not that these men shut their eyes or stopped their ears, or that they were mistaken; it is rather that they constructed around and apropos of sex an immense apparatus for producing truth, even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment. The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood, and that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful, or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short, that sex was constituted as a rpblem of truth. What needs to be situated, therefore is […] the progressive formation (and also transformations) of that “interplay of truth and sex” which was bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, and which we may have modified, but, lacking evidence to the contrary, have not rid ourselves. Misunderstandings, avoidances, and evasions were only possible, and only had their effects, against the background of this strange endeavor: to tell the truth of sex. (56-57)
The “they” in the opening sentence referes to early psychoanalysts such as Freud. They were exploring “pathological sexual deviance” and other such “problems.” We might ask ourselves, 25 years after Foucault’s writing—is/are there still (a) "truth(s)" to sex? Where does it/they emerge?