The Uses of Pleasure THE HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, VOL. II by Michel Foucault; translated by Robert Hurley (Pantheon: $17.95; 281 pp.)
It has been more than 50 years since Thurber and White wrote “Is Sex Necessary?,” partially in response to the complaint of Wolcott Gibbs that “the heavy writers had got sex down and were breaking its arm.” Since there is no sign that the heavy writers are going to let up, or that lighter writers will relent in their homeopathic doses of such research, we should welcome the recent work of Michel Foucault. While he is certainly one of the heaviest writers whom American academics have imported from France in the last quarter century, his “History of Sexuality” doesn’t tell us anything about sex. Rather it means to explain to us why we talk about it so much. “What is it,” he asked in volume I, published nearly 10 years ago, “that we demand of sex, beyond its possible pleasures, that makes us so persistent?” The answer lies in certain complex relations between knowledge and power whose formulation proceeds from a rather startling hypothesis: What we have long regarded, largely through the lenses of psychoanalysis, as the repression of sexuality, from 17th-Century puritanism through late Victorian prudery, must be recognized instead as an elaborate process that in fact produced both sexuality and sexuality; that is, both the word and the complex social phenomenon to which it refers.
The word itself only comes into usage at the beginning of the 19th Century with the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, whose preoccupation with sex and the body displaced the nobleman’s preoccupation with bloodlines and blood honor. Counter-Reformation tracts on the examination of conscience, Malthusian research into population growth, the medicalization of sexual perversion by 19th-Century science, the policing of language in literary texts are but part of a vast array of apparatus designed to get sex to talk, to get people talking about sex. Psychoanalysis, which got Thurber and White down, is but a further step in this deployment of discursive mastery. We are not being sexually liberated but sexually regulated by all this discourse.
Subsequent volumes of Foucault’s “History” were presumably to further articulate and instanciate this hypothesis. But with the appearance of Volume II, “The Uses of Pleasure,” that project has undergone considerable modifications, as he explains in this introductory chapter. Its scope will embrace only the period from classical antiquity through the first centuries of Christianity: This volume deals with philosophical and medical texts of 4th-Century Greece; Volume III, whose publication has been announced by Pantheon, deals with later Greeks and Romans; Volume IV, not yet scheduled for publication, deals with early Christianity. This is the period through which Foucault can trace what he calls “the genealogy of desiring man,” that is the process by which attention was focused on desire, on man as the subject of desire, on desire as man’s truth. Gone are the dazzling analyses of “discursive practices” as modalities of power that beguiled readers of his history of insanity (“Madness and Civilization”) and of penal institutions (“Discipline and Punish”). The tone here is more subdued, the prose more workmanlike. Perhaps this is because, at such a historical remove, there is no ax to grind, no cause to defend, no intellectual complacency to dislodge; Foucault makes careful uses of secondary sources, and acknowledges them dutifully, in his review of Greek literature in which sexual pleasure-- aphrodisia by name--is at issue.
After some interesting methodological considerations for a possible history of morality--the French are at their best, and Foucault especially among them, in drafting the articles of a possible science--Foucault examines four areas of everyday experience in which sexual practice was conceptualized and made an ethical domain, an object of moral concern. In each area, he shows that the presiding theme is austerity: in relation to the body, involving considerations of health and diet; in relation to the institution of marriage, to wife and household, involving political and social questions; in relations between men, or rather between men and boys. This is properly erotic domain, involving courtship practices and issues of honor, status and integrity that the Christian West was to focus on women, though in a different manner: The anxiety that the Greeks focused on being an object of pleasure was later transferred to truth, to the existence of wisdom, which is where, according to Foucault, the Greeks broke ground for inquiry into desiring man: when Plato, in the “Phaedrus” and the “Banquet,” raised the question of love in its very being.
Foucault’s treatment of this last topic is not very probing, referring us instead to research conducted elsewhere. Nor is his conclusion about all these areas very startling, namely that the ubiquitous principle governing “the uses of pleasure” among the Greeks was moderation (sophrosyne) so as to risk neither one’s health and procreative power, nor the social and political order, nor one’s self-mastery, upon which depended one’s freedom, honor and access to wisdom. Still, the work is required reading for those who cling to stereotyped ideas about our difference from the Greeks in terms of pagan license verus Christian austerity, or their hedonism versus our anxiety. The Greeks entertained far-reaching suspicions about sex; they praised marital fidelity, and they idealized chastity--at least among men. But though caution, restraint, abstinence were urged aplenty, it was not in service to a unified moral system, a law whose precepts were compulsory and whose scope was universal. Rather their moral reflection culminated in an “aesthetics of existence,” an art of living that was rooted in an ideal of self-mastery and that was pursued as a “practice of the self.” Stylization, rather than codification, is how Foucault most often distinguishes between Greek and Christian moral reflection.
Stylization, I think, is not a bad word to describe Foucault’s contribution to our thinking. For the way it cuts across standard categories of research and reconceptualizes our knowledge, reading Foucault is always a rewarding “philosophical exercise,” which is how he describes his task: “The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.” If, after Foucault, we can think desire differently so as perhaps to think it through for once, our debt to the “History of Sexuality” will loom large indeed.