Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Writing of Michel Foucault as Radical Political Theory

 Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

In The History of Sexuality: An Introduction – Volume 1, author Michel Foucault explores the relationship of sex, sexuality, and procreation to the family, society, the State, the economy, religious institutions, and cultural practices.

But does Foucault’s writing amount to a theory of politics? Furthermore, if The History of Sexuality is indeed political theory, does it qualify as theory that can rightfully be deemed “radical?” My answer to both of these questions is yes.

I aim to defend Foucault’s writing as radical political theory, and to argue that any theoretical writing that asserts itself to be so, or is itself asserted to be so, must necessarily include discussions of sex and sexuality as imperative to the understanding of both the origins of society and of the individual, as well as an analysis of how sex, morality, history, and power have influenced and shaped one another.

According to Karl Marx, “[t]o be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself.” (The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 60) Thus, any theoretical writing purported or purporting to be radical is necessarily writing that is focused on explaining what brought about the existence of a man as an individual himself, or of men as a group themselves, in the first place.

Any theoretical writing claimed or claiming to be political is writing that is focused on explaining the origins of either the State, government, the rule of law, the use of force and enforcement; techniques, methods, and mechanisms of exercising power and control; the propagation of moral standards and norms, all six of these, or any combination thereof.

Therefore, theoretical writing that is both radical and political is writing that attempts to explain and / or provide evidence for relationships of the State, legislation, power, and force, to the origins of a man as an individual, and to the origins of men as components of, and actors within, society.

What is meant by “the origins of a man as an individual” is that radical political theory must explain the relationships of the State, power, force, and compulsion, to that original act which brings about the production of a man as an individual; i.e., sexual intercourse.

This is to say that the writing must include a discussion of how the natural and biological conditions which surround sex, sexuality, and sexual reproduction shape and are shaped by them, and of how those conditions relate to the need for order and security. 

What is meant by “the origins of men as components of, and actors within, society” is that radical political theory must explain the relationships of the State, power, force, and compulsion to whichever event or process brought about the production of men or of mankind as a group; i.e., the advent of society.

This is to say that the writing must include a discussion of how the societal, moral / ethical, religious, and cultural customary conditions which surround sex, sexuality, and procreation affect them and are in turn affected by them, and of how those conditions relate to the necessity and dependence that make it appropriate and beneficial for men to become associated with one another.

Does Foucault do this, then, with his writing? I shall first demonstrate that his writing discusses the relationship of the State, force, compulsion, and regulation to sexual intercourse and reproduction. 

On page 24, Foucault claims that “one had to speak of [sex] as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into all systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum. Sex was… a thing one administered [, and] called for management procedures… In the eighteenth century, sex became a ‘police’ matter… not the repression of disorder, but an ordered maximization of collective and individual forces… A policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses.”

On pages 37-38, Foucault says that “[u]p to the end of the eighteenth century, three major explicit codes – apart from the customary regularities and constraints of opinion – governed sexual practices: canonical law, the Christian pastoral, and civil law… They were all centered on [the marital relation, which] was under constant surveillance: if it was found to be lacking, it had to come forward and plead its case before a witness…. [the courts] could condemn homosexuality as well as infidelity, marriage without parental consent, or bestiality. What was taken into account in the civil and religious jurisdictions alike was a general unlawfulness. [A]cts ‘contrary to nature’… were perceived simply as an extreme form of acts ‘against the law’; they were infringements of decrees which were just as sacred as those of marriage, and which has been established for governing the order of things and the plan of beings. Prohibitions bearing on sex were essentially of a juridical nature.”

On page 83, Foucault writes “[p]ower is essentially what dictates its law to sex… power prescribes an ‘order’ for sex… sex is to be deciphered on the basis of its relation to the law… power acts by laying down the rule… [t]he pure form of power resides in the function of the legislator; and its mode of action with regard to sex is of a juridico-discursive character.”

Whether Foucault is correct or incorrect, and whether he uses evidence and examples that are either strong or weak, he does at least attempt to show that there existed a relationship between law and the courts and sexual practices, which fulfills the first requirement of my definition of radical political theory; that the writing must at least attempt to verify that there have existed legal practices that, in one way or another, have acted upon and affected the free exercise of sexual practices.

Next, I will demonstrate that Foucault’s writing discusses the relationship of natural and biological conditions to the need for order and security.

On pages 25-26, Foucault writes about “the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem”. “[P]opulation as wealth,… as manpower or labor capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded. Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a ‘people,’ but with a ‘population,’ with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation. All these variables were situated at the point where the characteristic movements of life and the specific effects of institutions intersected… At the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birth-rate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile, the effects of unmarried life or of the prohibitions, the impact of contraceptive practices…”

On page 140, Foucault says that “[d]uring the classical period… there was… the emergence, in the field of political practices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of ‘bio-power.’”

The quotations in the two preceding paragraphs prove that Foucault is concerned with arguing that governments perceived that sex and population were problems related to politics and economics, and that the understanding of how natural and biological factors such as those mentioned above affect the ability of governments to deal with their subjects in such a way that allows for the provision of security and order for the populace as they relate to favorable allocations of wealth and resources. This means that Foucault’s writing fulfills the second part of my definition of “radical political theory.”

Next, I will show that Foucault’s writing includes a treatment of the relationship of politics, force, and compulsion to that which makes associates of men.

On pages 142-143, Foucault says “biological existence was reflected in political existence… Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings… If one can apply the term bio-history to the pressures through which the movements of life and the processes of history interfere with one another, one would have to speak of bio-power to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life… [the] ‘threshold of modernity’ has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on  its own political strategies…  modern man is an  animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”

The preceding quotation shows that Foucault claims a direct relationship between the advent of “modern man” and the beginning of politics, which means that his writing fulfills the third requirement of what constitutes a theoretical work that is both radical and political.

Next, I will show that Foucault’s writing asserts that sex and reproduction are affected religious, moral / ethical, and customary conditions.

There is certainly no shortage of evidence to support the claim that Foucault shows that religious and moral / ethical conditions have affected sex, sexuality, and reproduction. On page 37, Foucault explains that many laws and norms governing sex and sexuality arose out of the need to protect the sanctioned, procreative sexuality that exists within traditional marriage, which may be conceived of as a moral / ethical, religious, or legal / civil status, practice, or institution.

Perhaps the best-known example of religion acting upon sexual mores is the prohibition of adultery by the Sixth Commandment, of which Foucault makes mention on page 39. On page 9, he discusses sex and sexuality as “sin”, and lists on page 39 several “grave sins” such as “debauchery…, rape, spiritual or carnal incest… sodomy, or the mutual ‘caress.’”

On page 159, he says that Christianity employed procedures “to make us detest the body.” On page 19, in discussing the Counter Reformation, Foucault says that the “new pastoral” meant that the flesh would be made into the “root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings – so difficult to perceive and formulate – of desire.” On pages 4-5, he says that “modern Puritanism imposed [on sex]… taboo, nonexistence, and silence.”

Foucault also shows that conditions related to customs but not necessarily related to ethics, morality, religion, or spirituality, have affected sex. On page 61, he says that “[i]n [ancient] Greece, truth and sex were linked, in the form of pedagogy, by the transmission of a precious knowledge from one body to another; sex served as a medium for initiations into learning.” He also mentions, on page 57, that numerous societies, the list of which transcends religious and cultural boundaries, “endowed themselves with an… erotic art [in which] truth is drawn from pleasure itself… [the] knowledge [of which] must be deflected back into the sexual practice itself”.

The quotes in the previous several paragraphs show that Foucault attempts to make his readers aware of how sexual practices have been affected by ethics, morality, religion, and cultural customs; not only that such practices have been limited, controlled, or interfered with, as is often the case, but also, as in the case of the ancient Greeks, have occasionally been endorsed and sanctioned as well. These quotes fulfill my fourth requirement for “radical political theory.”

Finally, I will show that Foucault alleges a relationship between customary cultural conditions and the necessity and dependence that bring about the association of men. 

On page 135, Foucault describes the Roman cultural custom “patria potestas,” by which the male head of the family had the “right to ‘dispose’ of the life of his children and his slaves; just as he had given them life, so he could take it away.” Soon after, he discusses the custom’s application to the sovereign. Foucault goes on to say on page 136 that “[t]his death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life.”

On  page  137,  he further  expounds that  “[w]ars are  no longer  waged  in the  name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital… the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence… that one has to be capable of killing in order to go on living… has become the principle that defines the strategy of states… If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.”

The quotations in the two preceding paragraphs, all coming from The History of Sexuality’s chapter “Right of Death and Power Over Life,” show that Foucault has alleged the existence of a relationship between the patria potestas custom, the right of the sovereign, the use of mobilizing subjects for war and slaughter “in the name of life necessity.” This fulfills the fifth and last of my requirements for radical political theoretical writing, which is that a link must be made between cultural practices and biological necessity.

Throughout The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault touches on political themes such as the State, the sovereign, the courts, legal codes, religious / ethical / moral codes, and war. Also, he touches on radical themes such as the origins of man as a political animal, and sex as it relates to biology and to survival.

There should remain no doubt as to whether this work by Foucault amounts to a theory of radical politics.  It deals with the origins of a man as an individual, and of men as a collection of individuals coming together to associate.

What his writing seemed to lack, however, although the absence of which in no way would have detracted from the validity of my claim, was a discussion of the origins of the division of labor, as in Karl Marx’s The German Ideology. Had Foucault focused more on the differences between the genders as something which gave order to the structure of human development, and / or had he given more thought to how the course of human progress has been affected by the differences in the abilities of members of each gender to perform certain actions, it perhaps would have been easier to defend his writing as of a radical and political nature.

For more entries on gender, sexuality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues, please visit:

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