on January 10, 2004
This book can be seen as a perfect example of a brilliant mind at work. Foucault surely considered this book as an introductory piece, a draft of brilliantly posed ideas and problems about sexuality as a dispositive, not in the traditional sense of the word that we have all become so acquainted with. This book works in many respects: Foucault succesfully makes his case for an open refusal of the "repressive hypothesis", explaining in a very precise manner why the discourse on sexuality in the XVIII and XIX centuries, far from being shy about it, positively promoted discussion... what he calls a "discoursive explosion". Foucault quite brilliantly introduces the two ways in which sexuality has come to be assumed by the human race: as an art (in ancient Greece) and as a science (in our present era). He also develops his own ideas (ideas that also appear in his courses at the Collège de France, particularly "Society Must Be Defended") about bio-power, disciplinary societies and biopolitical regimes. He successfully questions the fact that we have come to place sex under a veil of secrecy which must be undone... how sex has become the key to our personality, our "identity".
The last verses of the book are revealing: how is it that we still consider sex to be liberating when in reality we are always under its gaze, when it really has become a burden to be dealt with?
This book is astounding. Maybe not as brilliant as "Discipline and Punish" (which says a LOT about Foucault's creative nature)but certainly a key text toward understanding the problems Foucault tackled in final years of his life.
Note: the last two volumes of the History of Sexuality display a shift of focus and a leap back in "history"... you'll have to read the introduction to volume 2, "The Use Of Pleasure", to see what I mean. Still, it all makes sense if you dig deeper into the final developments of Foucault's work.
on October 17, 2001
In "The History of Sexuality", Foucault enlightens us with sexuality as a tribute benefiting from knowledge and power. Sexuality before the 18th century, was in a sense, located in the body and the flesh. There was no established fetish. Sex had not come under the scrutiny of science (psychoanalysis). Sex was just sex; for procreation and physical enjoyment. When the confessionals started to become a ritual in religion we see a shift or rupture in history. Priests in the middle ages became concerned with what people did sexually. It was the confession that would free, but it was the power that reduced an individual to silence. Thus the titillating game began and repeated and repeated. Freud and his psychoanalysis came along, which defined and categorized sexuality and its dysfunctions. Psychoanalysis became a scientific confessional. Thus society has become a singularly confessing society; Western man has become a confessing animal. Foucault then begins to posit anchorage points in institutions such as in the home; anchorage points which standardizes roles of family classification. It's roughly 160 pages long and readable. This was probably my favorite of Foucault's work.
on May 4, 2000
It would be easy to consider this book part and parcel of the literature on sexuality but that would be very reductive. In the Will to Knowledge, sexuality is a mere example of Foucault's archeology of knowledge. It is the new bourgoise pre-empting the inevitable by engendering sexuality as a field of knowledge only to regulate, discipline and control the manner in which it is consumed, talked about and propagated. Sexuality was not silenced nor repressed, it was invented in the Victorian era along with new rationalities pertaining to it. Compared with the second volume of the history of sexuality, "the use of pleasure", it is easy to decipher the problematization of sexuality that occured in the 19th century concering sexual idenitites, queerness, gender and conseuqntly the whole social fiber. Foucault once again lends credence to the power of discourse to color reality almost irreversibly.
on October 11, 2003
This text is perhaps Foucault's most well-known, although it might not be his best. It is an important work, so if you are at all interested in sex as an abstract and organizing principle, this is a must-read. (Note: it is not a history in the proper sense of the term). While not a terribly confusing book, it is WIDELY misunderstood, including by many of the reviewers. First off, do not make the mistake of reading the first section as Foucault's thesis (it may seem that way)--he is presenting the common approach to the issue, one that he will eventually CHALLENGE. "Sex" was never repressed--on the contrary, there has been an explosion of discourses, a productive manifestation of power. Foucault admits that this was partially organized through technologies of confession, normalization, etc.-BUT THAT IS NOT THE MAIN THRUST. The main idea of the text is that there is no commanding, Platonic principle "sex" that we must uncover or saturate ourselves with, and hence, while prudery seems suspect, liberation through "sex" or "sex-desire" is entirely nonsensical, since sex is subordinate to sexuality and not vica-versa. Foucault, with much uncertainty, thereby envisions a different economy of bodies and pleasures, more like the ars erotica, that focuses on the local and individual, with all their multiple possibilities for deeper value and communication. Hence, depite what people make of Foucault's life, this book is more "conservative" that one would imagine... It is ideal for anyone who wants to free themselves from either a deep-rooted fear of sex or the incessant demands sex makes from on high (from the media, etc.) To Foucault, the idea that sex is seen as a requirement for one's deepest sense of being is absurd (and almost comical). A fascinating exploration which you might have to read twice, the History of Sexuality demonstrates Foucault's otherwordly insight. Do not fall into the traps I mentioned--Foucault's purpose here is not to free sex from all controls, but merely from one in particular--the reader is given the freedom to reflect and counter it with a more positive and meaningful grasp of his own sexuality and sexual experience.
on September 1, 2003
This is part one in Foucault's three part series on Sexuality. It doesn't have the gripping opening few pages that Discipline and Punish has (quite possibly the most engrossing beginning of any book I have ever read), but it still grabs you. What this volume does have is amazing clarity in the ideas that he presents. The general idea is that society controls sex through how it talks about it and organizes it (this is pretty much the idea in all of Foucault's works) and Foucault examines this power structure of society. How marriage controls sexuality, why there has been such a veritable explosion of discussion about sex in the West since the seventeenth century, why do we believe that talking about sex will make us less repressed about it, etc. Foucault addresses many questions in this work.
I did have some problems with it, however. I'll only mention one or two here. In the closing chapter of the book Foucault discusses the Right of Death and Power over Life. He begins by talking about the Right of the Sovereign to compel to war (Foucault is very anti-War) and how it has changed from wars being waged to protect a sovereign to wars being waged to protect people and ideals and an entire nation. We have this line: "In any case, in its modern form - relative and limited - as in its ancient and absolute form, the right of life and death is a dissymmetrical one. The sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing; he evidenced his power over life only through the death he was capable of requiring (emphasis added). I'm not sure I agree with this statement. Nor am I convinced that history does - and Foucault offers neither text nor argument to support this. He expects us to take it as fact. Gone are theories of divine right and other power structures invoked by sovereign's (taxes, services, "For England", or "For France"). Patriotism isn't only a modern day invention. Joan of Arc drove the English out of France so that France could be it's own nation again. "Power in this instance was essentially right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it." The implication is that "Power" has changed (and it has) so that now society (through it's mechanism of discussion and examination) has power even when the "right of seizure" isn't enforceable - or doesn't exist. These themes tend to come out over the course of reading several of Foucault's books, but never does M. Foucault state them so precisely and with such clarity as he does in this volume.
on August 10, 2003
Unlike the previous reviewers, I am not ashamed to submit my thoughts about this critical work.
Foucault deserves much credit for addressing the underlying operations in the discourse of sex. He emphasizes that power is ever-present in the mechanics of sex, and goes on to explain how sex is more than an act, or an identity, or a gender-class.
Foucault suggests that sex is "a problem of truth" (pp.56). He delves into the context in which truth is experienced and produced, so that when we discuss the experience of the sexual sphere, we are contending with an experience of truth made valid by the exposition of our own fears. These fears have been programmed into our social bodies by the powers that thrive on oppression, discrimination, and subject anihilation.
Ultimately, this volume carries the power to illuminate the conditions around the experience of truth in action. In our nudity, we bear no cover for our own self-deprication, self-martyrdom; an arrogant body peeled from its social cell now free to learn new conversations of truth and meaning...all through the experience of sex.
Fascinating and illuminating, this work paves the way for questions like: If through the naked encounter we proclaim an awareness of truth, we internalize the desire to validate our selves, then what does the introduction of web-cams and internet porn offer, or challenge, this relationship of power, truth and the recognition of meaning?
on April 9, 2002
Foucault's writing is never very straight forward or easy to decipher, but this book contains his most readable material. At least this is true for the first half of the book. This is not to say the second half is worthless. On the contrary the second half is where is most interesting ideas lie, such as "biopower" and turning Bacon's idea of "Knowledge is Power" and its head and stating that power is actually knowledge. But I recommend that this be read in a class with a teacher that understands Foucault.
The main fault I have with this piece of writing is that I am not sure what his true objective is in writing the book. While there is a chapter titled "Objective" Foucault is never that straight forward. I understood his argument but I never understood what that argument lead to. If all he says in the book is right then what should we do. Foucault explains that we have been looking at power and sex all wrong for all these years. But when he shows his reader how to look at power and sex he never tells his reader what to do now. What needs to be changed with our society? What were we doing wrong besides looking at power and sex incorrectly? These are questions I felt went unanswered, at least to my standards. But this is definitively something a sociologist or anyone interested in sexual history should read. It is not an easy read but it is worth the effort.
on June 19, 1999
Foucault has an extraordinary Nietzchean ability to dismentle accepted ideas and raise new paradoxes. The irony he poses: the more we cultivate individuality and pursue personal freedom, the more hopelessly entangled we become in the menacing net of science and "bio-power." Is Foucault truly unique, or is he being clever; is he a thinker or simply an iconoclast? It's for you to determine. A very interesting book.
on September 25, 1999
Tough and complicated, but insightful and original. Filled with examples and historical facts, Foucault places sexuality in a light that is both riveting and thougth provoking. In all honesty, this is a tough read that is mostly geared for the graduate or postdoctorate level. The words are simple, but Foucault's language insists on interpretation and explanation. Have a good Foucault interpreter near you as you swamp through his vast world of literary theory.
on March 25, 2001
There is no doubt in my mind that Foucault is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and without a doubt among the most influential. His philosophical inquiry into material history of systems and their construction/perpetuation has revolutionized the way in which we see the world around us and has led to fruitful and fascinating inquiries in the field of cultural studies.
No volume articulates Foucault's ideas with greater clarity than this first volume of his history of sexuality. More a manifesto than a true history, Foucault outlines with astonishing deftness the ways in which our perceptions are molded by systems of knowledge and power. These systems, which he describes as "intentional but non-subjective" (in other words, having a purpose and goal, but not directed by any guiding intelligence) are like natural forces that shape and mold our understanding of the world while they perpetuate themselves. His analysis of the formulation of ideas of sexuality in the 18th and 19th centuries illustrates his argument both forcefully and clearly. Readers may, by the way, want to compare Foucault's ideas with Louis Althusser's in his essay on the Industrial State Apparatus in his collection "Lenin and Philosophy," which provides a similarly materialists, but more politically Marxist, view of how subjectivity is constructed and limited by existing modes of power.