Justin Evans's Reviews > The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault
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Jun 23, 2011

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bookshelves: philosophy, history-etc
Read in June, 2011

I read this as an undergrad, and probably got nothing out of it- nothing I can remember, anyway. Coming back to it now, I was pleasantly surprised. The bad news is that the most interesting stuff in the book is exactly *not* to do with sexuality, but that most of the book is, in fact, about the history of (the discourse of) sexuality. That history is kind of tiresome: in the nineteenth century, people came up with new and inventive ways to talk about sex. Rinse and repeat for hundreds of examples of people you've never heard of.
The interesting bits are more general and more abstract: in 'objective' and 'method,' Foucault comes as close as he ever did to actually defining what he means by power, with a nice discussion of how it relates to other political theories of sovereignty. In 'Right of Death' you get some tentative steps towards the concept of bio-politics or bio-power, which people are making such a big deal about these days, and, it must be said, it's pretty intriguing.

The major and unavoidable flaw, as you may already know, is that Foucault is deeply ambivalent when it comes to the function 'power' plays in his own thought. On the one hand, he wants it to be an almost universal analytic tool: power can be productive, power is used just as much by the resistance as it is by the oppressors and so on. On the other, power is something to be negotiated around and, if not avoided, at least confronted and undermined. It's just possible that the concept is meant to split the difference between these two hands, but if so, I'm not sure how- he certainly doesn't spell out a case for it here, or in anything else of his I've read. My preference would be to give up the 'let's subvert power' aspects of his work, take him as a descriptive theorist of modernity, and look for values elsewhere: which aspects of power need to be criticized and, if possible eliminated? Which should we support? The other option leads, both in my personal experience and in theory, to a pretty silly politics of opposing Them and The Man and The Law... ad infinitum.

A special plus, as always, is that Foucault is far and away the best writer of his generation, so you can read this in a day and get pretty much everything he says; and that, despite (because of?) this, his thought is just as complex and fruitful as Deleuze or Derrida or any of the Heideggerians.
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