Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Forget Foucault's Repressive Hypothesis!

The "repressive hypothesis" is found in Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality vol 1, in which he examines the functioning of sexuality as an "analytics of power" related to the emergence of a science of sexuality (scientia sexualis) and the emergence of biopower. For Foucault, biopower is sort of like a technology of power, which is to say, a way of exercising power encompassing various techniques into a single technology of power. The distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire popualations. It is thus essential to the emergence of the modern nation state, to modern capitalism, etc. Biopower is literally having power over other bodies, "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations"

The "repressive hypothesis" is so-called because the widespread belief that we have, particularly since the nineteenth century, "repressed" our natural sexual drives. He shows that what we think of as "repression" of sexuality actually constituted sexuality as a core feature of our identities, and produced a proliferation of discourse on the subject. This is the legacy of the Victorian age, where calling sex by its name was prohibited. The imperative of Victorian Era Christianity is this: not only will you confess to the acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse. Insofar as possible, nothing was meant to elude this dictum, even inf the words it employed had to be carefully neutralized.

We still have this highly-prolix Victorianism in our culture, and is present in our subjugation of sexuality on the level of language. It exists in the internal discourse of institution sand structures in our society. Foucault's terminology here is discourse, which is generally considered to be an institutionalized way of thinking, a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic, or, as Judith Butler puts it, "the limits of acceptable speech" - or possible truth. Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to escape discourse.

In the rest of his book he discusses all the sorts of effects one might expect from this sort of repression we have experienced in our culture, and still exists in cultural memory, repressing us still. It's the sort of puritanism that says we must tell everything, not only consummated acts, but sensual touchings, all impure gazes, all obscene remarks.

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1 comment:

miyamoto said...

Um, just to be clear: Foucault is not saying that we are trapped in some kind of repressed state. You had it right in the first paragraph: i.e., his main peeve in HS is that Western societies have been taught to view their own history through the lens of a *false* "repressive hypothesis" (as hypothesized most notably by Freud). Thus, Foucault's problem is "not that we are stuck in an inescapable "Victorian" age, it's that we have convinced ourselves of our own Victorian prudishness in the first place.

We love to talk about sex precisely because it makes us feel subversive and edgy. In Foucault's words, it "smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law." By the same token, we also love to criticize the "puritans" in our society that complained about Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Hence the central question of HS: "What paths have brought us to the point where we are 'at fault' with our own sex?"

So rest assured, Foucault's not saying that we are "puritans," he is criticizing those who call others puritans. As for your observation that "it is not possible to escape discourse"; Foucault himself proposes a "new economy of bodies and pleasures" toward the end of the book. It's true that, as "escapes" and escapisms go, Foucault's idea is no match for the Freudian unconscious...but anything's better than being "trapped" in discourse, right?