Foucault's Response to Freud: Sado-Masochism and the Aestheticization of Power

Article excerpt

Among the numerous modern theorists who have attempted to bring the insights of psychoanalysis to bear on political and social theory, Michel Foucault is one of the names that certainly comes readily to mind. But while few would see one critic as doing more than stating the obvious when he wrote that Foucault, like other leading French theorists of his generation, was "deeply affected by Marx and . . . Freud" (Said 2), most of Foucault's interpreters have had little to say about his relation to psychoanalysis and have focused almost exclusively on his contributions to historiography and social theory. The relative lack of interest in the psychoanalytic dimension and implications of Foucault's work can be explained and even justified in various ways. First, there is the fact that Foucault wrote very little that explicitly concerned Freud. Second, the little he did write on psychoanalysis was principally focused on its status as an institution and its contributions to the creation of what Foucault called "disciplinary society." In addition, Foucault's critique of the central psychoanalytic concept of repression in volume one of The History of Sexuality could be evoked to justify the view that Foucault was only peripherally or even negatively involved in a discussion of psychoanalysis.(1)

Factors such as these, however, even if they help explain the relative neglect of the psychoanalytic dimension of Foucault's work, are perhaps ultimately less important than the nature of the psychoanalytic concept that represented for Foucault the central contribution of psychoanalysis to the theory of power and of the socio-political: sado-masochism. It is true that the term sado-masochism was rarely, if ever, used by Foucault in his discussion of political power. But even if it remains implicit in his work, a concept of sado-masochism is nonetheless central to both the social and psychological dimension of Foucault's theory. In neglecting the psychoanalytic dimension of Foucault's works, his interpreters may unwittingly have confirmed the truth of what Foucault in his histories and genealogies often claimed: that the "dirty secret" of power has long been hidden from us by a form of repression or censorship as strong as or stronger than the one that relates to sexuality per se and that the deepest critical implications of his own work lie in a transgression of this other, deeper form of censorship.(2)

One aim of this essay is to bring to light and analyze critically Foucault's implicit "dialogue" with Freud, in particular that part of the dialogue that has to do with the concept of sado-masochism. In the process I shall explore the critical implications for psychoanalysis of an approach to sado-masochism that does not limit its significance by treating it as characteristic only of a particular stage of development or form of neurosis, as Freud most frequently did. What I shall try to show is the force and implications of Foucault's critique of one of the central components of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but I do not seek to test the rigor of Foucault's critique of Freud through an extended discussion and analysis of Freud's work as a whole. It may be worth noting at the start, however, that a fuller discussion of Foucault's dialogue with Freud would reveal the problematical dimension of a number of Foucault's assertions when they are confronted with the entirety of the Freudian corpus.

A second aim of this analysis relates more narrowly to Foucault's work and the psycho-social model it proposes. As I have already suggested, my approach to Foucault stems from a sense that both his critics and defenders have failed to recognize the critical impact of Foucault's concept of sado-masochism and in the process missed one of the most significant elements of his work in relation both to psychoanalytical and social theory. But I will argue as well that these same defenders and critics may have also missed what is one of the most serious limitations of his work, a limitation that becomes fully evident in Foucault's History of Sexuality. …


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