Foucault's Attack on Sex-Desire

By McWhorter, Ladelle | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Foucault's Attack on Sex-Desire


McWhorter, Ladelle, Philosophy Today


At the end of The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Michel Foucault writes, "The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures."1 This assertion has two parts-a rejection of desire and an affirmation of bodies and pleasures as rallying points for radical politics; most readers ignore the first while rejecting the second. Recently, though, Elizabeth Grosz has addressed both parts of Foucault's assertion in a way that focuses the issues I will address here. After quoting the statement quoted above, Grosz writes:

It is unclear to me what this could possibly mean: is it that bodies and pleasures are somehow outside the deployment of sexuality? Or are they neuralgic points within the deployment of sexuality that may be strategically useful in any challenge to the current nexus of desire-knowledge-power? Why are bodies and pleasures a source of subversion in a way that sex and desire are not?2

Grosz's questions point to the heart of Foucault's work and suggest the direction in which an answer lies, the direction Foucault in fact takes: There are significant genealogical and therefore strategic differences between desire on the one hand and bodies and pleasures on the other. I will explicate the differences and argue that Foucault is right to assert the strategic superiority of bodies and pleasures above desire-not because bodies and pleasures are unproblematic but because desire is so very problematic and dangerous given its place in structures of normalization and biopower.

Foucault's death put a premature end to his sexuality series, but the volumes promised in the first book never would have materialized anyway. The later volumes that were published completely reorient the study. In those two volumes, Foucault turns to Greece and Rome and to the place of sexual practices within dietary regimes and games of self-mastery. There are many reasons for this shift, but the one Foucault articulates most clearly and simply is this:

It seemed to me that one could not very well analyze the formation and development of the experience of sexuality from the eighteenth century onward, without doing a historical and critical study dealing with desire and the desiring subject.... The idea was to investigate how individuals were led to practice, on themselves and on others, a hermeneutics of desire.... In order to understand how the modem individual could experience himself as a subject of a "sexuality," it was essential first to determine how, for centuries, Western man had been brought to recognize himself as a subject of desire.3

Here desiring subjectivity and sexual subjectivity are crucially connected. Desiring subjectivity is one historical condition for sexual subjectivity's emergence, and sexual subjectivity, developing within networks of biopower, serves as both an anchor for sexuality's deployment and an intersection between biopower and truth. Deployment of sexuality in the absence of sexual subjectivity has become unimaginable.

Moreover, desire and sexuality's deployments are more than merely historically entangled, and the conditioning relation runs both ways. In current deployments, discourses of desire thoroughly permeate and are thoroughly permeated by normalizing sexual discourses. Thus, sexual subjectivity and desiring subjectivity are now likewise inextricable. This mutual reinforcement between desire and sexuality will be taken up again momentarily. First, however, to provide some grounding for claims I will later make, I will reconstruct Foucault's genealogy of "desiring man."

In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault describes a way of being human that did not include an experience of being, fundamentally, a subject of desire. For the elite of classical Greece, desire was merely one element in a dynamic ensemble that also included pleasure and act. These three were inseparable and equally important. …

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