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The publication of Michel Foucault’s first volume of the The History of Sexuality thoroughly transformed theoretical thinking around sexuality (1990). With this book, Foucault provides a history of sexuality ”from the viewpoint of the history of discourses.” Foucault’s concept of discourse is intrinsically interwoven with what he perceived to be distinctively modern forms of power. Pre-modern forms of power were based on the idea of power-sovereignty or power-law. They were derived from monarchical techniques of government and drew upon the binary ruler/ruled. From within this paradigm, power is conceived as negative.
It works through measures, such as censorship, prohibition, prevention, exclusion, or spectacular forms of punishment. In contradistinction, power as a modality of discourse is positive in that it is productive of social relationships, forms of knowledge and modes of subjectivity.
In volume I of the History of Sexuality, Foucault applies this understanding of power to the subject of sexuality in order to challenge what he calls the ”repressive hypothesis.” Whereas in the traditional understanding, power is exerted to repress, silence, censor or erase sexuality, Foucault starts to conceive of sexuality as being an immediate effect of power. From this point of view, the most significant strategies of power in modern societies are not the exclusion of sexuality from discourse, but its regulation through the production of public discourses on sexuality. Foucault identifies an institutional incitement to speak about sex at the heart of modern western culture(s). It is in the multiplication of discourses on sexuality and the assumption that sex would reveal the truth of our innermost selves that the power-sexuality relation is realized. Foucault thus refutes the supposition at the heart of sexual liberationism that it is possible to revolutionize society by freeing our natural sexual selves. Foucault’s anti-essentialist arguments have been widely taken up by scholars working from within a constructionist point of view. They have further inspired the deconstructive endeavor of recent queer theorizing.
- Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction. Penguin, Harmondsworth.