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Does Foucault Have an Argument?

Does Foucault Have an Argument?

February 28, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled "
The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

I was quite impressed with David L. Potts’s review of Foucault, as I was impressed with the criticisms he raised against my own discussion of Heidegger. I think, however, that he makes a mistake--or at least is not quite clear--in his concluding comments.

David writes: “That is, [according to Foucault] the whole idea of there being an underlying sexual nature which it is important to discover is simply false; or rather, it is a 'truth' which sexuality constructed! It is after all Foucault’s whole thesis that sexuality is just that knowledge structure according to which sex is a deeply rooted and critically important aspect of 'human nature' which must be investigated, understood, and controlled. Sex therefore, as an 'underlying reality,' proceeds from sexuality, not vice versa."

I think that there is a very important distinction which David is pointing to but not fully dealing with, which is the sex/sexuality distinction. I don’t think that Foucault is committed to the claim that there is no such thing as an intrinsic sexual nature; he doesn’t have to say that our biology has been true only for the last hundred years or so. (David, who has read more Foucault, may be able to decisively disprove this.) Rather, I understood his claim to be that the *relevance* of sex to human nature is culturally determined. For instance, we can acknowledge the anatomy and physiology of sex, but this by no means commits us to, say, Rand’s view of the nature of sex as metaphysical celebration. The latter is a view about sex which creates a sexuality, the former some facts about sex. It’s the latter kinds of views which are interesting, and that’s why Foucault puts all his effort into understanding them. The former are totally boring on their own. The only reason we think otherwise (Foucault might say) is that we’re in a culture which blah-blah (where blah-blah is our culture’s views on sex, whatever they might be).

Or, to put it another way. There are no relations of power intrinsic to physical sex. Any such relations are totally made-up, invented, arbitrary impositions on the body. (Down with the radical feminist idea that all-sex-is-rape and all-men-are-rapists. And with Rand’s that femininity is man-worship.) But we live in a culture where there are important power relations which have to do with sex: men dominate women, parents dominate children, straights dominate gays, and science (doctors and psychoanalysts) dominates everybody. Now, given these relations of power, and given that they don’t spring straight out of sexual anatomy, what is it that we’ve done so that these relations of power can exist and even seem natural? We’ve imposed a pile of discourse on sex, and the history of these discourses is the history of sexuality.

David L. Potts wrote:

I don’t think I disagree at all with the basic thrust of what Bryan is saying, especially his “bottom line” (literally): “We’ve [according to Foucault] imposed a pile of discourse on sex, and the history of these discourses is the history of sexuality.”

Moreover, I think Bryan and I both agree that by “sexuality” here Foucault means our theorizing, our multifarious “discourses,” about sex and its meaning and consequences. But I don’t think Foucault means by “sex” in most of the passage I was discussing (History of Sexuality: An Introduction 152-7) just the bare anatomical facts about sex. The potential criticism Foucault is trying to answer is that in theorizing about how mechanisms of power induced the invention of “sexuality,” he is “pass[ing] over the thing on the basis of which this sexualization was able to develop... for [Foucault], there remain only groundless effects, ramifications without roots, a sexuality without a sex” (151).

Foucault then proceeds to distinguish two ways this criticism can be taken, corresponding to two ways of understanding what is meant by “sex.” In the first, “sex” refers to “the body, anatomy, the biological, the functional” (151). This is Bryan’s “totally boring” “anatomy and physiology of sex,” and Foucault asserts that he is happy to acknowledge the body and its functions as being intimately connected with “the deployments of power” (151). This occupies all of a single paragraph, however.

For the remaining six pages of this passage, Foucault considers the second sense in which “sex” might be meant: “that agency which appears to dominate us and that secret which seems to underlie all that we are...” (155). I.e., what I called in my essay “our underlying sexual nature,” a complex of psychological (including social psychological) and physiological processes that drive such things as our sexual orientation, the strength of our desires and their particular objects, our fantasy lives, our goals in romantic relationships, the characteristic patterns of sexual development in childhood--and which is real as opposed to a “construction.” It is this sense of sex that Foucault spends six pages saying is merely a mirage which the power strategies of “sexuality” have taught us to believe in.

So this would be my first point: Foucault is telling us in this passage, what he tells us repeatedly in HSI (see also for example 70), that delving into underlying nature is not where the action is. It’s in the surface, in the social world and in discourse, that reality is constructed; it’s therefore the discourses we should investigate, not the world.

Second, on neither of Foucault’s interpretations of his challenge does he grapple with the key problem he tantalized us with, viz., whether in concentrating on “sexuality” as a social construction he is ignoring unconstructed nature. This is the question a poor old plodding believer in objectivity like myself would like to see taken seriously. But at least in this passage Foucault doesn’t, nor in any other I’ve seen.

David L. Potts wrote:  

Regarding Bryan's comment that: “I don’t think that Foucault is committed to the claim that there is no such thing as an intrinsic sexual nature; he doesn’t have to say that our biology has been true only for the last hundred years or so.”  

I want to say something further. (I take Bryan’s comment only as a launching point, by the way; I’m not at all sure he would disagree with what follows.)  

I think that for Foucault all truth is a “production” (HSI 60), including truths about basic empirical facts. First, there is direct textual support for this. In the Preface to The Order of Things, he argues that a priori categories are determining of the empirical order, since it is only through them that the empirical order exists (OT xix-xx). Again, he argues that the “episteme” of knowledge for a given society at a given epoch, which is a socially constructed mode of being of order per se, is an a priori foundation from which we can criticize, neutralize, and correct the empirical order (OT xx-xxi).  

Moreover, that facts, even brute empirical ones, are subordinate to “epistemes,” is a claim to which Foucault’s program commits him willy nilly. For the heart of his program is that epistemes are historical constructs, which determine the ground rules of reason and knowledge for each social epoch, and which therefore cannot be evaluated by reason. What then can Foucault say to somebody who suggests that, for example, we might rationally compare the knowledge of the classical and modern epochs in Western Europe by comparing their empirical success? He will say that epistemes determine the empirical, so the empirical is not comparable across epistemes. He has to say that. For, if we do have access to empirical facts independent of epistemes, he has no satisfactory answer at all.  

Now, when it comes to “sexuality,” which is abstract and controversial, versus the anatomical facts about sex, which are “totally boring,” I quite agree that Foucault was not claiming that, with the invention of sexuality, people suddenly saw the anatomical facts in ways contradictory to how they previously saw them. But, first, that does not mean he wouldn’t say, if push came to shove, that there are no facts about sex, even anatomical ones. On the other hand, second, isn’t it interesting that he does not see great differences in the anatomical facts, given such an extreme change in knowledge at the abstract level? Sexuality is an elaborate construction of “power-knowledge” with huge social consequences, yet no empirical consequences? Why then didn’t Ockham’s razor shave “sexuality” down to size long ago? In truth, it seems, the lack of empirical consequences of Foucault’s thesis that sexuality was an invention of the early nineteenth century, is a serious embarrassment to that thesis.  

David L. Potts wrote:  

Simon Blackburn, in his entry for “Foucault” in his dictionary of philosophy, remarks apropos of Foucault’s penchant for “relations of power,” the lurid, the sadistic, etc., that this has caused some people to say he replaces the traditional distinction between subject and object with that between subject and abject.  

Bryan Register
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Bryan Register
History of Philosophy