chapter  47
The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (Michel Foucault, 1926–1984)
Pages 4

Foucault was born into a prominent French provincial family. His father was a respected surgeon who failed to recruit him into the same profession. Early education was in a Jesuit college, which prepared him for the École Normale Supérieur, a launching platform for students in humanities. At this school, he fell into depression, sought psychiatric care, and as a side effect turned to the study of psychology. The outcome was two degrees-one in philosophy, the other in psychology. He took a doctorate in 1961 after, according to French custom, submitting a major and a secondary thesis. Possessed of a sharp, original intelligence, he taught at a string of

universities until finally elected professor at the most prestigious of them all-the Collège de France. He also lectured in Germany, Poland, Tunis, and the USA. He was politically active on behalf of homosexuals, co-founded an organization to help prison inmates make public complaints, and participated in student protests. Initially attracted to existentialism and Marxism, he soon gave up both as his way of viewing human experience and the past matured. For a couple of years he was an indifferent, skeptical member of the Communist Party. Foucault was an early victim of AIDS, which killed him: “Sex is worth dying for” (156). In a relatively short life, he became an influential French thinker and author. His ideas diffused abroad to make him one of the most frequently cited philosopher-psychologist-historian of the twentieth century. Foucault’s major works have a common aim-a critique of claims

to knowledge by means of historical knowledge. Since history has been a frequent target of skeptics, it is ironic that an arch skeptic of conscious rationality like Foucault would turn to history as his medium. Yet he is not easily pigeonholed. The usual attempts connect him with structuralism (language as a closed system of signs), post-structuralism (language creates reality), and post-modernism, labels he rejected. He also denied classification as historian, philosopher, or psychologist, thinking of himself as a mind in motion. He did confess kinship with Friedrich Nietzsche, whose idea that morals are not absolute but have a genealogy, a lineage or a history, Foucault uses in his later work. The History of Sexuality examines and rejects the “repressive

hypothesis,” which says that freedom and openness about sex in the seventeenth century retreated before a wall of negative discourses and

gave way to shame and secrecy, accompanied paradoxically by endless talk about sex:

Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said? What are the links between these discourses, effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them … The object, in short, is to define the regime of power-knowledgepleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world.