feminist studies, feminist theory, history, history of sexuality, lgbtq, philosophy, political theory, queer history, queer studies, science and technology, Uncategorized, women and gender studies

Book Review: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1 (New York, Vintage Books, 1990), Pp.169.


One of the most influential scholars in gender theory and history is Micheal Foucault. Not only does Foucault speak to ideas of resistant but also to the making of nation-states regimes. In this way, Foucault is interested in documenting legacy of medical body politics, knowledge-production, and discourse of the bodies and their taxonomy in history. Foucault thesis states, “I would like to…search instead for instances of discursive production,” “of the production of power,” “of the propagation of knowledge…I would like to write the history of these instances and their transformations” (12). Individuals become tied to discourse. Discourse then is the main taproot of how bodies and their identities get created for Foucault. Thus, the nation uses these discourses to produce a norm and to create its subjects.

Foucault specifically speaks to sex and sexuality in this narrative; addressing power through tracing the chronicling of  sex throughout the emersion and aggrandizement of societies. Foucault’s literary project in this book is to discuss the arenas of power and not only how power is used but also where it is coming from. For Foucault, power is not a repressed or muted entity. Power for Foucault is through the vocal and expressive. Foucault states, “the central issue, then…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about” (11). This is fundamental to Foucault’s argument on power and thus sex. The importance of this, is in refuting the repressive hypothesis by Freud, and then moving forward looking/locating power from a different axis point. Foucault goes on to say, “to discover who does the speaking, the position and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said” (11).  Again the significance placed not only on what is being, how its being said, but also on what come of it—ideology. This ideology begins to differentiate category and hierarchy.

Ideology, producing power, is the main theoretical investigation Foucault sets out to discover. Foucault clearly explains the realms in which power is mediated in, then what and how power is mobilized. Foucault states, “a transformation into discourse, a technology of power, and a will to knowledge…” (12). This explanation Foucault gives is insightful and pushes the critique of power further. Foucault uses a specific example of a “technology of power” which he arraigns as the confession. Foucault addresses this “technology of power” by stating, “for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret: I have in mind the confession” (58). This being another central idea that Foucault presents is knows as the “knowledge-power” ideology. This “knowledge-power”  idea questions the ways power works to control through individuals through spoken words, categorization, and then the production of knowledge that is derived from linguistic expressions. Foucault uses sexuality to present a critical analysis of power, as well as a historical reverberation, that can be woven in and out of time and spaces to demonstrate the power of construction of bodies.

It is imperative to rely heavily on the text in understanding the articulation of “knowledge-power” given by Foucault. Foucault elucidates his prime example, the confession, and how power is dispersed through the immersion of terminology, that gets spoken and then transformed. Foucault states, “the confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship…the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile…” (61-62). Foucault highlights how power relations are not only determined but then reappear.  Foucault states, “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (93). Within this sphere, the confession serves as a space where the speaking and the spoken swirl into a production of power through the construction and manufacturing of “truths.” This objectification, categorization, and simplification of bodies and their experience through articulation is the very point Foucault points out in moving into the calling into consciousness—sexuality.  

Foucault also proposes an unveiling into the acknowledgment of power through sexuality by stating, “the history of sexuality—that is, the history of what functioned in the nineteenth century as a s specific field of truth—must first be written from the viewpoint of a history of discourses” (69). Keeping this in mind one can now consider why and how Foucault uses sexuality to bring a rich and robust analysis of power to the forefront.

Turning back the hand of time, Foucault looks into the past for evidence of power stating, “power mechanisms are, at least in part, those that, beginning in the eighteenth century, took charge of men’s existence, men as living bodies…methods of power whose operations is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization” (89). A direct linkage to forms of power and domination is in the normalization of bodies and interpretations of acts. Again pointing out and falling back to the example Foucault uses, the confession, to really showcase that operation. Before one looks to the counterattack or if there is any agency in these matters it is important to point out once more, to make sure there is a clear understudying, of why again Foucault calls upon sex in the analysis of power. Foucault states, “sexuality…it appears rather as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” (103). Again, Foucault allows for an opening of understanding into a form of power. Foucault points out the apertures in these power relations stating,“where there is power there is resistance” (95). It is paramount to point out Foucault’s statement about just how one can resist and recognize resistance.

In conclusion Foucault distinctly leaves the reader with a few answers on  general question about resistance. Foucault answers questions about resistance drawing on the importance of social construction and historical underpinnings. Foucault states: “sexuality is a very real historical formation, it is what gave rise to the notion of sex…The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasure (157).” This important articulations offer a new way at looking at the history of sex, deconstruction of bodies and their domination through sex and sexuality history. In conclusion,  Foucault touches upon the history of control, in critiquing  bodies politics, through gaining knowledge of acts that people do and the categorization of these acts. Foucault’s  history of sexuality becomes a road map in discussing not only how sex is used for building of empires but how race and gender get deployed as well in the making of the nation-state. I would most definitely recommend this monograph to academics, philosophers, and historians!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s