Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

90: Michel Foucault XII:
The Repressive Hypothesis

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

The Incitement to Discourse

In his essay “The Repressive Hypothesis,” Michel Foucault considers the facts about the notion that the 18th century experienced a sexual repression. While it is true that vulgar (which traditionally meant merely common) language became more illicit and regulated to a very few specific domains of life it is not true that sex or sexual discourse (sexuality) was repressed – in fact there was a huge incitement to discourse and the creation of many new discourses of sex in the 18th century.

Prior to the 18th century what we today would call sexually vulgar talk was literally common sexual talk. Even in church: for “the confession to be complete: description of the respective positions of the partners, the postures assumed, gestures, places touched, caresses, the precise moment of pleasure – an entire painstaking review of the sexual act in its very unfolding [was needed].” But as the counter-reformation demanded more frequent confession they tried to impose more meticulous rules of self-examination and penance. This required an expansion of the causes of sin “to all the insinuations of the flesh: thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations,… shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings….” Confession was constant; the vulgar talk (now with its pejorative sense) was expunged from the common. “Beneath the surface of the sins, it [discourse] lay bare the unbroken nervure of the flesh.” So the common centuries old incitement to talk about sex carried on through the expunction and relegation of vulgarity and the multiplication of discourses.

Foucault give the top five techniques of how vulgar speech was relegated by new discourses: “First there was medicine, via the ‘nervous disorders’; next psychiatry, when it set out to discover the etiology of mental illnesses…when it annexed the whole of the sexual perversions as its own province; criminal justice, too, which had long been concerned with sexuality…and…all those social controls….” But most importantly was the technique of the “public interest” needing to take sex into account for the betterment of all. Sex became a police matter. Consider examples: 1) the population (as seen last session) had to be kept clean, disease free and at an optimum number; 2) sex and children, one could no longer be explicit with children and so the “talk” was about “the birds and the bees…”; 3) the sexual practices of adolescence was indirectly spoken about in the designs of schools, the layout of dormitories, reforms, teaching techniques and exhortations that served to fight the pandemic universal sin that starts in youth: masturbation.

All these instances “radiated discourses aimed at sex, intensifying people’s awareness of it as a constant danger, and this in turn created a further incentive to talk about it.” The new discourses did not work against power but at power’s behest starting with the Christian confessional (in which a sin of the flesh needed to be exposed, confessed and forgiven) and expanding right along with all the expansions of knowledge/power relations in which the unknown secrets of sex needed to be identified, studied and administered. “What is peculiar to modern societies,…is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.”

The Perverse Implantation

Up until the 18th century three codes of law governed sexual practice: canonical law, the Christian pastoral, and civil law. They proscribed what was allowed and what was not allowed and they were entirely centered on the duties, rights and responsibilities of the participants of Christian marriage. Prohibitions based on sex, breaking of the rules of marriage or seeking strange pleasures where all juridical violations punishable only to the degree that they hindered the goals of a Christian family: procreation.

“The discursive explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused this system centered on legitimate alliance to undergo two modifications. First a centrifugal movement with respect to heterosexual monogamy.” The legally privileged case of the heterosexual marriage became the norm to which all the new discourses compared and judged all other relations. Where previously all aberrations were frowned upon, viewed as sin (i.e. ordering things differently than God willed) but tolerated as temporary, redeemable and forgivable, the new discourses gave the heterosexual couple more discretion as they trumpeted all the other figures and practices that had been barely been mentioned before.

The second modification to the established law of marriage was the “setting apart of the ‘unnatural’ as a specific dimension in the field of sexuality. This kind of activity assumed an autonomy with regard to the other condemned forms such as adultery or rape.” This autonomy moved the moral judgment on to the person rather than the action.

The appearance of these “new” sexualities did not exactly help or hinder the repressive hypothesis: on the one hand one could say the proliferation of sexualities repressed us less; on the other one could say that the increase in controls, judgments and examination institutions repressed us more. Foucault shifts his attention to the “form of power that was exercised…and that it involved four operations quite different from simple prohibition.” First, consider the deployment of vast resources of power on operations trying to end sexual misconduct (either criminal or moral) and their total failure. Could such attempts to stop ever really have been thought to be successful? The vice is not to be stamped out rather it is the support of an advancement of power which needs the vice and its expansion and multiplication in order to expand and multiply power. What better ostensive target power than one which cannot be stamped out. Second, the creation of new personages based on sexuality. By creating the modern homosexual power created a species of people that can then be classified, studied, controlled and given a permanent reality. Third, with prohibition comes duping delight; a pleasure in the prohibition; the successful subversion of power’s controls: a game of cat and mouse played by all against all as people switch from the enforcer to the evader. Today Scandal comes from and is defined by hypocrisy. Fourth, the delineating of acceptable and unacceptable sexual contact between parent-child, teacher-student, doctor-patient, warden-prisoner etc. where before there was much less if any delineation marks the last operation of power.

The western world has not created any new pleasures or acts of sex but it has created probably the most intricate set of rules and norms for sexual behavior and discourse. In this sense the 18th and 19th centuries were not repressive.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren