Von Guillaume Le Blanc
What do we find in a text about Christian sexuality that was to appear in 1982, then in 1984, and which will finally appear in 2018? It is strange to read this book today as it was written more than 35 years ago and completed before volumes 2 and 3 The History of sexuality . What does it mean to make us contemporaries of this decidedly out of joint book? Out of sync because it examines vanished historical material, a group of texts about Christian flesh between the 2nd and 2nd centuries AD.ndand 5theCenturies AD, also out of sync, because we readers will finally be able to access it in 2018, although the book was handed over to the editors at Gallimard in 1982 and Foucault corrected the corrections when he died in 1984. All these contextual elements are important, because the reception of today's book is inextricably linked with the state of the sexual questions, which I will return to in the second part of my lecture.
In this seminar the text is seen less as a source than as a resource, to use the words of Étienne Balibar. It's interesting not just because it's attributed to an author, but because we can use it. And even if the metaphor of the toolbox finds many critics in this seminar, it still has the merit of shifting the focus from the author to the reader and even more so from the reader to the user. Because the essential question is perhaps not to know what reading is, but to know who is reading in which context, with which goals and from the perspective of which struggles and resistances.
Foucault defined his work as a form of presenterism: in his numerous commentaries on Kant's What is Enlightenment? he stated explicitly that his main concern was the present. He saw this problem of the present appear in all its radicalism in Kant's pamphlet, together with the question of the philosopher's own affiliation to this present. All this, philosophy as problematizing a present and as a philosophical questioning of this present, to which it belongs and to which it has to take a position, could lead us to understand philosophy as a discourse of and about modernity. (What is Enlightenment ?, lecture at the Collège de France, January 5ththe, 1983).
To say what the present is made of in order to better transform it implies that the philosopher is also a kind of transcendental journalist, to use Maurice Clavel's description of Foucault, a thinker interested in the conditions of possibility in the present, and at the same time a militant who is determined to transform this present. Recall the last two questions Foucault asks in this Kant lecture: What is the nature of our present? What is the current horizon of possible experiences? And I think it's actually impossible to ask the first journalistic question without getting into the second, more militant question. We need to keep both questions in mind as we approach texts as historically distant as the ones Foucault wrote in Confessions of the flesh .
- read Confessions of the flesh
Our job today is not so much for reading Confessions of the flesh how it is read it since it just came out. But that means reading in the context of our present moment. In the first part of my presentation, this leads me to concentrate on three central thoughts that are taken from their historical origins: first, that the subject was ultimately an exclusively sexual subject; second, that the subject must tell the truth about his or her sexuality; and third, that he has to confess his sexuality within a very specific apparatus. Sexual subject, speaking the truth about oneself, and confession are the three great theoretical operations that circulate in the text. They are three effects of a technique of the self that was constructed thanks to sexuality - through which we all became confessors.
We must therefore say that sexuality is a construction, that it is by no means a mysterious access to the self beyond language or a return to nature. in the The will to know Foucault twisted the widespread notion that sex had been repressed and had to be liberated, an idea that Marcuse defended at the time in an alliance between Freud and Marx. In 1969, in his lectures in Vincennes, The Discourse of Sexuality, Foucault criticized the utopias of Marcuse and Reich, who believed that the decisive step was to move beyond capitalism in order to finally arrive at a free sexuality that is completely authentic and all sorts of new social relationships. Against this notion that man has an intrinsic nature and that sexuality has simply been supplanted by culture and productive forces, Foucault argued that sexuality never ceased to be constructed through discourse. Talking sexuality instead of silent sexuality.
So a quick read from The will to know might lead us to believe that we are living in a permissive society that invites us to bare our sexuality. To counteract this reading, Foucault shows how sexuality is organized by a whole power technology - and that it is this apparatus that gives sexuality its charm. In a radio interview from 1977, he says, I don't mean to say that sexuality is not forbidden, repressed or allowed in all its forms and under all possible conditions in our society - but where the taboo functions, for example the prohibition of incest or smooth extramarital relationships, are part of a much larger and more complex game in which one can say that the balance of power and social controls have taken over sexuality. In the same interview he says that there is a whole political technology around sexuality and that it is this basic apparatus, and not the specific permissions and taboos, that I was trying to reconstruct.
- A) The subject through sexuality
The starting point is a question that is basically the same as the one we find in it The will to know : How did we become our sexuality? Through which power mechanisms, with which cognitions and discourses did our sexuality become our selves? As Arnold Davidson writes, we are our sexuality ... we cannot think of ourselves, of our most basic psychological identity, without thinking of our sexuality ... The emergence of sexuality , 2001, p. 9). What's radical in The history of sexuality is that sexuality has a history, that is, sexuality is not timeless and innate, but a construction that depends on power and discourses. From 1964 onwards, in his lecture on sexuality at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, Foucault asked about a cultural history of Western sexuality ( sexuality , 2018, S.4).
Can we understand the moment in this story when the subject becomes attached to his sexuality or when the problem for the subject - his sexuality - becomes his truth? Confessions of the flesh answers this question: Foucault explains that in the Christian moment between the 2ndndand 5theCenturies AD that the two were joined. The paradox is that this bond came about precisely thanks to the renouncement of the meat to take the French title of Peter Brown's 1988 book. This renunciation of the flesh took two forms in Christian culture: an ensemble of practices of penance (exmologesis) through which the sinner cleanses himself of his sins and filth, and an ensemble of speeches, of confessions, through which the monk makes his priest communicates his sins, temptations and what torments him. We see two modalities of the subject which, for Foucault, are both connected with truth. Repentance is a form of doing truth that is used to correct wrongdoing. Confession is a form of truth clarification. In particular, Foucault wants to understand how Christian culture has moved from establishing the truth to clarifying the truth and what effects this step has on us.
Whatever the answer, these two practices had the paradoxical effect of connecting the subject to their sexuality. So when Foucault turns to Christians, he tries to locate the point of origin in Western culture, when the sexual part of each of us was revealed as the subject that we shouldn't be, but that we are and that we are through asceticism can escape practices methods exercises. The book examines this relationship with sexuality through the practices of baptism, penance and confession (Part I), virginity (Part II) and marriage (Part III). Implicit in these historical investigations, which took place between the 2ndndand 5theCenturies is an important theoretical decision: to show how Christian culture has organized the renunciation of sex through an entire apparatus of obedience and at the same time bound the subject to sexuality. More precisely, the moment the renunciation of the flesh is formulated into an ascetic subject ideal, the two become inextricably linked.
Foucault shows this exactly where one might think that there is the greatest distance between the subject and sexuality, namely virginity. I quote a remarkable passage from the chapter on virgins: the valorization of virginity is something completely different from disqualification or the simple and pure prohibition of sexual relations. It implies a considerable upgrading of the individual's relationship to his or her own sexual behavior, as it makes that relationship a positive experience ... To be clear, this does not mean that Christianity positively upgraded the sexual act itself. But it was precisely the negative value that was attached to the sexual act that gave it a centrality which it never achieved in Greek or Roman morality. The central position of sexuality in Western morality is already clearly expressed in the emergence of the mysticism surrounding virginity (p. 201-2). Quite an incredible passage, as Foucault finally says that denial of sexuality creates a way of life - virginity - which, in contrast, reveals the importance of sexual activity to the subject. The obsession with renouncing sex is a sign of a true obsession with sex on the part of the subject. Christian morality, or even more so the Christian technique of the flesh, literally elevates sexuality to an unprecedented and unprecedented level of importance for the subject.
So it is Christian culture that has made sexuality an obsession for the subject. When it comes to Christianity, the subjects think of nothing else. And to be a subject means, in a certain way, not to think about anything else - to the extent that sex itself, to use Foucault's words, takes on considerable importance for the formation and development of subjectivity. And it is this meaning that is reinforced in the libido that Augustine constructs in his analyzes of marriage, so that the formulation of sex so characteristic of modernity, as Foucault points out, has its origin in Christian culture.
- B) Telling the truth about one's sexuality
Inside this Christian moment when sexuality is tied to the subject, Foucault wants to trace the path to the point where the subject is constituted by his obligation to tell the truth of his sexuality within the limits of the obedient relationships established by the church. The relationship between the self and the truth is at the center of Confession of the flesh: What does it mean to tell the truth about yourself? What price does the individual pay for telling this truth, and beyond that, what does it take to consider that telling the truth about oneself is the prerequisite for a true relationship with the self?
This point is of great importance to us today: Foucault has revealed the desire for truth since ancient times, only that the Greeks and Romans did not associate this desire for truth with sexuality. Sex was a good use of pleasure, an ideal of control and energy. That the desire for truth became associated with the part of us called sexuality implied that sexuality, in a sense, had become our truth. And I think, as I will show in the second part of my talk, that we have still not escaped this vision.
The first tome of The history of sexuality , The will to know , had come to a similar conclusion, but in a different way. The book had fundamentally turned certain assumptions about modernity on its head: in short, where we thought the modern subject constituted itself by calming its sexuality, Foucault showed us that our sexuality only existed to the extent that we did it put into a discourse, in an endless loop of knowledge, with the consequence that sexuality itself constituted our truth as subjects. We can go back to the starting point of our reflection, back to Arnold Davidson and the making of an imperative to be your sexuality! The creation of a scientia sexualis linked the subject with her sexuality. As in psychoanalysis, it made sexuality the revelation of our deepest being.
Here is the general project of The history of sexuality it becomes clear: to start a genealogy of the man of desire, in which the obligation to truthfully state his desires, his drives, his inclinations, his obsessions ends as the essential break of the whole endeavor. It is precisely this break that led to the development of Christian pastoral care between the second and fifth centuries. And we understand why Foucault wanted this work to appear after his books on the Greeks and Romans.
One must first show how sexual practices and pleasures were codified in ancient times before they took place in a culture of thrift ( The use of joys ). From there we must study their twists and turns in a way of life that was dominated by preoccupation with the self for the first two centuries AD ( Concern for the self ). Only then are we ready to face the rupture we find in us Confessions of the flesh , the moment in our genealogy of desire when the Christian fathers associate the flesh with the purification of desire. And here we see the completely new obligation to tell not only the truth about yourself, but also about your own sexuality. Of course, all possible sins have to be told the truth, but essentially it is our sexual desires that lead us to sin.
Foucault formulates his question on page 98: If he has “done wrong”, why do we need to bring to light the truth not only about what we have done but also about who we are? We can address several points: first, the substitution of confession for repentance - perception through divination. Second, that truth is valuable only when it breaks in the sunlight; it is not enough to admit to yourself; it must be told to another through a technology of submission and obedience. And finally, by saying what I have done, I am revealing who I am: why do we need to reveal the truth not only about what we have done but also about who we are? Our subjective being is revealed through the clarification of the truth about our sexuality.
- C) The confession
Foucault provides one final pertinent reflection on how the structure of the confession itself tends to be a subject from which he draws important lessons about the relationships between self, sexuality, wrongdoing, and clarification of the truth. Confession can be understood from the point of view of the confessor, who replaces the old director of conscience, who was only there to act and not to pass judgment on the matter. Foucault shows how this profession is an integral part of the pastoral direction of the individual: this obligation to speak the truth about oneself and about one's wrongdoing becomes a form of government. Confessing one's deeds gives one the possibility of redemption - but at the price of total submission to one's confessor. The obligation to tell the truth about one's own sins is no longer a simple question of truthfulness, as it was in ancient times, but a technology to secure a certain power over one's own subjects.
This is what Foucault identifies in the two great strategies: repentance as an act of truth and confession as a declaration of truth. In both practices the underlying question is: How can one lead a true Christian life devoted to the salvation of one's soul through an ensemble of repetitive practices to eliminate wrongdoing? We must understand here that the ancient technique of baptism is insufficient to cleanse us from sin because man continues to carry the weight of original sin. And therefore we need a new technique of penitential practices (exomogolesis) and also tests, confessions, confessions of sins (exagoresis), in order to enable salvation for the individual.
The fact that confession will soon overshadow penance clearly and irrevocably points to an ever closer connection between confession and confession, which Foucault in The will to know : Admission was and is to this day the general matrix that supports the production of truth discourses about sex ( The will to know , p. 84). Foucault perfectly sees that penance is already a form of admission and publicly admitted guilt. But he also emphasizes that it takes on a whole new dimension when it comes to confessing your sins. Because the admission now calls on the subject in his deepest innermost being: It is no longer about saying what was done - the sexual act - and how, but about this act and in it the thoughts that doubled the error, the desires , reconstruct and accompanying obsessions (p. 85).
It is Foucault's goal, through historical research spanning three centuries and including baptism, confession, virginity, and marriage, to reconstruct the Christian techniques that induce a person to confess his most intimate thoughts and most secret desires. For us today, I think it is essential to emphasize what I would call the emergence of mental sexuality. The libidinization of sex, which Foucault in the work of Saint Augustine from the 5th cent.theCentury implies that the libido triumphs not only over the body but also over the soul. What is this libido? The surge of involuntary movement instead of [something] arbitrary (p. 333). Before Freud, Augustine discovered that sex is a spiritual matter: In the soul itself, St. Augustine seeks the principle of desire and the involuntary starting point that passes through it (p. 341). That is, when the libido is in the soul, one has to observe and examine it in order to get rid of all bad thoughts. We are left with an infinite task of introspection and interpretation, which makes confession before a priest a necessary form of reception.
- Confessions of the flesh today?
- A) The dimorphism of truthfulness and lawfulness
Two elements are central: truth and law. They become two historically different entry points into the experience of sexuality. Foucault presents these starting points when discussing the differences between monastic life and marriage in Christian culture. The difference is very important for the spread of Christianity: the monastic ideal places the monk outside the world; Marriage codifies a Christian way of life in the world - and it is therefore important that the first not become the norm of the second. It also means that we cannot just focus on the monastic ideal and find a way to live within the world. This separation between the house of God (monastery) and home leads to two different relationships to sexuality, which Foucault presents from the perspective of truth (truthfulness) and from the perspective of a form of life (legality).
On the one hand, everyone in the monastery is obliged to tell the truth about their wishes and thoughts. The monastic asceticism consists in practices of constant self-supervision, the deciphering of one's own secrets (p. 281): The subject has the obligation to be truthful in deciphering his own flesh. As a way of life, however, it is the institution of marriage that defines the limits of Christian life for all. From this perspective, marriage implies an ensemble of reciprocal debts between men and women, which thus become a jurisdiction: the issue of debt will lead to constant codification work and to a long reflection in jurisprudence.
What is remarkable about Foucault's analysis is that he does not attempt to combine these two great experiences of sexuality - telling the truth about oneself and putting oneself in a legal economy of sexuality (Saint Augustine?). He maintains the difference he calls dimorphism: the experience of sexuality is reflected in two different forms. For Foucault, the separation of these two forms is central to our sexuality, and he argues that it is precisely this difference that defines the sexual culture that has remained in the West to this day. I will quote a crucial passage from an analysis of dimorphism by one of the Church Fathers, Chrysostomis, in the 4ththeCentury: Dimorphism is becoming more and more pronounced and will profoundly shape our way of thinking and our sexual behavior in the West: in relation to the truth (but in the form of a secret in the center of the self, which must be infinitely cleared up. If we want to be saved) and in the sense of the law (but in the form of debts and obligations as well as in the form of prohibitions and violations). This dimorphism is far from gone, or at least its effects are far from exhausted (p. 282). So we see two very different entry points into sexuality.
- B) Sexuality Psychology and Sexuality Practice: the continuation and completion of dimorphism
And today? Our sexuality is shaped by the search for truth and legality. On the one hand, the establishment of the truth has by no means disappeared. It is simply no longer articulated as a confession of one's own sins, but as an explanation of one's own sexual style; More than ever, it is organized in the form of a self-narrative in which each of us presents ourselves as a sexual subject of a certain style: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, aromantic, cruel sexual, semi-sexual, semi-romantic, lithromantic, pansexual, polysexual, scoliosexual. The structure of the address has not disappeared - and with it the admission - but it now takes several forms, which are also forms of revelation of the self - also on the Internet, as Bernard Harcourt has shown. There are also self-narration addressed to medical institutions to change gender as part of psychiatric therapy, which are augmented truth-telling operations. And the law, as the struggle for rights has now emphatically expanded into these areas: the right to marriage for homosexual couples, the right to adoption, medically assisted procreation, surrogacy, etc.
Undoubtedly, this intertwining of self and sexuality is one of the most interesting aspects of Foucault's book from 1982, published in 2018, because it forces us to ask: What do we mean by our experience of sexuality today? And here, I think, we can say goodbye to Foucault's dimorphism between the two great forms of sexuality, monastic and conjugal. In part, this is of course due to our secularization, which is not without paradoxical effects and remnants reminiscent of the revolutionary counterrevolutionary dynamic. The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s provoked a counter-revolution in the form of a return to religious codifications of sexuality. Nonetheless, things have changed, and what has fundamentally changed despite the counterrevolution is that sexuality has become our own cause. This does not mean - source of many misunderstandings - that the basic dimorphism, truthfulness and regularity, has disappeared. And how could it be, considering the extent to which sexuality is a social and cultural formation? But if these two entry points into sexuality - truthfulness and lawfulness - don't go away, I believe they tend to become one. It is precisely this union that makes sexuality a matter for everyone.
If this analysis is correct, it means that we are seeing re-articulations of what we are as sexual subjects that determine how we should live our sexuality. The splitting off of sexual life in Christian marriage - the aim of which was not procreation, as Foucault emphasizes, but an inherent right in marriage - this dichotomy between what is allowed and what is not is reabsorbed in a new way: we are now adopted to infer our ideal sexual practices from an excavation and presentation of our true sexuality.
To understand this great change, we have to trace it back to its origins in the egalitarian struggles of women and sexual minorities. The scheme of a dimorphism of the flesh in Christian culture is a gender scheme that was written in advance by and for men who see in the woman a piece of property and only suspends this relationship in marriage, where everyone has the right to the Body of the other has. The history of sexuality and this fourth volume does not escape this scheme, and in this sense it is a masculinist history of sexuality in which the counter-history of women's sexuality hardly appears - hence the criticism of American feminists of the entire project and The will to know certain. This also explains why the book that appears to us 37 years after its creation is so familiar and so strange at the same time.
Familiar, for despite the extreme Christian renunciation of the flesh, it is nonetheless our psychological subject created through this process (of which Freud was an endpoint), the great task of which was to decipher oneself based on his desires. And yet strange, because this idea of desire as a self-interpretation takes place in the context of an extreme inequality of the sexes that is no longer imaginable. This is undoubtedly the crucial point: the eradication of female voices and thus of all marginalized sexualities in the constitution of a sexual self.
If we find ourselves in an egalitarian framework, it is because we are in a whole new episteme of sexuality in which each of us makes our own sexuality out of a certain truth of our own gender. Truthfulness and regularity have not disappeared, but curdled and been absorbed in almost the same ensemble. Asking the truth about the self of a particular gender (truthfulness) and accessing legitimate practices of sexuality (legitimacy) are interrelated processes. The obligation to tell the truth about one's sexuality corresponds to the right to exercise one's sexuality correctly or truthfully. So it is no longer the relationship between wrongdoing and truthfulness of the old Christian culture, but a new relationship between doing well and perceiving what becomes, if not the norm, then at least the experience of sexuality.
More precisely, one could say: From the moment we see the truth about our sexuality as a fundamental experience of subjectivity, we can begin to articulate a whole new category of rights. From the moment I say what I am sexual, when I have the courage to step out of the closet, something like a right to true sexuality becomes plausible and legitimate. Homosexual demands made since the closets were opened resulted in marriage for all. In other words, we are telling the truth of our sexuality in part to open up a range of rights. Truthfulness becomes a necessary condition of legitimacy. This leads to a new culture of self in which we move from instructing the confessor to admit one's desires to wanting to proclaim publicly what one is sexual in order to live one's life fully.
A new episteme seems to be at work here, in which the subject attaches itself differently to the forms of knowledge and power that are now based entirely on the equality of partners and above all on the presumption of equality. The question is: what to do with sexuality within equality? We can see that the Christian episteme was heavily shaped by inequality between men and women - with the exception of the very detailed framework for Foucault of the ideal marriage or certain moments around procreation when the rights to the other's body are equal. While we have now completely given up on this episteme with a strong affirmation of the equality of sexual partners and the assumption that this equality must be taken as a prerequisite for any sexual activity, this leads us to the idea of mutual agreement and the idea that we are precisely through this that we remain the owners of our bodies, that we can enjoy the sexual act.
From this perspective we see that movements like Me Too in the US are implicitly fighting against this older episteme, against domination and the notion of power hierarchies in sexuality. Our time is therefore particularly interesting and must be questioned by the following question: Which sexuality in the context of radical equality?
This coincides with the growing demand for legality in terms of the importance of consent and its implementation in the legal process. With the term consensus, the entire spectrum of sexual practices is covered by law - and, in turn, depends on the assumption that each of us is fully recognized in the singularity of our own relationship to sexuality. With this we are moving towards a common culture of good and authorized sexuality. These good sexualities no longer lead to a distinction between normal and pathological, healthy and deviant, but are based on the common requirement that each of us is the author of our own sexuality. And under a common culture of sexuality one has to understand that the realization of the sexual subject now takes place through the politicization of sexuality: the activism of a fully active subject who fights for a new sexual collective.
All of this is of course not alien to the Big Bang that Bernard Harcourt spoke of in the third seminar dedicated to Beauvoir. Isn't Big Bang just another name for a sexual revolution that began with the denaturalization of sexuality that Beauvoir tackled? The second sex , and of which Foucaults History of sexuality (and Gender Trouble synonymous) are the reinforcements?
While sexuality appeared to be governed by a law of nature, these books showed that it was indeed a social construct, that of the dichotomy between sex and gender - the decoupling of one from the other and ultimately the decoupling of sexuality from procreation - door and Gate opened. But this also enabled a more radical decoupling, which underlined that sex itself is a construction of gender and fully opens up the possibilities of gender expression. It can be said that Butler made this fall Gender problems with a strong, militant gesture: thinking of gender not as a law, but as a horizon and thus opening up all possible combinations.
The condition of this line of argument, and I conclude here, is radical equality. If for a long time sexuality was thought of on the basis of the inequality of being, status and culture, which required a strong distinction between the sexual journey in a subject's psychic economy (knowledge of truth) and its codification in marriage today, when sexuality is a terrain of equality is, sexuality can only be expressed in practices of equality (and not domination), and this has profound implications for who we are and what we can experience as sexual subjects. We see the results in the expansion of marriage law, Me Too, and the indictment of harassment, violence and rape: some of the inequality of the Christian worldview has undoubtedly been finally broken and given way to a new and radical egalitarian economy of sexual subjects. This means that all forms of rule that for centuries ensured the submission of women to men and at the same time excluded all other relationships, are at least theoretically illegitimate.
Does this mean that Foucault's entire understanding of the relationships between subject, sexuality, power, and knowledge must be razed to the ground? I don't think so, and for a reason related to the historical link between our obligation to tell the truth about ourselves and our sexuality. The idea that the subject does not have to answer for their sexuality and what is in it is - even today, perhaps more than ever - alien and almost incomprehensible to us. And that has both positive and negative effects. Positive, because if sexuality is the essential part of the self, then any violence against people in the name of their sexuality becomes a negation of the self. Negative perhaps because it is ultimately seen as what we must honor in our own sexuality if we have to admit who we are.
Foucault has already said it The will to know : From Christian penance until today, sex has been a privileged part of confession. It's what we're hiding, at least they said. But what if, on the contrary, we confess exactly that? ( The will to know , p. 82). It follows that whatever passes in silence pierces or even negates any erotology of our practices, this obligation to tell the truth about ourselves to someone else who confirms us either by attesting to the normality of our sexuality (medical structures ) or by codifying our sexuality (legal structures). From here we should undoubtedly accept Foucault's challenge to invent new forms of subjectivity.
Translated by Xavier Flory