Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Summary of Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Parts 3 and 4, January 29, 2008

This is the thirty-ninth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is the first of seven posts of material from Professor Kevin Floyd’s Queer Studies seminar at Kent State University. Most of these Recovered Writing posts are from summaries that we wrote during the semester on readings. Most of these were densely theoretical works, but we could not expend more than one page on these summaries–no more and no less–exactly one page. While these assignments were incredibly difficult, they were equally useful to get to the heart of an argument, study its supporting evidence, and identify its strengths and weaknesses. These summaries encouraged us to take a rigorous approach to understand arguments, express those arguments cogently, and adopt the jargon, terminology, and language utilized by the argument’s writer.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kevin Floyd

Queer Studies

29 January 2008

Summary of Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Parts 3 and 4

Foucault argues in Part Three that Western civilization has developed a “scientia sexualis,” which has replaced “ars erotica” through a series of transpositions and developments. Part Four, arguably the most important section of the text, is Foucault’s theoretical framework describing the knowledge-power dynamic, which he describes both generally as well as applicably to sex and sexuality.

In Part Three, Foucault traces the difference between ars erotica and scientia sexualis as the, “two great procedures for producing the truth of sex” (57). Ars erotica is experiential, sensual, and derived from pleasure. On the other hand, scientia sexualis arrives (originally) in Western civilization via the confession. Over time, the confession has shifted from a religious exercise in penance (sin and religion) to a method of obtaining data about our individuated sexual experiences (bodies and biological processes). In the modern usage of the confession, the confessional data is either given freely or through coercion, and it’s interpreted by a professional thereby telling the teller about his or herself. Additionally, the confession and its use to construct “truth” is linked with networks of power. The discourse of truth in relation to sex culminated in the nineteenth century when that discourse shifted to that of science and the development of “a confessional science,” i.e., psychology (64). This came about in five ways including: the confession framed as observations, influence within and without bodies by sexuality, sex is a hidden truth in need of revelation, questioner validates confession through interpretation, and the medicalization of the confession as a method of therapy. By adopting the scientia sexualis, the discourses on sex now allow for the term “sexuality” to encapsulate sex as being and experience. However, Foucault points out that the categorization of sex and its many aspects into sexuality is negative as well as positive.

Part four proceeds with Foucault defining his objective as developing an “analytics” of power rather than a “theory” of power. He wants to study the relations of power in a specific area and establish a means for analyzing those relations and how they come about. He’s reacting to the historically accepted juridico-discursive representation of power, which contains the following properties: all connections between power and sex are negative, power enforces its law on sex, power prohibits certain aspects of sex, there’s a logic to censorship enforced by power, and power is enforced homogeneously on all levels. This is a power of “no.” Foucault conceives power to be much more complex and more promising than this outdated view of power. In his analytics, he removes power from institutions, and disperses it as a diffuse network of nodes of discourse. Power comes from the interaction and butting up against points of connection within the knowledge-power network. He significantly writes, “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (93). Power forms a network that we’re all part of, and there is no outside from which power comes. It comes from within, and we exist within the networks from which power is formed. He goes on to clarify that power is diffuse, it comes from within and between, it runs through the social body, it’s not organized by one person or institution, and resistance exists wherever there is power. Returning to the history of sexuality, he applies these observations to sex, which forms these rules: power-knowledge has no exteriority, sex is made an object by power relations, power-knowledge is dynamic, tactics of power support an overall theme, but these tactics are not necessarily representative or mirrors of the larger strategy, and there are a multiplicity of discourses, and those discourses produce and undermine power. Sexuality is a nexus of power relations.


Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.