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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Foucault And The Genealogy Of Sexuality

Although Foucault's early writings attempted to excavate the sedimented structures of thought in a particular moment (and the discontinuous relations between moments), it was his development of a retrospective historiographical mode that made his writings on sexuality appear exemplary for historicist anthropologies concerned with the emergence of particular sex/gender systems. The first volume of The History of Sexuality, in particular, was quickly hailed for its demonstration of what the genealogical method could offer gender studies—although many theorists mistook a mere reversal of chronology for Foucault's more radical demand that ontological thought be surrendered in favor of a negative concept of becoming.

Two main contributions were recognized. Firstly, Foucault argued that prohibition does not work to contain or repress that which it outlaws but rather cultivates its sanctioned objects in a new mode. The sexual repression of the Victorians, for example, did not so much eliminate an interest in sex as it permitted the extension of erotic pleasures into the domain of language, such that talking about sex—even in the form of denunciation—could be seen as one more incitement of sex, while making speech itself a scene of excitement. The second contribution lay in its analysis of the relationship between sexuality and political power in Western cultures.

At the end of History of Sexuality, Foucault described the emergence of a new political technology, one marked by power's investment in life, in the control and management of human beings as productive entities whose health and well-being it assiduously cultivated. Discourses on sexuality, and on so-called healthy sexuality, were coterminous for him with the displacement of centralized power by diffuse forms of discipline and control that saturated all dimensions of the life-world. Foucault described this new technology as one that entailed a "power over life" rather than a "right of death" and designated it as "biopower." From Europe's eighteenth century onward, biopower worked through the surveillance of sexual practice and by placing same-sex intimacies under increasingly violent prohibitions, as the demand for total productivity and intentionalized reproductivity intensified in the modern industrial era. In other contexts, he admitted, the organization of power over life might take other forms, and might structure subjectivity in terms other than those of sexuality, but his primary focus was the more familiar history of European modernity.

In Europe and elsewhere, Foucault's claim that homosexuality was a modern invention, the product of discourses upon normalcy and sexual health, scandalized many scholars and was initially misunderstood by many to imply the relatively recent appearance of same-sex intimacy. Foucault made no such claim; he was instead identifying a moment in which practice and identity were merged by virtue of new representational logics. This merging produced not same-sex intimacies but the figure, and henceforth, the felt experience, of the homosexual.

Although his exemplary case study came from the archives and entailed the story of an ambivalently sexed figure, Herculine Barbin, who was forced to assume a male identity by French medical and police authorities, feminists quickly observed that Foucault's analysis failed to distinguish between sexuality as it came to be configured for women and men. In other words, they argued that sexuality without consideration of gender could only reproduce the relative claim that the figure of maleness has on universality in Western philosophical discourse. Feminist writers were quick to observe, for example, that the prerogative of transvestism is often limited to members of one gender and suggested that the distribution of this prerogative might itself be indicative of power in the organization of local sex/gender systems. At the same time, however, many anthropologists, influenced by the burgeoning phenomenon of gay and lesbian studies, also saw in the tale of Barbin an exemplary ur-figure of modernity's sexualizing violence. A vast array of cross-cultural studies were devoted to excavating eras in other places where sex and gender was (or continues to be) organized according to less rigorously binary structures. And older reports of female husbands, institutionalized transvestism and androgyny, and legitimate same-sex intimacy were revisited with avidity.

The best of such work is assiduously historical, grounding itself in the meticulous scrutiny and translation of evidence from diverse archives and unofficial sources. However, much of the more ethnological comparativism has ignored Foucault's suggestion that biopower might be differently structured elsewhere and has sought analogues to European historical developments instead. As a result, it has borne a not inconsiderable resemblance to the oftentimes prurient studies of earlier sexology, especially when anthologized in collections devoted to the category of "third sex," "third gender," or comparative homosexualities. Historians, by contrast, have generated a series of supplementary histories that augment, clarify, or refute the suggestions made in Foucault's more programmatic moments, often bringing the same kind of analytic lens to the history of heterosexuality as he brought to homosexuality. And some anthropologists have attempted to understand the implications of Foucault's project for an analysis of institutional and discursive histories in the colonial context, paying particular attention to the organization of populations, institution of new educational systems, juridical rationalization, and forms of both public morality and sentiment that colonial regimes implemented.

Feminist critique of the masculinist bias in early Foucaultian analyses of sexuality has been followed by a bifurcation in the field and a proliferation of studies devoted to the analysis of masculinity and its relationship to systems of power, both within households and at the level of the state. These studies, whether overtly Foucaultian or not, consider the corporeal tactics and the ideological representations and values (such as machismo, honor, and valor) by which masculinity is cultivated in men, emphasizing the disjuncture between merely anatomical sex and social gender even when the two are conflated in local discourse (a 1998 study by Judith Halberstam extends this analysis in a consideration of what she terms "female masculinities"). The Foucaultian turn might thus be read as the process by which the feminist political slogan "the personal is the political" gets inverted, such that the political is understood as that which generates embodied persons. In any case, it generated a renewed theory of the importance of ritual in the constitution of sexual and gendered difference.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies