The deep disagreements between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Foucault can be summarized in the question: Freud or Nietzsche? The German Critical Theorists thought that the scientific analytics of both Marx and Freud could liberate us from the dual domination of ideology and repression. Being the Nietzschean that he was, Foucault’s response to all such hopes was a pointed “tu quoque”: the Marxist and Freudian disciplines merely replace one form of domination with another of their own making. Thus, while Habermas frames his own social theory in terms of a collective (Kohlbergian) moral development over which we gradually acquire greater control through discursive enlightenment, Foucault sees social history in terms of an unguided, almost Darwinian reconfiguration of (rather than liberation from) power relations. It is for this reason that Habermas dismisses all such Nietzscheans as “young conservatives”.
With this in mind, Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (its original title was the far more Nietzschean The Will to Knowledge) should be read as a searing indictment of the Freudian theory of sexual repression. This theory (which has clearly infected common parlance) holds that the ruling class exercises its power over how we speak about, participate in and otherwise express our “natural” sexuality. By these lights, our endless preaching (Foucault’s word, not mine) about how we are the victims of sexual repression is actually a form of political rebellion against that ruling class.
Foucault is rightly suspicious of this narrative for various reasons. First of all, there is little evidence that the “Victorian” repression of sexuality correlates with any decline in talk about sex over the last three to four hundred years. Second, this narrative is itself an instance of the very sex-talk that has actually multiplied and diversified throughout the time period in question. In other words, the political and intellectual authorities of the Victorian era did not repress sex-talk, but instead transformed the rules that regulated such talk.
Before outlining Foucault’s genealogy of the theory of repression, let us articulate the flaw which any Nietzschean sees at the heart of this theory. Power is no more the exclusive trait of the ruling class than weather is the exclusive trait of thunderstorms. The theory of repression assumes that by resisting the rules imposed upon us from the ruling class, we are, by very definition, freeing ourselves from power. Not true, says Nietzsche. Rather, the scientific investigation, systematization and normalization of human behavior actually produced a far more intrusive and all-encompassing form of power over us. To be more precise, the gathering of such scientific knowledge about people required the deployment of power over them, and the deployment of power over people required a scientific knowledge of them. This power is especially prominent in the practice of confession.
In the 17th century, Priests began requiring their parishioners to confess not only their violations of behavioral norms surrounding sex (something that Mormons are fairly comfortable with), but to also articulate their inner thoughts, passions, dreams and fantasies on the subject (something which goes well beyond what Mormons are comfortable with). In this way, the sin of adultery was transformed from an illicit activity that violated marital relations and inter-personal alliances, into a violation of our natures by participating in illicit pleasure.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, two phenomena transformed this practice of confession. On the one hand, the rising bourgeoisie as well as the declining aristocracy used sexual morality as a means to the purification of their bloodlines from the corrosive bloodlines of the worker/peasant masses. In this way, a socially regulated sexual morality became a form of collective self-empowerment for these ruling classes rather than an expression of external domination. (I think chastity as a form of self-empowerment resonates quite well with many LDS teachings.) The various eugenics movements of the latter 19th century were the most salient expressions of this morality.
On the other hand, the rise of nation-states correlated with a bureaucratic interest in and control over the birth rates of the population. More soldiers meant more power for the absolute monarchs and more workers meant higher production for the bourgeoisie. Experts were thus deployed with the explicit purpose of examining, normalizing and optimizing the sexual practices of the nation as it related to education, health, economic productivity, fertility, etc. These experts thus became the secular priests to whom people were expected to give a full and intimate confession, just as they had previously given to their ecclesiastical leaders. While such secular confessions find their fullest and most obvious expression within Freudian psycho-analysis, such confessions remain to this day a routine practice within the standard medical examination.
Note also, that whereas the earlier forms of confession were concerned with the avoidance of impurities and illicit behaviors, these modern experts were much more concerned with an affirmative and invasive exhortation to a “healthy” sex-life, as they defined the term. Such a “healthy” sex-life entailed several types of discursive practices that hardly amounted to a blanket of “repressive” secrecy. Instead, it amounted to a very specific set of rules regarding how much one talks about sex, to whom and under what conditions. Indeed, and this is the main point, so wide-spread and multifaceted are the forces that now require confession from us, that we have been trained to see such confessions as liberating and “for our own good”:
“The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down, and it can finally be articulated only at the price of a kind of liberation…
“One has to be completely taken in by this internal ruse of confession in order to attribute a fundamental role to censorship, to taboos regarding speaking and thinking; one has to have an inverted image of power in order to believe that all these voices which have spoken so long in our civilization repeating the formidable injunction to tell what one is and what one does, what one recollects and what one has forgotten, what one is thinking and what one thinks he is not thinking-are speaking to us of freedom.” (Pg. 60)
A more contemporary way of framing this claim would be to say that Foucault completely rejects the modern ritual of “coming out” as gay to one’s friends and family. This is a practice of domination which has historically derived from the psycho-analytic patients’ confessions to the secular authority figure of the doctor, which in turn had derived from the penitent Christians’ confessions to their ecclesiastical authorities.
Foucault’s objection to homosexuals’ “coming out” runs deeper still in that he completely rejects the existence of “sexuality” as a natural object that lies within us waiting to be “discovered” at some age. People have sex, not sexualities. To ask a person to define themselves in terms of their sexual desires and habits makes no more sense than asking them to define themselves in terms of their sleep or eating habits. Indeed, Foucault compares such efforts to describe a person’s life – every feeling, urge, communication and interaction – in terms of their sexuality to similar efforts to understand a person in terms of their astrological sign.
Historically speaking, then, the practice of confession was mixed with the science of sex to produce the artificial construct “sexuality.” By this, he specifically means that there are no homosexual (or heterosexual) people, only those who enjoy homosexual (or heterosexual) behaviors more than others. (It is worth noting that the political left tends to relish in the contingently constructed nature of genders while denying it to sexualities, while Mormons the exact mirror image of this.) When a person inwardly seeks their own sexuality that is supposed to lie deeply hidden within themselves, they are subjecting him or herself to the authority of those people and discursive practices that require such a confession. Whether the person who accepts such a confession is a priest, medical doctor, parent or friend, similar relations of power are always at play. Such a submission to authority, according to Foucault, can only produce an illusion of cathartic liberation, an illusion which has been carefully instilled within us by ecclesiastical and secular authorities.
“Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.” (Pg. 105-6)
Where do Mormons stand with regard to all of this? With regards to practices of confession, they are clearly not the sexual libertines that Foucault would prefer them to be. Thus, they will never follow him in rejecting all forms of confession regarding one’s own sexual behavior. That said, they also reject the overly intrusive forms of confession, both religious and (to a lesser extent) scientific, which led to the creation of “sexuality” as a concept. Their not being complicit in such practices gives them a critical distance which other religious traditions lack.
Foucault’s dismissal of “repression” as a modern attempt by scientific experts at replacing the rule of church authorities (among others) dovetails nicely with the LDS ambivalence to intellectuals. Those who actively resist the traditional authority of the church by accusing it – in the name of science – of sexually repressing its members are clearly identified within Foucault’s model as the threats that they are. While repression-talk pretends to uncover an authentic individual that is quite at odds with LDS teaching, it is actually a newly invented means of actively re-shaping people into a scientific imagine that the experts can themselves understand and control.
Finally, his rejection of homosexuality as a natural category will probably be the claim that TBM’s will likely find most appealing. (The scientific consensus on this matter, however, is still a matter of debate.) To be clear, Foucault would unequivocally disapprove of the LDS condemnation of his own, consistently homosexual behavior. On this, the church and Foucault will never agree. That said, they do stand united against the claim that some people have, regardless of whether they actually “know it (yet),” an inner homosexuality that ought to find an authentic, outward expression. Such an idea was a scientific invention of the 19th century and is more a reflection of how we talk about sex in our modern society than it is of anything we might be tempted to call “human nature.”