On the face of it at least, our civilization possesses no ars erotica. In return, it is undoubtedly the only civilization to practice a scientia sexualisFoucault is interested in uncovering what he called the genealogy of knowledge, or the historical twists and turns that generate particular taken-for-granted “truths.” In the case of sex, Foucault outlines two different truths about sex. One is what he called ars erotica, or an artful knowledge about sex that focuses on its sensual and pleasurable aspects. In contrast, scientia sexualis is a scientific knowledge system that aims to identify, categorize, and normalize sexuality as if it is a thing to be discovered or a problem to be solved. According to Foucault, the latter is what developed in the West and continues today. ; or rather, the only civilization to have developed over the centuries procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret: I have in mind the confessionFoucault’s objective in the book is to refute what was known at the “repressive hypothesis,” which stated that sexual desires have been repressed and silenced since the eighteenth century. Foucault suggests instead that sex as an object of knowledge was called into being once people began talking about it through the confession. According to Foucault, knowledge is expressed through discourse, or the way we talk about things, and thus the truth about sexuality became apparent through the confession. You can read more about the history of the confession here..
From the Christian penance to the present day, sex was a privileged theme of confession. A thing that was hidden, we are told. But what if, on the contrary, it was what, in a quite particular way, one confessed? Suppose the obligation to conceal it was but another aspect of the duty to admit to it (concealing it all the more and with greater care as the confession of it was more important, requiring a stricter ritual and promising more decisive effects)? What if sex in our society, on a scale of several centuries, was something that was placed within an unrelenting system of confession? The transformation of sex into discourse, which I spoke of earlier, the dissemination and reinforcement of heterogeneous sexualities, are perhaps two elements of the same deployment: they are linked together with the help of the central element of a confession that compels individuals to articulate their sexual peculiarity—no matter how extreme.Expressing one’s sexual desires through the confession had a seemingly paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it was intended to be a deeply personal secret shared with a religious confidant only. On the other hand, it compelled people to admit and describe their own unique sexualities. In an earlier part of the book, he points to the multiplication of sexual identities and perversions that were deemed to be problems in eighteenth-century Western society, such as the sexuality of children, homosexuality, and the sexual habits of the mentally ill. Here Foucault is saying that the admission of sexuality through the confession and the proliferation of sexual categories are all part of the same process—talking about sexuality produces certain desires and identities instead of repressing them.
The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationshipPower is not something that is exercised through brute force. Rather, power operates through knowledge. What we think to be the truth shapes our perceptions and our actions, thus acting as a form of discipline. Therefore, if the confession invites individuals to talk about their sexuality and thus create a narrative or knowledge about it, then it is also a power relationship. And, as Foucault notes later on, it is not because the priest says something that power is exercised. Instead, the confession itself is the exercise of power because it causes the individual to turn himself into a subject. , for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile; a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation. For centuries, the truth of sex was, at least for the most part, caught up in this discursive form.
The confession was, and still remains, the general standard governing the production of the true discourse on sex. It has undergone a considerable transformation, however. For a long time, it remained firmly entrenched in the practice of penance. But with the rise of Protestantism, the Counter Reformation, eighteenth-century pedagogy, and nineteenth-century medicine, it gradually lost its ritualistic and exclusive localization; it spread; it has been employed in a whole series of relationships: children and parents, students and educators, patients and psychiatrists, delinquents and experts.You may recall that in Discipline and Punish, Foucault recounts the rise of the disciplinary society in which individual lives are increasingly controlled through institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons. Similarly, here Foucault is describing how the act of confessing gave rise to a whole set of institutions and professions all charged with dealing with the issue of sexuality. As these experts began recording, labeling, and categorizing sexual desires and identities, they began contributing to its control. An example of a modern day expert who contributes to knowledge on sexuality might be someone like Dr. Phil. And, if you are a fan of Dr. Phil or other talk shows, you might want to take a look at this article on “freak talk” by sociologist Joshua Gamson. The motivations and effects it is expected to produce have varied, as have the forms it has taken: interrogations, consultations, autobiographical narratives, letters; they have been recorded, transcribed, assembled into dossiers, published, and commented on. But more important, the confession lends itself, if not to other domains, at least to new ways of exploring the existing ones. It is no longer a question simply of saying what was done—the sexual act—and how it was done; but of reconstructing, in and around the act, the thoughts that recapitulated it, the obsessions that accompanied it, the images, desires, modulations, and quality of the pleasure that animated it.Foucault is again unpacking the paradox of the confession. Requiring people to confess their desires requires them to describe them, explain them, and come up with a language that captures everything about it. In other words, getting people to admit their desires has the possible effect of generating new ones. It is a trivial example, but it is possible to imagine that describing what we had for lunch yesterday is likely to get us thinking about what sounds good for dinner tonight, no? You can hear Foucault himself explain the production of desire in this 1983 interview. For the first time no doubt, a society has taken upon itself to solicit and hear the imparting of individual pleasures.
Let us put forward a general working hypothesis. The society that emerged in the nineteenth century—bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will—did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex.Foucault identifies this “machinery” as a source of bio-power. Bio-power refers to the control of individual bodies and entire populations through knowledge about births, deaths, reproduction, and health and illness. Or, as Hardt and Negri point out in their book, Empire, bio-power is about the control of life itself. One example is the Human Genome Project, which is about identifying every single gene in our DNA. A fictional but no less powerful example can be found in the popular 2011 film Contagion, in which a worldwide pandemic of an unknown virus causes people to stop interacting with each other while simultaneously being quarantined into sick and healthy populations. Can you think of other examples, real or fictional?