To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Michel Foucault – Philosopher & Social Theorist
by Jonathan Kemp
“Pleasure is something which passes from one individual to another; it is not secreted by identity. Pleasure has no passport, no identification papers.” – Michel Foucault
I discovered the work of Michel Foucault during my final year as an undergraduate. I was writing a dissertation on the representation of gay men in fiction and was slowly making my way through every book on the subject of sexuality Nottingham polytechnic library contained, and before long I came across his slim yet explosive little book, History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (1979). This was 1988, a good few years before the emergence of queer theory, for which – as many writers contest – Foucault’s book was instrumental. But why was it so explosive? Why did it almost single-handedly influence a generation of lesbian and gay, queer and feminist scholars?
In it, he challenges the commonly held assumption that the Victorians suppressed sexuality, arguing that instead, there was an explosion of sex into discourse driven by an imperative to deploy sex as a means of expanding what he calls biopower; that is, the control of populations. The medical policing of desire – itself an extension of the Enlightenment drive to know and name, to box and label everything – constructed normative and reductive realities and knowledges in order to make the world more manageable. Surveillance of the public extended into the private domain of the bedroom, and sexual behavior became a battleground, a question of morality, biology and medicine. But where there is a discourse there is always a reverse-discourse, and once the homosexual was named – around 1870 – those who identified with this type – this species – could formulate a politics of liberation using the terminology of the clinic. The ‘invention’ by science of the homosexual was also the invention of queer politics.
“Just because this notion of sexuality has enabled us to fight [on behalf of our own homosexuality] doesn’t mean that it doesn’t carry with it a certain number of dangers. There is an entire biologism of sexuality and therefore an entire hold over it by doctors and psychologists – in short, by the agencies of normalization. … It is not enough to liberate sexuality; we also have to liberate ourselves … from the very notion of sexuality”. In other words, for Foucault sexual pleasure was not part and parcel of discovering a true self, of owning and expressing an identity, but was tied to the very apparatus of power we imagined we were escaping. “We must not believe that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power.”
The exciting opportunities, for him, lay in the creative possibilities of non-normative sexual practices and new, alternative forms of organizing personal relationships; not in discovering who we are, but refusing who we are.
Foucault was no ivory tower academic; he was a frontline activist. In 1970 he co-founded the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, which led to a friendship with another favourite Frenchman of mine, the poet of prisons, Jean Genet. In 1982, two years before his death, he drove 3000km from Paris to Warsaw heading a convoy of medical supplies and smuggled printing materials for Solidarnosc.
Born in Poitiers in 1926, Foucault struggled with his own homosexuality in his youth and attempted suicide more than once. Whilst his work on sexuality opposed the concept of liberation because it required an understanding of the self at odds with his own theoretical position, he nevertheless personally supported and benefitted from the lesbian and gay struggle for equality, especially once he began visiting the US regularly from the mid-’70s and discovered the gay sex clubs of San Francisco and New York. His own moment of liberation – like that of many men at that time – was cut short when he died of AIDS in 1984.
I have read pretty much everything he has ever published in English, and whilst I may not always agree with what he says, I have nothing but admiration for the ways in which he constantly upturned epistemological assumptions and always strove to see the bigger picture, to reverse commonalities of thought. “Knowledge is not for knowing”, he wrote, “knowledge is for cutting.”