Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Scientia Sexualis" - Excerpt from the History of Sexuality Vol. 1 by Michel Foucault

In his seminal work on sexuality, Foucault begins by establishing how previous discourse on the subject has fallen short, namely by focusing "perversions" and establishing a societal idea of "morality" as the medical norm. He states that the existing discourse (conversation) about sex is actually designed to conceal. Sexual "perversion" was seen as dangerous not only to those living it, but also possibly dangerous to all of society if it were made open and destigmatized. So, it was important to talk about and study, but only in a context which made it clear that there was a very defined "normal" sexuality, and that anything outside of it was implicitly wrong (or, frequently, explicitly so).

Discourse on sexuality essentially served two connected functions:
  1. to sustain "systematic blindnesses" - That is, it perpetuated, through flawed and incomplete studies and works, age-old lies and folktales about sex that supported the binary of moral or immoral sexuality.
  2. to give "a paradoxical form to a fundamental petition to know" - Basically, by claiming to be studies of sex, they gave an outlet to people's deep curiosities on the subject. However, by focusing on the most extreme and abnormal (and usually serving to place those practices even further outside of the bounds of what was moral) most studies avoided the actual topic of healthy sexual activity, failing to answer the "fundamental" questions.
He then explains that in other, usually Eastern, cultures (notably including ancient Rome, but also China, Japan, India, and the Arabic-Muslim world) sex was seen as something very private, and sexual practices were ritualized as a way to pass down powerful and essential knowledge, frequently given from a master to an initiated student. Foucault calls this kind of culture an ars erotica, where sex and eroticism are valued. Part of their perceived power came from their secrecy, and they were said to lose effectiveness and virtue by being revealed. The bliss of sexuality was the reward of attaining that knowledge - essentially, the reward for mastery of the body. That bliss, in turn, of sexual pleasure, was not something to be questioned or studied, but rather just accepted. If a practice led to pleasure, it was a successful practice, and thus knowledge worthy of being gained.

Foucault contrasts this kind of culture with the Western discourse of sex, or scientia sexualis, which, as discussed above, aimed not to show the paths to pleasure but rather to conceal the actual truth of sex, even as it pretended to uncover that truth. The key to scientia sexualis, he said, was the mechanism of confession. Having increasingly relied on confession since the Middle Ages (in crime, religion, literature, and philosophy), Western culture naturally looked towards confession for sexual discovery. The power relationship inherent in confession is a reversal of that created by an ars erotica, where the information is passed from the essentially powerless and uneducated, to the "master" authority figure. Confessional discourse thus inherently cannot come from above. However, because confession is so valued and such a pervasive element in society, those doing the confessing do not notice the societal push to do so. Essentially, we are constantly subjected to forces which are urging us to confess, and then by confessing we see ourselves as a subject (a topic or specific branch of knowledge). As Foucault says, we become "subject in both senses of the word".

This presents a paradox (or an inherently impossible situation) of confessional science. The word science or scientia is here opposed to ars as something outside of human experience. That is, science presumably deals in facts which are true no matter what humans do. Therefore, a science of sexuality would in theory be focused on the physical processes at work, or the mechanics of human reproduction. In fact, though, scientia sexualis treats human experiences as bodies of knowledge to be studied and analyzed. Ars erotica, on the other hand, values sex as a human experience, and does not seek to understand it but rather to value and preserve those practices which can bring about pleasure.

Foucault then asks the question, how did this (the paradox of confessional science) come about? He gives five reasons:
  1. "Through a clinical codification of the inducement to speak" or by creating the evaluations, examinations, and other models of clinical self-discovery which established confession as a valid means of gathering scientific knowledge.
  2. "Through the postulate of a general and diffuse causality" or the generally held societal belief that sex (deviant, accidental, deficit, or excess) influenced every aspect of our lives in some way or another, and so confession about sex could get to the root of those problems.
  3. "Through the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality" or the idea that digging for a confession was necessary because the subject may not even consciously know what they need to confess.
  4. "Through the method of interpretation" of the idea that the truth did not reside solely in the subject, and could only reach completion in the one who assimilated or recorded it.
  5. "Through the medicalization of the effects of confession" or the idea that the truth actually healed conditions.
In short, discourse about sex in the 19th century did not refuse to recognize sex, but rather created an entire system for producing the "uniform truth" of sex - "as if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge". This mechanism also supported the idea of sex as an object of suspicion - the idea of answering the "question" of sex meant that its study was essentially an interrogation as well as supporting the idea of sex as inherently problematic. From this, two processes emerged, where "we demand that sex speak the truth" and "we demand that sex tell us our truth". In this way, scientia sexualis presents a never-ending question, and the search for truth itself became pleasurable, a kind of "pleasure in the truth of pleasure" which in itself may subtly have more in common with ars erotica than previously established.

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