MICHEL FOUCAULT, French philosopher died on this date (b. 1926); Foucault was a French philosopher, historian, critic and sociologist. He held a chair at the Collége de France, giving it the title “History of Systems of Thought,” and taught at the University of California, Berkeley.
Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. One of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault has had an enormous influence on our understanding of the lesbian and Gay literary heritage and the cultural forces surrounding it. In his explorations of power and his examinations of the history of sexuality, Foucault traces the ways in which discourse shapes perception, focusing often on those individuals and practices considered marginal or abnormal, but finding in them keys to understanding the fragile and imperfect ways that power is deployed by the upper classes, the medical establishment, the scientific community, and the literary and political elite.
Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault’s AIDS-related death in 1984. The first and most referenced volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English — Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonté de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power related to the emergence of a science of sexuality (scientia sexualis) and the emergence of biopower in the West.
The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualite, II: l’usage des plaisirs) and The Care of Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault’s death, with the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. In his lecture series from 1979 to 1980 Foucault extended his analysis of government to its ‘wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behavior of men’, which involved a new consideration of the ‘examination of conscience’ and confession in early Christian literature.
However, Foucault’s death left the work incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality in Christianity was never published. The fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). The volume was almost complete before Foucault’s death and a copy of it is privately held in the Foucault archive. It cannot be published under the restrictions of Foucault’s estate. Foucault advanced a new understanding of the birth of modern consciousness about sexual identity, finding in the concepts of the “heterosexual” and “homosexual” not only a construction of identity for the purposes of regulation, but also a starting point for subversion and resistance.
As many theorists now argue, these narrow notions of identity can be both confining and liberating.