“Population”

27 04 2010

One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of “population” as an economic and political problem: population as wealth, population as manpower or labor capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded. Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population”, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation…At the heart of this economic and political problem was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birthrate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile… Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less, a whole web of discourses, special knowledge, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.

-Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I

I once asked one of my mentors what a Father of the Church would think if you brought a birth control pill to him and explained to him what it was. He thought my question silly, because he said that, for them, sex was disgusting and not worth discussing at all. Aside from a very few exceptions, I have largely seen this view as correct.

That is why there was such a dearth of “spiritual reading material” for the married person qua married person. Sure, a married person could read, for example, the Imitation of Christ, but even there the presumption is that the reader is a monastic or a priest. The same goes for most Christian spiritual literature up to very recently. Sex was not a correct topic of conversation, and it was far from spiritual things.

The fact that we are more “open” towards “sexuality” now in the religious context has nothing to do with seeing the light or recovering a more consistently “incarnational” approach towards these questions, but rather is part of a modern technocratic trend of power to bring sexuality, that simultaneously creative and destructive force, under subjection. Sex is money, sex is power, sex is the discourse of modernity. Since man no longer fears the transcendent, he must deify the most powerful natural force: the procreative one and all that surrounds it.

It is thus through Foucault’s glasses that I see the new “theology of the laity”, “theology of the body”, and the continued complaint by Catholic and other Christian clergy that people need to have “more babies”. Of course, there is an element of supernatural care in it all, but I don’t think it easily separated from the very modern tendency of thinking of sex as power.