The Secrets of Sex

10 05 2010

The major purpose of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is to overturn the idea that the formulation of sex in the modern context goes along the lines of repression and permission. This is the premise behind the “Sexual Revolution”: the concept that, within our enlightened epoch, sexuality is freed from the repressive Victorian past. Foucault shows throughout the book that not only was sex part of societal discourse in the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, but sex was spoken of more often, and was more central to this discourse than it had ever been. The tendency then becomes that of sexuality defining one’s inclusion in the normal or the pathologically excluded: it no longer becomes an issue of what one does, but of who one is.

That is why subjectivity in modernity is not so subjective after all. A brief survey of sexual identity politics would shed more light on this topic. Homosexuality is certainly a hot button issue these days, but the discourse around it contains premises that, when observed impartially, seem profoundly outdated. There is of course now the widely accepted idea that homosexuality is inherited genetically. Not only is such determinism used as both a means of liberation or condemnation depending on what side of the ideological spectrum one falls, but it creates in the general mind of society the idea of how a homosexual should behave, what are his preferences, how he should live, and so forth. Either as a victimized martyr or scapegoated demon, what you do determines who you are in your deepest, innermost being.

But the paradigm of repression itself often serves to shape how people define themselves. Perhaps the starkest example of this was the Christopher West-theology of the body debacle of a year ago. Not that I would like to fully relive that blunder of rhetorical sloppiness, but it is interesting how much Mr. West buys into the paradigm of modern society being “sexually repressed”. Indeed, the whole premise of his “ministry” is to show how only the Catholic Church can provide “true sexual liberation”, how modern licentiousness provides a false solution to a “real problem”. How that problem arises or its nature is unclear, but again we have the same model reproducing itself: what one does determines who one is. One’s actions have to be dissected, explained, and brought into the light. We must find the foundational reasons as to why we do the things we do and fit them into predetermined categories created by technocratic experts.

The latter mentioned things are the reason that our subjectivity is not so subjective after all. The dark recesses of the human mind, in all of its creativity and depravity, have been mapped out and managed by a system of social controls and incentives that put us all in the right boxes. Relativism is thus not so relative after all, but is rather the mirror image of a society based on generalized commodity production; the free flow of goods and services; and the dominance over society of impersonal finance capital. Scratch the surface of even the most violent critiques of philosophical relativism, and you will find in them the same premises: an acceptance of religious and ideological freedom, a passionate belief in “human rights”, a love for societal peace at all costs, and so forth.

It has even come to the point that leaders of the Catholic Church, formulators of many of the technologies of confession, have to speak in terms of what Foucault would call, “biopower”. Pornography is not only a sin, but it is a societal disease: it breaks up families, lowers the population through the creation of sexual disorder, and directs energies away from the proper deployment of sexuality. The worry in much of the modern world is that there are not enough babies to maintain the institutional presence of the Church, that the present sexual regime does not allow for the formation of a morally strong, militant cadre of Catholics. It is strange that the concerns of the current hierarchy seem to echo the concerns of the social technocrats since the Enlightenment. But even an institution so ancient as the Catholic Church cannot escape the language of biopower that dominates every institution in our society. On the contrary, one must remember that it was the Church itself that helped to create this language.

Is there an escape from this web of “biopower”? Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. But we must never forget that the regime that we have now is a recent creation, one that could easily change. With that, I end with a quote from Foucault himself:

Moreover, we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow.



12 responses

23 05 2010

I don’t think Courage knows what it wants to be. It claims agnosticism over the NARTH method, but links to it on their website. It doesn’t claim to offer a cure, but advocates “sports camps” to butchen up men. It bills itself as a 12-step group, but has never used the Big Book or classical 12-step techniques. For example, one hallmark of 12-step is the testimony, where a person explains his/her progress in recovery. In Courage, there was no testimony and an immense downward pressure not to criticize the program. The focus was more on pleasing the priest-leader than speaking one’s doubts. This was quite the opposite of a 12-step group I also attended, where critique and dissent was permitted and even encouraged.

This is all off topic. Getting back to the Foucaultian point: Courage is the Church’s political (not therapeutic) response to greater societal openness/awareness of homosexuality. Courage is trying to rebuild the closet around a phenomenon that can no longer be conveniently categorized. Homosexuality has always existed — it’s just that now it has an independent voice in the public square. A gay/homosexual/SSA person can choose to follow the church’s teaching or not, and choose to identify according to a range of politically-laden terms, but that’s his/her decision within the context of an increasingly value-neutral or ‘relativistic’ culture. Courage is rather impotent to control the “does” — the way people choose to represent themselves to society. Life should be approached in fear and trembling, but not a fear superimposed by others in a vain attempt to recreate an idealized sub-society where a certain phenomenon is heavily restigmatized and rehidden. Rather, a person should choose to follow Christianity on his/her own volition. Courage’s desire to set every parameter of a person’s life negates the volition of faith and fails to address the reality of open discourse in liberal and plural society.

22 05 2010

Are you sure about that? IIRC, NARTH believes that homosexuality can be cured and attempts to do so through extensive counseling. Courage, OTOH, takes no position on whether same-sex attraction (SSA) can be “cured” and neither promotes nor discourages such therapy. The latter mostly encourages people with SSA to live chaste lives, sometimes even including close (yet platonic) same-sex friendships. I don’t see how these two groups have the same goals, or what is so unCatholic about Courage’s approach.

15 05 2010

Does Catholicism explain why painters always give Adam and Eve navals?

12 05 2010
Sam Urfer

Some of the most spiritually developed people I know have disaster zones for personal lives. “Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Religion certainly ain’t a self-help program, at least when it’s honest.

Now, while I agree with much of what you are saying, I feel compelled to respond to the question” “For crying out loud, how many times does sex appear in the Gospels, let alone the rest of the Bible?”

There is an entire book of the Bible (Song of Songs) that has a literal meaning tied entirely to sex, which is also one of the most allegorically and anagogically charged books in the whole of Scripture, second probably only to the Apocalypse. Additionally, there is a pretty fair amount of sex in the historical narratives of the OT, including adultery, incestuous rape, cuckoldry, Coitus interruptus, prostitution both monetary and religious and a fair bit of legitimate “knowing” of wives which isn’t nearly as euphemistic in Hebrew. I agree that there are some weird attitudes about sex current in the Catholic world today, but it is not absent from the Tradition, either.

12 05 2010
Fr Maximos

Much food for thought.

12 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think the major concerns that I am trying to get at here need to be highlighted. Firstly, I would like to reiterate that the Catholic Church is sex-obsessed to the point of it being profoundly unhealthy. It doesn’t matter if that is how society is: what matters is that someone swim against the tide. For crying out loud, how many times does sex appear in the Gospels, let alone the rest of the Bible?

On the modern subject: it needs to be re-examined. I think we have gotten to the point where we no longer see our own interconnectedness with culture, history, and the past. The only thing that matters is the “I”, the invincible “I”. I think that is a dead end and leads to nihilism.

Since the French Revolution, the institution has been the embodiment of ideology; it becomes the deposit of truth, and no truth can exist outside of it. (Hegel, Marx, etc.) I would contend that this is not only not Christian, but not human. But in all things, a sense of balance. My own posts on folk religion (what ordinary people believe when important people aren’t looking) speak volumes concerning this.

Perhaps modern religiosity struggles out of a sense of fear: of nihilism, chaos, etc. But that isn’t going to appeal to anyone. People make careers out of trying to prove Catholicism useful, and most don’t get paid very well. But where is the sense of creativity, warmth, and authenticity? Where is the boldness, the reflections of the immortal, sovereign soul? I can only feel sorry for those would want their religion to be “useful” If you are broken, at least in my experience, “churchiness” can’t do a lot to put you back together. At least not by itself. You have to be put together already: gratia non tollit naturam sed perfecit.

11 05 2010
Fr Maximos

Fair enough. But it seems strange to “model the ancient philosophers” by skipping the ethical conclusion to a train of thought. Philosophy without virtue doesn’t seem any more honest than what seems to lie beneath your caricature of the “plaster saint”, virtue without philosophy.

How far are you prepared to follow Foucault in exposing the coercive strategies of “biopower” beneath moral claims? It seems to me that the only really honest approach is to go all the way. But look where that takes us. Having unraveled every last string in the web of power surely one discovers that the final knot to be untied is that of consciousness itself. The “self” that I have been trying to liberate from the controls imposed by identity politics turns out to be merely an expression of the most intricate power play of all, an evolutionary meme into which every “I” ultimately dissolves. After all, if sexuality is so susceptible to confessional control, why should not every aspect of embodiment fall prey to biopower, including physical and psychic consciousness itself? “Am I being myself?” may be no less a trick question than the “am I doing right?” that religions and other ideologies make us ask.

Didn’t Foucault call himself a Nietzschean? Certainly I can’t see how this trajectory takes us anywhere but to nihilism.

What we have here are alternative views of reality. In the end everything is either reducible to power, or it is reducible to truth. The problem as I see it is that most of the evidence experience provides us suggests the first alternative. This is why Nietzsche and, to the extent that he follows Nietzsche, Foucault, are really courageous thinkers. They take experience as the only guide to reality and ruthlessly exclude all a priori notions, be they the pre-modern God or the modern Reason. What you’re left with is will, mere assertion finding strategies of survival and propagation.

Perhaps the really strange thing is not so much that western philosophy has discovered the Nothing hiding behind everything, but that ancient philosophy was so determined to find Something, a primordial ground of being, which is to say truth, not power. This is especially why I am so drawn to neoplatonic philosophers myself. I share their preference. But, as I say, most of the evidence seems to point in the other direction! Like Augustine, I’ve concluded that the only real way to discover truth is if truth itself saves me. The only real counter-evidence I have is the Resurrection, a fact preserved only in the memory and sacraments of the Christian church. Truth cannot in the end be discovered, as the philosophers thought, by contemplation alone. It must be revealed.

Where I think I agree with you most strongly is in your disgust with what you call “institutional” Christianity (is there really any other kind?) and its tendency to play the power game, co-opting the message of Paschal liberation as a means to control and coerce. You raise the example of the homosexual. First thing I’d say is that it matters completely whether the person in question is a Christian or not. If not, none of our business except in the general sense that we’re interested in evangelizing everyone outside the Church. What about the Christian homosexual? Here I’d love to abandon the rhetoric so recently adopted at the Vatican level of pathology versus normalcy, disorder versus order, unnatural versus natural. I’d want us to return to the patristic sense that all Christians are called to the same liberation through conversion and communion, purgation, illumination and union. And I’d want this process to be understood as free and spiritual, not coercive, as corresponding to mutual service in the building up of communities of virtue rather than as forced labor in the slave camps of the “natural law.”

If there really is truth, and not just power, then it is permissible to confess and convert on the way to that truth. If there’s no truth, then to hell with it all. What most Christians seem to want to do today is have a bob each way. Religion may not be true, but at least it can be useful. It can make us moral. It can promote peace and harmony. This is a lie. “I have come to cast fire upon the earth.” I for one am grateful to people who remind me of this, no matter how tenuous there connection to my faith might be.

11 05 2010

Arturo’s comment on Christopher West reminds me of Courage. Courage, the Catholic ex-gay program, subscribes wholeheartedly to the NARTH methodology. NARTH is an attempt to build a scientific theory around homosexuality that relies on cultural stereotypes to create a new definition of homosexuality that supposedly fosters a “Christian life”. NARTH’s goal is not necessarily reformation according to Christian sacramentality or piety but the construction of a “doing” along the lines of an idealized masculinity that few heterosexual-[identified] men approach or care to effect. Courage claims that it can remove the “is” of the “secular temptation to live the ‘gay lifestyle’.” (few lesbians in the organization). Instead, these organizations merely create a replacement “is” through a sham “does”. The question of sin and sacramentality plays a surprising small role in the new “is” of the Courage reformed homosexual.

Courage is merely a reformation of the Foucaultian “is” as Arturo interprets it: “The tendency then becomes that of sexuality defining one’s inclusion in the normal or the pathologically excluded: it no longer becomes an issue of what one does, but of who one is.” Courage, like Christopher West, erects the straw man of “secular sexual bankruptcy” not to illuminate people on Christian sexuality and sacramentality but rather to create a new, and sometimes wildly optimistic or even impossible, “does”.

Why Church hierarchs and conservative/ultramontane laity vociferiously support programs like Christopher West and Courage baffle me. Their methodology has very little to do with Christian orthopraxy. Rather, their creation and exaltation of an artificial “is” erects an unholy idol beholden to the very secular-bound stereotypes these organizations loudly reject.

10 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Inevitably, we come up to the “where do we go from here” questions. Regular readers of this blog will know that I loathe to offer solutions, let alone systematic ones. I think I should also be clear that my ideological allegiance to institutional Christianity is much more tenuous than it is for many of you. Indeed, my own model in life now is the ancient philosopher and not the saint in plaster. I don’t really seek holiness with what I write but clarity; I don’t seek to “evangelize” but rather to lead people to reflect on their own lives and come to their own conclusions. In other words, if you are trying to read this like a typical Catholic website, you are going to have a hard time putting this all together.

With that out of the way, I think one has to inevitably reflect that, especially in sexual matters, a great deal of hypocrisy just goes with the territory. Let me give you a perfect example: what are we to do with homosexuals in stable relationships who will inevitably become part of our lives? Are we to shun them? Are we to look the other way? Are we to treat them like second class individuals in our personal relationships? I don’t think there is a “right” approach in this circumstance. If one is so inclined, one can consult with a spiritual guide of one’s choice, but ultimately it is up to one’s conscience. In other words, I am not going to sacrifice integrity to appease an institution; I am not going to morally posture to assuage my guilt over my own hypocrisy. At this stage of my life, I am all for soft decisions, and not hard, set-in-stone ones.

Spirit is strong and unchanging, and matter is weak. Instead of trying to fit everything into our “spiritual” categories, we must acknowldege this first and foremost. I like in particular Foucault’s phrase: the care for the self, and from that, the care for others. My prejudices are anti-institutional, so perhaps what I say is colored by that bias. But I don’t like being manipulated. If you like it, all power to you. Just don’t expect me to cower before the moniker of “subjectivist”, because we all make those decisions now, and the institution oftentimes only provides tyranny, not “objectivity”.

10 05 2010
A Sinner

Yes, what do we do now? How should we think, how are we supposed to feel? Who are what should we be? Is the modern paradigm really better or worse…or just “different”??

10 05 2010
Fr Maximos

And while you’re at it….would you mind humoring some questions to clarify what I think is a very interesting line of argument?

Is this what you’re saying: in modern western thinking the “self” has disappeared beneath the heel of the “identity”? In other words, that “power” has completed its conquest of “truth” by forcing the latter from the field altogether, even from the field of human consciousness itself. Contemporary subjectivity consists in interrogating consciousness into some kind of political discourse by making the words “what?” and “who?” equivalents.

And, furthermore, I think you’re saying that the triumph of “identity” has been so complete that hardly anyone even notices it, not even the ministers of a Gospel which is, at it’s core, supposed to be the proclamation of the final triumph of the authentic self through resurrection over every constraining power. In other words, in apparent defense of an ontologically transcendent “who?” the post-Reformation church can offer only an alternative “what?”. For this reason Christian “confession” is no less coercive in intent and effect than the secular alternative under attack in the rhetoric of the “dictatorship of relativism.”

If this is more or less on track with your analysis, then it seems to me that your use of Foucault as a diagnostic tool is incredibly insightful. But….where to now?

10 05 2010
brian m

Mr. Vasquez, while I have no qualms with your focus on Foucault’s analysis of power and its effect on the body, especially as it pertains to the Church from at least the Counter-Reformation onwards, it seems important to consider that his notion of “a different economy of bodies and pleasures” in HoS v.1 was itself a disavowal of sexual identity and taxonomy, for lack of a better word. No longer would we identify or categorize the homosexual, or the pedophile, for instance, but rather we would recognize the multidirectional movement of power as it transcends and transgresses the scocially-designated categories that you cite above, and inhabits bodies in different historical moments and in different bodily configurations. Foucault scholars like David Halperin suggest that the assertion in HoS v.1 of the primacy of “bodies and pleasures” over specific sexual identities was the first shot fired in the “queer” revolution, that is, in the assertion of an anarchic sexual power that cannot be limited by sex, sexual identity, gender, etc.–it is “queer” in the old sense of not being easily categorized or identified, and also “queer” in the new sense of challenging the usual paradigms of heteronormativity.

Given these premises (if you accept my quick and dirty summary of HoS v.1), may I ask what you think a “renegade trad” should take from his assertion? How do we resist the “austere monarchy of sex” promulgated by the Counter-Reformation Church and taken to its logical limits in the JPII era, without disavowing Catholic moral doctrine altogether? What would that look like?

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