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.
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Michel Foucault and the Catholic Church

3 05 2010

In general, I have resolved to no longer read anything concerning Catholicism except for things that are at least fifty years old. And even then, I am trying to be highly selective. I have just found that everything that has come out recently has been plagued with such intellectually passé posturing that I am not learning anything anymore. In general, Christian “intellectuals” tend to be obsessed with ideological trends that were cool, say, the middle of last century, and they seem to think themselves “oh so hip” if they can mention Heidegger, Husserl, or (and this is really stretching it) Wittgenstein in a sentence.

Catholic discourse seems plagued by a phenomenological personalism that colors everything it touches a hazy shade of ambiguous. At the local Pauline bookstore in Metairie, they carried the complete works of Edith Stein, ten books explaining Wojtyla’s theology of the body, a couple of books on Aquinas, and a whole lot of nothing else (unless you count Henri Nouwen, which I don’t).
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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.

Defending the indefensible – II

22 02 2010

Some notes on the body and power

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

This is how Michel Foucault opens his work, Discipline and Punish. Again, those who want to go more profoundly into the subject can go do their own research. The main point of these observations was to deconstruct the modern perception of treating the body as a sacrosanct locus of individual rights. For Foucault, power did not cease inflicting pain on the body because of some abstract concept of being “civilized”, but more because other forms of control were deemed more effective and less susceptible to causing sympathy towards the criminal.
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