Reassessing Foucault: Modern Sexuality and the Transition to Capitalism

Car­avag­gio, The Card­sharps

In love and mem­o­ry of Chris Chit­ty, our dear friend and bril­liant com­rade, who read this paper aloud at His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism New York four years ago.

Are the premis­es of queer the­o­ry real­ly anti­thet­i­cal to a his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist under­stand­ing of the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism? A reassess­ment of Foucault’s sem­i­nal work con­sid­er­ing the dis­posi­tif, or deploy­ment of sex­u­al­i­ty, and his account of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism, in the His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume 1 (which is prob­a­bly not how most peo­ple remem­ber that book, but… I’ll explain) seems cru­cial to mak­ing a judg­ment either way. Con­sid­er­ing he’s some­thing of the patron saint of queer the­o­ry, and this is his sem­i­nal work on the sub­ject, we might per­haps dis­cov­er the error of the whole for­ma­tion in the thought of its founder – that’s in any case what I am going to try to do for you today. 

So I sub­mit to you Saint Foucault’s three car­di­nal sins. First, Fou­cault read Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1, and he read it very care­ful­ly (def­i­nite­ly a sin). Sec­ond, Fou­cault uni­ver­sal­ized sex­u­al sci­ence, or seems to uni­ver­sal­ize sex­u­al sci­ence. And third, Fou­cault ques­tions sex­u­al repres­sion, which in the milieus of 1970s politi­ciza­tions of sex was also a heresy. 

With respect to the first sin, that of read­ing Cap­i­tal, I think you’ll prob­a­bly agree with me that queer the­o­ry doesn’t real­ly fol­low the sins of the founder in per­pet­u­at­ing that par­tic­u­lar iniq­ui­ty. There are, how­ev­er, intel­lec­tu­al-his­tor­i­cal rea­sons for this, which I don’t real­ly have time to go into (I think Cinzia [Arruz­za] point­ed out some of the prob­lems in Butler’s own thought about his­to­ry, or absent thought of his­to­ry). I am using the term sin here some­what face­tious­ly, but con­sid­er­ing how Fou­cault was attacked by Sartre, for being “the last ram­part the bour­geoisie can erect again­st the rev­o­lu­tion,” and con­sid­er­ing all of the kind of facile left­ist cri­tiques of him for lack­ing any kind of the­o­ry of rev­o­lu­tion­ary prax­is or some­thing, it’s iron­ic that Foucault’s own con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of his­to­ry as a process with­out a sub­ject is derived from none oth­er than Marx him­self. I am sug­gest­ing it’s kind of dan­ger­ous, in some cir­cles of Marx­ism, to read Cap­i­tal too close­ly.

The sec­ond and third car­di­nal sins are far more deci­sive for the for­ma­tion of queer the­o­ry. They are direct­ly respon­si­ble for what we could term their dema­te­ri­al­iza­tion of what Fou­cault under­stood by the term dis­course. His actu­al argu­ment as I recon­struct it for you today is that the dis­course of sex­u­al sci­ence is a bour­geois for­ma­tion, because it’s among the bour­geoisie that the sci­ence is first cir­cu­lat­ed and had its first mate­ri­al effects. In oth­er words, Fou­cault argues that sex­u­al­i­ty is pri­mar­i­ly or at its incep­tion a bour­geois sci­ence, a bour­geois con­cern for bour­geois bod­ies, and was only lat­er, with great dif­fi­cul­ty, extend­ed to the work­ing class­es. Fou­cault was quite flip­pant about the mech­a­nisms for this exten­sion, or deploy­ment, in The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty Vol­ume 1, and in three or four para­graphs (which I’ll read to you one of them) of peri­odiza­tion, he sketch­es the his­to­ry in the broad­est of strokes. This idio­syn­crat­ic way of pre­sent­ing a very com­pli­cat­ed his­tor­i­cal the­sis allowed lib­er­als to read past this mate­ri­al to ignore it and to invent a rather breath­less Fou­cauldian­ism in which some free-float­ing dis­course springs ful­ly formed from the brains of sex­u­al sci­en­tists (you [Cinzia] sig­naled some of those themes), and pro­grams the way peo­ple con­duct their sex­u­al­i­ty, the way they con­ceive of it, and the plea­sures that are pos­si­ble to derive from it.

This leads in queer the­o­ry to a rather facile oppo­si­tion between the body as a site of resis­tance and nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, and a sex­u­al-sci­en­tific for­ma­tion of dis­course rather than under­stand­ing the sex­u­al body to have been con­sti­tut­ed, excit­ed, even, by sex­u­al sci­ence itself. This per­verse hermeneu­tic allows the queer for­ma­tion to dis­cov­er in this book, which is so crit­i­cal of sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion, some ratio­nal­i­ty for its own pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with putting diverse sex­u­al­i­ties into dis­course. In oth­er words, they find some polit­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the lib­er­al project of extend­ing sex­u­al­i­ty, to include more bod­ies, to extend bour­geois con­cerns for health to more bod­ies, lib­er­al moral­ism, etc. So Foucault’s account of biopow­er, although skewed in its empha­sis and guilty of each of the­se sins, illu­mi­nates some cru­cial his­tor­i­cal fea­tures of this tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism that Marx­ists and queer the­o­rists alike have tend­ed to ignore.

The the­sis that’s pre­sent­ed by Fou­cault requires a lit­tle mas­sag­ing to be put to this pur­pose, and in what fol­lows I advance the fol­low­ing read­ing hypoth­e­sis: sex­u­al­i­ty plays a cen­tral role in both the pri­or accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal and the real sub­sump­tion of labor by cap­i­tal. I’ll sug­gest to you that Fou­cault found this idea in Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1, in the chap­ters on the strug­gles over the work day and those on heavy machin­ery, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In a book with very scant ref­er­ences, it’s in black and white at the bot­tom of the page.

So, first then, Fou­cault read Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1, and he read it care­ful­ly. The the­sis of this read­ing is: sex­u­al­i­ty could only become a prob­lem for soci­eties in which com­mu­ni­ties of pro­duc­ers have been sep­a­rat­ed from their means of pro­duc­tion. The above is an adap­ta­tion of the con­cept of biopow­er. How­ev­er, in Fou­cault the idea is stand­ing on its head. He mere­ly observes that sex­u­al­i­ty could only appear prob­lem­at­ic for soci­eties in which human life is aug­ment­ed by new tech­nolo­gies, opti­miz­ing the pow­ers of indi­vid­u­al bod­ies accord­ing to dis­ci­pli­nary norms, so that they were increas­ing­ly pro­duc­tive – this is dis­ci­pline. It can only appear prob­lem­at­ic for soci­eties in which human life is repro­duced and reg­u­lat­ed by eco­nom­ic pres­sures and objec­tives, or biopol­i­tics.

This implies a sep­a­ra­tion of pri­ma­ry pro­duc­ers from their means of pro­duc­tion. Per­haps Fou­cault doesn’t address this pri­or sep­a­ra­tion because he assumed most of his read­ers in France already knew this. Per­haps he real­ly con­sid­ered large-scale man­u­fac­tur­ing rather than the emer­gence of the wage rela­tion or land­lord-ten­ant rela­tions in the coun­tryside to be the essen­tial trans­for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. Or per­haps he was mere­ly fol­low­ing Marx’s empha­sis on machin­ery in the fac­to­ry sys­tem in Vol­ume 1 – I favor the last expla­na­tion.

The hinge of this tran­si­tion, the cross­ing of what Fou­cault calls the biopo­lit­i­cal thresh­old of moder­ni­ty, is the devel­op­ment of large-scale indus­try in the fac­to­ry sys­tem, replac­ing man­u­fac­ture and hand­i­craft pro­duc­tion, which forced wom­en and chil­dren onto the job mar­ket, which broke down all the lit­tle cot­tage indus­tries of fam­i­ly-cen­tered house­hold pro­duc­tion. The first trades to adopt automa­tion and large-scale machin­ery are, as many of you prob­a­bly know, the yarn, fab­ric, and gar­ment indus­tries. The option of this tech­nol­o­gy reduced the sig­nif­i­cance of human effort, human mus­cu­lar expen­di­ture, and allowed the sub­sti­tu­tion of child and female bod­ies for male bod­ies in the labor process, bring­ing down the vol­ume of labor by broad­en­ing the mar­ket of labor and bod­ies. Marx calls this the real sub­sump­tion of labor by cap­i­tal. Fou­cault calls it the biopo­lit­i­cal thresh­old of moder­ni­ty. At stake in this biopo­lit­i­cal thresh­old of moder­ni­ty is the advent of what Marx ter­med the despo­tism of the fac­to­ry sys­tem, using an archaic polit­i­cal term to describe a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. Using a more mod­ern, New­to­ni­an metaphor, Fou­cault calls it a micro­physics of pow­er. In both cas­es the the­o­ret­i­cal expo­si­tion is moti­vat­ed by a desire to dis­place the law in under­stand­ings of pow­er based on legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion or the law. The abstract indi­vid­u­al is, Fou­cault sug­gests, an ide­o­log­i­cal fic­tion, but this indi­vid­u­al, this abstrac­tion, is not mere­ly of the realms of ideas and dis­course; cap­i­tal­ism actu­al­ly man­u­fac­tures the abstract indi­vid­u­al, and it was mass pro­duced on fac­to­ry floors, in armies, in schools.

Foucault’s empha­sis and ter­mi­nol­o­gy are moti­vat­ed by the desire to provide a new mythol­o­gy of pow­er. This is in keep­ing with the polit­i­cal tra­di­tion of polit­i­cal the­o­ry, stretch­ing from Hobbes and Sorel to the Frank­furt School. There are two tar­gets for this new myth of pow­er as a net­work, of pow­er as a cap­il­lary sys­tem: (1) the fig­ure of the law, the tru­ism that pow­er is author­i­ty, and (2) the fig­ure of the own­er of prop­er­ty, the tru­ism that pow­er is mon­ey, or the vul­gar and sim­plis­tic idea of a dom­i­nant class from which all oth­er social rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion are derived. 

So far, so good. But Fou­cault can­not pos­si­bly want to do away with prop­er­ty rela­tions alto­geth­er, as the­se would be essen­tial to any accu­rate account of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. He’s not being tech­no­log­i­cal­ly deter­min­ist in assign­ing pow­er of the sep­a­ra­tion to large-scale machin­ery and automa­tion, but his rhetoric of tech­nolo­gies of pow­er risks this read­ing. Foucault’s reac­tion to vul­gar Marx­ism thus leads him to a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis overem­pha­siz­ing bour­geois dis­course, and under-empha­siz­ing the ways that this dis­course attempt­ed to incor­po­rate the work­ing class. He does not explic­it­ly address the trans­for­ma­tion as a sep­a­ra­tion of pro­le­tar­i­an wom­en and chil­dren from house­hold means of pro­duc­tion, which occurred some­time in the mid­dle of the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry in most indus­tri­al­iz­ing cities but ear­lier in Britain. He also pass­es in silence over the way this machin­ery and its absorp­tion of wom­en and chil­dren pro­duced a con­cern for the sex­u­al­i­ty amid­st work­ing con­di­tions on fac­to­ry floors, although he does refer to the chap­ters in Cap­i­tal in which Marx cites the­se reports. He doesn’t address how the liq­ui­da­tion of peas­ant pro­pri­etor­ship trans­formed peas­ant sex­u­al­i­ty. He refers to this peas­ant sex­u­al­i­ty in pass­ing as being caught up in a kind of pas­toral pow­er of per­haps con­fes­sion to a priest, express­es doubts over whether peas­ants actu­al­ly cared what priests thought about what they did. But there’s evi­dence that mar­riage restric­tions became pro­hib­i­tive to many agrar­i­an com­mu­ni­ties in the first decade of the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry on the con­ti­nent. Eccle­si­as­ti­cal author­i­ties began refus­ing to mar­ry peo­ple lack­ing prop­er­ty or sta­tus in peas­ant com­mu­ni­ties as an attempt to inhibit the growth of an indi­gent pop­u­la­tion. This is very much moti­vat­ed by Malthu­sian con­cerns for, basi­cal­ly, a fear of poor peo­ple hav­ing sex, and then those peo­ple pro­duc­ing more vagabondage. This Malthu­sian con­cern of the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry peaked in the 1830s, most­ly on the con­ti­nent. Although the phe­nom­e­non of tran­sience was less extreme in Britain, this con­cern is reg­is­tered in the 1834 reform of the poor laws, and the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the work house sys­tem. The work­house sys­tem was devised along explic­it Malthu­sian lines of sex seg­re­ga­tion, of men from wom­en, in order to pre­vent poor peo­ple from hav­ing het­ero­sex­u­al sex. 

By the late nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry in Lon­don, there was a pan­ic about homo­sex­u­al activ­i­ty, specif­i­cal­ly in the male work­hous­es. There’s this one account pub­lished of a kind of bour­geois man who went under­cov­er as a work­ing class per­son in the work­house, called My Night in the Work­house… [laugh­ter] he wit­ness­es this bath, and has all the­se fan­tasies about what’s going on. He doesn’t actu­al­ly wit­ness any homo­sex­u­al sex, but in this gentleman’s pub­li­ca­tion kind of scin­til­lat­ing­ly sug­gests that’s what the work­house sys­tem was about. This hap­pens in the 1860s, so it’s pri­or to the Wilde tri­al.

Fou­cault refers to the 1830s as a peri­od in which rul­ing class­es attempt to reg­u­late the urban pro­le­tari­at with the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage with the cam­paign again­st the immoral­i­ty of the poor. So we might quib­ble with him, that it was a rural and urban phe­nom­e­non, we might quib­ble with him and say he omit­ted some things, but his account is basi­cal­ly cor­rect. The­se are the silences and emphases of his account. Per­haps he thought giv­ing a more thor­ough account would have required rehears­ing argu­ments from Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish about the great efforts to curb vagabondage. Per­haps he thought such his­tor­i­cal obser­va­tions were obvi­ous, but the­se omis­sions have enabled all the mis­read­ings. Most cru­cial­ly he doesn’t elab­o­rate the impact of this crush­ing blow to fam­i­ly cen­tered pro­duc­tion as the source of the sex­u­al irreg­u­lar­i­ties of the work­ing class­es, and seems to posit a kind of con­ti­nu­ity between a bucol­ic, free sex­u­al­i­ty of the peas­antry, and then this new urban phe­nom­e­non of pro­le­tar­i­ans that don’t care about bour­geois sex­u­al norms. All the­se trans­for­ma­tions are pri­or to the birth of sex­u­al sci­ence, and includ­ing them or empha­siz­ing them in his account would have required reduc­ing this sig­nif­i­cance of sex­u­al sci­ence, which brings me to Foucault’s sec­ond car­di­nal sin: he seems to uni­ver­sal­ize sex­u­al sci­ence.

The­sis two. Sex­u­al­i­ty takes hold of the pop­u­la­tion through a sci­en­tific ratio­nal­iza­tion of three abnor­mal sex­u­al types: the hys­ter­i­cal wom­an, the sex­u­al­ized child, and the psy­chol­o­gized per­vert­ed-type.

You’ll notice that each of the­se types is a bour­geois one. Fou­cault points this out him­self. There weren’t any pro­le­tar­i­an men or wom­en on Krafft-Ebing’s couch. By its own admis­sion, this the­o­riza­tion of pow­er is an attempt to get a han­dle on how the biol­o­gy of pop­u­la­tions became the tar­get of polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion and social con­trol. To actu­al­ly make the argu­ment would have required an account of how bour­geois sex­u­al­i­ty was extend­ed to pro­le­tar­i­ans. That account as it stands in The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume 1 is brief, and I’ll read it out to you in full.

Grant­ed that one of the most pri­mor­dial forms of class con­scious­ness is the asser­tion of the body, at least this was the case for the bour­geoisie through­out the 18th cen­tu­ry, the bour­geoisie exchanged the blue­blood of nobles for a fit organ­ism and a healthy sex­u­al­i­ty. It will be under­stood why it took so long and required over­com­ing such great reluc­tances for the bour­geoisie to award a body and a sex to the oth­er class­es, pre­cise­ly to those who it was exploit­ing. The liv­ing con­di­tions dealt to the pro­le­tari­at, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, demon­strate very lit­tle wor­ry over its body and its sex. Far from it. It was no mat­ter of whether those peo­ple lived or died. Any­way, it was repro­duc­ing itself all on its own. Con­flicts were nec­es­sary for the pro­le­tari­at to be given a body and a sex­u­al­i­ty, for its health, sex, and repro­duc­tion to become prob­lems. Con­flicts over urban space were nec­es­sary. Con­flicts over cohab­i­ta­tion, prox­im­i­ty, con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, epi­demics like the out­break of cholera in 1832, con­flicts over pros­ti­tu­tion and vene­re­al dis­ease, were all absolute­ly cru­cial. Eco­nom­ic emer­gen­cies were nec­es­sary, the devel­op­ment of heavy machin­ery requir­ing sta­ble and com­pe­tent work­forces, the neces­si­ty of con­trol­ling the flow of pop­u­la­tions and obtain­ing a par­tic­u­lar demo­graph­ic com­po­si­tion. Last­ly it was nec­es­sary to estab­lish a whole tech­nol­o­gy of con­trol for main­tain­ing super­vi­sion over this body and this sex for which they were final­ly rec­og­nized: school­ing, hous­ing projects, pub­lic hygiene, assis­tance and insur­ance agen­cies, the gen­er­al med­ical­iza­tion of pop­u­la­tions, in short, and admin­is­tra­tive and tech­ni­cal appa­ra­tus that allowed for the dis­posi­tif of sex­u­al­i­ty to be import­ed into the exploit­ed class­es, with­out dan­ger. Sex­u­al­i­ty no longer risked affirm­ing this class, oppo­site the bour­geoisie. It remained the instru­ment of its hege­mony. Hence the reluc­tance of the pro­le­tari­at to accept this dis­posi­tif, hence its ten­den­cy to say that all this sex­u­al­i­ty is a bour­geois affair and of no con­cern to it.1

So in this quote we have an account of how sex­u­al­i­ty, con­cern for health, the body, etc, is the basis of bour­geois attempt to phys­i­cal­ly aug­ment its pow­ers over the class­es it exploits. It is not an ascetic art or a kind of protes­tant ethic, but rather a reg­u­la­tion of sex­u­al­i­ty that aug­ments the phys­i­cal pow­ers of the bour­geois body, and inten­si­fies some of its plea­sures, con­cen­trates them in the fam­i­ly unit. Fou­cault was a care­ful stu­dent of ear­ly sci­ences of race and under­stood that they were first applied to the low­er class­es of Europe. Sex­u­al­i­ty was first a eugeni­cist project to breed a bet­ter bour­geois body. It was only lat­er extend­ed to the work­ing class­es in diverse projects of social con­trol after polit­i­cal upheavals, after cholera and dis­eases threat­ened to spread to this pure and healthy bour­geois body. Although Fou­cault seems to empha­size abnor­mal bour­geois sex­u­al types in his empha­sis on sex­u­al sci­ence and con­cern for the body, and although he seems to uni­ver­sal­ize this sex­u­al sci­ence, how the fam­i­ly, the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage and sex­u­al­i­ty was first installed among the bour­geois and then extend­ed with great polit­i­cal efforts to the work­ing class, is actu­al­ly far more cen­tral to his sto­ry.

How­ev­er, in His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume 1 he has ren­dered it with the rather awk­ward French term dis­posi­tif d’alliance, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as the vague turn of phrase “the deploy­ment of alliance.” The word alliance is a faux amis for anglo­phones. Here it means the dis­posi­tif of mar­riage. Alliance has the mean­ing of a har­ness or con­nect­ing strap in eques­tri­an arts, and it is a metonym in French for the wed­ding ring.

So Foucault’s account of mod­ern sex­u­al­i­ty is com­plete­ly lop­sid­ed, to the extent that it empha­sizes a very late peri­od in the devel­op­ment of mod­ern sex­u­al­i­ty – i.e. the late 19th cen­tu­ry – and doesn’t con­sid­er the oth­er pro­le­tar­i­an side of the Vic­to­ri­an sex­u­al for­ma­tion in any great detail oth­er than par­en­thet­i­cal for­mu­la­tions I’ve just read to you. Trac­ing this his­to­ry would have been a much greater effort. It would have required that he look at oth­er archives than what he was usu­al­ly look­ing at. Also, his argu­ment is that it’s liq­ui­dat­ed, so what is the point of study­ing it any­way if it is gone? The result­ing the­o­ry pro­ceeds by assum­ing bour­geois sex­u­al­i­ty to be hege­mon­ic, rather than rig­or­ous­ly account­ing for how it became hege­mon­ic, hence the impres­sion that he uni­ver­sal­izes sex­u­al sci­ence.

Three: Fou­cault ques­tions sex­u­al repres­sion. The­sis num­ber three is that mod­ern sex­u­al­i­ty isn’t repressed, it is con­stant­ly put into dis­course and cir­cu­lat­ed. This is what makes the sex­u­al­i­ty of “the West” so dis­tinc­tive from a his­tor­i­cal or com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive. This axiom gloss­es repres­sion as sci­ence and cen­sor­ship. Post-patri­ar­chal soci­eties are under­stood to shape sex­u­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ty through a cir­cu­la­tion of sex and dis­course. Pow­er over sex is no longer con­ceived as the “know” of the law and the play of trans­gres­sion, but the “enjoy” of a more per­mis­sive soci­ety. This axiom ques­tions the tenets of a cer­tain for­mu­la­tion of gay lib­er­a­tion, con­ceived as “com­ing out of the clos­et,” an eman­ci­pa­to­ry for­mu­la­tion that, it bears remem­ber­ing, wrote the script for most sub­se­quent alter­nate sex­u­al­i­ties seek­ing recog­ni­tion from states and soci­eties. The clev­er­ness of Foucault’s inter­ven­tion here is that he takes the for­mu­la of sex­u­al free­dom in cir­cu­la­tion of the 1970s and shows how it actu­al­ly informs the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for an old­er pow­er over sex­u­al­i­ty. This inter­ven­tion shows some­thing of the polit­i­cal project behind his His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume 1. Fou­cault says, “we are all Vic­to­ri­ans as much as we care about sex.” Per­haps a bet­ter point to make would have been to say that we’re all bour­geois in our con­cern for sex­u­al ethics, sex­u­al pol­i­tics, health, body, etc. 

His tar­get is not Mar­cuse, who he seems to agree with from the hypoth­e­sis about a repres­sive desub­li­ma­tion. He thinks Reich and the sex­u­al eman­ci­pa­tion move­ment that formed around him mere­ly attempt­ed a tac­ti­cal rever­sal of the dis­posi­tif of sex­u­al­i­ty, and attempts to over­throw the bour­geois sex­u­al hege­mony with some more pro­le­tar­i­an sex­u­al­i­ty, but the essen­tial terms of the rela­tion­ship remained the same. They are just flipped. Fou­cault con­sid­ers the absence of any polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions accom­pa­ny­ing the rad­i­cal sex­u­al changes in “West­ern soci­eties” as proof that all this sex­u­al eman­ci­pa­tion real­ly failed to dis­lodge the hege­mony of the bour­geois, and that Reich’s hypoth­e­sis that social rev­o­lu­tion would fol­low didn’t play out. He might have argued that the per­sis­tence of fam­i­ly struc­tures remained the proof that sex­u­al­i­ty could become more open with­out the loss of bour­geois hege­mony. The stakes of the argu­ment here are huge. He seems to fol­low Gram­sci in con­sid­er­ing sex­u­al­i­ty as absolute­ly essen­tial to bour­geois hege­mony over the work­ing class, and essen­tial to its neu­tral­iza­tion as an antag­o­nism in “the West.” Queer the­o­rists such as Judith But­ler seem to get off here. But they fail­ure to con­sid­er the basis of Foucault’s his­tor­i­cal expo­si­tion in an analy­sis of class rela­tions of the 19th cen­tu­ry. In jet­ti­son­ing this con­tent Judith But­ler and oth­er queer the­o­rists hypo­sta­tize Foucault’s cat­e­gories of pow­er and resis­tance into a free float­ing nor­ma­tiv­i­ty stand­ing above an equal­ly neb­u­lous resis­tance poten­tial, sub­ver­sion among queers, and – per­haps she’s not as vol­un­tarist as some peo­ple have read her – you know, her analy­sis of drag queens is where peo­ple get off with that read­ing, a sub­ver­sion of codes is a sub­ver­sion of pow­er rela­tions. That might not be true. Pow­er rela­tions are mate­ri­al.

So what can we learn from Foucault’s three car­di­nal sins? The first thing I would like to sig­nal is to remem­ber the dan­ger of dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing dis­course. Sex­u­al dis­course is a nec­es­sary start­ing point. But empha­siz­ing it risks dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing it. What are the actu­al mate­ri­al effects of a sex­u­al dis­course? I’ll take an exam­ple from ACT UP’s first slo­gan, “Silence Equals Death,” or the gen­er­al injunc­tion to kind of put sex into dis­course of safer sex prac­tices. What are the mate­ri­al effects of the­se appar­ent­ly rad­i­cal dis­cours­es had? Well, first of all, it respon­si­bi­lized sex­u­al­i­ty.

In oth­er words, it led to a kind of neolib­er­al sub­ject for­ma­tion for homo­sex­u­als in which you have to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for your own sex­u­al activ­i­ties, rather than hav­ing a more social solu­tion to the prob­lem of AIDS, which would have empha­sized uni­ver­sal treat­ment and care. It’s an indi­vid­u­al respon­si­bil­i­ty rather than a social respon­si­bil­i­ty. That’s the kind of basis for the mor­al­iza­tion around the syn­drome, for the stig­ma of peo­ple who get it: they’re bad peo­ple, they made bad deci­sions. It’s also the basis of the inte­gra­tionist project of the gay move­ment. It also deliv­ered us into the hands of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try, and it deliv­ered us into those hands quite ear­ly. The kind of care of the self, the focus on the self and the per­son­al respon­si­bi­liza­tion of sex­u­al deci­sions neu­tral­ized the polit­i­cal for­ma­tion around AIDS before it real­ly called cap­i­tal­ist prop­er­ty rela­tions into ques­tion. And here, you have to look at some­thing like the way intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty over AIDS tech­nol­o­gy has worked to the exclu­sion of Africa, and how the move­ment again­st AIDS stopped or real­ly lost its momen­tum as soon as we got med­i­cine here. It nev­er extend­ed to say “the­se are the­se oth­er bod­ies over there that are still dying.” We might ask how oth­er dis­cur­sive con­cerns for health help mask polit­i­cal neu­tral­iza­tions. In the dis­cus­sion we might have a larg­er con­ver­sa­tion about the ruse of dis­course that appar­ent­ly seems sub­ver­sive but might have mate­ri­al effects that wind up rein­forc­ing pow­er rela­tions.

The sec­ond point is that “sub­ver­sion” and the­o­ries of sym­bol­ic sub­ver­sion are over­rat­ed. We have to remem­ber the dan­gers of hypo­sta­tiz­ing fig­ures of resis­tance, sex­u­al or oth­er­wise, espe­cial­ly in polit­i­cal milieus. Self-asser­tion of the body in a pol­i­tics of recog­ni­tion is a rigged lib­er­al game. While may­be essen­tial to get­ting tan­gi­ble needs met, it’s also how lib­er­al­ism weasels its way into the move­ment, neu­tral­iz­ing more rad­i­cal ten­den­cies. It risks a mere­ly sym­bol­ic resis­tance, pos­tur­ing and new moralisms. 


  1. See Michel Fou­cault, The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, Vol­ume 1, trans. Robert Hur­ley (New York: Pan­theon Books, 1978), 126-7. We have pre­served Chris’s own trans­la­tion from the orig­i­nal French. 

Author of the article

was a theorist and activist. He played a pivotal role in student struggles at the University of California and the Occupy movement.