Luke Illot

The Little Epilepsy of Orgasm

[This is an extract from a longer essay which will appear in CHR Issue 17 later this year]

Nearly four decades after his death, we have a ‘new’ book by Michel Foucault. On his hospital bed in 1984, Foucault had been correcting proofs for a fourth volume of the History of Sexuality. It was too late. Foucault allowed no posthumous publications. For thirty years, the half-edited typescript of Confessions of the Fleshsat in a bank vault in Paris. Now Frédéric Gros has assembled material from the imperfect drafts to produce an excellent edition, well translated by Robert Hurley. ‘Foucault belongs to us now,’ as David Halperin wrote in 2011. It is right that we should see what he was working on. Otherwise, the sovereignty of the author has been respected. No editorial apparatus crowds out Foucault’s writing. Despite its attractive presentation, the book feels unfinished.
            Confessions of the Flesh is an austere exposition of the Church Fathers who wrote in the second to the fifth centuries. Nothing here compares to the alluringly gruesome tableau of the execution of Damiens the regicide which opens Discipline and Punish. Eyebrows may be raised at early Christians’ beliefs that the hare grew an extra anus every year which it abused with sexual excess. There is a certain frisson in reading erudite virgins’ attempts to describe the ‘little epilepsy’ of orgasm. But for the most part, the fascination of this text lies in its very sobriety. Less than a decade after he had championed rioting prisoners, clashed with police and suffered broken ribs in the name of revolution, Foucault’s quest for a liberatory politics led him to the quiet library of a Dominican convent in southern Paris, where he pored over Jerome, John Cassian, Tertullian, and Augustine.
            Christianity was not, according to Foucault, uniquely responsible for imposing a strict moral code upon sexual behaviour. The pagan Stoics, for example, had proposed similar rules. There was something more to Christian ethics beyond the repressive moral codes. This observation spoke directly to the liberalisation of morals in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘People were wrong’, Foucault judged in a 1984 interview, ‘when they believed that all morality resided in prohibition and that the lifting of these prohibitions in itself solved the question of ethics.’ Laws on contraception, abortion and homosexual sex had been abrogated over the last fifteen years. Facing high unemployment and unrest, governments now refrained from ‘pissing everyone off by hunting down homosexuals in nightclubs and in the bushes.’ And yet it was hard to speak of ‘liberation’. What if the individuals of the 1980s, free to define their identities and embrace their authentic selves, were participating in a subtler and more ancient subjection?
            What Foucault found in the Church Fathers was the constitution of a certain kind of subjectivity centring on the interrogation of one’s desires, their origins, their meaning. Early Christian writing on penance, on the art of virginity and on sexual behaviour within marriage was organised not around sin but around temptation. It was not enough to confess one’s sins after the fact. One must work upon oneself to prevent them arising. ‘What is involved, then, is not a code of permitted and forbidden acts, but a whole technique for monitoring, analysing, and diagnosing thought, its origins, its qualities, its dangers, its powers of seduction, and all the dark forces that may hide beneath the appearance it presents.’
            Very quietly – Foucault never defines the word – a concept of the flesh emerges in the texts of the Church Fathers. It was the flesh which the techniques of monitoring targeted: temptations, carnal lusts, libido. Practices of ‘mortification’ allowed subjects to purge and restrain the flesh. The art of virginity ‘lets us live in our body while liberating us from the flesh’. Christian ascetic practices thus dividedthe subject by constituting the flesh as a separable, foreign threat within us, manipulated by Satan to lead us into sin. Earlier Greek ethics, Foucault claims, had been concerned with avoiding excess in outward acts, regulating the ‘use of pleasures’. Christianity constructed a murky and dangerous realm of sexual temptation at the very heart of the ethical subject. Its ethics looked inward with a permanent vigilance.
            At first, these techniques were restricted to pious communities of monks and virgins. But after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in 380, the Church Fathers developed a ‘pastoral’ which adapted the ethics of purity and continence to the mass of married couples. Addressing these families, they had to allow that sex was not in itself sinful. According to Augustine’s influential reasoning, what mattered was not the sex, but the quality of the desire behind it. The real moral stakes of sexual relations lay in one's relation to one's own concupiscence. ‘The problematization of sexual behaviours […] becomes the problem of the subject. The subject of desire, whose truth can be discovered only by the subject itself in its innermost being.’
            Confessions of the Flesh is a powerful retrospective addition to the crop of studies on the history of the self which responded to the apparent individualism of the 1980s. Like Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self (1989), and Larry Siedentop’s more recent Inventing the Individual (2014), Foucault gives a central place to Augustine and Christian theology in his story. Altering the mode of subjectivity given to us, he implies, will also be a process of secularisation.
            This is, however, an unfinished assemblage which offers few signposts to the reader bewildered by its intricate discussions of the Church Fathers. Does the book trace a genealogy of the model of a juridical subject propelled by desire which would inform subsequent Western political and social thought, from Hobbes to Hegel tohomo economicus? Does it challenge the use of ‘consent’ as a framework to think about sex, a ‘contractual notion’ which Foucault criticised in a 1978 discussion? The subtlety of Foucault's arguments leaves the door open to future interpreters. But the most exciting contribution made by Confessions of the Flesh lies in its basic premise: that the obligation to look into our desires and work out who we are is a strange and reversible invention.