The Little Epilepsy of Orgasm
A review of Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 4: Confessions of the Flesh, ed. by Frédéric Gros and trans. by Robert Hurley (Penguin, 2021)
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 Flesh sat 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,’ 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.
11th century mosaic of Gregory of Nyssa.
Confessions of the Flesh is an austere exposition of the Church Fathers who wrote in the second to the fifth centuries. Foucault leads the reader through the intricately threaded patterns of early Christian theology and sexual ethics. 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. What had happened?
The first volume of the History of Sexuality, entitled The Will to Know, was published in late 1976. It remains a foundational text in queer studies and the study of sexuality and gender. Foucault set out to rebut the ‘repressive hypothesis’, the idea that our natural sexual desire had been repressed by prohibitive powers and must be liberated. Far from it, Foucault argued: sexuality itself was a modern construction cooked up by psychiatrists and doctors which functioned in a web of power relations. The task was not to liberate our sexual desire, but to free ourselves from the very notions of sexuality and desire, to find new forms of pleasure which did not require the stamp of truth.
The first volume was billed as an introduction to a series of five further books, on themes like female hysteria, perversion and eugenics, which would follow in the coming months. Foucault’s archives show that he wrote substantial drafts of at least two of these books: The Flesh and the Body and The Children’s Crusade. The first was a study of Christian confessional practices at the time of the Reformation and Catholic Renewal. The Children’s Crusade was a history of campaigns against child masturbation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chastity belts and arm straps might look like utterly repressive instruments. And yet, Foucault insisted, they had a productive effect, showing the child where sexuality was localised on their body and stimulating illicit explorations. They also had effects on knowledge. Twentieth-century psychoanalysis and sexual science, he implied, had taken up views on the genital localisation of sex from this earlier ‘children’s crusade’, visible in Freud’s focus on the phallus, castration, and penis envy. Foucault wanted to explode the sites of erotic pleasure, to rethink sex in terms of diffuse bodily pleasures rather than orgasm-oriented desire.
Foucault chose not to publish these drafts. A year after releasing The Will to Know, he acknowledged that it had been ‘imprudent to send out first, like an illuminating flare, a book which constantly alludes to forthcoming publications’. Foucault was prone to self-reinvention, and had unwisely constrained himself to a years-long publishing schedule set out in advance. ‘I nearly died of boredom writing these books’, he recalled in 1983.
There were political reasons for his hesitation, too. The original plan for the History of Sexuality was heavily oriented towards dislodging psychoanalysis from its position as the master-key for understanding sex on the political left. A Freudo-Marxism inspired by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, centred on the repression of desire, had captured the imagination of the ’68 generation. By the late 1970s, Freudo-Marxism had had its moment, and there were new problems to address. Now, Foucault was aligning himself with the politics of identity, subjectivity, and the self more broadly. The Black lesbian feminists of the Combahee River Collective had coined the term ‘identity politics’ in 1977. Paris’s first Gay Pride was held the same year, while campaigners like Gisèle Halimi and Jean Le Bitoux established electoral lists for feminists and gay activists. Foucault began to position himself as a theorist of this flourishing politics of identity, which still struggled for political space on the left with the electoral machines of French Socialism and Communism.
The wider culture in which these movements operated was liberalising. Laws on contraception, abortion, and homosexual sex were abrogated in the years leading up to Foucault’s Confessions, after concerted public pressure from feminists, LGBT+ campaigners, and reformers. Facing high unemployment and unrest, Foucault claimed, governments now refrained from ‘pissing everyone off by hunting down homosexuals in nightclubs and in the bushes.’ Morals seemed to be slackening. But these changes raised new questions about how to relate to one another in a ‘liberated’ age. ‘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.’ 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?
An American bathhouse.
While Foucault championed the ‘right to be different’, he objected to a politics centred on the embrace of identity. Identity was something given to us, fixed by mechanisms of power, which ‘atomised communal forms’ and separated individuals. Foucault praised the anonymous and fleeting encounters sustained by the gay bathhouses of California, where identity evaporated in a cloud of steam. It was ‘strategically important’, he argued in a 1978 interview with a French gay magazine, to find places like this to ‘desubjectivize yourself’ even for a moment. Rather than interrogating ourselves to work out our true identity, the task was to ‘invent new relations’ to ourselves, our allies, partners, and friends. In pursuit of this imperative, Foucault’s academic research quietly transmuted. The History of Sexuality was becoming a study on the emergence of the modern self. By tracing how a narrow view of identity had become fixed, his history might contribute to its undoing.
It remained a history of sexuality all the same. In his only contribution to the London Review of Books, a 1981 piece co-authored with Richard Sennett, Foucault asked ‘why it is that sexuality became, in Christian cultures, the seismograph of our subjectivity.’ Sexuality was not just one part of our character; it was the prism through which we understood who we were. Anxious scrutiny of the nature of one’s sexual temptations had escalated into a full-blown ‘hermeneutics of the subject’, a constant, introspective interrogation about which parts of ourselves were authentic and which were exogenous or fleeting fancies. Though Foucault’s historical source material mostly concerned sex, marriage, and homosexual relations, he found in it a series of profound transformations in the nature of the self.
Like the volumes on Greece and Rome, Confessions of the Flesh belongs to this new project on the history of the individual subject. The book’s three sections address the Church Fathers’ writings on penance, on the art of virginity, and on sexual behaviour within marriage. Through painstaking textual commentary, Foucault traces the gradual unfurling of new relations to the self. Christianity was not, according to our author, uniquely responsible for imposing a strict moral code upon sexual behaviour. The pagan Stoics, for example, had proposed similar rules. But Christians related to these rules differently. They identified new parts of themselves to which the rules applied. And they developed a whole suite of new routines and practices, new ‘techniques of the self’, to ensure they upheld them. 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 sexuality 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. According to the writings of the Fathers, the art of virginity ‘lets us live in our body while liberating us from the flesh’. Christian ascetic practices thus divided the subject by constituting the flesh as a separable domain within us, which it was possible to live without. The flesh was a foreign threat 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.’ An ethics oriented towards external acts and other people had become an anxious relation of self to self, in which the outside world figured only as a stimulus for one’s own concupiscence. In Augustine, Foucault caught a glimpse of modern subjectivity, which promised: show me your deepest desires, and I will tell you what you are.
The Conversion of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico.
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 gave a central place to Augustine and Christian theology in his story. Westerners’ liberation from Christian morals in the 1960s and 1970s, he proposed, was only apparent. Californian hippies trying to find their true selves, or gay Parisians reflecting on the nature of their desires, were participating in a hermeneutics of the subject inculcated by more than a millennium of the Christian pastoral. Foucault’s vision of secularisation demanded harder work than the scrapping of taboos and prohibitions. It would be a process of self-alteration, a search for new ways of being together not tied to the truth of one’s desire.
By publishing Confessions of the Flesh, Gros and Foucault’s executors have helped pierce the illusion of finality fostered by scholarly studies of the ‘late’ or even the ‘final’ Foucault, reminding us that he died young with plenty more tricks up his sleeve. By the same token, however, Confessions is not an easy book to read. It is 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 to homo 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 argument 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.