The Productive Failure of Foucault's History of Sexuality

Dr Stuart Elden, University of Warwick, 5 March 2002

Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, left unfinished at his death, changed dramatically over the decade he worked on it. At his death, he had completed three volumes. The first, La Volonté de savoir (The Will to Knowledge), had appeared in December 1976, the second and the third, L'Usage des plaisirs (The Use of Pleasures) and Le Souci de soi (The Care of the Self), in May and June 1984. Foucault moved from a thematic approach - with projected volumes on confession, masturbation, women, the perverse, and races and populations - to a historical approach from ancient Greece to early Christianity. The ongoing publication of his lecture courses from the Collège de France affords valuable insight into the way the series changed focus and direction. To date, three courses have been published: Les Anormaux (The Abnormals) from 1974-75; `Il faut défendre la société' (Society must be Defended) from 1975-76; and L'Herméneutique du sujet (The Hermeneutic of the Subject) from 1981-82. Drawing on these lecture courses and other materials, in this presentation I attempted a partial reconstruction of the original, abandoned, plan, and suggested why it was abandoned.

The presentation argued that rather than seeking the reasons for this change in biographical detail it made more sense to examine what Foucault actually wrote. Looking at these newly published materials it seems that the reason for the problems and the long delay of eight years between the first and second volume was due to the difficulty of the topic of confession. Foucault had suggested that the Christian notion of confession, particularly as codified at the Council of Trent, was central to understanding the confessional procedures employed by psychoanalysis. But on further investigation he realised that this needed to be traced much further back, through the work of the early Church fathers and to what he called `pagan ethics'. The series therefore moved from sexual behaviour to a study of the relationship between the subject and truth, what Foucault called a genealogy of the subject, precisely in order to circumvent such a notion.

The project of which this presentation was an overview has as its model Theodore Kisiel's The Genesis of Heidegger's Being and Time, which traces how and why Heidegger came to write Being and Time in the way he did, and why he left it unfinished. My inquiry is thus an exercise in the history of ideas. But I hope that it is more than that, because I believe that, even though Foucault's initial plan was, in some sense, a failure, it was a productive failure. It was productive because it opened up a number of promising avenues for research, notably in terms of the politics of calculation, abnormality, and race.

Some of my work on this area has been published in two issues of the journal boundary 2 - Vol 28 No 1, Spring 2001 and Vol 29 No 1, Spring 2002.

Stuart Elden