Home Books Confessions of the Flesh: The History of Sexuality, Volume 4: by Michel Foucault

Confessions of the Flesh: The History of Sexuality, Volume 4: by Michel Foucault

If the “social construction” of identity has trickled down to everyday parlance, at least by those with a modicum of exposure to academic jargon, it’s thanks to Michel Foucault. The French philosopher extended his decades-long investigation (post-modernist disciples would call it “interrogation,” then “intervention”) into the mechanisms of power by his interpretation of how men and women conceived that sexuality defines us, as individuals enact their gender. Foucault submitted Confessions of the Flesh to his editors at Gallimard in 1982; when he died two years later, he had been correcting its proofs; but the work has been withheld until now. The volume is fulfilling, if not as a complete work, then as the definitive compendium of all extant material for volume four of his History of Sexuality.

First articulated nearly 60 years ago, Foucault envisioned History of Sexuality as a cultural history of how men and women, from the classical era on, conceptualized the body, pleasure, desire and intimate relationships. He began to fill in the gap between its first volume, The Will to Knowledge (1976) and pagan sexuality in The Use of Pleasures and The Care of the Self in 1984. He’d been working in this liminal space of late antiquity and early Christian thought already, as the necessity for understanding Christian thinking required following it back to tangled roots in Greece and Rome.

Confessions, as its French editor Frédéric Gros summarizes in a brief forward to Robert Hurley’s translation, violates Foucault’s wishes, as he forbade any posthumous publications of his papers. However, in 2013, after the sale of his archives, his nephew reasoned that the time for Confessions had arrived. Gros painstakingly assembled a coherent narrative, although lacunae inevitably remain. Hurley admirably captures the seminar lecture tone which marked so much of Foucault’s oeuvre. Despite its heft and density, the result preserves the conversational feel of the professor’s approach, which has inspired many and infuriated others.

What Confessions aims at evades facile explication. Searching for reasons why the imposition of the medieval Catholic system of surveillance through this sacrament of confession occurred, its author scrutinizes the human subject. He or she in classical times expressed discourse as logos, the word shared between people. The Church Fathers, schooled in this standard thinking, remodeled this perception into a theo-logos, where God’s message took precedence as power.

Between the second and fifth centuries after Christ, the subject-person grew bonded to his or her sexuality. Paradoxically and perhaps ironically, those who tried to slough off their sinful flesh found themselves inextricably trapped in their incarnations. As penitents commanded to admit their faults to priests, monks and nuns had to reveal their inner torments. Seeking purity, those confessing were sworn to tell that which they strained to forget. For Foucault, the emergent monastic and then ecclesiastical and lay cultures all coordinated their supervision of those who did not act out so much as tell the truth. The sexual self (risking repetition, using Foucault’s customary terms best explicates his mindset) becomes exposed. As the false self, that which must be rejected, the sexual core of one’s being represents confinement rather than liberation. Through austerity and renunciation, self-incrimination expresses the flawed sexual self through self-sacrifice. Unable to escape sexual subjectivity, the Christian ascetic aspired towards casting off the carnal carapace, even as this remained an idealized spiritual and not fleshly subject.

Virginity, veracity in a disciplined mind and violence forced upon the body, constituted the apparatus which Foucault introduced into scholarly discourse. Submitting and obeying another, set up as one’s authority, required technology, hierarchy, architecture, goods and codices.

However, Confessions delves so deep into this dense patristic doctrine that the medieval manifestations of sexual surveillance and suppressed sin throughout the multicultural community of Christendom barely surface for long. Foucault got only as far as Augustine. Any student of theology or philosophy knows how intricate the Bishop of Hippo can get, as his fluent rhetoric flows into formidably challenging passages filling far more pages than even Foucault.

Given that proviso, readers may follow this near-contemporary thinker into rarified territory far more churched than his previous texts. Yes, such erudition requires dogged attention and considerable familiarity with arcana. Confessions of the Flesh represents Michel Foucault’s respect for sources likely to have never been plumbed by those who associate the author with carceral construction, queer theory, mental illness or archaeologies of knowledge.

This posthumous work from the French philosopher challenges stereotypical pagan vs. Christian suppositions.
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