The Mind on Sex

The Use of Pleasure: Volume II of The History of Sexuality

by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley
Pantheon, 293 pp., $17.95


The original French edition of the first, introductory, volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality appeared as long ago as 1976 and the expectations it generated were very high. Here was one of the most distinguished and sophisticated practitioners of the history of ideas and institutions turning his attention to yet another fundamental issue in the development of modern European sensibility. What he had already done for such subjects as madness, the clinic, and the prison, he was now to attempt to do also for “sexuality,” a notion which may seem utterly familiar, but which only becomes explicit for the first time in the nineteenth century.

In each of his major earlier studies he analyzed an idea or an institution which is nowadays often taken very much for granted, investigating its background or antecedents and the ways in which it is validated or legitimated. In the process he demolished or at least undermined many cherished assumptions about the self-evident rationality of Western culture and society. The earlier works on which his brilliant reputation was based had in each case not just suggested a new understanding of the subjects they discussed, but also advocated, and practiced, a new methodology in the history of ideas. The projected multivolume work on sexuality can be seen as, in some respects at least, continuous with some of his earlier pre-occupations. Some brief remarks on those earlier works will serve as a reminder of some of Foucault’s distinctive insights and style and help to locate the starting point for the study of sexuality.

“A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason” is the English subtitle and the principal topic of Madness and Civilization, his first major study, in which he pursued the issue of just how the Enlightenment understood madness and treated those it deemed mad. As in his subsequent works, the investigation involved not just the analysis of the changes and interplay of concepts, but more the analysis of the institutions that gave these concepts concrete expression. Among other things, this study showed how in an age of reason, and indeed in the name of reason, confinement came to be used increasingly as a method of dealing with those who were considered not to conform to the norms of rational behavior. Foucault charted, in particular, the foundation and the varying fortunes of the great Parisian asylums, such as the Hôpital Général and La Salpêtrière, and the spread of institutions based on these models—and of course their eventual decline. He analyzed the types of justification put forward by those responsible for setting them up and used by those who ran them—the protection of society, but also often the good of the inmates themselves—and he described the transformations that occurred in the perception of madness once such institutions existed to give, as it were, visible proof of society’s verdict that those confined were mad. Nor did he fail to point to the exaggerations in the idea that no sooner were those asylums closed than…

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