BMCR 1998.06.04

98.6.04, Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity

, , , Rethinking sexuality : Foucault and classical antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. [ix], 258 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780691016801 $18.95(pb).

A noted sociologist recently remarked in a talk entitled “The Ethics of Michel Foucault” that much of Foucault’s work was a working through and a working out of the third stage of the Master/Slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology, the stage of unhappy consciousness. As such, his whole oeuvre demonstrates the restlessness of thought that seeks to unthink itself, to unmake the categories of its own existence. It is one of the features I find most appealing about his work, and one that is most often overlooked in classicists’ appropriations of the History of Sexuality (hereafter History). The editors of this volume, by contrast, devote their introduction to situating Foucault within the philosophical tradition and giving a clear account of his relationship to other contemporary schools of thought such as psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and gay and lesbian studies. With each of these Foucault’s connection is problematic. In structuring the introduction as a dialogue between philosophies that have stakes in similar issues, the editors make the larger picture of Foucault’s work available to the uninitiated, at the same time as they sketch its lacunae and the criticism which has been leveled against it. The philosophical underpinnings of his work are then brought to light in an accessible fashion, and the detailed bibliographical notes that accompany the presentation and description of each new approach greatly increase the value of this chapter.

The crux with which Foucault’s History presents us as scholars of antiquity is his cross-disciplinarity. He is often sloppy with his data, too narrow in his choice and interpretations of source materials, and he self-confessedly lacks some of the tools required for a sensitive handling of this historical era. Several of the essays in this volume document these lapses, supplying a view more nuanced and complex than the sexual behemoth that Foucault has created of antiquity. In particular, feminist scholars L. Foxhall and A. Richlin demonstrate that Foucault hears only the male voice in the discourses he adduces to sustain his argument about the (male) subject’s relationship to himself. This relationship to self is the most important feature of the distinction Foucault draws between what he calls the ars erotica of classical Greece and the scientia sexualis that characterizes our own era. Fifth century (male) Greeks, he argues, constituted themselves as subjects through the practice of self-mastery with respect to all the appetites. But he arrives at this conclusion by taking his male sources at face value, sometimes even eliding their narrative voices with his own (cf. Richlin). In other words, he is not a good narratologist. And as Foxhall points out, women’s agency can be heard in the anxiety of the Athenian male narrative, while the possibility of women as subjects capable of desire and self-mastery needs to be considered. Richlin offers a more searing critique: not only does Foucault ignore the many sources that do document women’s lives, he also appropriates scholarship by women to create his own theories, and winds up getting all the credit.

However, the feminist criticism of Foucault is only a tributary of the larger problem, whose wellspring consists of the dichotomy between philosophy and history. Most of the pieces in this volume are devoted to pointing out the areas in which Foucault got it wrong, or missed certain important points, with respect either to historical or to literary evidence. Thus Foxhall and Richlin are concerned to fill in the record of women’s history, while D. McGlathery explores the tale of the Pergamene boy in the Satyricon to illustrate Foucault’s lack of sensitivity to sources other than medico-philosophical and moral-prescriptive. More attention to literary texts such as Petronius’, Pseudo-Lucian’s, or Martial’s, would have brought to light the abiding concern with pederasty that still characterizes Roman first century mores, albeit as satirical or ironic commentary on the ideal Platonic model. J. Carnes criticizes Foucault’s reading of Aristophanes’ myth in the Symposium for its lack of sensitivity to narrative context. While Carnes agrees that the myth conceives of sexuality as a construct rather than an essence, he argues that Plato creates it in order to illustrate an ideal of reciprocity, with regard both to desire and to philosophical inquiry. Foucault decontextualizes the myth in order to speculate historically about the hierarchical relation between man and boy, but Carnes claims that the correspondence between the myth and historical reality is at best a secondary interest. More to the point is the paradigm of reciprocal desire that Plato relates through Aristophanes’ myth and reworks in Diotima’s speech. Ultimately, Plato uses both to deconstruct contemporary gender norms and reconceptualize eros as a univeralizing force that becomes synonymous with philosophical inquiry in the person of Socrates.

Foucault identified the figure of Socrates as a master and transmitter of the ars erotica, seeing in the Symposium a particularly authoritative piece of evidence for his theory of ancient sexuality. But Carnes argues that the development from ars erotica to scientia sexualis is not linear, as Foucault would have it, but cyclical, as the speech of Alcibiades depicts Socrates as an entity that has truth within him, as well one who displays self-mastery. Carnes suggests that Plato anticipates Foucault in this regard, building both types of self-relationship into the Symposium. More nuanced than McGlathery’s, Foxhall’s and Richlin’s, and more appreciative of what Foucault does have to offer, Carnes’s analysis nevertheless documents literary and historical lapses, the thrust of his criticism being the fact that Foucault did not investigate history carefully enough, nor read the Symposium closely enough.

All of these readings contribute to our understanding of antiquity, but what they contribute to our understanding of Foucault’s scholarship on antiquity is less clear, other than to show that as well as exhibiting lapses, it provides a fertile field of ideas. What is clear from these essays (less Carnes’s than the others) is the general view that Foucaultian work on the ancient world does not really count as serious classical scholarship, and that what classicists do is very different than what he does. The classicist’s history, it appears, bears very little relation to Foucault’s. What does Foucault do, then? In what way, if any, is he worth studying? Can (classical) historians afford to ignore him, dismissing his work on antiquity for its philological and historical gaffes? A. Vizier’s piece illuminates this problem, as he opens his discussion with Foucault’s question: “But, then, what is philosophy today?” Vizier points out the connection between thinking philosophically and thinking historically when he emphasizes Foucault’s debts to Marx and Nietzsche. Their legacy to him was the possibility of interrogating the conformities and regularities that calcify philosophy into Weltanschauung; or, as Foucault has it, thinking into thought. This calcification is a historical process, one that Foucault was concerned to map out according to the various ways in which philosophy has complied with and reinforced the organization of social control. His analysis, also a marriage of Hegelianism and Marxism, seeks to understand power relations both philosophically and historically. The union between the universal and the local is not always harmonious, but Vizier’s piece implies that we might think of Foucault in between the two disciplines, a philosophico-historian.

Vizier argues that for Foucault sex exists in the delicate balance between historical artifact and philosophical construct. Those who would seek only true explanations about its history ignore the dimension of sex that responds to more philosophical demands, such as its uses in the creation and maintenance of subjectivity. J. Black claims that the History presents the struggle Foucault waged with psychoanalysis, a discourse that seeks to understand the subject through universalizing truth claims. Black suggests that after he had written the first volume, Foucault had to abandon the project, as he saw that on his own terms it was unfeasible to write a history of sexuality without inscribing himself within the psychoanalytic tradition he sought to avoid. Instead, he turned to those societies that provided a different model of the individual’s relationship with self—one in which the self was not the product of knowledge but of poiesis and performance effected by control and regulation of the appetites. In so doing, Foucault looked to history both to provide inspiration and to ground his theory of the subject within a real network of power relations, working diachronically through successive epistemes, or ways that bodies have functioned in relation to other contemporary discourses, rather than synchronically toward a knowledge of the truth of sex. On this view, history helps Foucault to think differently. But Black also points out the affective aspects of sexuality, including illusion and fantasy, that Foucault overlooked in order to turn his back more effectively on psychoanalysis.

Foucault’s turn toward the ancient world therefore represents his need for a different model, a new space in which to think a different kind of desiring subject. His work on antiquity was not conceived as a historical project in the sense that a classical historian understands it, and it seems reductionist to criticize him for historical oversights while a much larger philosophico-historical project remains to be explored and expanded upon. P. Miller’s superb piece both takes Foucault on his own philosophical terms and explores the problematics of Foucault’s use of historical exempla. Miller argues through Hegel, Nietzsche and Bataille that Foucault’s History does not account for the phenomenon of historical change or difference. Transgression, the closest Foucault comes to a model of change, represents only a kind of bending of the boundary that springs back into place again as if the transgression had never occurred. Boundary and transgression dialectically reinforce one another, but never allow for anything new or different. This model, essentially a misreading of Hegelian negativity, does not really serve the historian’s interest, if his interest is to explain why Catullus (Miller’s interest here) is different from Seneca or Pliny. Miller uses Catullus as an ancient example of a different subject: one that is sometimes split or different from itself, as well as being different from Foucault’s creation of a fifth century Greek or a first century Roman. Miller’s critique thus treats history and philosophy, indeed, the philosophy of history as Foucault uses it.

Miller’s criticism remains that of a sophisticated and philosophically informed historian. Change and difference are important if that is what you seek to explain. Foucault did not. It is, finally, P. duBois’ piece that seems to rest content with acknowledging the kinds of criticism to which Foucault leaves himself open (particularly feminist), but acknowledging too its debt to him. She points out that despite the blindspots, Foucault’s analysis nevertheless lends itself to feminist projects by virtue of the fact that it calls into question the essentialized subject. Reading certain fragments of Sappho, duBois shows how Foucault’s work allows for a conception of the historical subject constituted by networks of discourses perhaps very different from our own. In other words, the past, including Sappho, is a different country, and we cannot unproblematically see in ourselves a continuation of it (or vice versa), much as we might like to.

Ultimately, this collection of essays represents a turning point in classical scholarship, in that it calls for an examination of what classics as a discipline might do if it would admit Foucault into the realm of philology. This is not to say that we should all become French philosophers and forget our historical training, but rather that we could reorient the historical model from its positivist concern with finding things as they really were toward a recognition of our own interaction with and invention of them. We may rightly criticize philosophers if the departure from philology and history leads to the oblivion of a lived reality. But so too must we recognize the gift of self-reflexivity that philosophy can bestow. Foucault, like Nietzsche before him, helps us do that, and this volume demonstrates admirably the kind of push he has given us. Having just taught an undergraduate class on sexuality and gender in classical antiquity, I discovered that trying to incorporate Foucault is like exploding a bomb: the effects radiate and return, and the answers, alternatives, and explanations stratify in response. This volume presented me with just such a stratified response, one that I could always dig into for another way of understanding. The bibliography was comprehensive and will provide an invaluable research tool, while discussions of other authors helps to fill in background gaps.

Oscar Wilde described the Nineteenth Century horror of realism as “the rage of Caliban looking at his own face in the glass.” The classicist’s walk to the mirror with Michel Foucault may be similarly revealing. Criticizing his scholarly methods is surely important if we are to understand his model properly, but we must surely not reiterate the mistake that Wilamowitz made with Nietzsche. Both had a lot to offer us.