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Category Archives: Foucault

Foucault’s Tortured Text, and the Ars Erotica

I recall that despite Chomsky and Foucault’s famous disagreements, Chomsky admitted that Foucault did have some very signfiicant ideas, but he was at a loss to explain why he expressed them as he did. There is something in this. There is form which characterizes Continental expression, which perhaps even more than its conclusions, rankles those who long for clarity. Foucault, in a way, at the level of form, expresses the very aspect of the Real that he argues for, and it is this more than anything else, I would suggest, that qualifies his rejection, by some.

Foucault’s Ars Erotica in the Field of Knowledge

In reading Foucault as a sociologist, one has to come to grips with his other projects, some of which can be summarized as “philosophical,” and even more broadly as “writerly”. The aims here is to briefly contextualize Foucault’s critique of Western epistemologies of sex within a larger world project, that of turning knowledge itself into pleasure, and beyond that, pleasure into pleasure-for-its-own-sake. It is through Foucault’s contrastive analysis, the comparison between Western scientia sexualis and a largely Eastern ars erotica, that Foucault seeks to subsume Western attempts to identify, categorize and discipline sexuality, within a more complete and totalizing view of Power as pleasure. It is in this philosophical move, brought about through textual imbrications (opaque vocabularies, serpentine sentence and thought structures taking up specific historical reference points), that Foucault presents in form, the very thing that he reveals in content.

To recapitulate, Foucault operates from an understanding of how pleasure has been handled differently in past societies. One of these ways he presents with contrastive force is the erotic arts, ars erotica. In this approach to pleasure, truth is supposedly made subservient to pleasure; in the ars erotica it is through techniques that bring pleasure, that truth-as-pleasure appears:

In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice, and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered a relation to the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself (57)

As manipulations, positions taken and stagings are performed, as excitation is heightened by initiates, the ars erotica of the East and of the lost past, achieves a self-evident and self-redeeming “truth”.

Following this model as hidden template, there is for Foucault–with his acute nose for pleasures taken–in the historical movement from the traditional hierarchies of the Catholic Church and the confessional offices of the priest, to the investigative, enlightened, positivistic pursuits of the Western scientist, a move marked by the indelible pathways of pleasure production. Enlightenment processes, far from holding pleasure down, were simply making new forms of pleasure (ways of discussing and particularizing what did not historically exist before). Thus what Foucault recognizes is that in the 19th and 20th centuries as scientists took over for priests as confessional recipients of “truth”, they invented ways of pleasuring, multiplying them in discourse. Instead of finding out ‘sins’, observers were identifying perversions, repressions, symptoms, clinical hysterias, etc.; and in their tracking down the elusive excesses of sexuality, and seeking to express the “truth” that is hidden and resistant in pleasure itself, this very process was developing is own pleasure in Power. It was quietly an ars erotica:

And we must ask whether, since the 19th century, the scientia sexualis-under the guise of its decent positivism-has not functioned, at least to a certain extent, as an ars erotica. Perhaps this production of truth…multiplied, intensified and even created its own intrinsic pleasure…We have at least invented a different kind of pleasure: pleasure in the truth of pleasure (70, 71)


in short, the formidable “pleasure of analysis”…constitutes something like the errant fragments of an erotic art that is secretly transmitted by confession and the science of sex. Must we conclude that our scientia sexualis is but an extraordinarily subtle form of ars erotica, and that it is the Western, sublimated version of that seemingly lost tradition (71)

Putting aside the critical possibility that Foucault has romanticized this “lost tradition,” and simply projected it upon the history of the scientific West, (for that would point to the “truth” of his descriptions, and not their internal coherence), what is the consequence of turning truth in pleasure to pleasure in truth? 

The overarching result is that despite, or possibly because of, the increasing individuality of Western society, (emphasis on the self as an agent of choice, increasingly detached from traditions), the pleasure of Power, the subtle ars erotica of the investigative scientia sexualis can be seen by Foucault to be manifested upon the social body itself, a centerless circulation of effects, staged through manipulations and techniques of examination and inscription:

[an imagined interlocutor suggests of Foucault]…at bottom, when you point out phenomena of diffusion, anchorage, and fixation of sexuality, you are trying to reveal what might be called the organization of ‘erotic zones’ in the social body (151)

to this Foucault adds importantly that such zones are literally organized on “bodies, organs, somatic locations, functions, anotomo-physiological systems, [in] sensations and pleasures” (152); this is as if to compose a material super-body (the linking of bodies to bodies through knowledges), that is both socially constructed and physical. The ars erotica of the past which worked to give illuminative pleasure to a person, or a couple, the kama sutras of individual sexual excitements, become for Foucault the imagined Tantric excitations of an entire social body, wherein pursuits of truth becomes practices that produce “erotic zones” on that social body, such that the pleasure and power is held by no one. The transcendent effects of sexual disciplines, become the transcendent effects of the discipline of sexualities.

This leaves the final question of Foucault’s style, and the possibility that he is enacting the very circulation of pleasure effects he claims to uncover in both the “lost” ars erotica and Enlightenment scientia sexualis. As Foucault pauses over historic manifestations of power (symptoms), orbiting them with a slightly opaque discourse of combinative mental effects, is he not presenting the very indiscernible pleasure that knowing, locating and excitation entails? What Foucault reveals is an eroticized view of the world, but also of text, (one might say epistemology and texuality as sexuality), wherein in our attempts to master either the discourse or the phenomena, we implicate ourselves in the pleasure of knowing.


Work Cited

Foucault, Michael. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vintage Books Edition. New York: Random House, Inc., 1990.