Wednesday, January 25, 2012

David Halperin--Forgetting Foucault (1998)

Halperin takes the title of this article (which was later included as a chapter in his 2002 How to Do the History of Homosexuality) from Jean Baudrillard’s 1977 pamphlet Forget Foucault (Oublier Foucault).  Halperin is not only critical of Baudrillard’s take on Foucault—which he disparages for Baudrillard’s insistence on “leaving the sexual aspects [of Foucault’s work and life] aside” (93)—but sees his work as symptomatic of the continued misreadings of Foucault’s work, especially that of his 1976 History of Sexuality, Volume 1.  In this article, Halperin elucidates two key misunderstandings of Foucault’s text: (1) the oversimplification and misunderstanding of Foucault’s differentiation between the sodomite and the homosexual; and (2) the misunderstanding of his deployment of “bodies and pleasures” as the “irreducible elements of sexuality” (112).
To Halperin, the most significant misinterpretation of Foucault has been to “mistake his discursive analysis for a historical assertion” (111).  What Foucault originally intended as an analysis of “discursive and institutional practices” (97) in his discussion of the differences between the early modern sodomite and the nineteenth century homosexual has been instead misunderstood as an almost dogmatic distinction between sexual practices and sexual identity.  Using the work of John J. Winkler (who examines the category of kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies) and Johnathan Walters (who compares Apuleius’s story of the baker’s wife to that of Boccaccio), Halperin explains how these works “challenge the orthodox pseudo-Foucauldian doctrine about the supposedly strict separation between sexual acts and sexual identities in European culture before the nineteenth century” (108).
Halperin intends his argument to encourage a more nuanced and complicated investigation and understanding of the ways in which sexual identities have changed over time, as well as a more nuanced and complicated understandings of Foucault’s work.  And although anymore it seems as if the inclusion of a section such as “Forgetting Foucault” is almost mandatory in queer scholarship, such clarifications do seem to continue to be necessary, as the examples Halperin gives amply illustrate.  In fact, I would argue that Halperin’s complaint that Foucault’s work has been reduced to “a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon” (94) is true because Foucault’s work (even—or perhaps especially?) in translation uses such pithy phrases to convey quite complicated ideas.  It’s very tempting to pull a line like, “Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence” (History of Sexuality 60) out of context, simply because it is so enticing—though to do so completely undercuts the statement’s meaning.
Halperin attributes much of this misunderstanding to readings which focus solely on the aspects of sexuality in the work and don’t take into account his larger arguments regarding discourse.  It’s true that Foucault “deploys” sex and sexuality (and his very specific uses of these words) within a larger discussion of the history, meanings, and interactions of power and discourse.  However, I’m concerned that Halperin himself might be misunderstood as advocating for a kind of “leaving the sexual aspects aside,” similar to that for which he takes Baudrillard to task (93).  I wonder if these misreadings might be accounted for (at least in part) because the concepts connected to sexuality are more exciting (or graspable) than those connected to discourse?    
Halperin also addresses the equally misunderstood and misquoted Foucauldian phrase “bodies and pleasures,” with which Foucault ends his text.  As I personally found this to one of the more confusing aspects of the Foucault reading, I appreciated Halperin’s clarification that “bodies and pleasures” should be understood as being elements of a different sexual economy than the current one, which consists instead of “such familiar and overworked entities as ‘sexuality’ and ‘desire’” (94).  Halperin grounds this distinction in the post 1960s sexual liberation era within which Foucault was writing, which encouraged people to "liberate our 'sexuality' and to unrepress or desublimate our 'desire' (94).  Can we tease out this distinction further?  How is a sexual economy grounded in “bodies and pleasure” different from one grounded in “sexuality and desire”?

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