These final years proved incredibly fruitful for Foucault, even if, at times, they were tinged with a sense of self-doubt. During this period, Foucault experimented relentlessly with different theoretical frameworks through which he could sustain an inquiry that would eventually grow to include both Greek and Roman philosophy, as well as the writings of early Church Fathers. Through the labor of these later theoretical innovations, Foucault would give birth to concepts now indispensable to the humanities and the social sciences; today, it seems difficult to imagine the existence of entire academic fields without his influence. Nearly 35 years after his death, Foucault remains a vital reference point, and his History of Sexuality remains required reading. However, the project’s state of incompletion at the time of his death has continued to prevent many readers from fully engaging with the audacious critique of the mechanisms that shaped subjectivity in the West.
In France, the recent publication of the fourth — and many would argue essential — volume of the History of Sexuality, Les aveux de la chair (Confessions of the Flesh), promises to alleviate some of this frustration and to teach us much about the Final Foucault. The appearance of the fourth volume is itself the most significant event in the world of Foucault scholarship since the publication of his lecture courses from the Collège de France nearly 20 years ago. This volume is expected to fuel a number of ongoing debates, including those concerning the reasons for Foucault’s departure from the plan outlined in the project’s first volume, and likely to generate an interest in some of the lesser-known aspects of Foucault’s work, like his long-standing conversation with religion.
Inasmuch as the notion of the flesh was evoked at crucial moments in the other volumes of the History of Sexuality, the fourth volume contains an exposition essential to Foucault’s broader vision. Dedicated to analyzing the Christian experience of the flesh as it emerged in the first five centuries of the common era, this volume offers readers an in-depth examination of figures such as Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, John Cassian, and Augustine of Hippo. Composed in the sober, academic style of the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, Confessions of the Flesh registers as a weighty tome, likely a difficult read, and assumes considerable knowledge of religious history and Catholic doctrine. But, ultimately, the publication of this volume provides an opportunity for readers to better understand the moments of transformation and the instances of transmission that have defined the experience of sex in the Western world, and which loom so largely in Foucault’s late writings.
Students and first-time readers are often disappointed to find Foucault’s History of Sexuality remarkably devoid of salacious details. Of course, the project was never intended to be a history of sexual practices. Foucault initially conceived of the undertaking as a critical analysis of the new form of “experience” that came to dominate modern European societies in the 19th and 20th centuries — namely that of “sexuality.” To understand what he was targeting, however, “sexuality” must be distinguished from “sex.”
“Sexuality,” in Foucault’s conception, names the historical processes by which women’s bodies, the onanistic tendencies of children, the procreative behavior of married couples, and the pleasures of so-called perverts were invested with power and became objects of knowledge. In general terms, then, “sexuality” in his writings refers to the “great awakening of sexual concern” through which the Western world came to “suspect the presence of sex in everything.” Foucault rejected the idea that one might eventually discover a pure, biologically given notion of sex, one free from the workings of power and knowledge. Such an idea, he suggested, is in fact the “anchorage point” that grants sexuality its hold over the individual, and allows for its diffusion throughout the social body. “Sex,” Foucault writes in 1976, is the “fictitious unity” which sustains the “deployment of sexuality.”
Almost immediately, however, Foucault grew bored with the very approach to sexuality that his first volume made famous. In 1980, he began one of his lectures by taking exception with the power/knowledge framework — a notion that many thinkers still employ today — suggesting that it was no longer supple enough to support the investigations he planned to carry out. What interested him, Foucault explained, were the “reflexive truth acts” whereby one comes to say, “this is me,” “this is what I am.” As Foucault would go on to explain, he sought to supplement his ongoing historical analysis of how power exploits knowledge and knowledge depends upon the investments of power with an account of how individuals are constituted as subjects within such a matrix. Within modern Western societies, Foucault found, power is not content with ensuring submission, but compels individuals to produce and manifest the truth about themselves as well.
Foucault would underscore this new point of departure at the outset of The Use of Pleasure, the second volume of the History of Sexuality. He explained that he aimed to analyze the historical formation of sexuality in terms of three irreducible axes: 1) the sciences or knowledges which refer to it; 2) the forms of power that try to organize or control it; and 3) the various ways in which individuals come to recognize themselves as subject to it. The story of the third axis, often referred to as the “ethical axis,” came to dominate the second, third, and now fourth volumes of the History of Sexuality. As a result, the emergence of this ethical axis compelled Foucault to scrap, or at least to defer, his analysis of modern society in terms of “bio-power” — his designation for the configuration of power and knowledge responsible for managing human life by treating individuals as members of a population, subjecting them to probabilistic calculations regarding health, sanitation, life-expectancy, birthrate, and race — in order to undertake a genealogy of “desiring man.” By what route, Foucault urgently questioned, did Western men and women come to see themselves as subjects of desire? And how is it that we have been lead to think that sexual desire harbors the truth of who we are?
His interest in the relationship between the subject and desire initially led Foucault to study the evolution of the sacrament of confession, a topic broached in the project’s first volume and one which recurred frequently throughout Foucault’s lecture courses. In the practice of confession, Foucault recognized not just a sacrament that pertains to the faithful, but also a deeply rooted technology of power with wide-ranging consequences for the production of subjectivity. As Foucault sought to show, the practice of confession we know today is a relatively recent invention, one which gradually took shape in the monasteries before the Council of Trent (1545–1563) extended it to the laity as part of a Counter-Reformation strategy for reengaging the faithful. In the course of this line of inquiry, Foucault reexamined the various obligations early Christians had devised for manifesting the truth about themselves. The research that emerged from this period was given a relatively finalized form during the years 1981–1982 and, in the fall of 1982, a manuscript was left with Gallimard, Foucault’s French publisher. After that, Foucault turned his attentions to Greek and Roman thought, expecting to find there both historical precursors to, and a point of contrast with, many of the themes he had isolated in early Christianity. While Foucault completed the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure (1984) and The Care of the Self (1984) before his death, the promotional leaflet that accompanied these publications listed Confessions of the Flesh as “à paraître” or “forthcoming.” Foucault died in June 1984.
At Foucault’s own behest, posthumous publications of his writings were banned and the fourth volume of the project remained in limbo. However, in the years since his death, Foucault’s heirs have grown more liberal regarding what constitutes a “posthumous publication.” Foucault’s lecture courses, from which we have learned much about both the development of his thought and the various topics with which he was engaged, were judged suitable for publication since they were pronouncements made during his lifetime. Regarding this latest volume, the editor’s introduction explains only that Foucault’s heirs have determined that the time and conditions are now right for it to appear.
Foucault was a meticulous writer and the type of intellectual who delighted in continually reworking his positions and posing his questions anew. Had he lived longer it is likely he would have expanded or recast the History of Sexuality project yet again. It is certain that he would have revised the fourth volume in light of discoveries he made regarding Greek and Roman thought. Fortunately, the editors of Confessions of the Flesh have done him (and us) the service of refusing to speculate on these matters, forgoing the temptation to insert references to Foucault’s other works. Instead, they limited themselves to the labor of tracking down missing citations in order to complete this book in accordance with the other volumes. As a result, those who patiently follow Foucault into the labyrinth of history are likely be rewarded with many powerful insights.
Rereading the larger History of Sexuality project in the light of this recently published volume, it becomes clear that, despite the change of focus and the introduction of ever more complex genealogical strands, Foucault’s efforts remained directed at depriving our modern, medicalized version of sexuality of its sense of self-evidence, and thus its power. Foucault found it problematic that our culture’s understanding of what is “normal” and “healthy” derives largely from discourses such as psychology. After all, when Foucault carried out his research, many mental health professionals still considered homosexuality a mental disorder. He thus sought to counter the modern experience of sexuality with the different “regimes” that preceded it, envisioning his project as revolving around three distinct regimes or forms of experience: aphrodisia, the flesh, and sexuality. Foucault’s hope was that by thinking through this history, he might create an opening in which to take distance from it.
As Foucault attests in his second volume, aphrodisia, the regime of philosophical and medical thought constituted by the ancient Greeks, was primarily concerned with developing an ethics of self-mastery to ensure that the subject would not be consumed by the pleasures which accompany the “acts of Aphrodite.” In the third volume, Foucault would go on to examine how this regime was reworked and refined by Greek and Roman philosophers of the first centuries. During that historical period, several themes of austerity that Foucault takes up again in Confessions of the Flesh — abstinence, a preference for virginity, the restriction of sexual congress to the marriage relation, and the categorical condemnation of the love of boys — came to predominate in pagan morality. Foucault shows us how early Christian thinkers often reproduced age-old warnings regarding the violent spasms induced by orgasm, along with the practical precepts designed to curb it; in this way, he sought to demonstrate that the moral code regarding what is forbidden and permitted in terms of sexual behavior has tended to remain relatively constant throughout Western history. Throughout this investigation, Foucault frequently reminds us that Christianity did not invent the distrust of pleasure for which it is often blamed and that trepidation regarding the sexual act is as old as Western thought itself. What Christianity did invent, however, is the idea that there is an end to human life beyond that of physical health or self-mastery.
As a religion of salvation, the goal of Christian ethics is to lead the individual from this life to another. Thus, one of the major aims of the fourth volume is to explain how grappling with the idea of original sin, together with the changes it is purported to have wrought upon human nature, led the early Christians to elaborate a new way of relating the self to itself. This “rapport à soi” — a phrase that appears everywhere in the Final Foucault — pertains to Foucault’s understanding of ethics, or the historically variable relationship whereby the self relates to itself for the purposes of subjecting itself to the Western moral code. The regime of the flesh, then, as Foucault understands it, relies upon accepting the idea that the human being was corrupted by the Fall, and that henceforth each individual must engage in a “spiritual combat” in order to restore his or her relationship with God.
By accepting the idea that there is an inborn propensity for sin, however, one simultaneously acknowledges that salvation cannot be achieved on one’s own. The flesh must be directed by another so as to render it obedient. In this respect, Foucault emphasizes how early monastic practice profoundly shaped the Christian experience of the flesh. John Cassian, for example, outlined an apparatus through which Christian monks were expected to scrutinize the contents of their consciousness and confess the signs of sinfulness to another. As it turns out, Cassian had converted a practice once used by the Pythagoreans and Stoics to assess their actions (and to ensure a good night’s sleep) into a tool for rooting out impure desires. It is significant for Foucault that Cassian outfitted the examination of conscience with the need for a continuous avowal; it is one of the main ways in which Western culture gave rise to an obligation to speak the truth about oneself. This avowal was required by the belief that, after the Fall, evil lurks in man’s very thoughts — in particular those which resist being shared. Whereas the philosopher could use his own reason to sort through the day’s events, the Christian monk became dependent upon the guidance of another.
It would be a mistake to treat Christianity, particularly as it appeared during the first five centuries, as though it were uniform system of ideas — a fact that Foucault attempts to do justice to by exploring Christian authors from both the Eastern and Western traditions. During this time, eschatological hopes were giving way to the recognition that Christ’s return might not be imminent. Many official doctrines had yet to be solidified and Christian writers were still drawing upon a wide array of philosophical sources for inspiration. Most significantly, within the space of a few hundred years, a minor cult composed of a persecuted minority managed to transform itself into the official religion of Rome. Yet, in general, Foucault devotes very little space to recounting this history, to familiarizing his readers with the development of Christian doctrine, or to briefing them on the various heresies that the Church confronted throughout the course of its development. Because he aims to foreground the new form of ethical experience that this development inaugurated, he instead presents Christianity in terms of its practices or, rather, in terms of the relationship with the self that these different practices and ideas rendered possible.
Based on the volume’s organization, Foucault appears to suggest that these changes in our relationship to the self can be grouped and understood in terms of the different ways of life one might adopt in response to the dogma that human nature was corrupted by the Fall: that of the celibate and that of the married person. The writings of the fourth volume divide into three lengthy sections: a chapter entitled “The Formation of a New Experience,” where Foucault analyzes the various obligations of Christians to manifest the truth about themselves prior to the advent of confession as we know it; “Being a Virgin,” a chapter that recounts how chastity — understood not simply as the renunciation of sex but as an exalted state in which one grows closer to God — displaced the pagan virtue of continence; and “Being Married,” a riveting analysis of the different and sometimes conflicting ways in which Christian authors sought to justify sexual relations within marriage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a considerable portion of the fourth volume is dedicated to analyzing Augustine’s full-fledged doctrine of the flesh and his concomitant notion of the libido. Prior to the volume’s publication, and on the basis of clues scattered throughout Foucault’s other writings, many scholars had speculated about what this fabled encounter between Augustine and Foucault was likely to contain. We can now see clearly that Foucault’s primary interest lies in analyzing the route by which Augustine came to transform sexual desire into a constitutive feature of the subject. After Augustine, desire is no longer simply an external and transitory evil, something that troubles the monk’s contemplation of God; it is a structural component of the human being.
In Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism — the heresy of denying original sin — Foucault isolates what he calls the “libidinization of sex,” a concept that refers to the uncoupling of sexual reproduction from the agency of the will. According to Augustine, as a result of the Fall man’s will is shadowed by concupiscence, and the human being is thus barred from achieving full autonomy over itself. Early Christian writers, contrary to popular conception, uniformly affirmed that the first sin had nothing to do with sex. Augustine follows this line of thinking by insisting that concupiscence is the result of man’s attempt to escape God’s will, not the cause of it, although he finally departs from this tradition by arguing that sexual reproduction must have occurred in paradise. He contrasted this “paradisiacal sex” with the troubled, involuntary form of sex that he saw plaguing fallen men and women. Prior to the Fall, the body — including the sexual organs — responded fully to the will. Procreation then was analogous to planting seeds in the earth and the sexual act was happily devoid of the paroxysms that so troubled Greek and Roman physicians; however, as punishment for the first sin, man lost control of his body. According to Augustine, Adam cloaked his sexual organs not because he was ashamed of being seen, but because his penis moved against his will. As Foucault once put it: “Sex in erection is the image of man revolted against God.”
Foucault thus positions Augustine at a crucial juncture in the fourth volume and within the History of Sexuality more generally. He understands Augustine as synthesizing much of the tradition that came before him and credits him with creating a theoretical framework in which it became possible to unite the two ways of life — virginity and marriage — in terms of their struggle against the common enemy: concupiscence. Foucault writes, “In a word, beyond the comparisons between the virgin and the spouses […] which had been largely developed before him, Augustine makes appear, not a third person, nor a composite figure, but the element fundamental to the other two: the subject of desire.”
The birth of the “subject of desire” has two major ramifications for how we understand Foucault’s broader history of sexuality. First, there is evidence that Augustine would have formed the point of departure for yet another volume dedicated to explaining how, during the Late Medieval Period, the Church invented a “very precise codification of the moments, initiatives, prompts, acceptances, refusals, positions, gestures, caresses, [and] eventually […] the words that can take place in sexual relations.” According to Foucault, it was around the sexual relations of married persons that “medieval Christianity — especially from the 13th century on — would become the first form of civilization to develop […] prolix regulations” regarding sex. Consequently, the fourth volume ends with the assertion that Augustine’s theory of the libido led to the regime of aphrodisia being broken up and reconstructed in terms of the subject’s relationship with desire. Referring to the “paroxysmal block” of pleasure at the heart of the ancient regime, Foucault explains, “In Christianity, this block has been dissociated, by rules of life, arts for conducting oneself and leading others, by techniques of examination and procedures of avowal, [and] by a general doctrine of desire, the Fall, fault, etc.” In this way, Foucault concludes, “There were linked, by ties that our culture has tightened rather than loosening — sex, truth, and law [la droit]”
The second ramification is that this “subject of desire” would have no doubt formed part of Foucault’s account of how the modern regime of sexuality, as well as the supposed resistance to it, came to be articulated in terms of desire. Already in 1976, Foucault could see that by compelling desire to speak the truth about itself, power managed to complete its hold over the individual. This is why he questioned the strategy of attempting to resist power through the “liberation” of desire. “The rallying point for the counterattack […] ought not to be sex-desire,” he famously suggested, “but bodies and pleasures.”
Foucault often lamented that our modern sexual ethics had not fully broken with the Christian problematics of desire; that it had perhaps only succeeded in returning to it in an ironic form; and that, accordingly, it still suffers from a lack of concern for acts and pleasures. In questioning the different historical processes by which sex came to be inserted into games of truth and falsity, Foucault hoped to prepare the way for a new ethics — a new way of relating to oneself and to others — that would balance the concern for others with the goal of stylizing one’s own existence. Such an ethics, Foucault thought, must restore autonomy to actions and facilitate the invention of new pleasures by freeing the subject from the limitations that have been imposed upon it in the name of desire.
Unfortunately, Foucault would not live long enough to see the advent of this new economy of bodies and pleasures, the one to which he gave voice at the end of his first volume, when he speculated: “[P]erhaps [one day] […] people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality […] were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow.” With the much-awaited publication of Confessions of the Flesh as the fourth volume in the History of Sexuality, those of us who come after him now have ample resources for understanding the Final Foucault — and for carrying out the critique and transformation of ourselves as well.
Joseph Tanke is chair of the Philosophy Department and director of the International Cultural Studies Certificate Program at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. He is the author of Foucault’s Philosophy of Art: A Genealogy of Modernity.