Synthesis One: Shifting Paradigms in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volumes One and Two

Shifting Paradigms in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volumes One and Two

Foucault’s project changed radically in the undertaking; the six volumes initially planned were never written.  The volumes he did write became a very different kind of study of desiring man, of a very different pseudo-object.  These later volumes are obviously related to the first, but it is also clear that in 1976 Foucault shifted his analytic tactics, if not his critical trajectory.  By 1983, Foucault would contend, in his favored role as provocateur, that sex was boring, that he was much more interested in problems about the technology of the self (Stoler x).

Foucault’s The History of Sexuality was originally planned with several volumes that would address the history of sexuality by attempting a genealogy that would examine sex throughout history.  Yet, for a number of reasons, Foucault’s original plan was never realized.  For the purposes of this paper, I want to look at a few key passages from Volumes One and Two and explore some of the key differences between the volumes and how his methodology was changing over time.  Foucault raises more questions than he answers through his writing in Volume Two.  While I am not sure of his whole purpose in these two volumes, I will explore some possibilities and raise my own questions that could be used for further research in a longer paper.

Initially, In Halley and Parker’s Introduction to After Sex, they describe Foucault’s decision to write about the history of sexuality in this way:

In the first place, the very relationship between two books crucial for all of queer theory-Volumes One and Two of Foucault’s History of Sexuality-plants the temporal question in the center of the courtyard.  Foucault’s own struggle with the problematic of a Great Paradigm shift to modernity from antiquity, the intense exploration he made into that claim by proceeding backward, in volume two, from the modern to the antique, imbricated the question what is sexuality with the question when is it?-and this has ensured that no simple answer to either will satisfy anyone that has a taste for queer (6).

It is significant that Halley and Parker focus on Foucault’s methodology in proceeding backward from modernity to antiquity in analyzing the “when” of sexuality.  Foucault is utilizing historicist techniques by writing about how the modern conception of sexuality came to be in his first volume and then moving backward to investigate sex, desire, and conceptions of the self over two thousand years before that.  In both cases, he is interested in picking a specific moment in time and looking at sex during that time without attempting a linear or chronological study.  In doing this, he seems to be advocating that studying the discourse surrounding sex is best accomplished without starting at an arbitrary beginning and going forward.

Foucault says as much in the Introduction to Volume One:


This is the point at which I would like to situate the series of historical analyses that will follow, the present volume being at the same time an introduction and a first attempt at an overview:  it surveys a few historically significant points and outlines certain theoretical problems.  Briefly, my aim is to examine the case for a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function.  I would like to explore not only these discourses but also the will that sustains them and the strategic intention that supports them. (Volume One 8).

The “history” of the modern conception of sex for Foucault is, obviously, repression.  By exploring how we came to be repressed as a society, we can learn from our mistakes and avoid going down the same paths that has led to oppression that is the basis for why we need Queer Theory.  Foucault continues:

What paths have brought us to the point where we are at fault with respect to our own sex?  And how have we come to be a civilization so peculiar as to tell itself that, through an abuse of power which has not ended, it has long sinned against sex?  How does one account for the displacement which, while claiming to free us from the sinful nature of sex, taxes us with a great historical wrong which consists precisely in imagining that nature to be blameworthy and in drawing disastrous consequences from that belief (Volume One 9).

Foucault illuminates another important aspect of his work in Volume One.  He focuses on sex and our response to it as a society.  His first analysis is clearly aimed at the majority in Western society that perpetuates repression and oppresses individuals who practice a sexuality that the majority considers to be abnormal.  This is significant because he focuses on sex on a more personal and individual basis when he changes direction in Volume Two.  Foucault offers his reasoning for this change in focus:

In any case, it seemed to me that one could not very well analyze the formation and development of the experience of sexuality from the eighteenth century onward, without doing a historical and critical study dealing with desire and the desiring subject.  In other words, without undertaking a genealogy.  This does not mean that I proposed to write a history of the successive conceptions of desire, of concupiscence, or of libido, but rather to analyze the practices by which individuals were led to focus their attention on themselves, to decipher, recognize, and acknowledge themselves as subjects of desire, bringing into play between themselves and themselves a certain relationship that allows them to discover, in desire, the truth of their being, be it natural or fallen. (Volume Two 5).

So the first question that comes from Foucault’s reasoning in this passage is why desire is more explicitly connected to notions of the self and to research on sex in antiquity instead of modernity.  Volume Two focuses more on sexuality in singularity instead of trying to decipher cultural ideas about sex.  Does desire hold the same place in the classical world that repression does in modern society?  Foucault explains the arrangement of the text as:

These, then, are the reasons that led me to recenter my entire study on the genealogy of desiring man, from classical antiquity through the first centuries of Christianity.  I have followed a simple chronological arrangement:  this volume, The Use of Pleasure, is devoted to the manner in which sexual activity was problematized by philosophers and doctors in classical Greek culture of the fourth century B.C.; Care of the Self deals with the same problematization in the Greek and Latin texts of the first two centuries of our era; lastly, The Confessions of the Flesh deals with the formation of the doctrine and ministry concerning the flesh (Volume Two 12).

Foucault again addresses some common themes from Volume One in different ways.  He chooses to start several hundred years before Christ and end in the early years after Christ’s death.  What is it about this particular time which coincides with the Greek Empire that offers a unique perspective on desiring man?  What changed immediately after this time that affected Western society’s notions of sex and desire that became the historical gap between this volume and the first?  Why is problematizing sexual activity the focus of this second volume?  The second part of the text marks a move back toward a collective view of sex through a study of the formation of doctrine and ministry.  Why does Foucault make this move from the individual to the collective notion of sex during this historical time?

Foucault’s argument in Volume Two is that the very notion of sexuality must be put into question.  He concludes that there was a very different conception of sex with relation to the children (and specifically with boys) in classical Greek society compared to modern times.  He argues that these shifts in the way society thought about sex promoted a unification of the arts’ use of pleasure.  Foucault adds:  “This change was the result of a whole series of transformations.  We have evidence of the beginnings of these transformations, even before the development of Christianity, in the reflections of the moralists, philosophers, and doctors of the first two centuries of our era” (254).  Some sexuality became a moral issue in the West, and yet Foucault raises more questions than he answers by asserting that Christianity played a role in this paradigm shift, and yet the beginnings of this trend happened before Christianity.

Foucault’s study provides a framework for studying sexuality in Western culture by looking at individual and collective conceptions of desire, sexuality, and sexual acts.  Foucault, as always, helps us to find connections between sex, power, and knowledge, and he helps us to question what sex can illuminate for us about power and knowledge.  His historicist techniques provide a template for us to explore specific discourses about sex from a given time and place without necessarily providing a chronological timeline or linear study.  By reading more recent critiques of Foucault’s work in Butler, Sedgwick, and others, we can build on the cultural work of understanding sex and desire through the dialogues he starts.

Works Cited

Halley, Janet and Parker, Andrew.  After Sex:  On Writing Since Queer Theory.  New York:

Continuum (2001).

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality, Volume One:  An Introduction.  New York:

Vintage Books (1978).

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality, Volume Two:  The Use of Pleasure.  New York:

Vintage Books (1985).

Stoler, Ann Laura.  Race and the Education of Desire:  Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the

            Colonial Order of Things.  Duke University Press (2006).


2 thoughts on “Synthesis One: Shifting Paradigms in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volumes One and Two

  1. alexislothian

    Technical note: there is a “quote” button on the WordPress submission page that will set off your quotations for you! (Using the HTML blockquote tag, if you are familiar with that.)

    Thank you for this clear explication of Foucault’s movement between volumes One and Two of The History of Sexuality!

    The backwards flow of queer historicism is key not only in the texts that you expertly pull out here, but also in a substrain of recent queer studies that has not been a central focus of this course. You draw out briefly from Halley and Parker the notion that queer history must do something other than begin at an arbitrary point and march onwards from there; two books that expand on what it might do, and that you might find interesting to pick up in the future, are Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories.

    From your analysis of Foucault’s work, I’d like to pull out the term repression. You say he explores “how we came to be repressed as a society,” but the passage you highlight focuses more on the ways in which our idea that repression is the best framework for understanding the history of sexuality means that we miss the discursive complexities of how sexuality has been lived. In other words, he analyzes repression in order to argue that repression is a less than helpful way of understanding sexuality historically. In that light, your exploration of the relationship between volumes one and two seems to suggest that the classical focus on desire and the technologies of the self (perhaps also related to the “bodies and pleasures” he discusses at the very end of volume one) might offer an alternative standpoint from which to think about how the discourse of sexuality operates. Would you agree?

    1. Nicholas Shaner Post author

      Definitely. I haven’t read anything past volume two, but it seems that the shift to the classical focus on desire is yet another example of Foucault changing his mind and writing something that is somewhat contradictory to his previous focus. Or at least, as you mentioned, it is an alternative standpoint to think about the discourse of sexuality. By arguing that the Greeks questioned themselves about sexual behavior as an ethical problem, Foucault has manifested a form of reflection about sex that is similar to the type of thinking that happens in modern times in Western and predominantly Christian societies.


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