|cigarettes are regulated with warnings from|
the medical institution about their
|pack of cigarettes complete with medical warning |
about how you shouldn't use them
|alcohol, another heavily regulated|
One of Foucault’s most famous works is the multivolume, The History of Sexuality. In this set of landmark books, Foucault makes an argument that ties the scientific discourse and study on sexuality, with the power of the state, along with the various institutions that regulate sex. Foucault‘s argument rests on his analysis of political power through history; from the power of the absolute sovereign over life and death to power over the administration of life, by which Foucault means the “safeguard of society” via social welfare and biological regulations (Foucault 1976:193). This shift, from power over death to power over life, began during the 17th and continued through the 20th century, and was typified to Foucault by the creation of the social sciences, which brought with them the methods of scientific research to the domain of the mundane and personal. Foucault points out the development of the study of the human body as a machine, as something to be optimized through scientific study, as well as the development of population regulations and demographic study. These developments resulted in (or perhaps from) a change in the power structure, from a powerful sovereign’s power of death to more democratic methods of government which relied on the increasing power and influence of institutions like schools and especially medicine in order to regulate society through norms. These institutions worked through a system of discourse that stratifies society, through categorizing sexuality as normal or perverse. The repressive hypothesis, one of the key aspects of Foucault’s historical analysis, examined the widespread assumption that sexuality was repressed during the Victorian era, instead proposing that in fact the Victorian era had an explosion of sexual discourse and regulation, where sexualization was taken to an extreme, notably in the creation of perverse sexualities, like homosexuality. Foucault points to the history of homosexuality, and how previously homosexuality was simply an act (sodomy for males) that was considered a vice, whereas in the Victorian era it became a sexuality, and identity of deviance and perversion. (Foucault, Morar and Smith 2011) For Foucault everything always returns to power, the scientific institutions working to make life a political object that can to be controlled and regulated, which he further ties to in particular the massive growth of the medical institution. He points to the combination of “disciplinary techniques” like the creation of demography and medical examination, as the powerful regulatory methods that allow for the management of life. The medical institution created a discourse of sexuality that focused on sexuality, through “problems” like female hysteria and masturbation in children, making pleasure abnormal, and cause for treatments defined by either the medical or even legal institutions (Foucault, Morar and Smith 2011:5). By making types of pleasure into abnormal sexualities, the medical institution made certain subjects taboo, which is itself a method of regulation; creating a norm to which people were expected to fall in line with, all for the sake of the preservation and optimization of the human race as well as making sexuality more important of an issue, thereby making itself more powerful (Foucault, Morar and Smith 2011:9). Furthermore, the development of scientific race mirrors this desire to regulate reproduction, through legal means like misogamy laws, or taboos on interracial sex.
While Foucault focused this analysis on sexuality, the regulation of life by institutions extends beyond simply sex. For example there is now a massive medical discourse on the medical dangers of smoking cigarettes, and smokers often face stigma and judgments for endangering the health of themselves and those around them. Not long ago however this discourse did not exist, and smoking cigarettes was normative for much of the western world, and despite the enormous discourse on the dangers of smoking, many people continue to ignore these attempts at regulation, just as many people continue to engage in so called perverse sexualities. While cigarettes are not illegal (although the prices are heavily inflated to promote abstinence), drugs like marijuana are, and have been since the medical institutions defined the smoking of marijuana as abnormal and dangerous to the welfare of society, much like what the current discourse says of tobacco. It’s a sign of the power of the tobacco industry that marijuana is illegal, but tobacco remains legal, albeit heavily regulated. Alcohol is in much the same boat, although the immense failure of the regulatory institutions to prohibit alcohol during the 1920s and the fact that people still used illegal drugs is notable to show that the power and regulations over mundane life by institutions is not absolute and that the scientific discourse is not always accepted as truth by the masses. This is by no means contrary to Foucault’s claims, but rather the result of a kind of subversive counter discourse that rejects those regulations. Any power relation has at least two sides to it, the dominator and the dominated, nowhere in Foucault’s work does he state that the dominated doesn’t resist. The fact that even though there is a huge counter movement against the illegal status of marijuana and plenty of people that smoke it illegally, users continue to be punished by the legal system and the whole issue of drug use is problematized, making what the medical institution has to say even more valuable to the public discourse. This for Foucault is the power structure of modernity.
Foucault, By Michel , Nicolae Morar and Daniel W. Smith. 2011. "The Gay Science." Critical Inquiry 37(3):385-403. doi: 10.1086/659351.
Foucault, Michel. 1976. "The History of Sexuality." Pp. 135-50 in Classical Sociological Theory, edited by C. Calhoun.