“Forgetting Foucault”

I’m in the middle of reading for my PhD qualifying exams, and I’ve been writing short summaries of each book or article that I read.  Instead of hoarding them all to myself, I thought I’d share them on here in case there are any other curious wanderers who can benefit from them!


Gender-_A_Useful_Category_of_Historical_AnalysisHalperin, David M.  “Forgetting Foucault:  Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” Representations, No. 63 (Summer 1998):  93-120.



Halperin explores a passage in Michele Foucault’s History of Sexuality that is often cited as claiming that before the 19th century, sexual acts did not constitute a sexual identity.

Author’s Main Arguments:

While the title of the article may be misleading, Halperin is not arguing that we should forget Foucault, but is instead implying that by always paying lip service to Foucault and granting the “almost ritualistic invocation of his name,” we are actually devalue Foucault’s contribution (by not analyzing it fully), and thus we are ‘forgetting’ his work.

One passage in particular is misunderstood the most often, Halperin argues, and this is the quote from the History of Sexuality which Foucault makes a distinction between sodomite and homosexual.  The commonly misunderstood argument (or, misreading of Foucault’s argument, rather) holds that before sexual identities were created in the 19th century (all embodying “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”), particular sexual acts did not define someone’s identity.  In other words, sexual acts and sexual identities were separate so that a man who had sex with another man would not be considered a distinct classification of humanity (“homosexual”) with an inborn difference.   In this view, sodomy was simply a sinful (or at least abnormal) act that anyone of “sufficient depravity” might commit.

While Halperin does not want to reverse this idea, but he feels that it needs to be revised because it’s too simple (indeed, he believes that it’s not exactly what Foucault meant either).  And he is careful to say that he does not wish to return to an “essentialist” belief that there is a universal validity and applicability of modern sexual concepts to the past.  He is arguing that past societies did in fact have concepts of identities and morphologies that were tied to sexual activity.  What is different is that past identities were something larger that included sexual acts – and even inclinations towards particular kinds of sexual acts.  But what did not exist was a sexuality – something deep and inborn, tied to “instinct” that then emanated outwards and engulfed a person’s entire identity, thus creating “a heterosexual” or “a homosexual.”

For example – in ancient Greece, the kinaidos was a man who liked to be penetrated by other men.  Halperin shows that while a kinaidos was not the same as our understanding of a homosexual, he was not simply a man who had sex with other men on occasion (or there would be no need for a specific word to describe men like that).  So, a kinaidos was a man who was socially deviant, and it acted as a category of person; it was an identity.  But the difference between a kinaidos and homosexual is that at kinaidos wasn’t seen as separate and being produced by something inborn and unalterable.  In other words, it wasn’t tied to some thing called a sexuality.  Instead, what made the man a deviant was his inversion of his masculinity (keeping the dominant position).  In this sense, the kinaidos was a gender inversion, not an inversion of “normal” sexuality.  It is also important to recognize that in this view, all men were potentially in danger of becoming a kinaidos if they did not protect and foster their masculinity enough.   This is different from the understanding of homosexuality, which is that it is inborn, therefore only affects certain people who are born with it; no one else should worry about it affecting them.

A final example comes from a 14th century Italian sodomite who has different sexual tastes than normal men, but this was compartmentalized.  It was something to hide, for sure, but it was not defining of that person’s character or identity.  He did not become gay or homosexual upon someone learning this about him.


My comments:

Halperin does an important job here by reminding us to actually grapple with Foucault and to not simply pay homage to him in our studies of sexuality.  Moreover, he shows that this idea that identities (even those based on sexual acts) have existed (at least in the West) since antiquity, though they are not the same identities, or even the same type of identities that we have today.

Categories: Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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