Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality – an Introduction, vol. 1” (trans. Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, 1990, orig. pub. Fr. 1973) is focused on the history & discourses of sex—re: technologies of the self, knowledge, & power. Georges Bataille’s “Eroticism: Sensuality & Death” (trans. ?, Walker & Co., 1992, orig. pub. Fr. 1962) is where Bataille stakes a claim for transgressive thought from a philosophical/mystical theory on the shared taboos of eroticism, death, the sacred &c.
Let’s start with Foucault, who looks to the social relationships organized around the individual. He looks to the way ‘discourses manage, produce, regulate, deploy, incite’ the sexuality of the subject. The subject’s sexuality is proposed as the object of study & subjectively as s/he internalizes relationships of power. This broad category of sexual discourse includes ethics of conduct around sexual practice & how we view other’s sexual ethics. All of this discourse on sexuality centers on the acquisition/goal of truth. Getting to the truth of the secrets of sex requires a confession. This pursuit of truth is a feature of the power/knowledge relationship of the subject & namely the institutions of power i.e. the medical, judicial, law-enforcement, scientific, psychological & religious practice, to name a few. Often we are defined by our sexuality & society ‘helps’ define that—a not so readily recognized pattern, since we might often think our sexuality is simply our own, only to be shared intimately with another & nothing else beyond that. The sex act is to be differentiated from sexuality. Sexuality is ours & also a discourse of others as the subject of particular specialization, scrutiny & examination (re: scientia sexualis, H.of S.vol.1/53). All forms of sexuality & desire work intricately together as a power play, from the bedroom, to the way families are organized, sexual norms as the way they are implemented & conscripted on our bodies, practice, behavior, & ultimately the basic sexual rules that are followed in accordance to a prevailing discourse. This complex discursive array construes the sex act & sexuality radiates from there. The discourse of sexuality concerns methods of categorization from the perceived norms onto those that deviate from the standard, as perversities, defects, aberrations, & abnormalities, these are all scrutinized spoken of under the rubric of truth. “Normal’ is a regulation of control, a ‘no’ to whatever falls outside the ever-changing norm. The truths of sex change throughout time. Yesteryear’s standards seem outdated soon enough to have an attitude change that will become the prevailing way we see/judge each other in a sexualized context. So not only is sexuality physical, but through language, it participates in the discursive practice—a dominant attitude.
For Foucault the naming & classifying, categorizing of sexual aberrations did not have the effect of eradicating such behaviors, rather these were ‘incitements’. In the 17th & 18th centuries the punishments & cures for such perversions aided the way these sexualities have been defined & have manifested into how they are relegated, thus enhancing what that difference is. Remember, prison did little to silence the Marquis de Sade. Individuals, along with the offending sex-acts, find themselves in the discourse, born out of the Christian emphasis on simply punishing the sin, the individual becomes the patient, criminal, &/or just someone to fix. Foucault’s study of sexuality is a history with its psychological & ethical implications. A key idea to keep in mind has to do with Foucault’s discussion of the ‘repressive hypothesis’ where he works to unveil any habit that imagines that: since the Victorian age, sexuality has been repressed & silenced. Foucault deftly explains that sexuality was/is not repressed, as much as it has been endlessly elaborated about & as he named, it becomes: a discourse. This discourse is in large part what regulates sexuality for the subject overtly & covertly. How the discourses began had to do with the confession. Starting with the actual Christian confessional & its rules offering of the confession of ‘sinful acts’ in accord with their requisite penitential duties & so forth, as the confessional model is easily carried over to a secular context of the secrets disclosed to the analyst, law enforcement, a researcher, journalist, friends & family. The expertise that is deployed to study & understand sex is then what becomes the standard by which we measure ourselves sexually, or at least, in terms of positioning a sexual identity.
The ways of assimilating the knowledge & truth of sex address issues of knowledge & power. The various discourses have disciplinary power over the subject. This normalization of sexuality is tied into Foucault’s notion of ‘bio-power’ where the body is managed throughout the predominant discourse. Generally, populations are managed as groups from a discourse that’s less about sin & centered on health (a managing of the organic body), i.e.: the discourse on being overweight & getting thinner is better for your health. We already know that historically such body norms were not always the case. The norms are fundamentally internalized & self-regulating. ‘Modes of subjectification’ & ‘techniques of the self’ sometimes work to radicalize norms to the effect that rebellion is an unwelcome development that’ll reject easy implementation of codes of behavior, thus transforming into a new mode of behavior to call into question.
“Where there is desire, the power relation is already present: an illusion, then, to denounce this relation for a repression exerted after the event; but vanity as well, to go questing after a desire that is beyond the reach of power.” (H.of S. vol. 1/ 81)
With all of this said, it might be deceptively easy to assume that Foucault wants us to see power as transferred for these so-called institutions of power. A top-down approach to power is what Foucault wanted to interrogate, instead we’ll see power as bottom up & not exclusively in the hands of the state &c.. Power & knowledge go hand in hand & move into what Foucault called “multiple force relations” (H.of S. vol.1/92) bearing down on conventions of truth & challenges to truth. These could stem from our interpersonal relationships to our flippant public encounters.
“The omnipresence of power: not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” (H.of S. vol. 1/ 93)
For Bataille death & eroticism are brought together. Eroticism is to be differentiated from sex as simply an act of procreation, although in procreation there are elements of the erotic & overtones of death. Although Bataille did not consider de Sade’s oeuvre to be necessarily that of total eroticism, rather it was an exploration of horror. Bataille quotes de Sade “There is not a better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image.” (E. D. & S./11) We’ll quickly acknowledge that this vision is the utter extremity with a view to the sex act & death, the idea is expanded from there, from that extreme. Death & eroticism are centrally located in Bataille’s system, the relationship of both seemingly disparate ideas are fused together where each informs the other. Eroticism & death are complimentary. Basically we are ‘discontinuous’ beings & by this Bataille means that we born into the world alone & in a very strict sense we live our lives as singular entities. We then have eroticism, whereby for the discontinuous being, eroticism is where the individual looks to be unified with another discontinuous being. Erotic pleasure , re: ecstasy, reaches to the nadir/zenith of this union. When a child is conceived & born the union created yet another discontinuous being: “…we yearn for our lost continuity.” (E. D. & S./15) Eroticism is dubbed as emotional, physical & religious. We’ll see later how Bataille accounts for an eroticism of religious practice. Eroticism is distinctly human & animals are said to not be erotic (let us suppose that certain mating rituals of birds & primates might resemble the erotic,or is this just an anthropomorphism?).
“In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation.” (E. D. & S./16) Bataille names the term dissolute that dissolves the discontinuous self & the goal is to eradicate the discontinuity as a violent, erotic act. Nakedness offers a promise of continuity, a stripping away of clothing that readies the the individuals to fuse. Obscenity too threatens/offends this individuality.
We’ll sometimes speak of death binding together with love: ‘she would die for his love, or he will sacrifice his life for her love.” So, death represents continuity, it’s where we cease to be discontinuous & pass into the continuity of death, a mystical continuity of a greater whole with non/existence. Bataille is not referring to an immortal afterlife. He characteristically summons a comparison to ritual sacrifice, where the offering (maybe a virgin) is made to appease the gods & when that life is offered, it is to underscore a relationship with a god for the living, a sacred exchange. The individual is offered for the good of the whole. Bataille ties religion & eroticism together, as both can be known subjectively.
Everyday rational experiences are separate from the sacred & the erotic. The discipline of empirical science demands objectivity for its validity & claims to truth. This doesn’t mean that science cannot have its taboos, i.e. cleanliness as a practical way to keep the taboo of filth at a distance. The prohibitions of science maintain health & rejects/studies that which falls outside that order. That a certain multiplicity of taboos exist is without question in the realms of science & the religious life of man. This could lead the individual to look for redemption, taboo & transgression that are manifest in the religious experience. The religious catharsis of transgression has erotic components. Man cannot always be constrained by reason & for Bataille there is an “undercurrent of violence” (E. S. & D./40) Man continually wants to transgress boundaries (taboo or otherwise).
Work for Bataille becomes a kind of tempering force that includes its own taboos. Any transgressing of taboo is usually opposed to the work-a-day world. Exceptions to this might be artists, writers, actors, entertainers, & the less accepted margins that include sex-workers, prostitutes, & porn-stars. Typically work is a suppression of the pleasures of the body as is the pursuit of a religious life. Importantly, (rational) work is done as a refusal of death for the sake of life. Work as an enforcement of life against the finalities of death. Work is this sense is a ‘no’ to death.
If we can acknowledge the taboos of sexuality, we should also observe the taboos of death. One stays away from the rotting corpse, a taboo with a clear reason why we bury the dead: to keep the putrefaction of the dead body away from us. We’d be amiss to not recognize the the taboo of killing & murder with their grueling associations with eroticism & sex. Bataille mentions exceptions to these taboos, oddly in the instances of war & marriage: war, where killing is permissible & marriage, where eroticism is permitted (recall that this book was written back in the early 60’s). The difficulties of restricting eroticism & death are enmeshed with taboo/transgressive temptations, the breaking of rules will often require a kind of violence (named as such, or otherwise). Man doesn’t allow himself the sexual freedom of animals, that we restrict both our sexual & violent impulses is an accepted practice.
Birth & death are reconciled within Bataille’s theory, with the notion that death can be a renewal, the dying away to bring about renewal. Life continues to be & is not the nothingness of death. Yet, while in the cycle of life man continually wrestles with his fear, revulsion, rejection, disgust & fascination with death. As William Burroughs said: “Death is the seed from which I grow.” The rotting body is worse than the white bones. Bones (usually not the decaying body) are an acceptable symbol for death. “Mankind conspires to ignore the fact that death is also the youth of things.” (E. S. & D./59) This is a view of death as an exchange to live, animals must die so that we can have life, an expenditure of resources & energy that must be used, then occasionally wasted. When a taboo is sanctioned, more exaggerations appear, it then becomes easier to expand on the transgressed act…
We know that Foucault was greatly inspired by Bataille. In a remarkable & sumptuous essay on Bataille, written by Foucault in 1962, titled “A Preface to Transgression” (PDF) is where the two thinkers fuse. As the title suggests, Foucault writes on the idea of transgression as it relates to limitations & thus leads to another of Bataille’s terms: sovereignty. Sovereignty reaches for an ultimate erotic & sacred nadir/zenith, the kind of ecstasy that’s closest to death. Sovereignty is the place where desire is fulfilled & where is it saturated. It might be proposed that sovereignity is how one would venerate desire to the ends of experience, rushing to the tranquility of satiation when the desire is in fullest rapture. An ecstatic continuity completely aware of it’s transgressed limits. Today we might call it the ‘high’ of transgression, a singular place that Foucault describes as beyond the discourse of typical philosophical language (till then) & compares Bataille’s transgression to Blanchot’s “contestation”.
Contestation does not imply a generalized negation, but an affirmation that affirms nothing, a radical break of transitivity. Rather than being a process of thought for denying existences or values, contestation is the act which carries them all to their limits &, from there, to the Limit where an ontological decision achieves its end; to contest is to proceed until one reaches the empty core where being achieves its limit & where the limit defines being. (P.to T./36)
Later in the essay Foucault writes of Bataille’s beloved symbol of the upturned eye as it relates to the failure of philosophic language (dialectics/discourse) to entirely permeate the limits of transgression. The upturned eye with only the white showing, the white of the eye where sight is absent & the pupil is looking inward to its very limits, its deathly limits: the eye socket of the skull, the end of the eye, the end of language & the un-namable end of life…