The Use of Pleasures: Foucault on Sexual Practice


The Lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey is out now: part of our Foucault Bookshelf, now 40% off until March 31, 23.59 EST 

Read an edited excerpt below from David Macey's biography, The Lives of Michel Foucault. 

In counterposing ‘sex-desire’ and ‘pleasures’ (and the plural is important), Foucault distanced himself from the so-called philosophy of desire associated with Deleuze and Lyotard. He explained in an interview given in July 1978:

I am advancing this term [pleasure] because it seems to me that it escapes the medical and naturalistic connotations inherent in the notion of desire. That notion has been used as a tool … a calibration in terms of normality: ‘Tell me what your desire is and I will tell you who you are, whether you are normal or not, and then I can qualify or disqualify your desire …’ The term ‘pleasure’ on the other hand is virgin territory, almost devoid of meaning. There is no pathology of pleasure, no ‘abnormal’ pleasure. It is an event ‘outside the subject’ or on the edge of the subject, within something that is neither body nor soul, which is neither inside nor outside, in short a notion which is neither ascribed nor ascribable.

In the same interview, Foucault referred to the blazons of masculinity and even machismo to be found in gay communities, and suggested that they might not mark a return to phallocracy or machismo, but an attempt to ‘invent oneself, to make one’s body the place of production of extraordinarily polymorphous pleasures … The point is to detach oneself from that virile form of pleasure to order [commandé] known as jouissance, jouissance in the ejaculatory sense, in the masculine sense of the term.’ At such points, Foucault comes very close to speaking of his own sexuality.”

Desexualisation was part of Foucault’s vision of a gay culture. His contribution to it was not purely theoretical. A month before he spoke at Arcadie’s congress, he contributed an article to Gai Pied, a new monthly magazine. The title itself was Foucault’s invention, and was first suggested over a meal with Jean Le Bitoux, the founding editor. ‘ “Etre gai et prendre son pied”, those were the two initial intentions.’ Gai pied defies translation. Gai does have the same double meaning in French as in English, but the sexual sense has never become widely used in France, where the majority of gays still refer to themselves as ‘homosexuel’. Prendre son pied means, very roughly, ‘to be turned on by something’, and is often used in a sexual sense. Foucault subsequently extended the wordplay still further and took to referring to the magazine’s readers and writers as les gais pietons (literally ‘gay pedestrians’). The project was to take gay journalism out of the ghetto of the clubs and bars of the rue Sainte-Anne, and to refuse to be confined to the ‘role conceded it (the defence and illustration of homosexuality)’. Gai Pied was successful enough to go weekly in November 1982.

Foucault did not become a regular contributor to Gai Pied and published only two more pieces in it. The first deals with friendship, but clearly got off to an unfriendly start. Asked by an unidentified interviewer for his opinion of the magazine, ‘as a man in his fifties’, Foucault immediately objected that the identification of ‘homosexuality’ with ‘love between young men’ was both problematical and objectionable:

One of the concessions we make to others is presenting homosexuality purely in the form of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing one another with their eyes, putting their hands on each other’s bums and having it off in a few minutes. We have there a neat and tidy image of homosexuality, which takes away all its potential to disturb for two reasons: it corresponds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it destroys the disturbing element in affection, tenderness, fidelity, comradeship, companionship, for which a fairly controlled society cannot make room, for fear that alliances will be formed, that unexpected lines of force will appear. I think it’s that that makes homosexuality ‘unsettling’: the homosexual way of life, much more so than the sexual act itself. Imagining a sexual act which is against the law or nature doesn’t worry people. But when individuals begin to love one another, it does become problematical.

Friendship, which is an important theme in the final volumes of Histoire de la sexualité, was not the sole component of a gay culture, as was to become clear from other interviews. In New York in 1982, Foucault was interviewed at some length for the magazine Christopher Street by Gilles Barbedette. Shortly afterwards he was interviewed by Bob Gallagher and Alexander Wilson for the Advocate. In both cases, Foucault was talking to friends; Barbedette was a young friend from Paris, and Foucault had met Gallagher and Wilson in Toronto, where they were prominent gay activists. A lot of the Christopher Street interview is devoted to the issue of gay rights and to the possibility of creating a gay culture. In a sense the two went together: ‘The fact of making love with someone of the same sex very naturally involves a whole series of other values. It’s not only a matter of integrating this strange little practice of making love with someone of the same sex into pre-existing cultures; it’s a matter of constructing cultural forms. Such cultural forms included ‘recognition of relations of provisional coexistence’ between men, adoption – including the adoption of one adult by another (here, Foucault may have been thinking of Defert; according to Claude Mauriac, the possibility of Foucault’s adoption of Defert was discussed, and a lawyer was consulted shortly before Foucault’s death).

More generally, Foucault looked forward to:

a culture which invents ways of relating, types of existence, types of exchanges between individuals that are really new and are neither the same as, nor superimposed on, existing cultural forms. If that’s possible, then gay culture will be not only a choice of homosexuals for homosexuals. It would create relations that are, at a certain point, transferable to heterosexuals.

The creation of a culture posed a problem of identity. Gays had to do more than assert an identity; they had to create it, and Foucault was wary of any suggestion that its creation was equivalent to the liberation of an essence. He was not convinced that the writing of gay novels by gay people was the most productive of activities, and the notion of, for instance, ‘gay painting’ bordered on the meaningless. Sexual and ethical choices provided a starting point for the creation of ‘something that will have a certain relationship to gayness’. The translation of gayness into other fields, such as painting or music, was not, thought Foucault, something that was likely to happen. Although he does not raise the issue, it would seem that the development of a specifically gay philosophy – or the existence of a ‘gay philosopher’ called Michel Foucault – could be ruled out of court, too. Foucault was, on the other hand, deeply interested in such literary manifestations of a gay culture as Masques, a beautifully produced ‘review of homosexualities’ published by his friend Jean-Pierre Joecker from 1979 onwards, to which he contributed a review of Dover’s study of Greek homosexuality.

One of the most positive developments in the move towards the creation of a gay culture was, in Foucault’s view, the development of bars and bath-houses which had ‘reduced the guilt involved in making a very clear separation between the life of men and women, the “monosexual” relation’. The clubs and bars Foucault was referring to were those of the gay ‘ghettoes’ of American cities: Christopher Street in New York and the Castro Street area of San Francisco. Spawned in the wake of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, they represented a $100-million industry. The Clubs Baths in San Francisco could hold 800 customers at a time and catered for some 3,000 men a week. In the Advocateinterview, Foucault was more graphic in his description of their attractions, and referred to the subculture of sado-masochism:

The idea that S&M is related to a deep violence, that S&M practice is a way of liberating this violence, this aggression, is stupid. We know very well that what all those people are doing is not aggressive; they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body – through the eroticisation of the body. I think it’s a kind of creation, a creative enterprise, which has as one of its main features what I call the desexualisation of pleasure … The possibility of using our bodies as a possible source of very numerous pleasures is something that is important. For instance, if you look at the traditional constructions of pleasure, you see that bodily pleasure, or pleasures of the flesh, are always drinking, eating and fucking. And that seems to be the limit of our understanding of our body, our pleasures.

The extension of pleasure beyond ‘drinking, eating and fucking’ involved the integration of drugs like amyl nitrate into gay culture, and the creation of new identities. The point was not to liberate desire but to create pleasures. S&M was one such possibility:

One can say that S&M is the eroticisation of power, the eroticisation of strategic relations … the S&M game is very interesting because it is a strategic relation, because it is always fluid. Of course there are roles, but everyone knows very well that those roles can be reversed. Sometimes the scene begins with the master and slave, and at the end the slave has become the master. Or, even when the roles are stabilised, you know very well that it is always a game: either the rules are transgressed, or there is an agreement, either explicit or tacit, that makes them aware of certain boundaries. This strategic game as a source of bodily pleasure is very interesting.

In a related interview in which very similar points are made, Foucault referred to ‘a whole new art of sexual practice… which tries to explore all the internal possibilities of sexual conduct. You find emerging in places like San Francisco and New York what might be called laboratories of sexual experimentation.’ They were a by-product of the availability of sex: ‘It is because the sexual act has become so easy and available to homosexuals that it runs the risk of quickly becoming boring, so that every effort has to be made to innovate and create variations that will enhance the pleasure of the act.’ He agreed with his interviewer that the S&M scene, golden showers, scatological practices and the like’ were ‘much more openly practised these days’. Elsewhere, he expressed regret that ‘such places of erotic experiment do not yet exist for heterosexuals. Wouldn’t it be marvellous for them to be able, at any hour of the day or night, to go into a place equipped with every comfort and all imaginable possibilities, and encounter bodies that are at once present and fugitive?’ He no doubt thought that their hypothetical opening would be one “of the benefits that could be transferred from the gay to the heterosexual community. Foucault was obviously unaware that the Sutro Baths was, as a historian of the AIDS epidemic rather coyly puts it, ‘coeducational’ and advertised weekly ‘Bisexual Boogies’.

Foucault’s comments are strangely impersonal. At no point does he say in so many words that ‘I, Michel Foucault …’ His comments are not, however, based on information culled from secondary sources. The exact extent of his involvement in the S&M scene is a matter for rumour rather than objective knowledge. There are no eye-witnesses; this was a culture in which the question ‘By the way, what was your name?’ came after and not before sexual encounters. The pleasure-pain involved in such encounters is not necessarily orgasmic in any conventional sense and may not lead to ejaculation. To that extent, Foucault’s reference to “to the ‘desexualisation of pleasure’ is almost clinically accurate.

The extreme pleasure of a near-death experience was something “of which Foucault had a personal understanding. One evening in late July 1978, Foucault was struck by a car or, some say, a taxi as he was crossing the rue de Vaugirard. He was flung into the air and landed on the bonnet of the vehicle, with splinters of glass embedded in his face and head. He was immediately taken to the nearby Hôpital Vaugirard, where he remained for almost a week. The first to be informed of what had happened was Simone Signoret; Daniel Defert was in London, where he was the guest of his friend Julie Christie, and had to be contacted by telephone. There are two possible explanations of why Signoret became involved. One, given by Didier Eribon, is that Foucault asked for her to be contacted; the other is that Foucault was semiconscious, was carrying no identity papers, that her address and number were found in his pocket and that, when telephoned, she recognised Foucault from the description given by the hospital. All are agreed on her reaction; she was startled, and horrified that neither the police nor the hospital staff had recognised Foucault.

On being hit by the car, Foucault immediately thought that he was going to die and experienced a fatalistic sense of acceptance. In 1983, he told a Canadian interviewer:

Once I was struck by a car in the street. I was walking. And for maybe two seconds I had the impression that I was dying and it was really a very, very intense pleasure. The weather was wonderful. It was seven o’clock during the summer. The sun was descending. The sky was very wonderful and blue and so on. It was, it still is now, one of my best memories [laughter].

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