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Foucault's response to Freud: sado-masochism and the aestheticization of power.


Among the numerous modern theorists who have attempted to bring the insights of psychoanalysis to bear on political and social theory, Michel Foucault is one of the names that certainly comes readily to mind. But while few would see one critic as doing more than stating the obvious when he wrote that Foucault, like other leading French theorists of his generation, was "deeply affected by Marx and . . . Freud" (Said 2), most of Foucault's interpreters have had little to say about his relation to psychoanalysis and have focused almost exclusively on his contributions to historiography and social theory. The relative lack of interest in the psychoanalytic dimension and implications of Foucault's work can be explained and even justified in various ways. First, there is the fact that Foucault wrote very little that explicitly concerned Freud. Second, the little he did write on psychoanalysis was principally focused on its status as an institution and its contributions to the creation of what Foucault called "disciplinary society." In addition, Foucault's critique of the central psychoanalytic concept of repression in volume one of The History of Sexuality could be evoked to justify the view that Foucault was only peripherally or even negatively involved in a discussion of psychoanalysis.(1)

Factors such as these, however, even if they help explain the relative neglect of the psychoanalytic dimension of Foucault's work, are perhaps ultimately less important than the nature of the psychoanalytic concept that represented for Foucault the central contribution of psychoanalysis to the theory of power and of the socio-political: sado-masochism. It is true that the term sado-masochism was rarely, if ever, used by Foucault in his discussion of political power. But even if it remains implicit in his work, a concept of sado-masochism is nonetheless central to both the social and psychological dimension of Foucault's theory. In neglecting the psychoanalytic dimension of Foucault's works, his interpreters may unwittingly have confirmed the truth of what Foucault in his histories and genealogies often claimed: that the "dirty secret" of power has long been hidden from us by a form of repression or censorship as strong as or stronger than the one that relates to sexuality per se and that the deepest critical implications of his own work lie in a transgression of this other, deeper form of censorship.(2)

One aim of this essay is to bring to light and analyze critically Foucault's implicit "dialogue" with Freud, in particular that part of the dialogue that has to do with the concept of sado-masochism. In the process I shall explore the critical implications for psychoanalysis of an approach to sado-masochism that does not limit its significance by treating it as characteristic only of a particular stage of development or form of neurosis, as Freud most frequently did. What I shall try to show is the force and implications of Foucault's critique of one of the central components of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but I do not seek to test the rigor of Foucault's critique of Freud through an extended discussion and analysis of Freud's work as a whole. It may be worth noting at the start, however, that a fuller discussion of Foucault's dialogue with Freud would reveal the problematical dimension of a number of Foucault's assertions when they are confronted with the entirety of the Freudian corpus.

A second aim of this analysis relates more narrowly to Foucault's work and the psycho-social model it proposes. As I have already suggested, my approach to Foucault stems from a sense that both his critics and defenders have failed to recognize the critical impact of Foucault's concept of sado-masochism and in the process missed one of the most significant elements of his work in relation both to psychoanalytical and social theory. But I will argue as well that these same defenders and critics may have also missed what is one of the most serious limitations of his work, a limitation that becomes fully evident in Foucault's History of Sexuality. In this last work on sexuality and power, Foucault not only uses the concept of sado-masochism as part of a critical strategy aimed at psychological theories based on a reductive notion of repression. He also generalizes the concept and thus privileges sado-masochism as the model for the social and the psychological in general. The question here is whether such a privilege can be justified not just in terms of Freudian or other forms of psycho-analytic theory, but also ultimately in terms of The History of Sexuality itself and the analysis it offers of the psychic dimension of social life in Ancient Greece.

The importance to Foucault of a concept of sado-masochism to his critical project is evident when one considers his critique of another Freudian concept he discusses explicitly and repeatedly: the concept of repression. Even the most cursory reader of Foucault would have difficulty missing the point that for Foucault himself it was his approach to the problem of repression that distinguished his work from that not only of Freud, but also that of "para-Marxists like Marcuse" and Reich who similarly sought to combine the insights of psychoanalysis and Marxist analysis (see Power/Knowledge 58, 90). Nor is it easy to overlook what for Foucault is the decisive point in distinguishing his work from theirs. As Foucault was to state more than once, their chief limitation lies in the fact that they have "given the notion of repression an exaggerated role - because power would be a fragile thing if its only function were to repress" (59). In other words, their limitation - and also the limitation of Freud before them - lies in the reductive, narrowly repressive or negative nature of their concept of repression, as contrasted with his own emphasis on the positive or productive aspects of this process (118-19).(3)

But in what sense is repression (or power) "productive," and what is gained either from the perspective of social or psychoanalytic theory by an analysis that focuses on the productive nature of repression as opposed to its restrictive nature? Foucault's concept of power implies that many institutions and forms of thought are produced by repression. Nonetheless, in the light of the work of Marxist and para-Marxist theorists who came before him, it is difficult to argue that our sense of the nature of power and repression are substantially transformed simply by viewing them as productive in this sense (see Minson 117). There is a second sense in which power is productive for Foucault, however, one that goes to the heart of his dialogue with psychoanalysis and that does radically transform our perspective on both power and repression. Power, Foucault tells or reminds us, is productive of pleasure, and he feels that one of the most important features of his work is that it has "described the way in which different instances and stages in the transmission of power were caught up in the very pleasure of their exercise" (Power/Knowledge 186).

It is at this point in Foucault's argument that an implicit concept of sado-masochism emerges, because it supplies the mechanism that makes power productive in this second, "libidinal," sense. Power implies the existence of inequality, subordination, humiliation, or pain, and it is primarily the concept of sado-masochism that can account for the conversion of such an experience of displeasure, whether it is inflicted on others or on the self, into a source of pleasure:

The medical examination, the psychiatric investigation, the pedagogical report, and family controls may have the over-all and apparent objective of saying no to all wayward or unproductive sexualities, but the fact is that they function as mechanisms with a double impetus: pleasure and power. The pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting. Capture and seduction, confrontation and mutual reinforcement. . . . These attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure. (Sexuality 1: 45)

Foucault makes no attempt here to distinguish a masochistic from a sadistic manner of mixing pleasure and power. On the contrary, he stresses the interchangeability of the dominant and subordinate positions in the "spirals of power and pleasure," with the result that both pleasure and power are exchanged freely between them. It is not just that these spirals place the subject in differing positions, some of which are sadistic and others masochistic. Instead, each position in the spiral is indeterminately sadistic and masochistic, both sadistic and masochistic at the same time, because attached to each position is a certain pleasure and a certain power.

The critical implications for psychoanalysis of Foucault's sado-masochistic paradigm are particularly evident when one turns to a text from the middle of Freud's career, "The Economic Problem of Masochism." Of the various texts Freud wrote in which repression is a central theme or problem, this is the one where Freud appears to come closest to acknowledging what Foucault calls its productive character. Equally important, although Freud had already discussed sado-masochism at some length in the Three Essays on Sexuality, only in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" does he explicitly relate the phenomenon of sado-masochism to that of repression.

In "The Economic Problem of Masochism," Freud indicates that the mechanisms of masochism and repression (and of masochism and sadism) are in fact one and the same, when he identifies "moral masochism" with what he calls the "sense of guilt," that is, with repression (161). Masochism, according to Freud, is a psychic disposition that consists in experiencing "pleasure in pain," so much so that even the most extreme forms of pain can be a source of pleasure for the masochist: "Even the subject's destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction" (170). If this is the case, then masochism is clearly capable of converting the displeasure or pain of repression into pleasure. But the pleasure derived from (the) displeasure (of repression) can also be understood as belonging to a "sadistic conscience (as it is exemplified in so many Russian character types)," which enjoys the suffering it inflicts on the ego (169). This means that the "economic problem of repression" can be understood in terms either of sadism or of masochism. Thus "The Economic Problem of Masochism" makes it seem perfectly plausible to say that in Freud's own terms repression is not only negative or restrictive, but is also productive - it produces a pleasure derived masochistically or sadistically from unpleasure. Moreover, the parallel with Foucault is all the more striking inasmuch as Freud does not speak only in terms of the conflict between libidinal and destructive instincts in this essay, but speaks also of a "will to power." Freud uses this term as a synonym for aggressiveness or destructiveness when it has been directed toward objects in the external world (103), but he also indicates that the will to power can be productive in Foucault's sense, inasmuch as it can serve the sexual function (103).

Though many elements of his theory of sado-masochism seem to point in the direction of a theory of productive repression, Freud obviously never became a proponent of such a theory. No single factor prevented him from doing so. Instead, he appears to have been impelled by several rather different considerations. As concerns a number of them, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Freud shrank from pursuing what could be called the "Foucauldian" implications of "The Economic Problem of Masochism" mainly because of the potential risks they posed to the authority of psychoanalysis as an institution and to his own interests as its founder. In the concluding pages of "The Economic Problem of Masochism," we see Freud defending psychoanalysis as a therapy and acknowledging that its effectiveness depends on the creation of a "desexualized" relation of the subject to authority. For the subject to achieve this relation, sado-masochism must be overcome. Freud goes on to write of the detrimental consequences for the subject when a desexualized relation to authority cannot be established. But the"threat of such detrimental consequences is not in itself sufficient grounds for establishing either the existence of such a desexualized relationship or the reality of its psychic foundations, even if Freud argues as though it did. Given the obvious weakness of the argument Freud makes on behalf of the therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis, it seems that Foucault was right to insist on the way psychoanalysis was shaped by the "will to power" of its own institutional nature. From the standpoint of Foucault's analysis of power, it comes as no surprise that Freud sought to establish the authority of the psychoanalyst by setting precise limits on the significance of sado-masochism. It could not have been otherwise. Only by analyzing sado-masochism in terms of a limited number of neurotics could Freud avoid accepting the implications of the argument he himself seems to be making in "The Economic Problem of Masochism." When he connects masochism to repression, he implies that sado-masochism is not a restricted but rather a general phenomenon and that all relations between subjects, even those of patient to analyst, have an irreducible sado-masochistic component.

The authority of the analyst is not the only form of authority undercut when sado-masochism is seen as a general rather than as a limited phenomenon. The authority of the father is also put in question, inasmuch as masochism entails a subject's sexualized relation to him, a "wish, which so frequently appears in phantasies, to be beaten by the father" and a closely connected wish "to have a passive (feminine) sexual relation to him" (169). A boy's admittedly sexualized relationship to the mother is not the real problem in psychoanalytic terms. It is not only compatible with but even an essential factor in the desexualization of the relationship to the father, because it drains the relationship of son to father of its sexual components in order to invest them in the relation to the mother. Rather, the real problem is the masochistic relation of son to father. That relation truly disrupts paternal authority, because it undercuts the desexualization at the basis of that authority and in the process reveals that an important element of the son's relation to the father is to be found in the pleasure of sado-masochism.

The framework within which Freud treats the subject of feminine sexuality and the feminine sense of guilt (or lack thereof) is similarly undermined if this Foucauldian perspective on sado-masochism is adopted. In "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes," Freud was to argue that the superego of women "is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men" (257-58). Freud had already laid the groundwork for this argument concerning the feminine superego in "The Economic Problem of Masochism," when he wrote that the basis for his remarks on masochism is to be found in the case histories of a group of male patients. When Freud goes on to label their masochism as "feminine," he thus identifies masochism itself with femininity, despite the fact that it can be - has been - found in men. The implication of Freud's gesture is clear: masochism is essentially feminine. Moreover, if masculinity involves masochism only in certain instances, whereas femininity is masochist in principle, then, clearly, the father emerges as the one legitimate authority, and the son with equal clarity emerges as the legitimate (male) heir of the father. But this view also becomes highly questionable in the light of a theory of sado-masochism that stresses its general character, because such a view does not support Freud's thesis concerning the insufficiently impersonal nature of the feminine superego alone. Instead, it points to the importance of the "emotional origins" of the superego in general. Such a challenge to the "inexorable" character of the male superego implies, moreover, a clear and powerful challenge to Freud's patrocentrism.


In the light of the critical implications of Foucault's concept of sado-masochism, The History of Sexuality, especially the second and third volumes, comes as something of a surprise. Jean Grimshaw is one critic who has pointed to the apparent incongruity between the critical potential of Foucault's other works and the uncritical manner in which Foucault seems in these final texts to depict a social system giving unlimited opportunity for self-creation to a few adult males while at the same time seriously limiting the scope of activity of women and slaves. The Use of Pleasure, volume 2 of The History, and The Care of the Self, volume 3, clearly do not validate patriarchy. But they appear to validate something just as problematic - an aristocracy in which activity and virility are the unquestioned values and in which the adult Greek male is the exclusive model for those values.

Though it is difficult to dispute Grimshaw's conclusion that the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality represent a significant shift in Foucault's thinking, it is important to see that these works are nonetheless a natural, though not inevitable, extension of the arguments concerning repression found in the works that preceded them. In The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, Foucault continues to stress the productive nature of repression. But whereas in his earlier works the point of his argument was to refine and complicate various views of repression that reduce it to its negative effects alone, in the last two volumes of The History of Sexuality Foucault embraces a concept of repression that is reductive in another sense: he attempts to defend a purely productive concept of repression. That Foucault embraces such a purely productive concept of repression is evident in his description of the adult Greek male, who is at one and the same time supreme sado-masochist, supreme artist, and supreme work of art. For Foucault, the sexual practices and etiquettes of the Greeks constituted "an aesthetics of existence, the purposeful art of a freedom perceived as a play of power" (The Use of Pleasure 253; translation slightly modified). In its Greek form, Foucault unveils a repression that has become productive in an ultimate sense. Through his sado-masochistic mastery of his own sexuality, the Greek becomes the ultimate expression of his will to power and his own self-created work of art.

Of course The History of Sexuality is not the first work by Foucault in which art plays a crucial role, for a "transgressive" concept of art and an exploitation of its critical potential could be argued to be unifying features of Foucault's work as a whole.(4) But what is equally important is that a link between art and Foucault's concept of productive repression is implicitly being made in many, if not all, of Foucault's texts where art is in question. One of Foucault's earliest published works, his introduction to the French translation of Ludwig Binswanger's Dream and Existence (introduction and translation published in English as Dream and Existence: Michel Foucault and Ludwig Binswanger) is an important case in point. Though it appeared in 1954, this text already articulates fully the concept of productive repression found in Foucault's subsequent and better-known works, and significantly it does so by linking productive repression to an unconscious "art" - the creation of dream symbols. Foucault's argument in this essay is in effect that Freud denied the productive nature of repression by reducing dream-images to the role of merely expressing dream-thoughts. In contrast, Foucault insists on the irreducibility of image to thought or discourse, on the "density" of the image as image (35). Thus, says Foucault, "one looks in vain in [Freud's] work for a grammar of the imaginary modality, and for an analysis of the expressive act in its necessity" (36). But, from Foucault's standpoint, it is clearly just such a "grammar" and "analysis" that are needed. Whereas, for example, Freud interprets the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a collection of symbols that refer to early childhood experiences,(5) Foucault attempts to grasp the (psychic) significance of art in relation to its pure expressivity, that is, in relation to itself as a productive art. At the same time, however, Foucault does not intend that his "grammar" of the image should replace Freud's hermeneutics, whose results, Foucault states, remain "valid" (36).

Foucault's concepts of sado-masochism and of art are inextricably intertwined, for both stem from a common root - the concept of productive repression. Indeed, the critical force of Discipline and Punish could be argued to derive from the way Foucault combines these two para-Freudian threads of his thought in his critique of the modern theory and methods of punishment. Central to that critique is the contrast he draws between pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary justice. Clearly, the former is the more "productive" both from the standpoint of sado-masochism and from the aesthetic standpoint as well. The centrality Foucault attributes to the body and its pain is one obvious element confirming the sado-masochistic nature of the punishments meted out in pre-Revolutionary France. That centrality also, however, confirms the aesthetic dimension of these punishments, insofar as art, like sado-masochism, may involve the transformation of pain into pleasure.(6) Another striking characteristic of the supplices - the name Foucault gives to the punishments that for him best typify criminal justice under the ancien regime - is their theatrical ("spectacular") quality, the fact that they expose punishment to full public view.(7) The result of this visibility is that the (false) depth or invisibility created by (negative) repression is rendered less important, and the productive and aesthetic character of repression is accentuated. The supplices are not just sadistic or cruel acts, but, in Foucault's view, also artistic or aesthetic "rituals," albeit "somber" ones.(8)

Initially, at least, the most striking aspect of Foucault's portrait of punishment under the ancien regime is how "attractive" he makes it. But the emphasis Foucault places on what for him are the productive aspects of these early modern forms of punishment is not to be confused with an unequivocal valorization - or aestheticization - of them. Discipline and Punish also depicts their cruelty, their merely repressive nature, most spectacularly in the opening excerpt from the account of the execution of Damiens, but elsewhere as well. Furthermore, the implications of his analysis of the aesthetic and sado-masochistic dimension of the supplices are inextricably linked to his contrasting analysis of the supposedly more humane methods of punishment that were to prevail from the French Revolution on into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. Foucault's argument is that post-Revolutionary punishment was equally as cruel as - if not more cruel than - pre-Revolutionary punishment, but it lacked its "aesthetic" and openly sado-masochistic dimension. By the same token, pre-Revolutionary punishment did not differ from post-Revolutionary punishment in its cruelty, but rather in its "eclat" - its brilliance or its scandalousness.

In contrast, Foucault's portrait of the adult Greek male in The History of Sexuality represents a more ambitious claim concerning the productive nature of repression and the significance of art as the exemplification of this productivity. In this final work, Foucault is no longer simply arguing that the existence of the Greeks had an aesthetic dimension, but that their existence constituted a genuine work of art. In Foucault's account of Greek sexual practices, the adult Greek male exemplifies a repression whose truth and essence have now been identified with its productive, creative nature. Foucault sets the stage for this more ambitious interpretation of repression with a discussion of a Greek "Interpretation of Dreams" in which Foucault restates but also radicalizes the argument of his much earlier introduction to Binswanger's Dream and Existence. There, Foucault defended the necessity of a "grammar" of the image that would complement Freud's hermeneutics, but at the same time he insisted on the validity of the results Freud derived from his method (36). In The History of Sexuality, however, Foucault defends a mode of analysis that he implicitly claims breaks totally with the interpretative model of Freud.

This break with Freud is particularly explicit in the opening sections of The Care of the Self, where Foucault presents his analysis of the "Interpretation of Dreams" authored by the Greek Artemidorus. If one keeps in mind Foucault's early essay on Freud and Binswanger, it is clear that, for Foucault, Artemidorus's interpretation of dreams has a basis radically different from that of Freud's. For Artemidorus, "the analysis of dreams was one of the techniques of existence" (5). The importance of such techniques for Foucault is not that they permit the Greek to plumb the depths of his unconscious or uncover the secrets of a repressed sexuality. Rather, it is that they enable the Greek to situate himself better and more surely within his society and to master social relations. This practical dimension of dreams and dream interpretation is important, because it means that dreams have no hidden meanings. Because dreams should be understood as performances of social relations whose significance is completely contained in them, their meanings therefore can be made - indeed are made - totally explicit. Foucault's view of Artemidorus's mode of interpretation makes the Freudian theme of sexuality equally irrelevant to the social relations enacted in the dream process, at least if by "sexuality" what is meant is the object of (a negative form of) repression. The predominant form of sexuality commented on by Artemidorus, "the act of penetration - the core of sexual activity" - is instead, says Foucault, "perceived within a social scenography. Artemidorus sees the sexual act first and foremost as a game of superiority and inferiority" (30), as, that is, a form of behavior that is explicit precisely because it is social. The Greek unconscious, in Foucault's view, is structured not like a language, but like a tableau or theater in which the sado-masochistic spectacle of domination and submission, humiliation and pleasure has become wholly visible - and wholly productive.

It is against the background of this renewal and radicalization of his critique of repression that Foucault's description of the adult Greek male and his sexual practices takes on its full significance. For Foucault, the sexual practices and etiquettes of the Greeks constituted "an aesthetics of existence, the purposeful art of a freedom perceived as a play of power" (The Use of Pleasure 253; translation slightly modified). It comes as no surprise that here, as in Discipline and Punish, art is evoked in connection with the "play of power." In both, the function of art is to suggest the productive dimension of repression. Of course, at first glance, an "aesthetics" that involves the stylization of sexual practices could be seen to be as repressive as repression in its negative sense. But Foucault hastens to reassure us that in reality such an aesthetics serves only to heighten the pleasure of the Greek male. Ultimately, for Foucault, the Greek aesthetics of existence embodies a free, "unrepressive repression" that takes the form of "intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria" (The Use of Pleasure 10-11). In its "true," that is, Greek form, because it is presented as an art, both in the sense of a creative activity and of a work of art, sado-masochism has become totally aestheticized. It has thus ceased to have any negative dimension whatsoever.

The idea of a totally positive, aestheticized repression as exemplified in the adult Greek male is thus for Foucault the distinctive principle of ancient Greek society. As such, it provides the basis for Foucault's interpretation of the other social relations he discusses - those between the adult Greek male and his wife, his slaves, and "boys." The mere fact that Foucault treats these other relations suggests a desire to test the productive model of repression and to confirm that it is as central to them and hence to Greek society as a whole as to the adult Greek male's relation to himself. In the end, however, Foucault's discussion of these other relations raises more questions than it answers, questions that in fact cannot be answered in terms of Foucault's productive model of repression alone. A striking case in point is to be found in Foucault's discussion of a number of important Greek treatises recommending conjugal fidelity to both spouses. The existence of such recommendations, Foucault acknowledges, indicates a potential discrepancy between the apparently negative or narrowly repressive logic underlying them, on the one hand, and the productive form of repression he argues constituted the essence of the freedom and self-creation of adult Greek males, on the other. But, for Foucault, these recommendations of conjugal fidelity ultimately are consistent with an aestheticized sado-masochistic model. In order to see this as the case, Foucault tells us, we must understand that for the Greeks the recommendations did not imply the existence of a limitation in the possibilities of satisfaction of the husband or even a belief - whether conscious or unconscious - in the desirability of such a limitation: "For the Greek moralists of the classical epoch," Foucault writes, "moderation was prescribed to both partners in matrimony, but it depended on two distinct modes of relation to self, corresponding to the two individuals. The wife's virtue constituted the correlative and the proof of a submissive behavior; the man's austerity was part of an ethics of self-delimiting domination" (The Use of Pleasure 184).

It is difficult at this point in Foucault's text to see why we should accept such an interpretation of Greek discourse on matrimony. This difficulty does not mean that Foucault's argument is totally implausible and that there could not have been a dissymmetry of the kind for which he argues underlying the admonition to be faithful to one's wife. But it seems equally plausible that such admonitions were simply repressive of male (and female) sexuality. When Aristotle recommends conjugal fidelity, is it really obvious he was advocating a "stylization" and enhancement of male sexual pleasure? Equally important, is it obvious that such restrictions were consistent with the view that adult Greek males did or should enjoy unlimited freedom and that their wives were or should be subject to serious restrictions? It seems equally likely that such restrictions reflected a view that the unlimited freedom of the Greek male might itself be repressive, if not of his own sexuality, then of that of his spouse.(9)

Even if one were to accept Foucault's highly debatable interpretation of the treatises he mentions in the section of The Use of Pleasure discussing relations between Greeks and their wives, there would still be an important question as to whether a system that consistently not only tolerated, but even encouraged the unlimited sexual freedom of males and subjected the sexuality of women and slaves to serious restriction can be interpreted solely in "productive" terms. Foucault himself seems to entertain this question in the conclusion to The Use of Pleasure. There he asserts once again that the Greek "arts of existence" in effect restricted the (sexual) freedom of women and slaves. The sexual ethics of Greeks, says Foucault "rested on a very harsh system of inequalities and constraints (particularly in connection with women and slaves); but it was problematized in thought as the relationship, for a free man, between the exercise of his freedom, the forms of his power, and his access to truth" (252-53). The rhetorical construction of this passage reflects its significance in the context of Foucault's broader argument, however. The issue posed by the restrictions that are the correlative of the Greek's exercise of his freedom is not ultimately significant, unless those restrictions are viewed in terms of the way they enhanced the adult Greek's freedom and pleasure. Insofar as they were mere restrictions, their existence has only to be, noted and can then be left behind, because they simply do not fit with the productive model of repression Foucault assumes.(10)

While Foucault evinces little concern for or interest in the potential discrepancy between his thesis and the rules of conduct governing the behavior of adult Greek males and their wives, relations between adult Greek males and "boys" provide an instance where the productive nature of repression is explicitly in question for Foucault and, Foucault argues, for the Greeks themselves. In the opening sentence of the chapter entitled "A Problematic Relation," Foucault writes: "The use of pleasures in the relationship with boys was a theme of anxiety for Greek thought" (187). Foucault asserts that these relations were the object of the most extensive, fully articulated discussion and etiquette - and hence, implicitly, the occasion for the most productive form of repression. The apparent reason for this extensive discussion was that the implications of an aestheticized sado-masochism were seen as potentially negative in the case of relations between adult males and boys, more so than in the case of relations between adult men and slaves or adult men and women.

In the end, however, Foucault asserts that the intensity with which the Greeks reflected on relations between adult men and boys stems from the fact that those relations exemplified particularly well the productive nature of repression:

It seems clear . . . that in classical Greece the problematization [of sexuality] was more active in regard to boys [than young women]. . . . What is historically singular is not that the Greeks found pleasure in boys, nor even that they accepted this pleasure as legitimate; it is that this acceptance of pleasure was not simple, and that it gave rise to a whole cultural elaboration. (214)

Despite the assertion Foucault makes here, however, another interpretation of Greek "anxiety" seems equally plausible: it was not at all clear to the Greeks that the freedom, even stylized, of the adult Greek male did not have a negative repressive meaning, if not for the adult Greek, then at least for his much younger sexual partner. In this connection it is worth noting that though Foucault does in certain passages speak of "boys" as adolescents, in others he specifies that he is writing of young males who have not yet reached puberty or grown their "first beard" (199).

What made relations between adult Greek males and boys problematic, according to Foucault, was "the juxtaposition of an ethos of male superiority and a conception of all sexual intercourse in terms of the schema of penetration and male domination" (220). The consequence of this was that, on the one hand, the "'active' and dominant role was always assigned positive values, but, on the other hand, it was necessary to attribute to one of the partners in the sexual act the passive, dominated, and inferior position. And while this was allegedly no problem when it involved a woman or a slave, the case was altered when it involved a male," even if the male were not yet an adult. Given this formulation of the problem, however, the real surprise of The Use of Pleasure is that it focuses on relations between adult males and boys and almost totally neglects relations between adult males. And yet, according to the logic of Foucault's argument, these latter relations presumably would have posed the most serious challenge to the "productive" model of repression but, as a consequence, would also have confirmed it in the most striking manner.

In the end, Foucault's omission of a discussion of sexual relations between adult Greek males undoubtedly relates less to a lack of material that could have provided the basis of such a discussion than to a limitation of Foucault's purely productive concept of repression.(11) What a depiction of relations between adult men would have obliged Foucault to confront is the irreducible ambiguity of the sado-masochistic domination and humiliation of another being. He would have had to acknowledge that in the case of sado-masochistic relations between two adult Greek males, the potentially negative - non-productive - dimension of the Greek "aesthetics of existence" concerned not only those whom Foucault readily perhaps too readily acknowledged suffered from its restrictions, but also those who supposedly benefited in every way from its permissions. Equally important, Foucault would have had to see that in a sexual relation between two adult males, that is, between a Greek male and another being who for him would represent another autonomous self, the potentially negative significance of the humiliation and domination of the other could not but reflect the negative implications of the Greek's aestheticized sado-masochistic relation to himself and the arguably restrictive and not merely expressive character of his "art."

It could be argued that what makes Discipline and Punish such a powerful work is the way in which Foucault himself appears to stress the ambiguity of the various tableaux studding his narrative of the history of punishment in the last four centuries, whether the tableaux depict the interrogator and the interrogated, the king and the condemned, or the policeman and the criminal. Discipline and Punish and many of Foucault's other texts provide a powerful critique of psychoanalysis by underscoring the productive, aesthetic dimension of repression, a critique, moreover, that adds to the richness and complexity of our understanding of the unconscious. In contrast, what limits The History of Sexuality is that Foucault sought to eliminate the ambiguity for which he himself had so forcefully argued in his earlier work. Despite Foucault's intentions, The History of Sexuality testifies to the limitations of a theory of repression that formulates repression in positive terms alone. Foucault did not and could not have demonstrated in this or in any other work that repression has (or at one time had) a totally productive character, because he was unable to neutralize totally the ambiguity of even aestheticized forms of sado-masochism and of the "spectacles" in which, throughout his work, they are enacted. Despite Foucault, The History of Sexuality testifies thus not just to the limitations of a negative concept of repression, but also and above all to the limitations and inherent contradictions of a purely productive, aestheticized concept of repression. In this sense, Foucault has demonstrated the timeliness of a critical "return to Freud" that focuses on the fundamentally contradictory - that is, simultaneously productive and destructive - nature of repression.


1 In Read My Desire, Joan Copjec makes a number of legitimate criticisms of Foucault's work and contrasts his perspective unfavorably with a Lacanian approach to several of the historical and cultural problems Foucault addressed. But Copjec does not take seriously enough the depth of Foucault's involvement with psychoanalysis and the critical contributions he made to our understanding of it.

2 A notable exception to the tendency I am describing is James Miller's controversial The Passion of Michel Foucault. In an approach that attempts to combine autobiography and intellectual history, Miller evokes sado-masochism, which he discusses in terms of Foucault's concept of the "limit-experience" (378). Given this focus, Miller is led to emphasize Foucault's debt to Sade and Bataille, whereas he mentions Freud only in passing.

3 See, of course, Judith Butler, who, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, has emphasized this "positive" dimension of repression in an analysis of gender and performativity.

4 In Paraesthetics: Foucault/Lyotard/Derrida, David Carroll discusses the aesthetic dimension of Discipline and Punish and its connection to a general privileging of art and literature that is argued to shape Foucault's critical project as a whole.

5 Freud writes, for instance: "If Leonardo was successful in reproducing on Mona Lisa's face the double meaning which this smile contained, the promise of unbounded tenderness and at the same time sinister menace, . . . then here too he had remained true to the content of his earliest memory" (11:115).

6 This point is conveyed most clearly in the contrasting picture Foucault provides of nineteenth-century forms of punishment, in which, he argues, "one no longer touched the body" (Discipline and Punish 15). His implication is clear. Under the ancien regime the body was "touched," it occupied a central position in the somber "festival" of punishment.

7 This point also becomes clear through Foucault's contrasting portrait of the forms of punishment that replaced the supplices. In the nineteenth century, Foucault writes, "the power to punish no longer dared to manifest itself openly" (Discipline and Punish 256), a clear indication that the supplices were characterized by their openness, by their public visibility as a "theater of cruelty."

8 This point is clearest in Foucault's assertion that the supplices were an "art mingled with the ceremony of pain" (Discipline and Punish 257).

9 One of Solon's laws, to which Foucault refers in passing, should be cited in this connection. It "required the husband to have sexual relations with his wife at least three times a month if she was an 'heiress'" (The Use of Pleasure 146).

10 Foucault similarly recognizes a potential discrepancy between the existence of a law prohibiting free Athenian males from raping slaves (and also minors) and the supposedly unlimited character of the freedom of adult Greek males - or at least their status as the only agents with the authority to limit their own activities. From Foucault's standpoint, it is inconceivable that such a law might reflect a belief that even slaves, the most dispossessed class of all, possessed certain inalienable rights implying a corresponding necessity for a restriction in the sexuality of adult Greek males. Instead, he offers what it is difficult not to see as a contorted argument to demonstrate that it did not. Foucault appropriates this argument - but without taking any critical precautions - from Aeschines, whose ironic rhetoric is noted by Robert Hurley as posing problems for Foucault in connection with another of his references to Aeschines's work in The Use of Pleasure (218). According to that argument, the law concerning the rape of slaves is really designed to affirm the absolute nature of the hierarchy between slaves and free men, because it was intended to impress upon Athenians the serious nature of the crime of rape when its victim was a minor, by comparing the minor in such an instance with the slave (The Use of Pleasure 216).

11 Not only is Foucault's omission of a discussion of adult homosexual relations inconsistent with his whole argument, but what little he does say about such relations is itself highly inconsistent and indicates the kinds of insurmountable problems that would have been posed to Foucault by a discussion of them. At one point Foucault cites mentions of an "abiding love relationship between two men who were well past adolescence" that implied no censure of such relations (The Use of Pleasure 194). But a few pages later, he asserts that "the first beard" represented a "fateful mark," and "the razor that shaved it must sever the ties of love" (199) between the boy and his adult lover.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Carroll, David. Paraesthetics: Foucault/Lyotard/Derrida. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Copjec, Joan. Read My Desire. Boston: MIT P, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Care of the Self. Vol. 3 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1986. 3 vols. 1980-86.

-----. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random, 1979.

-----. Dream and Existence: Michel Foucault and Ludwig Binswanger. Seattle: Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1986.

-----. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1980. 3 vols. 1980-86.

-----. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

-----. The Use of Pleasure. Vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1985. 3 vols. 1980-86.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Economic Problem of Masochism." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 19. London: Hogarth, 1961. 159-70. 24 vols. 1953-74.

-----. "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 11. London: Hogarth, 1957. 63-129. 24 vols. 1953-74.

-----. "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 19. London: Hogarth, 1961. 248-58. 24 vols. 1953-74.

Grimshaw, Jean. "Practices of Freedom." Up Against Foucault: Explorations of Some Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism. Ed. Caroline Ramazanoglu. New York: Routledge, 1993. 51-72.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon, 1993.

Said, Edward. "Michel Foucault, 1926-1984." After Foucault. Ed. Jonathan Arac. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988. 1-11.
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Title Annotation:Michel Foucault; Sigmund Freud
Author:Gearheart, Suzanne
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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