Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things

Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things

by Ann Laura Stoler

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Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality has been one of the most influential books of the last two decades. It has had an enormous impact on cultural studies and work across many disciplines on gender, sexuality, and the body. Bringing a new set of questions to this key work, Ann Laura Stoler examines volume one of History of Sexuality in an unexplored light. She asks why there has been such a muted engagement with this work among students of colonialism for whom issues of sexuality and power are so essential. Why is the colonial context absent from Foucault’s history of a European sexual discourse that for him defined the bourgeois self? In Race and the Education of Desire, Stoler challenges Foucault’s tunnel vision of the West and his marginalization of empire. She also argues that this first volume of History of Sexuality contains a suggestive if not studied treatment of race.
Drawing on Foucault’s little-known 1976 College de France lectures, Stoler addresses his treatment of the relationship between biopower, bourgeois sexuality, and what he identified as “racisms of the state.” In this critical and historically grounded analysis based on cultural theory and her own extensive research in Dutch and French colonial archives, Stoler suggests how Foucault’s insights have in the past constrained—and in the future may help shape—the ways we trace the genealogies of race.
Race and the Education of Desire will revise current notions of the connections between European and colonial historiography and between the European bourgeois order and the colonial treatment of sexuality. Arguing that a history of European nineteenth-century sexuality must also be a history of race, it will change the way we think about Foucault.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377719
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/04/1995
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,096,257
File size: 419 KB

About the Author

Ann Laura Stoler is Professor of Anthropology, History, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan

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Race and the Education of Desire

Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things

By Ann Laura Stoler

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7771-9



There are several possible ways to think about a colonial reading of Foucault. And at one level, anthropologists and historians have been doing such readings for some time. No single analytic framework has saturated the field of colonial Studies so completely over the last decade as that of Foucault. His claims for the discursive construction of regimes of power have prompted us to explore both the production of colonial discourses and their effects; inspired, in part, by Edward Said's forceful lead, students of colonialism have tracked the ties that bound the production of anthropological knowledge to colonial authority, to trace the disciplinary regimes that have produced subjugated bodies and the sorts of identities created by them. Some have sought to describe how discourses on hygiene, education, confession, architecture, and urbanism have shaped the social geography of colonies and specific strategies of rule.

Nor have we done so in blind faith. Our ethnographic sensibilities have pushed us to challenge the limits of Foucault's discursive emphasis and his diffuse conceptions of power, to flesh out the localized, quotidian practices of people who authorized and resisted European authority, to expose the tensions of that project and its inherent vulnerabilities. These readings, for the most part, have been of a particular kind: by and large, applying the general principles of a Foucauldian frame to specific ethnographic time, and place, drawing on the conceptual apparatus more than engaging the historical content of his analysis.

This sort of passion for Foucault's general strategies is apparent in readings of his specific texts as well—particularly in treatments of volume I of The History of Sexuality. His book engages a disarmingly simple thesis: if in nineteenth-century Europe sexuality was indeed something to be silenced, hidden, and repressed, why was there such a proliferating discourse about it? Foucault argues that we have gotten the story wrong: that the "image of the imperial prude ... emblazoned on our restrained, mute and hypocritical sexuality" (HS:3) misses what that regime of sexuality was all about: not restriction of a biological instinct, a "stubborn drive" to be overcome, nor an "exterior domain to which power is applied" (HS:152). Sexuality was "a result and an instrument of power's design," a social construction of a historical moment (HS:152).

For Foucault, sexuality is not opposed to and subversive of power. On the contrary, sexuality is a "dense transfer point" of power, charged with "instrumentality" (HS:103). Thus, "far from being repressed in [nineteenth-century] society [sexuality] was constantly aroused" (HS:148). This is no dismissal of repression as a "ruse" of the nineteenth-century bourgeois order or a denial that sex was prohibited and masked, as critics and followers have sometimes claimed (HS:12). Foucault rejected, not the fact of repression, but the notion that it was the organizing principle of sexual discourse, that repression could account for its silences and prolific emanations. At the heart of his enquiry are neither sexual practices nor the moral codes that have given rise to them. Foucault's questions are of a very different order. Why has there been such a protracted search for the "truth" about sex? Why should an identification and assessment of our real and hidden selves be sought in our sexual desires, fantasies, and behavior? Not least why did that search become such a riveting obsession of the nineteenth-century bourgeois order, and why does it remain so tenacious today?

His answer is one that reconceives both the notion of power and how sexuality is tied to it. For Foucault, the history of sexuality is defined, not as a Freudian account of Victorian prudery would have it, by injunctions against talk about sex and specific sexual couplings in the bourgeois family, but by patterned discursive incitements and stimulations that facilitated the penetration of social and self-disciplinary regimes into the most intimate domains of modern life. Nor was that discourse initially designed to sublimate the sexual energy of exploited classes into productive labor, but first and foremost to set out the distinctions of bourgeois identity rooted in the sexual politics of the home. Central to Foucault's account of proliferating sexualities and discourses about them is the emergence of "biopower," a political technology that "brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge/power an agent of transformation of human life" (HS:143). In its specific nineteenth-century form, the disciplining of individual bodies and the regulations of the life processes of aggregate human populations "constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed" (HS:139). Within this schema, technologies of sex played a critical role; sex occupied the discursive interface, linking the life of the individual to the life of the species as a whole (HS:146).

While we have caught the gist of that message well—that discourses of sexuality and specific forms of power are inextricably bound, engagement with The History of Sexuality has been more formal than substantive, more suggestive than concrete. This is not to say that the parallels between the management of sexuality and the management of empire have been left unexplored. Many students of colonialism have been quick to note that another crucial "Victorian" project—ruling colonies—entailed colonizing both bodies and minds. A number of studies, including my own, have turned on a similar premise that the discursive management of the sexual practices of colonizer and colonized was fundamental to the colonial order of things. We have been able to show how discourses of sexuality at once classified colonial subjects into distinct human kinds, while policing the domestic recesses of imperial rule. But again, such readings take seriously the fact of a relationship between colonial power and the discourses of sexuality, without confirming or seriously challenging the specific chronologies Foucault offers, his critique of the repressive hypothesis, or the selective genealogical maps that his work suggests.

In taking up each of these themes, this book both draws on Foucault and extends his analysis. On the one hand, I look to how his insights play out in a colonial setting; on the other, I suggest that a wider imperial context resituates the work of racial thinking in the making of European bourgeois identity in a number of specific ways. While many historians have dismissed Foucault's empirical work as hopelessly wrong, and anthropologists, as well as other social analysts, taken with his theoretical insights have tended to treat his specific historical claims as less relevant, I question whether issues of historiography and theory can be so neatly disengaged. I pursue here a critique of Foucault's chronologies, a species of the empirical, not to quibble over dates but rather to argue that the discursive and practical field in which nineteenth-century bourgeois sexuality emerged was situated on an imperial landscape where the cultural accoutrements of bourgeois distinction were partially shaped through contrasts forged in the politics and language of race. I trace how certain colonial pre-figurings contest and force a reconceptualizing of Foucault's sexual history of the Occident and, more generally, a rethinking of the historiographic conventions that have bracketed histories of "the West."

Clearly the latter is not my venture alone. A collective impulse of the last decade of post-colonial scholarship has been precisely to disassemble the neat divisions that could imagine a European history and its unified collectivities apart from the externalized Others on whom it was founded and which it produced. And Foucault's metatheory has played no small part in that project, animating a critique of how specific and competing forms of knowledge have carved out the exclusionary principles of imperial power in the first place. What is striking is how consistently Foucault's own framing of the European bourgeois order has been exempt from the very sorts of criticism that his insistence on the fused regimes of knowledge/power would seem to encourage and allow. Why have we been so willing to accept his story of a nineteenth-century sexual order that systematically excludes and/or subsumes the fact of colonialism within it? To say that Foucault was a product of his discipline, his locale, his time may be generous, but beside the point. Colonial studies in the 1970s in England, the U.S., and France may have had little as yet to say about the relationship between colonial power and sexuality, but it had a lot to say about western imperial expansion, culture, and the production of disciplinary knowledge.

Several basic questions remain. What happens to Foucault's chronologies when the technologies of sexuality are refigured in an imperial field? Was the obsessive search for the "truth about sex" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries directly culled from earlier confessional models, as Foucault claims, or was this "truth about sex" recast around the invention of other truth claims, specifically those working through the language of race? While we might comfortably concur with Foucault that a discourse of sexuality was incited and activated as an instrument of power in the nineteenth century, we might still raise a basic question: a discourse about whom? His answer is clear: it was a discourse that produced four "objects of knowledge that were also targets and anchorage points of the ventures of knowledge" (HS:105), with specific technologies around them: the masturbating child of the bourgeois family, the "hysterical woman," the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult. But students of empire would surely add at least one more. Did any of these figures exist as objects of knowledge and discourse in the nineteenth century without a racially erotic counterpoint, without reference to the libidinal energies of the savage, the primitive, the colonized—reference points of difference, critique, and desire? At one level, these are clearly contrapuntal as well as indexical referents, serving to bolster Europe's bourgeois society and to underscore what might befall it in moral decline. But they were not that alone. The sexual discourse of empire and of the biopolitic state in Europe were mutually constitutive: their "targets" were broadly imperial, their regimes of power synthetically bound.

My rereading of The History of Sexuality thus rests on two basic contentions, central to much recent work in colonial studies. First, that Europe's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses on sexuality, like other cultural, political, or economic assertions, cannot be charted in Europe alone. In short-circuiting empire, Foucault's history of European sexuality misses key sites in the production of that discourse, discounts the practices that racialized bodies, and thus elides a field of knowledge that provided the contrasts for what a "healthy, vigorous, bourgeois body" was all about. Europe's eighteenth-century discourses on sexuality can—indeed must—be traced along a more circuitous imperial route that leads to nineteenth-century technologies of sex. They were refracted through the discourses of empire and its exigencies, by men and women whose affirmations of a bourgeois self, and the racialized contexts in which those confidences were built, could not be disentangled. I thus approach The History of Sexuality through several venues by comparing its chronologies and strategic ruptures to those in the colonies and by looking at these inflections on a racially charged ground. But, as importantly, I argue that a "comparison" between these two seemingly dispersed technologies of sex in colony and in metropole may miss the extent to which these technologies were bound.

My second contention is that the racial obsessions and refractions of imperial discourses on sexuality have not been restricted to bourgeois culture in the colonies alone. By bringing the discursive anxieties and practical struggles over citizenship and national identities in the nineteenth century back more squarely within Foucault's frame, bourgeois identities in both metropole and colony emerge tacitly and emphatically coded by race. Discourses of sexuality do more than define the distinctions of the bourgeois self; in identifying marginal members of the body politic, they have mapped the moral parameters of European nations. These deeply sedimented discourses on sexual morality could redraw the "interior frontiers" of national communities, frontiers that were secured through—and sometimes in collision with—the boundaries of race. These nationalist discourses were predicated on exclusionary cultural principles that did more than divide the middle class from the poor. They marked out those whose claims to property rights, citizenship, and public relief were worthy of recognition and whose were not.

Nationalist discourse drew on and gave force to a wider politics of exclusion. This version was not concerned solely with the visual markers of difference, but with the relationship between visible characteristics and invisible properties, outer form and inner essence. Assessment of these untraceable identity markers could seal economic, political, and social fates. Imperial discourses that divided colonizer from colonized, metropolitan observers from colonial agents, and bourgeois colonizers from their subaltern compatriots designated certain cultural competencies, sexual proclivities, psychological dispositions, and cultivated habits. These in turn defined the hidden fault lines—both fixed and fluid—along which gendered assessments of class and racial membership were drawn. Within the lexicon of bourgeois civility, self-control, self-discipline, and self-determination were defining features of bourgeois selves in the colonies. These features, affirmed in the ideal family milieu, were often transgressed by sexual, moral, and racial contaminations in those same European colonial homes. Repression was clearly part of this story, but as Foucault argues, it was subsumed by something more. These discourses on self-mastery were productive of racial distinctions, of clarified notions of "whiteness" and what it meant to be truly European. These discourses provided the working categories in which an imperial division of labor was clarified, legitimated, and—when under threat—restored.

If this rerouting of the history of sexuality through the history of empire makes analytic sense, then we must ask whether the racial configurations of that imperial world, rather than being peripheral to the cultivation of the nineteenth-century bourgeois self, were not constitutive of it. In this perspective, racism in the nineteenth century may not have been "anchored" in European technologies of sex as Foucault claims. If sexuality and the social taxonomies of race were mutually built out of a "more comprehensive history of exclusive biological categories," as Tom Laqueur claims, then we should see race and sexuality as ordering mechanisms that shared their emergence with the bourgeois order of the early nineteenth century, "that beginning of the modern age." Such a perspective figures race, racism, and its representations as structured entailments of post-enlightenment universals, as formative features of modernity, as deeply embedded in bourgeois liberalism, not as aberrant offshoots of them. My concern here is not to isolate racism's originary moment, much less to claim that all racisms are fundamentally the same. On the contrary, I grant slippage among the projects that modernity, the enlightenment and bourgeois liberalism embraced to make another sort of point, one that appreciates both how racial thinking harnesses itself to varied progressive projects and shapes the social taxonomies defining who will be excluded from them.

My colonial reading is of a particular kind, neither definitive nor comprehensive. It is not a reading of alternative cultural conceptions of sexuality, nor an encyclopedic account of how colonized bodies were shaped by the sexual policies of colonial states. It does not track the subversive ways in which different segments of colonized populations have appropriated the civilities imposed upon them and reread those moral injunctions against their European grain, a task that others have done so well. My task is more specifically focused and constrained. It is an effort to see what Foucault's work adds to our understanding of the bourgeois casting of European colonials and their categories of rule and in turn what ways the political configurations of European colonial cultures might bring a new understanding to The History of Sexuality.


Excerpted from Race and the Education of Desire by Ann Laura Stoler. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Chapter I. Colonial Studies and the History of Sexuality Chapter II. Placing Race in the History of Sexuality Chapter III. Toward a Genealogy of Racisms: The 1976 Lectures at the College de France Chapter IV. Cultivating Bourgeois Bodies and Racial Selves Chapter V. Domestic Subversions and Children's Sexuality Chapter VI. The Education of Desire and the Repressive Hypothesis Epilogue Bibliography Index

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Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
isaid More than 1 year ago
A "career" anthropologist -in other words; an individual who's more concerned with university politics than the validity of his or her works- Stolers career centers upon the so called "discovery" that the revolutionary tales anthropologists might wish to tell of colonial "exploitation"- don't actually match the tales of the societal elders that actually experienced the colonial era. Such = An anthropological insight? Or the tale any Brit, Frenchman, Dutchman, or Spaniard might experience from some old fart within hours of visiting ex colony ... "things were so much better in yr day... " etc. etc. Such at least has been my experience. ************************