Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, IV.

Lecture of 28th January, 1981

Foucault distinguishes between the Graeco-Roman concept of aphrodisia, the Christian concept of flesh and the modern concept of sexuality. These are not three domains of distinct objects. They are three modes of experience, that is three modalities of the relation of the self with itself, in the rapport that we have with a particular domain of objects. Foucault is suggesting that the relation with sexual activity is always about a self-relation and about sexual activities which are joined in a changing modality.

Artemidorus did not make moral judgements, but looked at what was favourable or unfavourable in events to come, in the interpretation of dreams which he presumes refers to future events. It is, however, an ethical perception, presumably in the sense that the ethical is what concerned with with relation of the self with itself. Foucault appears to assume a distinction between morality as abstract code, duties which do not change with context or experience, and ethics as more concrete evaluation  of particular acts, and guide to the life as we experience it.  This seems to roughly correspond with the way Hegel understands the difference between ethics and morality, and more recently Bernard Williams. The distinction is not always used in this way though.

The important distinction in Artemidorus, within sexuality, is not between homo- and heterosexuality, but between iso- and hetero-morphism, that is between relations with those of a share social status and those of a different social status. A relation between a mature man and a boy of the same social class is isomorphic, while a relation between a mature man of the higher classes and male slave is heteromorphic. The relation between a man and a woman in marriage is isomorphic, as marriage is a joint status forming situation. Artemidorus inherits an oral tradition (and what seems to be at the end of tradition, or at least a tradition unaffected either by philosophy after Socrates or Christianity). He does not think sexual activity should be restricted to marriage, but that was a view growing in Greek philosophy at that time (we can find it in Aristotle). For Artemidorus, marriage is the most isomorphic relation, but that does not mean that all extramarital sexual activity is condemned.

Ancient law, or the Greek influenced Roman law known to Artemidorus, only entered into adultery where adultery interfered with someone else’s sphere so was not an isomorphic relation. A marred man having sexual relations with a servant woman was isomorphic, because she was part of his domestic sphere. The perspective represented by Artemidorus is that where sexual acts are placed in a hierarchy, and are not morally condemned or commended, but rather might improve or worsen status.

Foucault distinguishes between an ancient Greek idea of nomos and later notions of judicial law, which seems in accordance with a variety of thinkers including Vico, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Nomos is concerned with divisions of a pre-legal sort, which might or not be reflected in juridical law, (though presumably are a dominating influence on what there is in the way of judicial law)  as in the isomorphic/heteromorphic distinction.

As well as nomos, Artemidorus is concerned with what is active or natural, which provides another source of judgement about what is positive. Nature is apparently most natural where there is activity, which sounds like the view of nature that comes from Aristotle. What is natural and active in sexual activity is what is male and penetrative. That can be penetration of women, boys or slaves. In all three cases, inferior status is linked with sexual ‘passivity’, with the addition of beauty and relative physical weakness for the woman and boy. The penetrating male has a moderated limited pleasured defined by his activity, while the woman or boy has an indefinite limitless pleasure. That leads to the idea in antiquity, lasting into the Middle Ages that the man who runs after women, or boys, is feminised , because he does not limit pleasures. That lingers on in the psychoanalysis of Jung, which regards the Don Juan character as feminised.

The man-boy relation is distinct from the man-woman relationship, not simply with regard to gender, but with regard to the boy as what becomes the man and therefore the complete subject of activity. This relation can be de-eroticised as pedagogy, the man teaching the boy, and that is apparent in Plato. Foucault seems to be hinting that the Socratic-Platonic dialogue is deeply influence by the man-boy erotic relationship as the erotic takes over the physically sexual, and some dialogues have some suggestions of this, particularly Phaedrus. Artemidorus shows a speaking truth to others, but coming from a self-relation which taken far enough undermines the approach of Artemidorus, because it is discovery ıf truth in ourself, taking us towards Platonism and Christianity. Foucault is rather indirect about it, but he does seem to be suggesting that the philosophical tradition emerged, in part at least, from the desexualisation of same sex desire, the move from transfer to sexual experience to transfer of knowledge.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014


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