Foucault’s Keystone: Confessions of the Flesh. How the Fourth and Final Volume of The History of Sexuality Completes Foucault’s Critique of Modern Western Societies

Paper prepared for presentation at the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History: “Confessions of the Flesh: Michel Foucault’s Final Volume of The History of Sexuality,” at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University on Thursday, December 5, 2019.

Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-647

24 Pages Posted: 4 Dec 2019 Last revised: 15 Jan 2020

See all articles by Bernard E. Harcourt

Bernard E. Harcourt

Columbia University; Columbia University

Date Written: November 30, 2019

Abstract

In the final pages of the now-final volume of The History of Sexuality, Volume 4: Les aveux de la chair (“Confessions of the Flesh”), Foucault’s intellectual project comes full circle and achieves its long-awaited completion. In those final pages, dedicated to Augustine’s treatment of marital sexual relations, Foucault reveals the heretofore missing link that now binds his ancient history of sexual relations to his critique of contemporary forms of neoliberal goverance: Foucault discovers in Augustine’s writings the moment of the birth of the modern legal subject and of the juridification of social relations. Like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the appearance of the modern legal subject completes Foucault’s critical project and allows us to fold the entire four-volume series of The History of Sexuality back into his critique of contemporary modes of social ordering in the neoliberal age.

Many critics of Foucault complain that the turn to subjectivity, to care of the self, and to truth-telling at the end of Foucault’s intellectual journey undermines the political force of his philosophy and has pushed contemporary critical thought into a complacent apolitical direction. The now-published Volume 4 of The History of Sexuality should dispel that argument and open the way to integrate those two projects—knowledge-power and subjectivity. That is our greatest task and challenge today: to explore how we have been shaped as subjects in such a way as to implicate ourselves—both willingly and unknowingly—in the social order within which we find ourselves and that, through the interaction of knowledge-power-subjectivity, we reproduce and reestablish ourselves.

Keywords: Neoliberalism, Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh, History of Sexuality, Augustine, power, knowledge-power, critical theory, critique, Ella Myers, genealogy, gender, sex, sexuality, aphrodisia, sin, flesh, Church fathers, Cassian, Ambrose, Clement of Alexandria

Suggested Citation

Harcourt, Bernard E., Foucault’s Keystone: Confessions of the Flesh. How the Fourth and Final Volume of The History of Sexuality Completes Foucault’s Critique of Modern Western Societies (November 30, 2019). Paper prepared for presentation at the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History: “Confessions of the Flesh: Michel Foucault’s Final Volume of The History of Sexuality,” at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University on Thursday, December 5, 2019.; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-647. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3497030 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3497030

Bernard E. Harcourt (Contact Author)

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