Masturbation and Pedagogization: Foucault’s Genealogy of Child Sexuality

I hope the suggestion of yet another pronouncement on Foucault’s History of Sexuality isn’t too allergic of a notion to you, reader (but don’t worry: I’m not limiting myself to that text in isolation anyways).  I think this post makes a point worth making and I invite you to evaluate my proposition by reading on.

Introduction

First, a note about why queer theory in particular could benefit from clarificatory specifications of Foucault the likes of which I am about to propose: however much it claims The History of Sexuality, volume I as a foundational text, queer theory has had an odd way of reading it, until at least recently.[1]  First of all, queer theory has overwhelmingly read volume I in isolation from its companion volumes; secondly, it has tended to overread the first three sections of volume I, which take up the dismantling of the repressive hypothesis and the deployment of sexuality through disciplinary technologies, to the exclusion of the concluding section on biopower; and, finally, it has massively overread Foucault’s diagramming of the psychiatrization of perverse sexualities—particularly male homosexuality—to the marginalization of the three other “great strategies” of the nineteenth century: the hystericization of the female body, the sexualization of children, and the socialization of procreative behavior (104-05).  This stratifying of Foucault’s text within queer theory tends to somewhat willfully ignore the implications of the entire breadth of his oeuvre, especially the importance of the Collège de France lectures, which are now being taken up with renewed interest.  It is also to fence in Foucault as some kind of discursive analyst, an epistemically-bound thinker, in a very narrow conception of “poststructuralism.”  I tend to want to counter these tendencies in queer theory by returning again and again to Deleuze’s monumental work, Foucault (1988).

However, that is not my purpose today.  Instead, I want to resituate the sexualization of children within the deployment of modern sexuality, to contextualize it by reading volume I alongside its most relevant Collège lectures—Psychiatric Power (1973-74) and Abnormal (1974-75) —and, finally, to build accretively from last week’s installment in thinking the exogamous implantation of sexuality in the child in relation to its overall generation.  As we will see, there is a fundamental anthropology of sexuality that relies on the child as a reactive, passive recipient in the trans-generational relation that limits our ability to think the child on its own terms, in its positive dimensions.

 

On Pedagogization

What volume I does to begin with is propose that the sexualization of children did not take place in the West until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The sexual saturation of the spaces of confinement we group under the sign “disciplinary power” in those centuries focused and intensified a family-centered regime of sexuality that took children as its most precious object of intervention, so that the “pedagogization of children’s sex” (104) in the home, the school, the clinic, and the analyst’s office became central vectors of a larger European deployment of sexuality.  These disciplinary processes were overlapped and interfaced with the biopolitical dimensions of the sexualization of children, where sexual pedagogization at the population level was operational to “the health of the race” (146).  If sexuality is a molar organ-ization of bodies, pleasures and populations through power/knowledge, then it is incumbent upon arguments that suggest an irreducibility of sexuality in individuation to reconcile themselves with Foucault’s genealogy of sexuality.  In the case of children, we see that their modern sexualization served as the suturing of body to population in a family-unit that could care for and pedagogize the child ad infinitum.

More to the point of my motivations in revisiting volume I, Foucault directly confronts my reading of Laplanche from last week in a concise diagramming of the effects of psychoanalysis’ “discovery” of infantile sexuality on the consolidation of the overall familial deployment of sexuality:

The guarantee that one would find the parents-children relationship at the root of everyone’s sexuality made it possible—even when everything seemed to point to the reverse process—to keep the deployment of sexuality coupled to the system of alliance…Parents, do not be afraid to bring your children to analysis: it will teach them that in any case it is you whom they love.  Children, you really shouldn’t complain that you are not orphans, that you always rediscover in your innermost selves your Object-Mother or the sovereign sign of your Father: it is through them that you gain access to desire” (113, emphasis added).

This is, to be schematic, more or less a historicized, genealogical version of Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-Oedipal thesis: psychoanalysis, through its Oedipal triangulations, overcodes the desire of the body by reducing it to a molar form of sexuality, which Foucault helpfully specifies is fundamentally a familial narrative.  The sexualized child functions to secure a familial sexuality that becomes the explanation for everything in one’s life, regardless of age.  The sexual is allowed to wander as much as a perverse child might suggest it does, while always faithfully returning to the parent-child relation on the analyst’s couch.

Perhaps too ambitiously, given the restricted length of this essay project, I find a potential concordance from last week’s installment to this week’s.  Laplanche states at the outset of Freud and the Sexual that “one is perplexed by Foucault’s approach; for, having relegated Freudian sexuality to the field of heterosexual genital union, he revels in the discovery of ‘non-sexual’ and even anti-sexual pleasures which are already amply described by Freud in 1905 (read the Three Essays!) under the heading of infantile and/or perverse sexuality” (1-2).  Indeed, the above-cited anti-oedipal passage from volume I seems to confirm Laplanche’s perplexity; and yet, Foucault to be sure is not making a commentary on Freud’s general text, but instead on the overall effects of psychoanalysis as a formation of power/knowledge in the deployment of sexuality.  However, as I also detailed last week, Laplanche himself submits the Oedipus complex as the “case in point” for demonstrating that sexuality is exogamous to the infant and child, the result of an imposition of the unconscious of the adult onto the infant, the mechanism of “identification-by”.  To that extent, I think Laplanche’s careful unpacking of sexuality in the parent-child relation renders his concept of sexuality as much an effect of its deployment as it is for Foucault; the difference lies only in the means by which we arrive at sexuality as a contingent organ-ization of bodies (and psyches, since we will not be opposing the two): Laplanche details the psychic transmission of sexuality as the formation of the unconscious and ego, whereas Foucault details the historical networks of power and knowledge, the institutional practices and discourses that implanted sexuality into childhood and children’s bodies, in a larger system of alliance, discipline and biopower (there is a way in which Foucault’s account is more global and subsumes Laplanche’s, to be sure).

 

On Masturbation

It may sound odd, therefore, to say as much, but the centuries-long crusade against child masturbation was not sexual, though it concerns sexuality.  It was not sexual, per Laplanche’s Freudian neologism, but was rather a technique for producing the very sexuality it imagined itself to be controlling.  This is a fundamental Foucauldian point, but it seems to me that much of queer theory still trips itself up trying to get to it.  It is worth returning, then, to the relevant Collège de France lectures, especially Abnormal, to sit with the breadth of Foucault’s research and thought on the function of “the immense jabbering” (233) on child masturbation in the overall deployment of sexuality.

The discourse on masturbation that begins in the Protestant states of Europe in the mid eighteenth century is unique in a way we may not suspect, begins Foucault: it is not like the discourse of psychopathia sexualis, or perversion, that would arise in the nineteenth century.  It is not a scientific discourse, that is to say, but rather an eminently social campaign, for the reason that the discussion and referential concept of child masturbation is not considered sexual at all:

The words, the very terms of desire and pleasure, never appear.  For a number of months I have gone through this literature with some curiosity, but also with some boredom, and in all I found just this one comment: “Why do adolescents masturbate?” and, around 1830-1840, a doctor suddenly had the idea: “But it must be because it gives them pleasure!” This is the only time (234).

Instead of being a sexual problem of children’s intrinsic auto-eroticism, masturbation becomes a problem because it is somatized: in short, masturbation is basically believed to be able to cause any and all forms of illness (237).  As Foucault then clarifies, in a moment of generative subtlety characteristic of his lectures, the child is made responsible through this medicalization, but not culpable: it is not the fault of the little girl or little boy that they masturbate.  Why? For the fascinating reason that “masturbation did not have an endogenous causality” (242).  The existence of prepubescent masturbation removed any moral culpability from children and instead allowed its discourse to pursue a range of seduction-theories of the implantation of masturbation as a bad habit in the child, particularly through assigning blame to domestic workers and nurses, but also parents.  In a phrase that again resonates fascinatingly with my reading of Laplanche last week, Foucault states very clearly that in the case of masturbation “The fault comes from the outside,” so that “At the origin of masturbation is adult desire directed towards children” (243).

The result of this explanatory logic of masturbation as an exogamous implantation from adult to child is “a new physics of family space” (245)—or perhaps better, in light of my reading of Protevi, a new political physics of family space—such that parents are to always be involved in their children’s spatial embodiment.  Foucault’s language here is incredibly evocative and precise: “from now on children’s bodies will have to be watched over by the parents’ bodies in a sort of physical clinch.  There is extreme closeness, contact, almost mixing; the urgent folding of the parents’ bodies over their children’s bodies” (248).  I barely need to point out the connection here to Laplanche: that the sexualization of the child has nearly nothing to do with an innate infantile sexuality and everything to do with the impression of adult desires onto the child, a sort of generalized pedophilia that organizes the project of raising children (the common prefixes of pedagogy and pedophilia are instructive, after all).

The end result of this campaign against masturbation, then, is that the sexuality of children is invented as a kind of property, something to be exchanged between the newly secured bourgeois family and the state apparatus in the realms of medicine and education:

the child’s sexual body serves as the unit, so to speak, of exchange.  Parents are told: There is something in the child’s body that belongs imprescriptibly to you and that you will never have to give up because it will never abandon you: their sexuality.  The child’s sexual body belongs, and will always belong, to the family space, and no one else will ever have any power over or claim on this body.  However, when we create for you this field of power so total and complete, we ask you to give us in return your children’s bodies, or, if you prefer, their abilities (257).

Addressing the masturbation of children, in other words, “is only a chapter of a broader, well-known crusade for the natural education of children” (256).

Where does this leave us? To sum up my perusal of Abnormal, Foucault diagrams how the problem of masturbation is not endogenously sexual, but rather a technique for producing sexuality.  The production of child sexuality—and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the discourse of child masturbation directly enables the subsequent “discovery” of infantile sexuality by psychoanalysis—specifically enables the new disciplinary and biopolitical arrangements of the family in relation to medicine and state education.  This kind of sexuality makes the child a unit of exchange between adults and pretends there is nothing else left over after the exchange.  Masturbation is hence an excellent example of how, if we want to think the generation of the child in a positive sense, on the terms of its own specificities and difference, then we cannot only focus on sexuality.  What I hope to have demonstrated so far in this essay is that sexuality in the Foucauldian sense is not reducible to the sexual in Laplanche’s Freudian sense.  There is always a remainder, a supplement, that “something else” that Protevi first identified for us, which for him is what behooves us to move toward a Deleuzian understanding of positive material self-ordering.  Again, I cannot concur enough.

 

Conclusion

What bothers me is that even in theories that emphasize the relationality of the child and adult, we still far too easily naturalize their fundamental asymmetry into a univocal economy of (adult) subjectivity—a fundamental anthropology, often of sexuality.  When we define the child-adult relation through sexuality as reducible to the sexual, we naturalize a linear imposition of form (the form of the adult) onto a passive recipient (the child as tabula rasa), a hylomorphic body politic.  The child is only ever the negative reflection of the adult, an incomplete individual because measured against the finished product it is supposed to become.  In a sense, the limit of psychoanalysis to thinking the child positively is also that we are always tempted to hold onto child sexuality as property our whole lives in analysis, including by keeping our own childhood selves as a kind of cherished sexual property.  I’m referring here to the temporal function of the child in a future-anterior and retrospective tense: everything the child does will be played out in its sexual future; everything you do now as a sexual adult is an element of the afterwardness of your childhood.  There is nothing false or incorrect about those functions of sexuality, insofar as they are normative, but they also make unthinkable, within a psychoanalytic framework, anything positive from the child outside of the sexuality/sexual dyad.

Finding a conceptual framework for thinking the positive capacities of infants and children is then, I want to argue, one potential project of precisely what Foucault’s enigmatic reference to thinking “bodies and pleasure” in The History of Sexuality could be taken to indicate—a nonsexual capacity of a nonoppositional body and psyche yet to be affirmed and creatively developed by adults, let alone children.  I will build up to that account by next week moving through the work of Luce Irigaray on difference and the ethics of relationality.  What Irigaray’s work will offer is a sorely needed reckoning with sexual difference in this exploration of the generation of the child (for there is, after all, no such thing as the child, but rather sexuate children), as well as an unmatched capacity to think difference beyond the self-same and the one, so as to prepare us to think the child “on its own terms,” so to speak, in its positivity and not only as a negative reflection of the phallocentric subject.


[1] So much so that Eve Sedgwick has called termed queer theory’s reading of volume I a “joke” that she never quite got. See her “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes,” in Janet Halley and Andrew Parker, eds., After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, 283-303.

 

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