In The History of Sexuality, volume I, Michel Foucault notes that in the 18th century what he calls a “discursive ferment”
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1:... of discourses on sexuality began to accelerate:
It was here, perhaps, that the injunction, so peculiar to the West, was laid down for the first time, in the form of a general constraint. I am not talking about the obligation to admit violations of the laws of sex, as required by traditional penance; but of the nearly infinite task of telling—telling oneself and another, as often as possible, everything that might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts which, through the body and the soul, had some affinity with sex. This scheme for transforming sex into discourse had been devised long before in an ascetic and monastic setting.
Discourse, the obligation for discourse and the profusion of discourses that came as a result are, just as Michel Foucault demonstrated, inseparable from questions that concern human sexuality. These questions are far from being timeless. The author of The History of Sexuality situates its first appearance on a day in 1867 when a “tiny” but highly significant event occurred: an agricultural worker in the village of Lapcourt, somewhat simple-minded, was condemned for having been caressed by a little girl as “he had done before and seen done by the village urchins round about him.”
p. 31. “The repressive hypothesis”—still known as “the discourse on the modern repression of sex”—was born.
All discourses on sex since this date have not straightforwardly advanced the terms of repression. Some discourses have been able to contribute to transforming the conditions of the “problem” and the forms of the sexual question. This is especially the case for the category of the “sexual” which comes into being as a result of the discovery, by the author of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), of the identification of a distinct and unique sexual drive, equally shared by all humans regardless of their biological sex. In maintaining this scandalous thesis, at least at the time, of the existence of an all but abnormal child sexuality, Sigmund Freud breaks with the biological determinism of physiological need and grants a preponderant place to the history of individual sexuality in the development of one’s mental life.
The logic that presided over the composition of this journal issue has consisted in placing the question of sex within the dual scope of the plurality of sexualities and the diversity of disciplinary approaches liable to be cognizant of them. Human sexuality is always the result of a complex inter- and intra-subjective construction. It does not stem from anatomical fact, nor from some biological determinism that might be attached to it. The forms it can take –that cast doubt on any related essentialist pretension—are always traversed by discourses and by taboos [inter-dits] that are led by institutions and actualized in more or less self-conscious performances, just as Judith Butler brought to light in Gender Trouble (1990). Her theoretical contribution to gender studies which the present issue wishes to take stock of, without the slightest claim to exhaustiveness, has in that regard turned out to be central. Several of the authors in these pages come back to the crossroads set in place by this American philosopher’s work in order to think about sexuality at the juncture between discourses and performances.
The interview as well as the articles that follow have in common their location at the confluence of recent work that has come out of gender studies, at the intersection of contemporary discourses that explore and problematize the relationships between sex and gender: philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, history, literary criticism, to only cite a few of the disciplines represented here, whose diversity of points of view and methodologies seems to us, by nature, to emphasize to what extent the institution of discourse, including scientific discourse, is decisive in the construction of sex and gender identities.
Along the way, it will be about asking what is thinkable today under the name of “sexual identity,” which is no more evident, no simpler than sexuality itself. It can be approached from the angle of performance and of its enunciative capacities just as much as from the imaginary identification that underpins all elaborations of identity. If the originally psychoanalytic notion of “sexual difference” is today contested by some, or even considered as outdated, this journal issue asks in which conditions and with what effects difference is pluralized.
The confrontation of discourses and methods without any unifying aim will allow for a questioning of the modes by which different disciplines mutually probe one another, enter into conflict if need be, shift places under each other’s effect around the question of the sexual. Interdisciplinarity, the trademark of gender studies, is conducive to asking about the difficulties presented by all discourses on the sexual and sexualities with a universalizing scope, and to explore the modes by which the hinge between the singular and the universal can still be maintained in terms that, if they are not new—and we hope they will be—are at least creative.