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  • Beyond the Power Principle
  • Jacques Derrida
    Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg

I would like to begin by thanking Thomas Bishop for inviting me to participate in this homage. He knew how much I wanted to be here in spite of health problems and academic constraints, which will make my lack of preparation and my incompetence all the more visible, in particular concerning The History of Sexuality.1 It is a work I do not know well and have come to all too recently. But I am fascinated by it, both by its historical richness and by the anxiety that sets it in motion, marking its interrupted trajectory with a sort of exemplary turbulence. A turbulence and an anxiety that are, in fact, avowed in the introduction to the second volume, The Use of Pleasure.

I dare not say “avowed” without being immediately inclined—because of Foucault’s warning—to take back this word, to erase the language of avowal. It still smacks of confession and of the entire machinery of power behind it that Foucault denounces.

And I should not have dared to say “historical richness,” as I just did, without correcting myself immediately: this History of Sexuality was not—did not want to be—a history, especially not a historian’s history, at least not a history in the way history is usually defined. It was not intended to be a history of behaviors or a history of representations. The introduction to The Use of Pleasure, coming midway in the journey, emphasizes everything that this history is not. The list of negative predicates—everything this history is not and the entire theoretical displacement involved in [End Page 7] this demarcation—would lead one to think that sexuality cannot become an object of history, a thing for the historian, without seriously affecting not only the historian’s practice but also the concept of history, the very meaning of this concept.

Right at the moment he announces a history of “sexuality,” Foucault puts the word “sexuality” in quotation marks. Underscoring, one might say, his own quotation marks, he makes it clear that “the quotation marks have a certain importance” (1985, 3). For what we are dealing with is the history of a word, with its uses starting in the nineteenth century and the recasting of vocabulary in connection with a large number of other phenomena, ranging from biological mechanisms to—partly traditional and partly new—rules and norms, to the institutions that support them, be they religious, judicial, pedagogical, medical, and so forth. This history of a name is not the result of a nominalist bias. And yet, although the history of sexuality is not a history in the conventional sense, not a history of behaviors or a history of representations, it maintains an essentially historical dimension insofar as sexuality comes, by retroaffection, to displace the gesture of the historian and to disrupt his field. It is not a matter of questioning the essence of such a sexuality, the hidden and permanent essence behind its historical phenomena and accidents. In this sense, Foucault’s gesture, if it is also philosophical, is not philosophical in the classical sense, that is, in the sense that it would amount to questioning an essence behind its historical appearances. Sexuality is historical through and through; one would be tempted to say historial, and that is why there is no such thing as sexuality [la sexualité] but only the uses of the word “sexuality,” the sexualities about which one speaks in their historicity, even if this historicity does not let itself be questioned by the essentialist philosopher or objectified by the classical historian into something that Foucault does not want, something that he says his project is not, namely, a history of behaviors or a history of representations.

These are some of the precautions I should have taken before praising the “historical richness” of this work. And such precautions [End Page 8] should accompany, or even if possible precede, an appeal to any of the words whose use we seem to take for granted.

Neither a history of behaviors nor a history of representations, this is how he presents the study in which his last three books...


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