- Foucault and the “Kamasutra”: The Courtesan, the Dandy, and the Birth of Ars Erotica as Theater in India by Sanjay K. Gautam
Two colleagues who happened to see this book on my desk when I was in the course of reading it were provoked by its title to make ironic comments on the field in which I work. Was Foucault such an obligatory reference in the history of sexuality that his name must be invoked even for studies of ancient India? Did it have to be Foucault and everything? How could the understanding of a text from such a faraway place and time be materially advanced by drawing on the work of a notoriously Eurocentric thinker? While those colleagues are unlikely to read the Journal of the History of Sexuality, readers in our field may benefit from an attempt to put such questions in their place. The first thing to be said in this regard is that Sanjay Gautam’s book is in fact an important contribution to the understanding of Foucault’s thought. By drawing together what Foucault had to say about ars erotica and then applying it to an analysis of the Kāmasūtra, Gautam advances scholarship on two fronts. He brings scholarly attention to bear on a work that, despite its iconic status in everyday discourse, seems never to have been properly established as canonical (x). At the same time, he seeks to better understand Foucault’s thought by bringing to light “what remains hidden, or only partially developed, in Foucault’s own insightful but brief comments on ars erotica” (3). Scholars who are not specialists in the cultural and intellectual history of India, like this reviewer, will find their understanding expanded by the detailed provision of background information on that score. They should certainly not let their lack of specialist knowledge deter them from discovering all that Gautam’s book has to offer by its application of Foucault’s thought to the Kāmasūtra.
Foucault’s distinction between scientia sexualis and ars erotica has been much quoted, although scholarly uses of the distinction have not paid equal attention to both terms. Intellectual historians of sexuality have in their great majority occupied themselves with the specificity of scientia sexualis as a modern knowledge formation. When Foucault famously declared that ars erotica was absent from the West, he left himself open to the criticism that he was rehearsing an Orientalist trope by locating pleasure in some distant East (14). But Gautam helps us to understand just what it means for Foucault to make that statement. In the West, “pleasure was successfully brought under the jurisdiction of philosophy, science, religion, morality, and the state, all of which contributed together in complex ways toward the making of . . . scientia sexualis in which truth emerged as a sovereign category” (25–26). The point of turning to the Kāmasūtra, for Gautam, is therefore not to indulge in Orientalist antiquarianism but to find evidence of discursive work being done to make a space (outside the West, as [End Page 485] it happens) in which the value and the practice of pleasure would not be subordinate to the authority of truth. Ars erotica in the Kāmasūtra, Gautam argues persuasively, worked to constitute a “domain outside power,” as it “gave itself a clear task of winning autonomy for the discourse of pleasure” (32, 89).
So while the Kāmasūtra is the focus of historical interest in this essay, it is not presented as a precious literary text fetched from a faraway time and place. Its general value is to be understood in Foucauldian terms as “a domain of discourse and practice” (176). In this domain, sex is not simply a sensual experience in which thought is lost to itself but an activity grounded in discourse (57). For the Kāmasūtra, Gautam argues, sex did not come first, to be followed later by thought and by talk...