Confessions of the Flesh (The History of Sexuality 4)
Michel Foucault, edited by Frederic Gros and translated by Robert Hurley
Vintage, $17 (paper)

In Chu T’ien-wen’s 1994 novel Notes of a Desolate Man, the narrator recalls the death a decade earlier of French philosopher Michel Foucault:

The unfinished history of sexual consciousness stopped here. / [Foucault] appeared to have been liberated but was not. He seemed to have found the answer but had not. / I followed him up to the lofty mountain crags, but the road ended at the edge of the sky, and there he disappeared. I shouted his name, but there was no response.

When Foucault died from complications of AIDS, he left the series entitled History of Sexuality at least one volume shy of completion. For decades since, ardent readers of Foucault have fantasized that they would receive an “answer” from the sky once they could read the unpublished book, Confessions of the Flesh. Sometimes, I joined them. Now it has been published, in both French and English, and they—we—have in our hands as much as Foucault wrote of what might have been. Is this stitched-together volume an “answer” from the sky? Was shouting Foucault’s name a question?

Anyone who reads Confessions of the Flesh becomes complicit in the disregard of Foucault’s expressed wishes that the incomplete manuscript never be published.

The book has traveled a winding road to publication. In 1976, on the back cover of The Will to Knowledge, the overture to History of Sexuality, a second volume was promised under the title The Flesh and the Body. Foucault proceeded to collect notes on the practice of confession in early modern Catholicism and drafted manuscript pages. He quickly renamed the project Les aveux de la chair. The meaning of aveu ranges from penitential confession to solemn avowal, while chair is flesh (all theological echoes amplified).

But when, in 1984, History of Sexuality 2 and 3 (The Use of Pleasure, The Care of the Self) finally appeared, neither was a “Christian” volume. Rather, they treated Graeco-Roman authors, placing regimens of sex among other ancient ways of shaping a self or “subject.”

Foucault died only weeks after receiving his advance copies of History of Sexuality 2 and 3. His death left behind various drafts for the long-awaited Les aveux de la chair. Those unpublished pages treated the early Christian formation of subjects for whom sexuality (or something like it) was a distinguishing moral problem. In short, Foucault’s book on Christianity had broadened topically while jumping back about 1,300 years.

An immediate edition of the drafts was blocked by authorial injunction: “No posthumous publication.” To friends, Foucault restated the prohibition more playfully: “Don’t pull the Max Brod trick on me.” Franz Kafka had instructed his friend Brod to burn unread all of his manuscripts, journals, and letters when he died. Brod disobeyed. So, too, have Foucault’s executors—if by stages. One stage was the multivolume Dits et écrits (1994). It gathered essays, interviews, and lectures that Foucault had scattered into public view. Another was the printing of lectures Foucault delivered at the Collège de France (French editions, 1997–2015). The volumes of lectures began as transcriptions of bootleg recordings—obeying the letter if not the spirit of Foucault’s prohibition—but over time, they came to rely more and more on Foucault’s scripts. With Confessions of the Flesh (French 2018, English 2021), there is no longer any pretense. The hotly desired volume arrives at last as the posthumous publication of an unfinished manuscript. Anyone who reads it becomes complicit in the disregard of Foucault’s expressed wishes.

But what exactly is this version of Confessions of the Flesh? It is a group effort to make a finished book out of disparate drafts. The French editors take some care to flag their interventions. They establish a main text, pushing other pieces into appendices. They supply section titles for a table of contents. They fill in footnotes. Translator Robert Hurley’s English version goes further with less warning to readers. It incorporates editorial interventions as if they were Foucault’s own. It tacitly paraphrases theological terms that Foucault counts on his reader to understand. Without explanation, it inserts Victorian(!) translations of early Christian texts. And so on.

Still, in both the French and English editions, the greatest editorial intervention remains the very project itself, the creation of a posthumous edition. Combining incomplete drafts, the editors declare them a finished book. That was not Foucault’s judgment. He had slower habits of revision, unrushed by shouts from fans.

Why do we seek our final liberation by chasing the supposed secret of sex? Why enthrone sex, of all things? The riddling irony is that we expect Foucault to reveal just that secret from his grave.

Why have so many readers longed for the publication of these pages? They wanted Foucault’s last word on Christian sexuality to solve a mystery—like a retired detective finally revealing a notorious murderer’s name.

But the pages are “last” only accidentally. Foucault stopped writing about Christianity because of the unpredictable complications of AIDS—not because he had come to rest on a conclusion. Less than three months before his death, he ended his last lecture series at the Collège de France with remarks on the transformations of Cynic truth-telling by Christian mystics. Foucault suggested that he might pick up the topic in the next lecture series, scheduled for the spring of 1985. The demand for Foucault’s last word on Christianity not only denies his death, it accelerates his thinking—rounds it off, completes it. Ardent readers don’t fancy unsolved cases.

Unfortunately, the solution may not be entirely Foucault’s. The renowned detective doesn’t sound quite like himself. Because he died before making final stylistic and conceptual revisions, the composite text muffles or hushes Foucault. The narrative arc is presented as reassuringly canonical (from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine). Deference is shown to standard reference works and authoritative monographs. The expositions seem to accept conventions of intellectual and doctrinal history.

But this muted voice is an effect of the unfinished drafts. Foucault did not undergo a late conversion to standard historiography. In concurrent texts that he did approve for publication, such as “The Masked Philosopher” (1980) and “An Aesthetics of Existence” (1984), he undoes the conventions of academic writing with as much relish as ever. He slips on the mask of anonymity to escape all-too-knowing “interpretations” that reduce him to slogans. He wishes for a law to prohibit attaching an author’s name to more than one book: no more collected works, no new melodramas of authorial development. Put masks on all writers so that their words might be read anew.

If Foucault changed the structure, scope, and sources of History of Sexuality several times, he never submitted to the genres of historiography routinely prescribed for such a project. He refused to compose a straightforward social history of the rules for sexual acts, whether performed or imagined. He stepped around a “history of ideas” about sex and gender. Foucault sought instead to understand how Western society came to be dominated by techniques for subject-shaping in which a science of “sexual” desire played a central role in defining morality, maturity, and the advancement of races.

History of Sexuality 1 ends with an ironic riddle: Why do we seek our final liberation by chasing the supposed secret of sex? Why enthrone sex, of all things? The riddling irony of our long wait for History of Sexuality 4 is that we expect Foucault to reveal just that secret from his grave. We keep shouting the name of an author who wished to outlaw the repetition of authorial names.

The language of sexuality was once the privilege of new experts: forensic psychiatrists, sexologists, psychotherapists, criminologists, demographers, eugenicists. As decades passed, it was diffused into other speakers. We are all mini-sexologists now.

To want Foucault’s last word on sexuality is, anyway, to misunderstand his dance with systems of power.

You can watch him perform a signature pas de deux at the start of History of Sexuality 1. Foucault begins by mimicking the language of sexual liberation. He inserts clues to his performance as he goes along, then shifts to obvious mockery when he describes the earnestness of liberation’s Prophets and Preachers. Surprisingly many readers miss the joke that he tells not least at his own expense.

A longer performance runs through the book. History of Sexuality 1 is titled The Will to Know (thus the French; in English, it is only An Introduction). Foucault regularly performs that kind of willing. He speaks as one eager to know how the secret of sexuality became our great secret, rather than as one who doubts that we have such secrets. Indeed, he puns on the word histoire, which means both history and tale (as in “tall tales”). Foucault may seem to be writing a history that will finally uncover the sexual enigma at the human core. But he is actually telling a fantastical satire about a society that devotes whole centuries to scrutinizing an enigma of its own invention. The enigma for Foucault is how you can persuade people to believe so fervently that their destiny must be confessed by the ghostly “shade” of sexuality.  “One day, perhaps, in another economy of bodies and pleasures, one will not readily understand how the ruses of sexuality . . . succeeded in submitting us to this austere monarchy of sex.”

Here as in his other books, Foucault’s “literary devices” are not flourishes. They are his method, so far as he has one. Foucault shares with George Orwell a sensibility for how power runs through language—or runs on it. To tell the dystopian future of 1984, Orwell invented Newspeak, a party-dictated language scheduled to replace (our) Oldspeak by 2050. Newspeak shocks readers—if it still does—because they are creatures of a prior language. But Foucault is not drafting a dystopian novel about an oppressive future. (Now that would be a missing manuscript to desire.) He invites old speech to take the stage, to sound again, in hopes that it will disrupt his readers’ expectations. He hopes that estrangement will make obvious all that familiarity has concealed within their current language.

Beyond this point, the analogy to Orwell fails because the language for sexuality that Foucault needs to disrupt has not been imposed from the outside by an apparatus of censorship. Rather, it has accumulated over centuries from uncountably many coinages and inspirations. It is improvised even now in clinics and laboratories, courtrooms and schools, not to mention progressive churches, activist cafés, and forward-thinking nurseries. The language of sexuality was once the privilege of new experts: forensic psychiatrists, sexologists, psychotherapists, criminologists, demographers, eugenicists. As decades passed, it was diffused into other speakers. We are all mini-sexologists now.

In History of Sexuality 1, Foucault resists the claims of triumphant “sexual science” most obviously through his use of irony (if still not obviously enough). But the individual ironies sometimes coalesce into a sustained dissonance. The section entitled “Method” offers paradoxical cautions and counsels about how (not) to describe power around sexuality. Do not look in government conspiracies or Unified Big Science. Study, instead, the minute local arrangements that spark power moment by moment. Power is immanent in social processes not as a single flow but as a charge or field. It elicits resistance (almost in the electrical sense). If it has directions, it is not subjective. Its largest strategies are anonymous—and so able to run through all kinds of circuits, of people. Since every serious method sets some rules (see Descartes), Foucault provides a few, enumerated and enunciated. Taken together, they correct our clichés about oppression. Power is not applied from on high. It is generated down here, in us. We talk it.

Foucault’s stylistic devices change after History of Sexuality 1 but they do not disappear. If some paragraphs still display exaggerated irony or florid self-contradiction, the main devices have become narrative rather than lyrical. In History of Sexuality 2 and 3, the largest resistance to contemporary pretensions of sexual knowingness may be Foucault’s choice to write the volumes at all. He makes no claim of relevant historical expertise. Indeed, he continues to contrast the ordinary practice of history with his own inquiry, which he attributes to philosophy. By dint of “the domain that they treat and the references that they use,” he agrees when opening History of Sexuality 2 to call these volumes “studies of ‘history’.” But he insists, in the same sentence, that they are “not the works of a ‘historian’.” They are, if a label must be applied, essays in philosophy—that is, exercises in thinking and attempts at self-shaping. The “essay” is, he says, “the living body of philosophy.” Essai means in French (as “essay” once did in English) both an attempt and a genre for writing. Foucault shifts from the pun on histoire, as history and tale, to the pun on essai, experiment and essay.

The remarks on essai come just a few lines after Foucault names his motive for studying antiquity. It is curiosity: “not the kind that seeks to assimilate what ought to be known but the kind that enables one to let go of oneself. . . . There are moments in life when the question of knowing whether one can think otherwise than one thinks and perceive otherwise than one sees is indispensable.” Curiosity, as opposed to knowingness. Thinking about sex without submitting to scientia sexualis or literalism—that is, setting aside the current models decreed by experts and all their flattening effects.

I recommend rereading the prologue to History of Sexuality 2 before picking up Confessions of the Flesh. It may tune your ears to what Foucault’s curiosity didn’t have time to accomplish. It should certainly alert you to the rival claim of historical immediacy that Foucault encounters as soon as he enters the Christian canon. Academic history makes one claim to own the truth of old books. Christian theology has long made another. Foucault is not the only one interested in how venerable words might elude current structures of scientific power. For many Christians, the record of church teaching is still the teaching.

Modern sexual identities might be understood as codified and then medicalized cousins—or troublesome descendants—of the Christian virgin.

However they have reached us, what do the pages of this final volume, such as they are, actually say?

Confessions of the Flesh discusses early Christian texts to show how the new religion elicited the experience of a “libidinized” self. During the early 1980s, Foucault had interpreted many of the pertinent texts in dozens of lectures, seminars, and interviews. For readers who are fans, much of the volume will therefore not seem new. Still, two sections of Confessions of the Flesh will strike even these readers as missing pieces.

The first is a detailed discussion of virginity as a “technology of the self.” For Foucault, the Christian notion of virginity isn’t a super-prohibition, the sum of all sexual rules. It is instead an art of living that pulls the self out of the ordinary—away from cycles of craving and pleasure, even from the pressures of social replication implicit in a virtuous marriage. Freed from these, the virgin self can recall its original creation and prefigure its heavenly fulfillment.

On Foucault’s reading, virginity allows Christians to recast their sexuality from a negative economy of abstentions into a positive experience of self-shaping. To be a virgin transforms your whole life—clothing, gestures, tastes, social relations, family status. The visible drama of living as a virgin is not repentance for sin but transfiguration of flesh. Since virginity is a choice rather than an obligation, it shows the radical ways in which humans might relate to the divine and to each other already within history. We could call this virginity “utopian” except that it does have a place (rather than no place): it occurs here, among us.

Foucault goes further. He is most interested in how Christian practices of virginity reconfigure sexuality to establish new relations of the self to itself. With the voluntary renunciation of sexual acts, space opens for surprising self-knowing and alternative self-narration. Paradoxically, refusing sexual acts imbues sexuality with an unprecedented ethical importance. Being a virgin is a set of lived relations to oneself. A virgin continuously performs a self in relation to sex.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because Foucault brings forward family resemblances between Christian technologies of virginity and modern technologies of a self defined by its sexuality. To speak much too simply: modern sexual identities might be understood as codified and then medicalized cousins—or troublesome descendants—of the Christian virgin. Being gay also requires a continuous performance of a self in relation to sex. It too is supposed to change everything: clothing, gestures, aesthetic sensibilities, social circles, family structures. Some would add that it can even grant startling access to spirituality.

The second unanticipated section of Confessions of the Flesh is an exposition of Augustine’s views on sexual sin in paradise. Augustine is most remembered for his eloquent recounting of his slow conversion to Christianity. His Confessions tells his transit from life as a master rhetorician and devotee of “false” religion through his discovery of true (Platonic) philosophy to his humbling acceptance of revelation in the Christian scriptures. But Foucault is interested in a later Augustine: the bishop who, from his consecration in 395 CE until his death in 430, denounced with increasing pessimism the sources and consequences of human sin. That pessimism overdetermined centuries of Christian teaching about sex.

Foucault mostly ignores the ways Augustine complicates his polemic: modulations of voice, ornaments or colors, dialectical twists. It is an odd way for one astute stylist to construe another, and it should remind us that Foucault did not finish with these pages. Instead, his curiosity—or, more likely, his illness—presses him to set aside his passion for archived rhetoric to pursue just two expository tasks. The first is to reconstruct Augustine’s implicit model for the sexual effects of original sin on the human will. The second task is to project the Augustinian model into a church future of sexual law.

In Augustine’s retelling of the arrival of lust in paradise, Adam consents to irrational desire and so cleaves his own will. The involuntary erupts within the voluntary—psychologically as a permanent disorder of volition, physically as the shameful revolt of (male) genitals. The division of the whole subject, soul and body, now drives it toward what it does not want to desire. To describe this division, Foucault uses the word partage, which, two decades before, he had borrowed from poet René Char to name the division between reason and unreason. In Foucault’s reading of Augustine, the fallen will is fundamentally divided against itself, especially in sex. Fallen sex—sex after sin—inevitably reveals the historical deformity of the human subject. The curse can be lifted, the partage healed, only by divine grace.

From this model of internal sexual violence, Foucault argues, it is a short step to Christian legal models fixated on distortions of lust. The sexual scission of the willing subject issues ultimately—that is, during the European Middle Ages—in the “juridification” of human sexuality. (By “juridification,” Foucault means that actions and actors exist in a space shaped by codes of law and their prescribed punishments.) Acts that reiterate the will’s split, notably sex, are thus put at the center of a new juridical subject, an embodied self that lives under the burning sky of divine condemnation. To be sure, the Christian “juridification” of sex doesn’t begin with Augustine. It can be found earlier in conceptions of the marriage “debt”—the sexual acts each married partner owes to the other after the mutual gift of bodies. Still, on Foucault’s telling, the success of Augustine’s texts in particular yoked our sexual brokenness to a legal code.

I’m not convinced by either step of Foucault’s argument from Augustine—not by the synthetic interpretation of Augustine’s occasional pieces, not by the causal chronology of medieval codification. It is all too neat. The closer Foucault moves to the beginning of the Middle Ages, the more he sees only Christian code. Leaving aside the many problems of textual evidence, that reduction ignores his own distinction between a moral code and ethics seen, for example, in History of Sexuality 2—that is, between a set of dictates and the freer shaping of an ethical self. Foucault has insisted that the distinction is always relative since every moral teaching contains elements of both.

If Western Christianity really did yield to centuries of sexual codification, a more interesting question—a more Foucauldian question—would be: Where, in church texts from those centuries, can we find ethical resistance to code? Foucault adopted just such a split view when describing the counter-conducts inseparable from the exercise of pastoral power (in Security, Territory, Population). The absence of that question here shows, once again, that Foucault was not finished when he died.

If Western Christianity really did yield to centuries of sexual codification, a more interesting question—a more Foucauldian question—would be: Where in church texts can we find ethical resistance to code?

Luckily, a dissatisfied reader needn’t reach outside Confessions of the Flesh to complicate the concluding narrative that I have just called into question.

Consider the pages excluded by the editors from the main text but printed as “Annex 2.” In them, Foucault not only relativizes his heuristic binaries, he also sets aside the sort of causal chronology he offers for Augustine and codification: “Let us forget, for a moment, places and chronologies.” At the section’s end, he says, “I know that I have mixed, against all method, very disparate things.” “Against all method,” that is, against standard historiography but not against the “method” that Foucault himself laid out in History of Sexuality 1.

“Annex 2” reflects on two poles of Christian penance, exomologesis and exagoreusis. Dictionary definitions of these two terms obscure the distinction that Foucault finds in some early Christian uses. On Foucault’s telling, exomologesis is embodied drama, wordless and yet public, extraordinary and life-changing. You might liken this to the Holy Week mortifications of penitentes or the convulsive chastisements of some tent revivals. By contrast, and again according to Foucault, exagoreusis is frequent and private reporting. It replaces the wordless embodiment of exomologesis with required self-narration. Foucault argues that the second became the dominant form of penance in Latin-speaking Christianity, and he recognizes it in still current rituals of confession (think whispers in the confessional “box”).

The main text of Confessions of the Flesh presents the basic contrast between the two poles of penance. But “Annex 2” describes them with distinctive terms that recur across Foucault’s writing during the 1980s, including “dramaturgy” and “alethurgy” (truth-performance, truth-showing). These and related terms in “Annex 2” connect Foucault’s reading of Christian texts to his ongoing and unfinished philosophical essays. The emphasis on theatrical manifestation, for example, is answered by his minute description of how Cynics body forth philosophy in The Courage of Truth.

I wish that “Annex 2” had been integrated into the text as a coda to the narrative of Augustine and legalization. It would complicate the narrative drive to a forensic solution. (As the volume stands now, the murderer was Legalization and the crime scene was the Institutional Church.) It would also reinforce or develop a stylistic device used elsewhere by “the author” gathered or fantasized under the name “Michel Foucault.” The abrupt stop to the story about Augustine is not the first time Foucault had reached a dead end in writing about Christianity and modernity.

In earlier presentations of Christian penance, Foucault connects the two poles to larger historical shifts. In a lecture at Dartmouth, for example, the “truth-technology” of exomologesis becomes “the ontological temptation of Christianity”; exagoreusis, “the epistemological temptation.” Historically, Foucault claims, the second technology, “oriented towards the permanent verbalization and discovery of the most imperceptible movements of our self,” wins out. “It is nowadays dominating.” But the lecture doesn’t stop with that hastily sketched victory. Foucault ends by gesturing toward an unfinished future. “But the moment, maybe, is coming for us to ask, do we need, really, this hermeneutics of the self?” He adds three more parallel constructions, ending with, “Maybe the problem is to change those technologies.” “Maybe,” he says, four times. Whatever follows cannot be on the page. We are very far from last words.