Foucault’s Keystone: Confessions of the Flesh

How the Fourth and Final Volume of The History of Sexuality Completes Foucault’s Critique of Modern Western Societies

  • Bernard E. Harcourt Columbia University
Keywords: Augustine, Consent, Legalization, Modern legal subject, Homo œconomicus, Critique of neoliberalism

Abstract

The fourth and final volume of The History of Sexuality offers the keystone to Michel Foucault’s critique of Western neoliberal societies. Confessions of the Flesh provides the heretofore missing link that ties Foucault’s late writings on subjectivity to his earlier critique of power. Foucault identifies in Augustine’s treatment of marital sexual relations the moment of birth of the modern legal actor and of the legalization of social relations. With the appearance of the modern legal subject, Foucault’s critique of modern Western societies is complete: it is now possible to see how the later emergence of an all-knowing homo œconomicus strips the State of knowledge and thus deals a fatal blow to its legitimacy. The appearance of both the modern legal actor and homo œconomicus makes it possible to fold the entire four-volume History of Sexuality back into Foucault’s earlier critique of punitive and biopolitical power. And it now challenges us to interrogate how we, contemporary subjects, are shaped in such a way as to implicate ourselves—both willingly and unwittingly—in the social order within which we find ourselves and that, through the interaction of knowledge-power-subjectivity, we reproduce.

Author Biography

Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia University
Bernard E. Harcourt is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a chaired professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. He is the author most recently of Critique & Praxis: A Critical Philosophy of Illusions, Values, and Action (2020).

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Published
2021-04-08
Section
Special Issue: Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 4, Confessions of the Flesh