The Incitement to Discourse was written in 1978 but if anything has become more relevant with time. American society appears ever more inundated with discourses on sexuality. I've heard it argued people today, following the 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s, have escaped 'puritanism' and arrived at a state of liberated sexual consciousness. But I think it is important to question the limits of this discourse, its agents, motivations, and ends.
I would add to Foucault's consideration of science, medicine, and psychiatry the reach of pharmaceuticals, mass media, and global corporations in shaping our understanding of sexuality. These agents produce imponderable and often inescapable amounts of advertising, products, and pornography. Within these are held concepts of desirability, normalcy, and beauty. Within them are scripts on acting (and looking) 'male' and 'female.' And perhaps we could also add messages on the nature of humanity itself.
The end of this messaging often seems not to be satisfaction but a constant state of desire--for 'better' bodies, a 'perfect' diet, a state of fantasy, another means of arousal.
I think it is very important to distinguish quantity from quality. The question is: Have we really transcended censorship or simply shifted our silences to different arenas?
In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argues "The representation [of women's bodies] is heavily censored ... In the United States and Great Britain, which have no tradition of public nakedness, women rarely--and almost never outside a competitive context--see what other women look like naked; we only see identical humanoid products based loosely on women's bodies."
She notes "... we are asked to believe that our culture promotes the display of female sexuality. It actually shows almost none. It censors representations of women's bodies, so that only the official versions are visible ... we see mock-ups of living mannequins, made to contort and grimace, immobilized and uncomfortable under hot lights, professional set-pieces that reveal little about female sexuality." (135, 136)
Women's magazines are well documented offenders in this regard: selling a monolithic, light-skinned, anorexic brand of 'beauty' that is puzzling both in it unoriginality and unattainability.
Oddly, the more images of sexuality we are exposed to, the more constrained our exposure seems to be. I don't think it's safe to say the media inundates us with sexual imagery; I think it inundates us with a particular brand of sexuality. Perhaps one of its own creation. One need look no further than the latest blockbuster to see its form: Heterosexual, scripted, oddly sanitized, yet invariably peppered with 'explicit' sex scenes which, interestingly, audiences generally deride as entirely unrealistic.
Today more than ever it seems fitting to ask: Is there something subversive in the sexuality of real people? Who represents--or shapes--our sexuality as a culture, and why are they chosen? What constituency do they represent, or cater to? Clearly these topics approach space for infinite analysis, so I can only conclude with further questions. Who are the agents of power in today's discourses on sexuality? Do they present a break from the past or merely a restructuring of it? Are we still in an age, as Foucault describes, of "a fable that is indispensable to the endlessly proliferating economy of the discourse on sex"? (35)
- posted by Maureen