skip menus and go right to content



LifeWatch Employee Assistance Program




Topic Home · Related:  
Book Review - The Emergence of Sexuality
The Emergence of Sexuality
by Arnold I. Davidson
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Stuart Elden, Ph.D.
Apr 12th 2004

In this book Davidson engages in two main related topics -- a discussion of some of the methodological issues that emerge in the work of Michel Foucault, and an elaboration and application of those ideas in a range of issues around questions of medicine and sexuality. There is cohesion to the book, but these are collected papers, bearing marks of their separate genesis and original oral form. Not in itself a problem, but it does mean that the book shifts gear rather dramatically in places, and that the ordering of the papers is somewhat arbitrary. Davidson's scholarship though is exemplary, and his linguistic ability -- French, German, Italian -- opens up a range of sources. Philosophically he straddles the Anglo-American/Continental divide.

The book falls largely into two parts: four essays on the application, followed by the conceptual discussion. What might seem the wrong way round is actually rather effective, as the reader is plunged into work of the kind that Foucault himself did, replete with textual analysis, plenty of graphic examples and remarkable revelations, before the more sober philosophical concerns come to the fore. In many ways this was precisely the way Foucault himself worked, moving from early studies on madness and clinical medicine to methodological works, and in his work on sexuality, for example, going through several moves on the topic before the chapter 'Method'.

The first chapter "Closing Up The Corpses" reverses a Foucauldian trope from The Birth of Clinic, and charts how pathological anatomy became less important in the work of psychiatry, specifically here in the realm of sexual perversion, though Davidson notes how it also relates to hysteria. Perversion, to which we are all in potential susceptible, moves from being a disease of the organs, to one of the sexual instinct that could doubtless be traced to neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, and finally to the instinct alone, a question of psychology (p. 4). It is rare to find exact dividing lines and these three modes are often confused, but they are for Davidson useful ways of understanding the literature and ideas of the period he studies. This chapter is also useful for clarifying Foucault's famous comment about the emergence of homosexuality. Davidson claims that "homosexuality was a disease, a 'perversion' strictly speaking, whereas sodomy was a vice, a problem for morality and law, about which medicine had no special knowledge" (p. 23). Although Foucault analyses the role of medical knowledge in law in some of the recently published lecture courses -- of which Davidson is the editor of the English translations -- the point is well made: "perversion is a thoroughly modern phenomenon" (p. 25).

Chapter Four offers a fascinating set of observations around the figure of the monster, and our horror of it. For Davidson, "our horror at certain kinds of monsters reflects back to us a horror at, or of, humanity, so that our horror of monsters can provide both a history of human will and subjectivity and a history of scientific classifications" (p. 93). There are some great illustrations to this chapter, and indeed in other places throughout the book. The sexuality angle is pronounced -- these monstrous births are held to be the product of sins against nature, including bestiality, of surplus seed or lack of it, and other related reasons. In the first half of the book many of the more standard sources are analysed -- Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis -- but also some important but less obvious ones such as Morel, Ambrose Paré, and Saints Augustine and Aquinas. Along the way there are some remarkable analyses of John Merrick, hermaphrodites (in parts of two chapters), the sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and representations of mania. The religious point is not surprising, given that convert and pervert were originally antonyms, "a pervert being one that is turned from good to evil, and a convert being the contrary" (p. 63). Equally the reading of monsters begins with Luther and Melancthon's analyses of the 'pope-ass' and 'monk'calf' of the sixteenth century as "signs of God's wrath against the Church which prophesised its imminent ruin" (p. 96).

As he makes explicit throughout these studies, Davidson is making use of Foucault's ideas and analyses. In some places what he is doing is filling in some of the gaps in Foucault's own work, particularly in the originally conceived plan of The History of Sexuality. One of the projected volumes, never published but which Davidson has a manuscript version of, was entitled Perverts. Although Davidson does not break his promise to Foucault, and never quotes from this, it is intriguing to speculate how much the unknown Foucault has influenced his work. Monstrosity, sodomy, hermaphrodites and masturbation were certainly among Foucault's themes. For the rest of us, studies like this, and the new lecture courses that treat many of these topics, are a more than useful replacement.

The second half of the book is, to my mind, somewhat less successful, but still offers some intriguing readings of important issues in Foucault. Davidson convincingly argues for seeing archaeology and genealogy as complementary analyses rather than distinct methods, and usefully relates both to claims about truth and its politics. He discusses the work of those close to Foucault such as Paul Veyne and Ian Hacking, and their common inspirations in historians or philosophers of science such as Bachelard and Canguilhem. These chapters are most compelling when Davidson relates the methodological issues to the concrete concerns -- such as the discussion of Augustine on perversion which demonstrates how the same word can apply to different concepts at different times, and that his use of the word therefore does not refute the idea that perversion emerged in the late nineteenth century (pp. 137'40).

Foucault, in Davidson's reading, was an exemplary historian of science, philosophically informed but engaged in analysis of the historical nature of knowledge claims -- what Davidson calls historical epistemology. Such a reading of Foucault is certainly possible, and illuminating in a number of regards. Foucault did indeed acknowledge his debt to Bachelard, Canguilhem and Dumézil. But he also drew upon a wider range of sources, some more explicitly philosophically minded, notably Nietzsche and Heidegger. Neither are mentioned by Davidson, although Nietzsche appears briefly in a quote. Thinking through this set of relations shows how Foucault is often concerned with a deeper historical problematic than the one he is seemingly investigating. Hacking and others, including Foucault himself in a late interview, have called this, not historical epistemology, but historical ontology.


© 2004 Stuart Elden


Stuart Elden teaches political geography at the University of Durham, UK. He is the author of Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History (2001) and Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible (2004). He is currently working on issues around calculation and territory.