On “Public Gestures”

Today I got the opportunity to re-read Foucault.  Or, today was all in all a good day.  I also got to read part of Saint Foucault, and while I really enjoyed the part that I read, I found myself grateful that I didn’t work at a university in the 1990s.  But I like the embattled nature of the book: it refuses the criticism that his work is merely a homage to “Saint Foucault” by treating Foucault like a saint.

If Foucault is a saint, he’s definitely in the running for being my patron saint because, man oh man, does he help me think. Today he helped me think about publicness, which I had never really thought of through Foucault.  Ann Laura Stoler made me think in these terms by quoting Foucault suggesting that his writing was a “public gesture” (a gesture she extends, of course) (Race and the Education of Desire, 17).  But thinking through this lens, I couldn’t believe how rich his discussion of publicness is in The History of Sexuality.  This thought should have been obvious to me–it’s everywhere throughout the book–but it felt new this time. It’s important that the discursive explosion that so-called ‘repression’ produces is not just the speaking of sex but “regulating sex through useful and public discourses” (25).  The “useful and public” part of this phrase is what interests me, because usually when things are ‘useful and public’ (think public service announcements) we think of them as spreading important information rather than extending and enacting regulation.  Again–this should have been obvious to me–but it’s so helpful to think about why “public humanities” as extending information, knowledge, conversations to new audiences is part of consolidating power rather than disrupting it.  The flip side of such publicness, of course, is that power legitimates heterosexual marriage precisely by allowing such marriages a greater degree of privacy.