The Power of Language and Foucault

In the chapter “The Incitement to Discourse” of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality it would appear that the main focus is less on sex itself, but the profound effect of language and growing discourse regarding sexuality in the Western world post Counter-Reformation. Yet, I would argue further, and claim that the main point that Foucault is trying to explore is the power of language in general and the metaphysical ramifications of lingual alterations.

Foucault writes on page 17, “As if in order to gain mastery over it [sex] in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it… and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present.” Foucault clearly recognizes the power that language holds over existence, as evidenced by his claim that sex had to be “subjugate[d] at the level of language.” What Foucault appears to understand is that without something to define an idea, to place it within specific parameters of meaning, then the idea is left formless and cannot exist within the human mind.

The sheer gravity of such a claim, that a word to classify a thing, and definitions of such a thing, are necessary for the thing’s existence seems to fight against our minds. Perhaps this is because we feel the truth in this claim, and the idea that existence and non-existence can be determined by just a word frightens us. But this is an entirely justified assumption, as supported by Foucault’s analysis of how through the careful subjugation of our sexual vocabulary, our very conceptions of sexuality were drastically altered.

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