In the second chapter of The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that the power exerted in the 18th century in distinguishing and classifying non-marital practices was not directed towards repressing these practices but rather a proliferation of “sexual perversions” (42)             . Subsequently, Foucault identifies four operations involved in this exertion of power quite different from simple prohibition which resulted in the latter. Among these operations of power, Foucault includes the specification of individuals, using “the homosexual” (43), as an example. In ancient, civil, and canonical codes, Foucault explains, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts and the perpetrator “nothing more than the juridical subject of them” (43). In the 19th century, however, the proliferation of discourse, transformed the homosexual into a personage: “the 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology” (43). In short, sexuality became intimately associated with or constitutive of a person’s identity, and one’s sexuality became a key to interpreting one’s personality and one’s behavior: “nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…it was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle” (43).

Foucault only discusses the homosexual personage, however, I found Foucault’s description of the latter particularly interesting as I think that he has given as a format to say something much more general about the construction of personages that exist beyond the realm of sexuality. Broadly, on Foucault’s account, the personage seems to be constructed when the “the other” is distinguished, classified, and organized. I believe that evidence can be gathered for this view in virtue of the way in which individuals in minority groups come to define themselves. I spend a lot of time on the social media site, tumblr. Over a short period of time, tumblr has come to be distinguished, as a social media website, by its highly diverse and politically aware community; subsequently, I have had the opportunity to get to know a wide variety of people with different sexualities, genders, and ethnic backgrounds; those individuals who are typically labelled as “others”. While I cannot speak for them, one of the overwhelming feelings I get from these “othered” individuals is a struggle to escape being wholly defined in virtue of their differences. There is not only homosexual personage, but a transgendered personage, a Muslim personage, a Chinese personage.

It seems that we could easily extend the construction of personage to gender, religion, and ethnicity. Are there any other more subtle personages which you might distinguish?

2 thoughts on “Personages

  1. Christina Hendricks

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I, too, pull out a lot of significance from that short passage on the homosexual becoming a “personage” on p. 43 of HS1. And I think you’re right that how such a thing comes into existence is when people are studied, data collected about not only their acts but also their thoughts, desires, fantasies, their pasts, etc. This reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of the “delinquent” in DP: the delinquent is a type of person that came into being through the focus on not just what criminals have done, but who they are, what goes on in their heads, their past experiences, and more.

    In all these cases (the ones Foucault talks about and the ones you talk about here), the personages are those who are considered “other,” or somehow “abnormal.” And that is where the focus was at first, Foucault claims, in the human sciences such as medicine, psychological sciences, criminology, etc. But I think now it may have extended to more people. We may all belong to a kind of personage, whether “other” or not. Insofar as data are gathered about us and analyzed, catalogued, by many different people and organizations (medical, psychological, but also data gathered by social media sites, search engines, etc.), there are probably categories of persons that others have put us into (even if they don’t know specifically who we are– the data gathered about us online may or may not be attached to our particular names) that we don’t even know about.

    This is just an initial thought on my part…I haven’t considered it fully or carefully, so maybe I would change my mind later!

  2. jrapha

    Sartre and the Other

    Your post reminds me of some insights on the relationship between ourselves and the ‘other’ in Jean Paul Sartre’s monumental work Being and Nothingness.
    For Sartre the choices committed in the face of our freedom concern the co-existence of other beings. This is illustrated by considering the example of looking through a peephole.
    While in the process of gazing through a peephole, explains Sartre, my consciousness is completely centered on the object at which I am looking at. In this sense, my ego (self) does not appear.
    The reason why, according to Sartre – if further background is needed – is that my conscious intentionality, as directed towards experience, is non reflective. The ‘I’ is therefore absent from un-reflected consciousness. Sartre therefore believes that it is a mistake to say, for instance that “ I am conscious of the chair”: instead we mean to say that “there is consciousness of the chair”. So, in returning back to the example of the peephole, when I am wholly concentrated on the object at which I am looking at, my ego does not present itself as a feature of the experience. However, when I am suddenly disturbed by the presence of another I become aware of myself as the object of the perceiving other. Sartre describes this process as the “ the objectification of the ego”(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), a process that is only made possible if I acknowledge the other as a subject. For Sartre, this explains how certain conscious states, such as shame, depend on the presence of other beings.

    This, hopefully offers some perspective on the relationship others share with us. This relationship, however, is not stable. By effectually becoming the object of the other’s look I am denied my existence as a subject. The only means of escape is to react against the look of the other, thereby objectifying him/her. For Sartre, this represents an unstable relationship because by objectifying the other I subsequently deny myself the ability to affirm my own existence by virtue of denying the other’s selfhood.

    The reason I bring this up is because I think it lends a hand to what you have mentioned in your blog: that we are all defined in some way in relation to the ‘other’. Our identities are very much the effects of our social interactions in so much as they offer us access to ourselves. I also believe, like Sartre, that such is the marrow of life: the dialectical relationship we share with others constantly puts us at odds with our own existence. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to exist, for in the face of perpetual obstacles, we must continuously turn to ourselves to decide on what actions that will define who we become.


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