Volume 17, Issue 2, Fall 2013
Éthique, Politique et Subjectivité chez Michel Foucault
Rethinking the Repressive Hypothesis
Foucault’s Critique of Marcuse
In The History of Sexuality, Volume One, Michel Foucault ostensibly sets out to reject the “repressive hypothesis” as an inadequate characterization of the relationship between sex, power and knowledge. Given the obliqueness of his polemical attack against this hypothesis and its representatives, however, some commentators have attempted to elucidate and assess his position by situating Herbert Marcuse’s critique of sexual repression within the ambit of Foucault’s argument. The following essay contributes to this investigation by highlighting Foucault’s implicit and explicit remarks against Marcuse in the first volume of The History of Sexuality and the series of interviews surrounding the publication of this text. I will concentrate on his claim that, by reducing power to a purely “negative,” repressive force exercised against the majority of individuals, Marcuse misses the “positive” or “productive” operations of power that constitute the sexual subject. To address this charge, I depart from the usual procedure of explicating Marcuse’s analysis of sexual repression in Eros and Civilization and turn, instead, to his later work on “repressive desublimation” in One-Dimensional Man, where his emphasis on the productive dimension of repressive power comes into full view. By challenging Foucault’s dismissal of the “repressive hypothesis” on the basis of a more faithful reading of Marcuse, I hope to open up a space for further inquiry into the connections between these two seemingly irreconcilable positions.