Lately I’ve been thinking about Michel Foucault and the history of sexuality. I think about it every time I read an article like The Atlantic’s The Book is Dead? Let That Myth Rest in Peace or in The Rumpus’ piece on The Urgent Matter of Books. The message is clear and clamorous – and always the same: “Do not panic. Despite declarations to the contrary, we are all still reading and will continue to do so.”
I repeat (as they do). Every article begins and ends with some variation of the same sentence: “Despite all the talk that books are dead…. [insert several refutations here]… I can categorically say that books are not dead, long live the book, huzzah!” Which is all wonderful and a relief because I love books and reading and now that I know that reading isn’t dead I can get back to reading them without worry.
Although, the beginnings of these sentences still bother me a little: “Despite declarations to the contrary… Despite all the talk that…” Where are these declarations being declared? Who is talking this bookpocalypse talk? There are to be sure a few nitwits out there but, as far as I can see, it’s the folks in the Huzzah, Long Live the Book! camp that are creating the most amount of actual content concerning the written word’s demise.
What’s this got to do with sex then? Well… it hasn’t per se but I heard sex sells so I led with that. However! Don’t go! Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, I seem to actually be able to recall something I read in college all those moons ago, and my brain has made a tentative link to this and the Book is Dead furore.
In The Will to Knowledge – Foucault’s first volume in The History of Sexuality – the French theorist interrogated the “repressive hypothesis” that assumes humans are compelled by ‘Culture’ and ‘Society’ to repress our natural sexual drives. Though it’s generally believed that those Victorians were a vinegary shower of puritans and it’s their fault we can’t talk about sex, Foucault presents an alternate reading of history that resists this view. Rather than repressing and suppressing the discussion of sex and sexuality, a close examination of texts shows that the 18th century onwards actually saw a proliferation of discourse on the subject.
Everybody, in short, was mad about talking about how we couldn’t and shouldn’t and don’t and won’t talk about sex. And yet, no people in the history of the world and the word had ever talked so much about the flippin nonsense. By positing a culture of repression and taboo, the discussion of sex seemed defiant and insubordinate – a radical cry against the pervasive and dominant culture. Etcetera. Like I said – college was many moons ago.
And, like I said, it’s a tentative connection but I think the same thing is happening now with books and reading. From somewhere – fear? boredom? contemporary inclination towards hype? – we’ve produced the perception that we’re in great peril and need placation. I call it the PPPP. I don’t really. I’m just self-conscious about my excessive alliteration and wanted to acknowledge I’m aware of it before you say something derisive.
I don’t know. Basically, all I wanted to say was despite all the talk and declarations to the contrary it is indeed a myth that people aren’t reading and books are dead and, unlike everyone else, I’ve got sex to prove it. Long live the book! Long live sexual taboo. Huzzah!
I like this video.