Foucault Vivant

Black and white photo of Michel Foucault in a leather jacket


Pearl Brilmeyer

Image Credit: 

Bruce Jackson

Teaching Foucault to undergraduates can be a daunting task. However, I find that an enthusiastic group can handle short portions with ease when appropriately prepared.

As an instructor of sexuality studies, I regularly teach the introduction to Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality.  While I've taught this text in the context of a rhetoric course on monogamy, this semester it grounded the historical unity of my course, Gay and Lesbian Literature and Culture in the English Department. Notoriously difficult, this introduction is often misread due to the failure of scholars to pick up on Foucault's sarcastic tone, as he narrates the "history of sexuality," traditionally understood. In the past, I've had trouble conveying this tone to my students, who, like many of us have been taught that "theory" is serious stuff. This bias makes it difficult to get Foucault's jokes and miss the point that the "history" Foucault begins with is a kind of "story" we tell ourselves, as the French word "l'histoire" connotes.

I wanted to create a lesson plan that would lighten up class discussion and make transparant Foucault's joking tone. I also wanted to focus our discussion on the construction of historical narratives, and to talk about the relationship of narrative to history. This in-class assignment was designed to help students understand Foucault's theory of the "repressive hypothesis" by physicalizing the "story" he tells in the introduction of The History of Sexuality. Engaging with the humorous aspect of this introduction, students are asked to act out, in the fashion of the tableau vivant, scenes in throughout the parodic history Foucault seeks to overturn. In small groups students used the computers to find music to accompany their assigned paragraph/scene. We then performed them as a class, while I narrated the first few paragraphs of the text.

Image Credit: OldOnliner

In my class, I have a students with a range of familiarity with gender and sexuality theory--some are women's and gender studies majors and others have little experience thinking about gender and sexuality in a theoretical way. In general, the queer theory "pros" in class found the assignment a bit juvenile. Before the exercise, they pouted a bit about having to treat such a serious text in a silly manner and many expressed annoyance at having to perform in front of the class.

Others, particularly those for whom "theory" was a more foreign object, however, completed the assignment in good humor and discovered creative ways to represent various stages in Foucault's parody of the tale of Victorian prudishness from which we need to liberate ourselves. The performance ended with the final group ripping a piece of paper on which they had written "Freud"--a silly, but succinct way of conveying Foucault's call to move beyond the narrative of repression/liberation.

In general, there were a lot of laughs and the assignment helped students visualize the "history of sexuality" Foucault was attempting to counter in the rest of the book.


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