History of Sexuality, vol. 1
Michel Foucault

Such a small little book. Such a huge, huge impact. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is a tremendous work, not only profoundly impacting thinking on sexuality, but deepening his style of critical work on social institutions generally and introducing, in particular, the notion of bio-power – the processes and practices by which states regulate populations and control bodies.

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume work, but it is volume 1 that is most-read and most-noted. Against the conventional wisdom that that the modern state sought to repress expressions of human sexuality and deny the centrality of sex to life, Foucault explores the myriad ways sexuality was re-thought, re-articulated, deployed by agencies of the state to monitor, manage and exploit human populations. Sex is not ignored let alone erased in the nineteenth century; sex is everywhere, and becomes a matter of state interest as general populations are re-cast as citizenry, people as instruments of national production, communities as collections of human beings to be studied, managed, deployed for or against various ends.

A communist and structuralist thinker until the mid to late 1960s, Michel Foucault became one of the central figures in what was called post-structuralism, though he himself rejected the term, defining his work instead as a critique of modernity. Whatever you call it, it is important, it is influential, and there is scarcely a field in the social sciences untouched by Michel Foucault. Plus he didn’t bother nearly so much as most academics with endless footnotes and sources that just make stuff hard to read. For that, alone, I’m thankful.

Read The History of Sexuality, even if you’re not into the academic stuff. Or read Madness and Civilization, or read Discipline and Punish. This is work that not only changes academic discourse, it profoundly changes the way we see social institutions and our complicated relationships with them.