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Scientia sexualis versus ars erotica: Foucault, van Gulik, Needham, Orientalism

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My paper begins with a discussion on the scientia sexualisars erotica distinction, which Foucault first advances in History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. The distinction has been repeatedly employed by scholars from a range of disciplines: to study D.H. Lawrence, or the history of Japanese homosexuality, or to talk about the Kama Sutra and Perfumed Garden, and indeed in analysis of Chinese sexual alchemy. Though Foucault subsequently expresses his doubts regarding his conceptualisation of the ‘essential differences’ between Western and Eastern discourses of desire, he never entirely disowns it. In fact, Foucault remains convinced that ancient China must have an ars erotica. So I will explore the making of History of Sexuality and Foucault’s sources of information. To that end, I introduce the work of Dutch diplomat and sinologist, Robert van Gulik, who published the tremendously influential Sexual Life in Ancient China in 1961, and also discuss Joseph Needham’s work on Daoist sexual alchemy. I argue that, Foucault, in his fierce polemic against the ‘Repressive Hypothesis’, himself imagined a utopian Other where pleasure and desire would be organised differently. This is another manifestation of the quiet ‘Oriental subtext’ in the work of the later Foucault. Nevertheless I suggest that the scientia sexualisars erotica distinction is still analytically useful if carefully reconfigured: for studying the transmission of knowledge and the rhetoric of ‘Third-World’ intellectuals interested in sex and its power to transform nations, at the moment of colonial modernity. I end with a discussion of Orientalism, and the project of sinography (contrasted to sinology), associated with comparative literature scholars Haun Saussy and Eric Hayot.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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