A STUDENT OF MINE has just returned from Paris with the following description of a lecture by Roland Barthes: The auditorium is densely packed. People are sitting on steps, floors, everywhere. The lecturer's voice is relayed electronically to other rooms, where listeners hang upon every word. In the main auditorium dozens of students are taping the lecture. They sit on the edge of their chairs, their arms extended rigidly toward the podium, clutching microphones. Their hands cluster together, like the heads of peculiar birds.The microphones are mouths, waiting to be fed. In his elegant French accent, the lecturer reads in English from the personal advertisements in the backs of American skin magazines.

One could make much or little of this, but, no matter how we see it, no local equivalent cames to mind. Barthes is an intellectual superstar in France, and we do not have that category of person in the United States. The French have intellectual superstars because they care passionately about new ideas, while most Americans are still trying to get comfortable with the work of our last genuine intellectual: Thomas Jefferson. We have not, as an educated people, begun to assimilate the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud that underlie most current European thought. And this makes it extraordinarily difficult for us to understand the work of Barthes and such other figures as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, or Michel Foucault.

In his new book Foucault is arguing against a position which is commonly held by European intellectuals but scarcely attended to in this country. The American reader may thus find himself or herself baffled by being asked to give up a view which he or she has not yet fully comprehended. This, combined with a dazzling range of reference and a style that combines a high degree of abstraction with a sometimes playful indulgence in elliptical allusions, makes all of Foucault's work difficult to follow. When he speaks, for instance, of a phrase "muttered in a muted voice -- which the most famous ears of our time overheard in 1886, from the mouth of Charcot," it takes a bit of learning to know that Charcot was a French specialist in mental disease, and a bit of thought to assign those disembodied ears to their owner: Sigmund Freud.

The book under consideration here is Volume I, An Introduction to what was planned as a multi-volume History of Sexuality. In fact, the current word from Paris is that the other volumes have been abandoned. Even in this volume it is apparent that Foucault's real interest is not in sexuality but in power and its workings. The major thesis of this volume is actually a view of the relationship between sex and power, which I shall try to describe as briefly as possible.

Foucault suggests that our usual assumption about the relationship between sexuality and power runs something like this: Once upon a time people were free to enjoy sex without interference, and they did so until certain institutions (namely church and state) began a regime of repression, designed to channel sexual energies into war and/or stifle them for purposes of mass production while regulating them to ensure an oversupply of cheap labor to be exploited by the managing class. According to this assumption, which is based on an amalgamation of Freudian and Marxian perspectives, free sexual activity constitutes a kind of rebellion in itself against the forces of repression. This line of argument, which owes much to Wilhelm Reich, can be connected to later figures like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.

This view, according to Foucault, is totally wrong in its grasp of historical process and misguided in its prescriptions for present action. What actually happened is something like this: From the end of the Middle Ages in Western Europe to the present time, human sexuality came under an increasingly elaborate and intense scrutiny. Especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, sexuality, far from being ignored or repressed, gradually became the object of more and more interest, study, and regulation. We can trace the shape of this interest through the various "discourses" in which it is embodied.

Since the word "discourse" has a special meaning for Foucault, we had better pause over it a moment. A discourse, in Foucault's view, is the place where knowledge and power meet. Every age is dominated by what he calls an "episteme" -- a way of conceiving and perceiving the world, which brings certain features of existence into visibility and blurs or conceals others. If we are to understand history, then, we must come to terms with the episteme of each age. We do this by examining its discourses. In them we will find the interplay between knowledge and power.

In the Middle Ages, for instance, the discourse used in the Catholic confessional was embodied in confession manuals which approached the subject of sexuality in a blunt and direct manner. Until the end of the 17th century, even, some theologians required a detailed recounting of positions, postures, gestures, places touched, caresses, and the precise moment of pleasure. This discourse was replaced in the confessionals of the 18th and 19th centuries with one that avoided the physical details of the act but expanded its attention to include "all the insinuations of the flesh: thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings." This new discourse did not so much neglect or repress sexuality as draw attention to its ubiquity. Other institutions -- clinical and pedagogical -- developed new discourses along similar lines during the same period. And through them new creatures entered the world. Before this time various forms of sexual practice were known, and some of them were forbidden and sometimes punished, but people embodying these practices were not recognized as a distinct class. The homosexual as a personage was invented by the clinical discourse of the 19th century, though sodomy as an act has an ancient pedigree.

Sex, as a subject matter for study and regulation, was invented in the same way by the discourses of a particular historical moment. And these discourses must be seen as above all in the service of a power that found in sex a way of distracting attention from the study of power itself. To continue his own project, then, would find Foucault a victim of the same distraction he has described in the first volume. But he has seen through sexuality and glimpsed the nakedness of power underneath. Henceforth, he will pursue these more enticing charms. Paris, of old, chose between three goddesses and threw in his lot with Aphrodite, thus unwittingly causing the Trojan War. But the superstars of the new Paris will not be so readily bemused. At least one of them, Michael Foucault, is turning unmistakably to Hera and power. I wonder what wars will result from this.