Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.
I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.
I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.
Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.
More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?
Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.
Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.