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Negotiating the Study of Queer History

Monday, April 8, 2019 - 07:00

The main focus of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is, of course, research on specific topics that fall within the historic scope of the Project. But the question of what gets studied, by whom, and in what context is affected by the trends, fashions, and politics of the modern academic community. Who is doing that primary research? Who are they in conversation with (or arguing against)? What topics will be accepted as appropriate to the scope of their academic careers and which ones can they only tackle if they have job security? What are the frameworks within which topics of queer history can be discussed? How does the existing academic language shape both what is studied and how it is interpreted?

These are all questions that play out in meta-discussions that sometimes are interesting enough on their own to make it into this blog. (Or, more often, appear in collections that also include primary topics, such as the wonderful The Lesbian Premodern collection that I had so much fun with.) Discussions like this one remind me that there are some foundational texts that I haven't covered yet, in part because they're so foundational that you can glean the gist of their relevant content simply from the way other authors react to it. But there are a couple other reasons why I've put off tackling some key works like Foucault, Boswell, Cadden, and Dinshaw. In some cases, it's because they were created before the major surge in queer historical writing and focus on issues that feel like they're taken for granted now. In some cases it's because they focus so heavily on male topics (or heterosexual topics, or both) that I know I'll spend a lot of reading time for very little relevant content. (And will spend a lot of time commenting on how the arguments and conclusions of the work unwarrantedly assume the centrality of male/hetersexual issues.) But maybe I should identify a couple months to focus on these foundational, theory-heavy texts and just get them out of the way.

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Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2001. “Got Medieval?” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 pp.202-212

This, and next week’s article, appear to come out of a conference session inspired by Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Which I have not yet covered. In general, this article is meta-commentary on the topics of the book, rather than discussing new data or interpretations.

Dinshaw discusses the context in which she wrote the book, including as a response to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in conversation with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. A central theme is the search for an “affective connection” with history, not necessarily a mimetic identification.

In this paper, Dinshaw addresses three questions about queer history and community raised in the papers of the session. [The paper appears to be something of a cumulative response presented at the end of the session--a not uncommon format for such conferences.] 1. How do you write about the daily lives of women in history without erasing their particularity in the construction of a unified Other? 2. If queer historians are identifying and constructing a queer community across time, who gets to be in that community and who decides? 3. Where can this historic queer community be identified and “how can its power be unleashed?”

In addressing these questions of queer identity and community throughout the past, Dinshaw notes conflicting positions, interpretations, and evidence. Foucult tended to view queer men in the past as isolated and connected only by their exclusion. Boswell, in contrast, believed he had found positive, self-aware communities. But so much of this prominent theorizing was founded exclusively on male lives and male experience. What about the lives of medieval nuns that illustrate loving erotically-tinged relationships that were integrated with their religious communities? And what counts as “queer” once the concept expands from same-sex relationships? Who--or what--is queer in the context of queer history? (This ties in with Hollywood’s 2001 discussion of normative versus “natural” in the definition of queerness.)

The last part of Dinshaw’s essay is something of a call to action in how to use the concept of queer history and queer community across history as a force for developing a self-image that goes beyond the history of oppression and persecution.

As I say, meta-commentary, but interesting to see the discussion among those who are producing the literature I review here.

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