Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt (eds). 2011. The Lesbian Premodern. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Lochrie expresses uneasiness with the premise of the collection--that there is such a thing as “lesbian” in the pre-modern era. She suggests that heteronormativity does not exist across time but is a modern/post-modern phenomenon. This collection operates within a general critique of historicism, chronology, and periodization. It questions the idea that pre-modern scholarship constitutes a type of historical theory in itself.
The title and concept of the collection is deliberately provocative of the concept that “lesbian” is a limiting and essentialist concept. The editors point out that the challenges to identifying “lesbian” concepts in premodernity (i.e., that it’s anachronistic) apply equally well to heterosexuality, and that the concept “lesbian” almost always has been considered anachronistic throughout time.
The collection challenges the notion that theory-to-premodernity is a one-way street, and considers primary pre-modern scholarship as a theoretical structure in itself. The book is organized in three sections: theories and historiographies, histories and texts, and encounters with the lesbian pre-modern. It begins by re-examining the work of influential pre-modern scholars in lesbian and queer studies, as well as collecting and examining recent research and analysis, with the last section bringing scholars of later periods into the conversation to respond to its content and premise.
Part one addresses the erasure of lesbian experience from the body of received history. But erasure also comes from the presumed heterosexuality of historic societies, as well as from a framing that requires exclusivity to same-sex relations to bring someone under the rubric of “lesbian”. (In contrast, scholars of “gay history” include men under the category of “homosexual” if their lives include any same-sex relations, rather than requiring exclusively same-sex relations.)
The rest of the introduction is a summary of the papers to come.
Traub looks at methodological issues currently facing lesbian history as a field. It faces the contrasting problems of a continuist approach versus considering alterity (with its regular charges of anachronism against the other approach). Traub feels both models have outlived their usefulness. She notes Faderman as an example of the continuist approach, i.e., that there is a single connected “history of lesbianism”. Others on this team include Castle and Brooten, who challenge Foucault’s focus on periodization (i.e., that there are distinct and unrelated “periods” of how same-sex relations were understood) and the emergence of the alterist position--one that has been more developed in studies of men than women. [Note: I’m not sure I have a complete grasp on what the “alterity” approach constitutes. It appears to be something along the lines of viewing same-sex relations as existing at various times in opposition to normative structures, rather than having a continuous connected historical tradition. That is, that same-sex relations at any point in history are structurally connected to heterosexual relations at that same point, rather than being connected to same-sex relations at other points in history.]
Bennett, looking at social history, recognizes a distinction between looking at change in women’s experiences and looking at change in women’s social status, where a “patriarchal equilibrium” works to maintain the latter, but is more flexible on the former. In the context of lesbian history, this suggests that the social acceptabiity of lesbian identity and behavior may be affected by how it either ameliorates or challenges women's relationship to patriarchy. Other critiques of alterity recognize similarities and continuity in the experience of sexuality while rejecting universals. Researchers like Vicinus note repetitive or continuous patterns and structures of intimacy whose meanings may change over time.
As more archival material is identified, examined, and re-examined, more nuanced understandings are possible. Traub sets out a shift in her own thinking:
1. Recurrent explanatory meta-logics give a sense of familiarity and consistency to lesbian history over time.
2. These meta-logics get their specifics from the specific contexts and social definition.
3. These recurrences can be seen as “cycles of salience” as concepts recur with differences across time.
That is, continuity is not continuous, but recurrent, due to persistent concerns filtered through dynamic social contexts. Similarities are not due to inheritance but due to being driven by similar forces. The structures and definitions within a particular time and place may reflect narrow types of experience (e.g., the dominance of middle class white women’s concerns in modern lesbian models) but comparison across intersections can tease out the common dynamics.
Traub considers repeating “types” (tropes) in which lesbian desire manifests and what the underlying meta-logic is that (re)generates them. E.g., Katherine Phillips’ 17th century “Society of Friendship” compared to Boston Marriage in the 19th century, or the concept of Romantic Friendship compared to convent intimacies. When comparing gender-bending types (virago, tribade, female husband, passing women, butch) the similarities are disrupted by contextual dynamics. Another repeating trope is the motif of the enlarged clitoris (in the 16-17th century) and the early 20th century sexologists’ search for an essentialized morphology of deviance from a meta-logic of physiological essentialism. (See similarly the more recent search for a “gay gene”.) This motif is related to larger social fixations that include “scientific racism”.
Manifestations of models of sexuality emerge out of more general social discourse unrelated to sexuality. Traub argues against simply shifting to seeing these tropes as a continuity or universal, but neither should the homologies be dismissed. Current historians (in lesbian history) avoid trying to construct an overarching historical narrative, but have also moved away from the “famous gay people in history” approach. Traub offers a long bullet-point list of themes that are worth tracing across cycles of history that affect the expression and understanding of same-sex desire, with a special list relating specifically to women’s experiences as women in society that affect their experience of sexuality.
This article addresses the question of terminology for women who love women from three angles: literary-historical recovery of evidence of sexuality, queer disruptions of expected categories and readings of human desire across time, and scholarly talk-arounds such as “lesbian-like”. It points out the difficulty of retrieving historic language, given the biases and gaps in the historic record.
Laskaya considers the useful broad ambiguity of “queer” to be undermined by its tendency to be used more often in reference to men. This broadness of application can erase the specificity of “lesbian” and so to erase lesbian-specific concerns and readings. [Note: compare, for example, how "gay" is allegedly inclusive of women but defaults to being male-specific.] She looks for concrete evidence in the past and--specific to the current topic--the language used to identify and frame female same-sex desire. She examines the historicity of “lesbian” specifically.
Queer theory’s institutional prominence can undermine its disruptive potential in the academy. It becomes distanced from the specifics of identity politics and can be in conflict with the concerns of lesbian-feminism. Some approach “queer” as a reading/critical strategy rather than an identity, decoupling it from concepts such as “gay” or “lesbian”. [Note: This is why queer academics and queer identities are often incomprehensible to each other. Who owns the concepts of “queerness”?] Under this approach, “queer readings” disrupt homosexuality just as much as they disrupt heterosexuality.
Even as the concept "queer" undermines binaries, it stands in binary opposition to “not queer”. To the extent that “queer” gains power and status from its abstraction, it thus becomes congruent with conservative intellectual traditions that value abstraction over particularity. Is some of the current prominence of “queer” due to the permission it gives to larger numbers of people to lay claim to that abstraction-based status without engaging with particular embodied identities? [Note: This question comes perilously close to a suggestion that some people "aren't queer enough" to be queer. That is, as a critique of the term "queer" it feels awefully gatekeeperish.]
The concept of identities as socially constructed is widely accepted regardless of theoretical stance. Given this, to what extent are choices of language a way of creating and sustaining those social constructions? To what extent is the repetitious acknowledgement of social constructionism a way of creating and maintaining that concept? To what extent are the concepts of social constructs in conflict with individual agency? Without using that specific term, Laskaya points out that the “great man” theory of history requires an acceptance of the power of individual agency. And just as society is not monolithic, agency may affect specific social axes without changing all of them. This has relevance for lesbian studies because premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis. The potential homoerotic readings picked out by queer studies were available for experience and interpretation, as well as the ever-present potential for cross-gender identifications that “queer” the experience.
Farina considers the tension between being a “passionate reader” of a text and being aroused by the act of reading, particularly for gay and lesbian readers whose lives are already hypersexualized by society. But she argues for the need for “erotic reading” in lesbian history. She discusses the concept of erotic reading especially as a counter to “received” non-erotic understandings of texts, for example, comparing erotic reading to “wonder” or “startlement” which are derided by literalist forces in historic studies. “Erotic” interaction with texts includes not just the act of reading but the act of writing--the tools and materials, such as manipulating a “phallic” pen. Another example would be devotional texts that encourage the reader to meditate on sensory experiences. Or texts that dwell on the experience or contemplation of love/desire.
This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.