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  • Acts, Identities, and Sexuality’s (Pre)Modern Regimes
  • Carla Freccero (bio)

In “Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” David Halperin takes on the “acts versus identities” debate generated among historians and theorists of sexuality as a result of a single—and, Halperin argues, commonly misunderstood—passage in the first volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. 1 The passage is worth quoting, as its interpretation has given rise to an already venerable, if recent, discussion on the subject of the status of premodern sexualities:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. . . . We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. 2

Halperin succinctly summarizes the dominant interpretation of the passage: “In the premodern and early modern periods, so the claim goes, sex-ual behavior did not represent a sign or marker of a person’s sexual identity; . . . whence the conclusion that before the modern era sexual deviance could be predicated only of acts, not of persons or identities.” 3 While for many modernists, this has not seemed a problematic claim, for scholars of the premodern it is a subject of intense debate. Some have questioned the salience of the distinction, noting that identities can be said to be made by acts. 4 Others contend that something like a sexual identity has existed transhistorically in Europe, an argument which many have understood to be essentialist in its bid for a universalist model of sexual sensibility, if not sexuality. 5 Still others, such as Karras, set out in part to demonstrate the existence in premodernity of an identitarian category around sex. Following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s revision of the acts/identities paradigm which reframes it in terms of universalizing and minoritizing discourses, [End Page 186] and heeding the call to find “other ways of theorizing sexuality less dependent on schematic uses of this distinction,” Karras redirects the discussion of “identity” toward the existence of a minoritizing discourse around sexuality in the Middle Ages, in this case around the meretrix or female prostitute. 6

When Foucault discusses “sexuality” he refers to very specific discourses of power/knowledge which produce a scientia sexualis, a field of truth called sexuality. “The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood, that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful, or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short, that sex was constituted as a problem of truth.” 7 This is what is meant when Halperin, among others, argues that “sexuality is . . . a distinctively modern production” and when Arnold I. Davidson talks about the “emergence” of sexuality as distinct from something called sex. 8 The claim rests on the organization and deployment of specific apparatuses of discursive knowledge/power production, such as the medicalization and psychiatrization of sex, that involves the grafting of scientific procedures onto older confessional regimes to produce truth. Karras’s project argues instead for the existence of discourses of sexuality—discourses, that is, not solely based upon a juridical system of law and transgression, but a system of truth—at earlier moments in European time. Her essay does not provide the wealth and breadth of evidence that would permit such an analysis, citing only—for reasons of availability—legal and theological documents and discourses, thus precisely...

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pp. 186-192
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