- Introduction:Theory, Methods, Praxis: The History of Sexuality and the Question of Evidence
The essays gathered in this special issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality engage foundational issues of the origin and status of professional knowledge about the sexual past. Overwhelmingly, the contributors speak to and about the evidentiary nature of the information with which we work. It is true that scholars in general and historians in particular routinely reflect on their selection and arrangement of data, a kind of practical theorizing done even by those most suspicious of "theory" and its (implicitly hostile) relationship to empiricism. Nonetheless, it is not predictable that a call for papers on the theory, methods, and praxis of the history of sexuality would generate a wave of critical essays focused on what "evidence" is, what it can be said to prove, and how we ought to think about our work as we transform it into "history."
Across the geographic and topical range of their researches, the contributors to this issue all push us to ask what we have learned when we have found—or cannot find—the evidence we seek about the sexual past. Further, they insist that these questions have important political ramifications. Such concerns are clearly foregrounded in Anjali Arondekar's discussion of her search for evidence about homosexuality in the Indian national archives. Arondekar demonstrates that when scholars seek to "recover" repressed or lost evidence about the Indian homosexual past they replicate the politically invested intellectual structure of the colonial archive, which sets up the claim that sexual perversion is everywhere and must be found and simultaneously insists that it is rarely documented and resists discovery. The discursive demand that "perverse" sexuality be identified, scrutinized, and normalized coincides, both conceptually and historically, with the imperial demand that the "native" be brought under the rule of civilization through precisely the same techniques of surveillance, examination, and discipline. Arondekar therefore emphasizes the importance of new approaches to research in this field, lest we find ourselves uncritically mirroring the methods of investigation and fields of [End Page 1] argumentation of the colonial past. Her suggestion is that researchers should "shift archival attention from the ultimate discovery" of the lost homosexual past "to understanding the compacted role its evocation plays."
Linda Garber, like Arondekar, discusses the juncture of sexual and transnational politics of research on same-sex love in Asia and concurs that it is crucial to attend to the historiographical and geopolitical politics that shape such research, yet she continues to see real value in the work of recovery that Arondekar regards with such suspicion. Garber's position stems in part from her experience teaching the history of homosexuality in Asia through English-language sources. This literature generally excuses its overwhelming focus on men by pointing to the radical difference of constructions of men's and women's sexuality (especially in China and Japan) and to the paucity of reliable primary representations of women's sexuality. While she acknowledges the legitimacy of the former claim, Garber argues that materials for teaching about love between Asian women do exist in English. Garber suggests that these materials spring into view as resources for "lesbian history" to the extent that we are willing to set aside a reductive "Foucauldian Orthodoxy" that, in its insistence on the distinction between sodomitical acts and homosexual identities, would forbid us to attribute "lesbianism" to women for whom the term and concept was not historically or culturally available. In the context of teaching Asian queer history, she suggests, the work of recovery is less politically problematic than the alternative: the reproduction of lesbian invisibility, marginality, nonexistence.
Yet recovery projects, however strategically defensible, do not always succeed, and so Sally Newman asks, "What happens when [researchers] don't find what [they] are looking for?" Newman describes her growing boredom as days and weeks of reading sentimental correspondence failed to yield evidence about the nature of English novelist Vernon Lee's intimate relationships with other women. Rather than writing off her time in the archives, Newman links her frustration to previous scholars' interpretation of Lee as a "failed lesbian," that is, as a woman who was really a...