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Reviewed by:
  • Before Intimacy: Asocial Sexuality in Early Modern England
  • Valerie Traub (bio)
Before Intimacy: Asocial Sexuality in Early Modern England. By Daniel Juan Gil . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. xvi + 187. $66.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.

In the fields of historical scholarship most influenced by Michel Foucault's genealogical method, a locution has arisen to articulate the notion of large-scale epistemic change: before and after modernity, before and after identity, before and [End Page 249] after sexuality. Following on the heels of sociologist Niklas Luhmann's Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (1998), we now confront before and after intimacy. If there are problems with this critical tendency—questions of common sense (how could there be a "before intimacy"?), of historical periodization, and of epistemic privileging—it also has offered a valuable means for reframing basic questions about human subjectivity and sociality. Daniel Juan Gil's Before Intimacy: Asocial Sexuality in Early Modern England contributes significantly to this line of inquiry.

In distinguishing the sexual intersubjectivity evident in early modern literature from that of later periods, Gil borrows Luhmann's account of intimacy as the name of "a specific structure of relationship, tied to the whole system of social relationships, that defines modernity" (1). Modern intimacy, according to Gil's summary of Luhmann, names a particular fusion of the erotic and the emotions that mediates "between individuals who have disparate experiences of the world and who value these disparate experiences as a source of personal identity" (2); this modern construct compensates for the loss of a secure sense of self that earlier peoples supposedly derived from their place within the local hierarchies of traditional society. Whereas Luhmann traces how "intimate personal bonds" become "part of the individual's effort to cultivate a sense of self" (2), Gil focuses his gaze on a culture in which the social structure of intimacy has not yet emerged. Reading this absence in terms of emerging discourses of civility described by Norbert Elias, Gil argues that early modern culture was in the throes of a "massive social crisis" (7) due to the contradictions emanating from the conflict between vestigial, feudal modes of social relation organized by hereditary, blood-borne identities and a more dynamic "ideal of a shared humanity" (6) arising in the sixteenth century. From this sociohistorical argument, Gil moves to a psychoanalytic and phenomenological one. Invoking Leo Bersani's theory of erotic experience as a "beneficent shattering of the self" (xiii), Gil adopts Bersani's view that sexuality is "'socially dysfunctional in that it brings people together only to plunge them into a self-shattering and solipsistic jouissance that drives them apart'" (9). Attempting to "historicize Bersani's powerful model" (xiii), Gil derives impetus from Gail Kern Paster's and Michael Schoenfeldt's recent historicizing of the early modern passions via Galenic psychophysiology: for the writers he examines, Gil argues, "emotions define bodily states that open connections to other, emotionally inflamed bodies that arise when functionally social ties between socially legible persons have been foreclosed" (10).

Before Intimacy intervenes, finally, in a well-established trajectory of queer historicist work, initiated by Jonathan Goldberg and the late Alan Bray, which has demonstrated the extent to which early modern sexual relations were embedded in a dense network of social relations, among them friendship, patronage, apprenticeship, and education. Whereas queer historicists have tended to emphasize the functional aspects of sexuality, particularly its ability to forge social bonds, Gil offers "an account of sexuality as a historically conditioned failure of the functional social ties on which selves depend" (xiii). By displacing the concept of sexual identity with that of erotic emotions, he is able to theorize something other than the productivity of desire that we tend to assume in even the most hierarchical and [End Page 250] gendered of relationships. Revealing the presence of a historically specific "socially dysfunctional sexuality" (74), Gil recasts an insight immanent in previous queer work, particularly in Goldberg's revaluation of William Empson's accusation that Christopher Marlowe viewed the illicit as "the proper thing to do."1 With the exception of Graham Hammill's Sexuality and Form, which argues that "sex is a limit of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 249-252
Launched on MUSE
2007-07-26
Open Access
No
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