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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 202-212



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Got Medieval?

Carolyn Dinshaw
New York University


I want first and foremost to thank our panel organizer, Ann Pellegrini, and our chair, Elizabeth Castelli: their generosity, both intellectual and spiritual, made this event possible. It's a great pleasure to be here today, though the pleasure is rather hard to describe. It's kind of like the pride one might take in having the best brain surgeons in the country operate on one's head. It's a displaced pride in the brilliance of these doctors here today that I feel: my book, which at times when I was writing it felt like a tumorous growth, has attracted their professional interest. But more immediately, I feel like a star this morning, too, perhaps because of the associations of our panel with both Nashville and Hollywood.

In writing Getting Medieval I tried to discern and work with personal and intimate motives of doing queer history, the deep desires for history that many queers (including me) feel. Years ago I began to feel such a desire to be able to extend somehow into the past, and I witnessed such desire in others, as expressed in passionate readers' responses to that landmark of gay history, John Boswell's 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. That book was infused with and energized by a 1970s post-Stonewall enthusiasm that triumphantly uncovered same-sex sexuality (as it turned out, a very '70s-style gayness) throughout the ages; but the desires for history that I noted and continue to note are not necessarily dependent on belief in or assumptions about an "essential" homosexuality across time. In Getting Medieval I discussed Michel Foucault's profound appreciation of Boswell's book as he configured and reconfigured his social constructionist History of Sexuality project. From a later generation, a resolutely queer student of mine ("queer" meaning here that he is uninterested in self-replication, wary of the politics of visibility, and fascinated by "an attachment to the hidden, unknown, and irretrievable" in history writing) recently claimed:

As is true for many queers, my own relationship to my queer sexuality was first articulated not through a relationship with another body but rather through texts, specifically queer films and queer [End Page 202] histories. I consumed such texts urgently. . . . I was looking for a way to be queer, for a way to fashion my own identity. Queer history is my queer past. . . . [D]oing queer history . . . constitutes a way of being queer, indeed a way of surviving as queered. Queer history is my queer present. 1

Developing queer history through the concept of affective connection--a touch across time--and through the intentional collapse of conventional historical time, I wanted in Getting Medieval to help queer studies respond to such desire. In fact, I intended to make affect central to the project of queer history writing; this would, I contended, further the aim (shared by me and other restive historians of sexuality) of transforming history writing altogether. It would queer historiography.

In Getting Medieval I presented affective history as an enabling concept with which readers could work in order to respond to their own situations--their places in space and time--and their needs and desires for a past. I am happy that the panelists today have picked up that intent in my book: in particular, Rosemary Drage Hale and Angela Zito have presented their own materials for queer historical contemplation. Even as I elaborated in the book on the personal and intimate nature of queer history, I was concerned that this approach be not so taken up with the individual and idiosyncratic that it would cease altogether to function as a method of coming to terms with phenomena in the past and of creating something collective, and that it would become, rather, only a way of writing personal autobiography. The papers on this panel are sensitive to this double imperative: they take up affective history as an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 202-212
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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