Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 180-184
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Touching and Acting, or The Closet of Abjection
Mark D. Jordan
The most beautiful image in Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, a book with many beauties, is the image of the touch across time. It refers, of course, to the touches that pass between the queer historian and the medieval bodies of her concern, but also to the touches that pass between the historian and her queer readers, who are linked to the past and to the author and--this is the hope--to each other. Dinshaw writes: "I follow what I call a queer historical impulse, an impulse toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then and, on the other, those left out of current sexual categories now. Such an impulse extends the resources for self- and community building into even the distant past" (p. 1). 1 I admire how deftly Dinshaw reaches out both hands when responding to this impulse. But here, if only because it is the task of a designated respondent, I would like to talk about what may slip past our touch, what may lie beyond our reach, in lives, texts, and cultural phenomena "back then." I want then to wonder how these slips repeat themselves in our fumbling toward community now.
Let me begin in reverse order, with the Coda and Foucault. Dinshaw rightly identifies "a powerful and continuous use of the Middle Ages in volume 1 [of Foucault's History of Sexuality] as the site of the beginnings of modern sexual subject formation" (p. 198). She explains the effect of this use: "The utopian, the elegiac, . . . functions as part of a serious ethical and aesthetic vision of the present and the future: a view of political reality informs Foucault's historical pronouncement about the sodomite and the homosexual, and, in turn, the historical pronouncement allows Foucault to fiction a future of politics" (p. 200). Yes, and indeed. History of Sexuality 1 is not social history. It is a genealogy of the power in discourses--that is, a history of rhetorics. Since it is a cunning history of [End Page 180] rhetorics, it is also rhetorically cunning. Its most provocative historical claims--say, about epochal breaks or origins--are persuasive provocations to future action.
One of Foucault's provocations, which I cannot find repeated in Dinshaw, is the claim that we can discern the birth of the modern notion of sexuality in the kinds of surveillance practiced within seminaries, religious colleges, and convents since the Counter-Reformation. 2 Modern sexuality is churched before it is born. Foucault himself describes a series of extensions by which the monastic discipline of chastity was applied to larger and larger groups--to the clergy as a whole; then to all religious, male and female; then to pious laypeople; then to laypeople simply. 3 The sexualities of nineteenth-century psychiatry can seem pastoral theology by other means.
This is a provocation, especially insofar as it reminds us that claims for transhistorical touch are by no means the invention or property of queer historians. When a medieval Christian woman touches Jesus, speaks to his mother Mary, or is counseled or scolded by his Apostles, she moves within that transhistorical system of identities that is called the assembly, ecclesia, church--the body of Christ. If she herself were later "raised to the altars," canonized, she would become a point of touch for all later believers, a declared member of the communion of saints. When I am called a "gay Catholic"--or so call myself--I am placed within at least two communities that make claims for touch across time. Indeed, the Catholic claims are much stronger than the claims of the queer historian. Not a Catholic touch, but a Catholic grip. One traditional Catholic claim is that I can not only touch, but eat the body of Jesus. Another is that there is only one time for God--and that...