Carla Freccero begins Queer/Early/Modern with some of the fundamental questions not only of queer theory but also of theory itself: what is the subject in the psychological sense of the term? How is it structured in different cultures? How are we to conceptualize its development in radically different historical periods? Within the realm of early modern studies and particularly in Renaissance studies about France, these kinds of questions have often been approached with suspicion by philologists, who sometimes accuse scholars with theoretical tendencies of anachronistic thinking when the latter approach premodern texts using modern and even postmodern modes of analysis. Freccero boldly seizes upon this problem in the first chapter of her book, examining the relation between the modern notions of the subject, sexuality, sexual preference, and identity and the early modern "prolepses" that uncannily seem to announce or prefigure that which we identify as "queer" today.
Chapter 2, "Always Already Queer (French) Theory," takes on an interesting critique that has been made of the term "queer" by Daniel Morton: as opposed to the historically situated terms "gay" and "lesbian," "queer" corresponds to the poststructural and postmodern "emptying out" of the notion of identity, which deprives individuals of the "materiality" of their being (13-14). Morton seeks to "rematerialize" the term, rejecting its "various identity politics meanings" and trying to employ it as part of "a theoretically updated version of idealism" (14-15). In contrast, Freccero conceives of the queer not as "an identitarian construct" but rather as a mode of critique, situating her argument within an increasing body of scholarship that reorients usage of this key term away from an identity politics that continues the Enlightenment project of equality for all that effaces critical differences and toward "a non-identity-based critical cultural and political practice that seeks to resist the humanist rights-bearing claims of collective identities understood to be based in a certain affective and sexual practice and a relation to same-sex object choice" (15). This fundamental shift is at the core of the book's theoretical enterprise. [End Page 573]
The opening pages of this chapter contain a lucid summary of a debate that is also central to the enterprise of theory in the American academy. Against the poststructural fragmentation of specific identities, how can theorists of sexuality, gender, and queer studies ground their thinking in material categories? What are the dangers of thinking of the queer "as a kind of essence," and how can we as ethically concerned teachers base a politics of equality on such a problematic notion? In other words, if post-structuralism has shown that the subject and identity are all unavoidably contingent and constructed, how can one militate in favor of queer identities while recognizing that these simply don't exist, in a sense, or that they are merely effects of power's operation, as are the diverse theoretical practices (including queer theory, feminism, ethnicity studies, and others) that have been institutionalized as part of the academic establishment? How can we compartmentalize ourselves into established professional categories, in other words, when we have also been trying to resist and to dismantle that categorization (16-17)?
Freccero's solution to this complex problem is to allow the term "queer" to function rhetorically as a hybrid entity that exists in the interstices between its adjectival and verbal forms. This rigorous application of deconstructive thinking avoids the frustrations of either/or binaries. One of the highlights of Freccero's work is her ability to delineate the intriguing consequences of abstract concepts for the more specific task of analyzing the history of sexualities. She is often provocative: "The queer can thus be thought of as the trace in the field of sexuality" (18) or "queerness is understood as a certain effect in and of language" (20). Freccero devotes a section of the chapter to an analysis of twentieth-century love songs as influenced by the Petrarchan lyric tradition and sees in the endless reiterations of "an eternally weeping [male] lover" not "a dyadic relation...