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  • Desiring History and Historicizing Desire
  • Ari Friedlander (bio)

Desire, Sexuality, Queer Theory, Intersectionality, Historicism, Unhistoricism, Queer Temporality, Interdisciplinarity, Diachronic, Synchronic

This volume emerges out of a conference held at the Huntington Library in September 2014 that explored recent controversies in the study of sexuality in the early modern period, staging a conversation between historicist and queer critical methodologies. For a long time, Foucauldian historicism has predominated the study of early modern sexuality, producing works like Alan Bray’s path-breaking Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982), Bruce R. Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991), Jonathan Goldberg’s Sodometries (1992), and Valerie Traub’s The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (2002). These studies, as well as those published in their wake, tend to historicize sexual desire either by demonstrating the genealogy of modern sexual formations in the Renaissance or by emphasizing early modern sexuality’s historical difference from the modern.1 In one sense, this work tends to emphasize the distance between past and present. Yet, at the same time, much of it was also marked by a productive tension between historicist method and presentist concerns, concerns that echoed in other influential studies—including L. O. Aranye Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s collection, Premodern Sexualities (1996), Rick Rambuss’s Closet Devotions (1998), and Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval (1999). These studies more explicitly theorized a dialectic intimately connecting past and present.2 Recent years have witnessed a rise in self-identified queer critical approaches that embrace the challenge to the historiographical project communicated by these works’ presentist concerns, by focusing on the psychoanalytic and deconstructive instabilities that inevitably shape our attempts to produce narratives about the past. Viewing the historicist project itself as involving a projection of affect, or a desire for history, several scholars, including Freccero, Goldberg, [End Page 1] and Madhavi Menon, stress the value of anachronism and the continuity of past and present—a method that Menon calls “unhistoricism.”3

The question of the relationship between queer and historicist methods in early modern studies has recently engendered a number of published debates, but this is the first printed volume to gather responses to this question from different theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary perspectives.4 This special issue addresses these debates in two ways: its introduction, afterword, and forum explore what could be learned from these critics’ differences and what common ground they share; the essays collected here consider where the field might go in this debate’s wake. The volume’s titular chiasmus thus is intended not only to demarcate different methodological schools, but also to indicate our belief that most scholars of early modern sexuality are directly concerned with the questions of how to access and construct bodies and desires long gone, and what role our own bodies and desires play in this endeavor. Such questions can form the basis of a collective inquiry when viewed as a common rather than adversarial enterprise. This is not to say that we must always agree on the answers, but it is to suggest that at this point in the debate recognition of our communal investments could help move the field forward. In that spirit, this introduction will argue that while there are significant intellectual and methodological differences between the two groups, there are also important ways in which these differences complement rather than detract from each other. For it seems to me that as helpful as the debate has been in reminding us that historicism and queer theory remain in tension, the conversation thus far has not fully addressed some important similarities between queer and historicist critics and simultaneously has deflected attention from some of their key differences.

The Historicist Settlement and Its Discontents

Although there have been and continue to be debates among early modern scholars about what it means to historicize sexuality, early modern historicism as a practice shares a number of important features. Historicist studies, for example, tend to focus on particular sexual practices or desires and their representation in a range of early modern archives and discourses, including literature, art, law, religion, science, and mercantile and colonial writings (this list is hardly exhaustive).5 While it is not possible to...


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