- Disciplines, Institutions—and Desires
sexuality, historicism, presentism, utopia, horizon
I would like to begin by asking you to consider the chiasmus under which we gather: “Desiring History and Historicizing Desire.” The chiasmus focuses our attention on the crossing of two terms, each with noun and verb forms—their grammatical flexibility indexed, perhaps, to the methodological flexibility of the fields in which most of us work: early modern (here both Renaissance and late-medieval) queer and/or sexuality studies. Talk a bit about the definitions of desir/e/ing and histor/y/icizing, and the relation of these terms to the periodization and thematization of your and our work. Is defining these words more hazardous than fruitful? If these terms must remain both undefined and points of critical orientation, then how would you describe what does not qualify as historicizing, or what does not count as desire?
Ruth Mazo Karras
To me the phrase “Historicizing Desire” is quite straightforward. It implies the recognition that the categories through which a culture understands feelings, wishes, bodily and mental states, and other drivers of desire are historically contingent rather than universal. These categories may be found in intellectual culture—as in the nineteenth-century psychomedical definitions of various sexual “conditions” by Krafft-Ebing—or in popular culture, [End Page 106] where what many people think of as a relatively simple binary of “straight” versus “gay” is complicated not only by differences between lesbians and gay men, but also by “bi,” “queer,” “poly,” “asexual,” and a plethora of other identities. Additionally, it is not just the forms of desire that are historically contingent (Clark). The existence of desire may itself be contingent; William Reddy has argued that what he calls desire-as-appetite is found only in the Western tradition, and only after the twelfth century. Whether or not this is true as a matter of empirical fact may be arguable, but the field of sexuality studies, as well as the field of the history of the emotions, is predicated on the principle that, even though there are biological processes that are shared by humans across all societies, the way we think and talk about them varies widely across time and space. It is this context-specificity that is implied in “Historicizing Desire.”
“Desiring History” has another valence. A certain level of unsophisticated cross-disciplinarity is not uncommon not only in my field of medieval studies but in others as well. Even the most Rankean historians, concerned about determining only what really happened, can be tempted to mine works of literature for examples; fictional characters are often so much more forthcoming than historical ones! The tendency among historians of society and culture can be to treat literature (and, mutatis mutandis, visual art) as a mirror of society and the behaviors of fictional characters as historical evidence. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who appears widely in textbooks, sourcebooks and courses on the history of medieval women, is a good example of the misuse of literary representation as evidence.1 The flip side of this historical use of literature is a literary use of history that can be equally unsophisticated. Some literary scholars seek works of history that they can “use,” that is, that provide a factual master narrative, not just of events but also of cultural practices, as a context into which they can set literary works. They desire a history, in other words, that was fixed and unambiguous, against which the unstable meaning of the text can be set.
The best work in both history and literature in recent years has exploded these methodologies, with the not insignificant help of premodern sexuality studies. Literature cannot be treated merely as a mirror if it is a constituent element of culture(s), and there is no fixed History against which “sexuality” can be studied if the very texts we study create “sexuality” itself. Interpreted this way, I suggest it is a good thing we no longer “desire” History as we once did. Underlying this description is my assumption that history with a lowercase h is nonetheless important, that...