- Scholars in Pursuit of Elusive Sexual Knowledge
Anybody interested in sex, the politics of sex, sexual identity, or sexual education in contemporary society needs a historical perspective. Such is the pedagogical principle that underlies Valerie Traub’s Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. In response to a sex-obsessed yet sex-negative U.S. culture, she advocates a “capaciously conceived” sex education that constitutes a “disposition towards sexual variation” (2015, 122). Yet this is merely the political frame for a rich and scholarly contribution to the study of early modern sex, which is also, most importantly, a methodological intervention of relevance to anyone studying sex in any historical period.
Above all, Valerie Traub’s latest book is an impassioned call for all those studying the history of sexuality to confront shared methodological challenges. A key message is that different disciplinary approaches, which currently divide the field and its practitioners, are best acknowledged, recognized, and embraced. Traub urges us to “capitalize on the difficulties” and linger in moments of methodological or conceptual impasse (63). The book is an impressive, thorough probing of the challenges raised by a range of different approaches to thinking about sex in the past, which is essential reading for all, if sometimes difficult and discomforting. It is a text that puts us through our paces whatever our theoretical stance; whether literary critic, queer theorist, or historian, we will each in turn find the unspoken assumptions on which our own methodologies are based and the flaws of our conceptual premises exposed in uncompromising detail. Targeting queer temporality, for instance, Traub argues that its undoubted value in challenging teleological and hegemonic approaches to the past is undercut when scholars reject all chronology as heteronormative, and are unable therefore to appreciate the value of the historian’s enterprise. We [End Page 324] must acknowledge the ways in which empirical and historicist work (in history, anthropology, and sociology) has produced sophisticated scholarship that speaks directly to the questions driving the queer project, and to which, indeed, it is profoundly indebted (78). Turning her sights on social historians, her discomforting critique of the widely adopted methodology of “social contextualization” lays bare its unfortunate consequences: it can be near impossible to study the physical reality and meaning of sex acts in the past, since all attention is focused at the level of the cultural discourses that organize sex into social structures, identities, and relationships. We therefore lack a history of sexuality that knows what people did and what it meant, and Traub urges us to adopt a historicized understanding of sexual variation (focused on the study of sex acts), albeit one which avoids deploying presumptive knowledge about how sex happens, in what positions or with what body parts. Taking aim elsewhere at the “history-as-affect” approach whose potential she fully appreciates, she also poses the challenge: “[M]ight the sensorium . . . be laden with unacknowledged epistemological freight?” (134). She explores the risks of equating historical research with erotic encounter, and the possibility that the “fantasy resolution” it facilitates might lead a scholar away from the autonomy of the past (136).
It is in the focus upon knowledge about sex as the object of her investigation, rather than sex on itself, that Traub articulates a productive new direction for historians of sexuality. The chapters consistently and variously put the methodological questions about how we approach the making of historical knowledge into dialogue with epistemological questions about what knowledge is and what sexual knowledge looks like in a way that reshapes our very concept of sexual knowledge as an analytical category. The study of sex becomes the investigation of how sex is turned into knowledge, and the history of sex is not just what we can know about sex in the past but involves investigation of what it is to know, what knowledge is and how we get to it. At the same time, central to the book is Traub’s insistence that sex is unusually resistant to knowledge. For Traub, the practice of making sexual knowledge involves historically contingent meanings and material...