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  • Thinking Sex with Geopolitics
  • Anjali Arondekar (bio)
Valerie Traub’s Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015

Whatever queer/sexuality studies may have (or have not) become, we all at least have reason to believe that it stridently refuses all gestures of conceptual, methodological, and temporal totalization. Or so one hopes. Readings of sexuality now emerge as necessarily provisional and open to transformation and to the velocities and inscriptions of other histories. It is this willingness to perceive sexuality as always somewhere else, as a force of disruption, even displacement, which has been the rallying call of all forms of queer/sexuality studies. Indeed, what studying sex (within and without queer studies) has taught us is that we are always inhabited by histories that exceed our capacity to capture them. Valerie Traub’s magnum opus, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, in many ways exemplifies such a dictum; it is in equal parts a spirited homage to the inscrutability, wantonness, and sheer messiness of histories of sexuality and a sharp censure of the limitations, methodologies, and theories of scholars obscuring those histories. Fueling Traub’s project is her embrace of sexuality’s constitutive opacity. As she writes emphatically: “[S]ex may be good to think with, not because it permits access, but because it doesn’t” (4). Traub turns primarily to the early modern period (specifically Tudor and Stuart England) to explore the epistemological problem of sex where the opacities of eroticism (in all their forms) secure knowledge precisely in the ways in which they don’t and can’t be translated into digestible histories of the present.

While there is much more to say about how the opacity of sex travels various routes within Traub’s dizzyingly ambitious text, I want to gesture instead to its epistemic affinities with another conceptual category that is equally marked by its attachments to opacity: geopolitics. For both conceptual [End Page 332] categories—sex and geopolitics—the turn to and/or away from opacity orients habits of analysis that generate the value/capital that is implicit within both. Geopolitics, however, enters the diversified holdings of “historical sexuality and queer studies” (a term Traub uses to mark scholarship that is attentive to archives of the historical past) through languages of capitalization that shift the value of opacity into the labor of incommensurability. That is, geopolitical sites (particularly in the global South) continue to be read as obdurately and enticingly unresponsive—literally ungraspable forms. Indeed, the seductions of such unresponsiveness (often cast in the broad languages of divergent spatialities and temporalities) accrue a certain political value where you cede to geopolitical difference precisely to lay aside the epistemic work such difference does. Thus even as scholars repeatedly gesture to the vastness of geopolitical landscapes (the required self-reflexive move that marks a reading as limited to the West while more knowledge awaits us in the “Rest”), little effort is made to translate those gestures to the content of citations.1 There continues to be a paucity of comparative histories of sexuality that engage, for example, the various temporalities within which the idea of the “early modern” sutures itself to the category of sex across geographies and linguistic formations.2 Simply put, thinking sex with geosemiotics makes opacity a concept ineluctably linked to asymmetry, whereby a geographical location garners value through its (untranslatable) relationship to the West—in other words, through the labor of incommensurability.3 In so doing, we recast as it were, over and over again, the early debates inaugurated by Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” as histories of elsewheres perform necessary scenes of nonrepresentability and reprieve (recall Spivak’s opening invocation of the conversation between first-world intellectuals Deleuze and Foucault). After all, we cannot not want the incommensurability of the “Rest”!

Given such a conceptual quagmire, how then do we harness the tremendous generative potential of opacity, as outlined by Traub, and think sex with geopolitics without ceding meaning and value? How do we mark the opacity of geopolitics with the simultaneous plaint that such opacity is irrevocably compromised, interrupted, even staged? Let me say more about what I mean. I am currently...