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  • A Response:Difficulty, Opacity, Disposition, Method1
  • Valerie Traub (bio)
Valerie Traub’s Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015

Even as they evince their own interests and modes of investigation, these responses to Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns generously correlate the concerns of my project with their own. Generated from institutional locations as diverse as classics, history, medical sociology, and area and postcolonial studies, each response seizes on points of connection that provide a platform for affirming particular values and concerns: of history and interdisciplinarity, of complexity and contradiction, of the problematic travel in concepts. None of these values map onto a discipline; they point rather to habits of thought that are encouraged when we read for method.

From this standpoint, it is fascinating to see what appears—and doesn’t appear—in these pages. Although Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands begin by invoking what they describe as my book’s “pedagogical principle” of historicizing, they quickly move to the affects generated by its epistemological investments. Describing my work as occasionally “difficult and discomforting,” they report that it leaves them “with an acute awareness of the problems” of doing the interdisciplinary history of sexuality. They nonetheless applaud the effort to put methodological questions into dialogue with epistemological ones, insofar as it “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.”

Similarly intrigued by epistemological processes, Lisa Jean Moore emphasizes the way Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns reveals the procedures by which analytical objects are constituted, thereby allowing us to interrogate “‘how categories . . . came to be.’” Portraying our methods as “mutually reinforcing” and bringing my strategies into conversation with her favored scholarly tactics of “getting lost” and “situational analysis,” she [End Page 336] reformulates points of contact between our projects: “it is the elusive, contested, and controversial problematics around defining . . . objects that is the actual ‘data.’” Moore’s invocation of the notion of “boundary objects” further collocates our mutual interest in “the centrifugal forces of opacity, plurality, and polyphony,” and the “centripetal drives of capturing the range of variation” and complexity.

Both of these responses note the ongoing tension between empirical and queer approaches. With considerable force, Moore claims for queer studies an empirical method that starts with taking the world “as if it exists, no matter how it is constructed.” Intriguingly, the imperative of that claim is implicitly de-dramatized by her portrayal of her relationship to queer studies as “flirt[ing].” Indeed, methodological flirtation suggests one tactic for sidestepping the double-binding scene of assessment that renders Moore’s work too empirical to be “considered part of queer studies” (while “not empirical enough” by the standards of sociology). Flirting, after all, need not require a commitment on either side.

Looming large in these responses is the book’s advocacy of interdisciplinarity. Highlighting my engagements with, and critiques of, different ways of “doing” history, Fisher and Langlands confirm from their standpoint as practitioners of a large scale interdisciplinary project, “the inherent frustrations and fruitfulness of reaching across” disciplinary boundaries, while embracing what they describe as my “optimistic” brief on behalf of a practice that acknowledges “the impossibility of working together without friction and contradiction.” Much of my book is dedicated to confronting such frictions, disciplinary and otherwise. An emphasis on method, I suggest, helps us appreciate that protocols that would lubricate interactions are still in the process of being worked out. Not only does such a practice entail valuing the thorny issue, the dilemma, the impasse, but it also enjoins a willingness to unpack incommensurate idioms and resist the impulse to either assume sameness in the room or strive for premature unity. Rather, the naive question, which denaturalizes what is taken for granted within disciplinary knowledge, can provide a key tactic for managing collaborations—whether with one’s own interdisciplinary self or one’s disciplinary others.

Just as central as the challenge posed by interdisciplinarity in my book, however, is the effort to use the early modern period as a site from which to engage in cross-temporal forays that sharpen the stakes for those engaged...


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pp. 336-342
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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