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  • Volitional Etiologies:Toward a Weak Theory of Etiology
  • Benjamin Kahan (bio)

In 1902, the famed sexologist Iwan Bloch made a controversial claim in his Contributions to an Etiology of the Psychopathia Sexualis, arguing that male homosexuality is acquired rather than congenital.1 A partial accounting of the etiological influences which, according to Bloch, can lead to the development of homosexuality includes: impotence, onanism, habitual alcohol consumption, opium indulgence, seduction, same-sex environments, warm climate, frigidity, anal sex with women, wearing clothing of the opposite sex, looking in the mirror, celibacy, polygamy, religious belief, gonorrhea, flagellation, epilepsy, obscene literature and works of art, and the professions (deemed feminine) of actors, artists, landscape gardeners, decorators, cooks, hairdressers, ladies' tailors, and female impersonators. While Bloch's text is more encyclopedic in its detailing of etiological factors than many of its contemporaries, none of these factors would have been considered anomalous to the sexological community (Benjamin Tarnowsky's Pederasty in Europe [1898] and Auguste Forel's The Sexual Question [1906], for example, offer similar catalogues). That is, many of these etiologies had already been put forward previously as conditions generating homosexuality and were understood at the time as valid scientific arguments.

While the debate about the congenitality or acquisition of sexuality that these texts debated has been almost entirely forgotten by modernist studies and sexuality studies, I argue that these effaced etiologies provide a crucial resource for the theorization of a weak theory of sexuality. Such a valuation of etiology is at odds with much recent work in queer studies, which has refused to consider the question of sexual etiology. Eve Kosofsky [End Page 551] Sedgwick exemplifies such wariness in relation to etiological approaches; she states: "gay-affirmative work does well when it aims to minimize its reliance on any particular account of the origin of sexual preference and identity in individuals."2 In particular, she fears that accounts of gay ontogeny are not easily divorced from "gay-genocidal nexuses of thought" (Sedgwick, Epistemology, 40).3 Similarly, David Halperin asserts that "the search for a 'scientific' aetiology of sexual orientation is itself a homophobic project" akin to describing "[describing] in genetic terms the capacities of the various human races."4 Likewise, Valerie Rohy asserts that "the structuring role of etiology in today's discussions of civil rights is fundamentally homophobic, whatever causality is claimed."5

I keep these powerful caveats at the forefront of my work even as I argue that the multiplicity of modernist etiologies is central to understanding the invention of sexuality and to a theorization of weak sexuality in particular. Rather than attempting to discover the etiology of homosexuality as Bloch and his contemporaries did, I aim to chart a historical, scientific, and political debate without regard to the "truth" of either the congenital or acquired position.6 Thus, I seek to divorce etiology from the will to truth and its accompanying diagnostic certitude, illusions of objectivity, and pathologization. Instead, I want to retain etiology's cataloguing energies and narrative capacities, particularly its ability to register the contingent and specific conditions of sexuality's production. I aim, thus, to forge a weak theory of etiology that finds the scientistic logic of taxonomy to play an important role in the construction of individual's sexual lives and self-conceptions, without being wholly determinative on the one hand, or having no impact on the other. In this way, I hope to sidestep the force of Sedgwick, Halperin, and Rohy's objections and to offer etiology as a tool for recasting the recent methodological debate in queer studies that asks "how to do the history of homosexuality."7

To discuss weak theory in relation to etiology seems an oxymoron—what after all could be stronger than etiology's causative force? And yet the locus classicus of weak theory, Sedgwick's "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You" (1997), begins precisely with a moment of etiological inquiry. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, Sedgwick asks her friend Cindy Patton about the "sinister rumors about the virus's origin"—the conspiracy theories that AIDS had been deliberately spread, that it was a military plot...


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pp. 551-568
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