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Reviewed by:
  • Sex, Knowledge, and Receptions of the Past ed. by Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands
  • Kirk Ormand
Sex, Knowledge, and Receptions of the Past. Edited by Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 290. $95.00 (cloth).

One of the central tenets of the first volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality was that the medicalization of desire turned sexuality into a particularly important site of knowledge. Sexual desire, characterized by medical discourse as possessing both latency and a “general and diffuse causality,” must be made to speak its truth.1 Guided by this insight, Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands’s edited collection, Sex, Knowledge, and Receptions of the Past, interrogates the specific ways in which sexologists, historians, and literary scholars have used moments in the past to articulate the development of sexuality in both the present and the past. While some of the contributions to the volume investigate how scholars and institutions since the 1970s have viewed the past in relation to the present (Debbie Challis, Lesley Hall, Karin Sellberg), most discuss how people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made use of more distant pasts in order to create models of human desire, generally conceived of as universal (Alastair Blanshard, Peter Cryle, Fisher and Langlands, Jana Funke, Joanna de Groot, Chris Manias, Sebastian Matzner, Alison Moore, Chris Waters). Each essay is interesting in its own right, and several are sharply written.

The book begins and ends with essays on Oscar Wilde, an iconic figure in the emergence of queer identities. Blanshard’s essay serves as a brilliant entrée to later pieces, discussing the different modes in which nineteenth-century sexologists used the past in order to understand the emergent idea of homosexuality. After a terse but lucid discussion of Richard Burton, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and John Addington Symonds, Blanshard returns to Wilde’s trial to demonstrate that Wilde had argued against not only Victorian prudery (on which see Hall in this volume) but also the growing trend of medicalizing homoerotic desire. Completing the volume, a lucid essay by Waters shows how a similar trend of pathologizing homosexuality in the 1950s both allowed for a recuperation of Wilde and, for a time, served as an obstacle to gay liberation. [End Page 482]

Three chapters deal explicitly with material culture. Challis’s contribution on the changing practice of museums in displaying sexually oriented material is more descriptive than theoretical. It is of course useful for museums to acknowledge sex, changing views about sex, and sexual identity in presenting displays for the general public. But, as Challis points out, the oversimplifications of some of these displays present a new problem; scholars will be dismayed to read that Hadrian was the “first openly gay Emperor,” as the LGBT History Month blog reported in a review of the 2008 exhibition about the second-century Roman emperor at the British Museum (56). In a similar vein, Fisher and Langlands provide a learned account of different interpretations of a celebrated statue found in Pompeii, which represents Pan having sex with a (female) goat. The range of interpretations is dazzling, and, as Fisher and Langlands show, how one understands this object is entirely dependent on the interpretive context that one creates for it. Manias’s essay on late nineteenth-century views of the prehistoric period demonstrates, not surprisingly, that these early modern anthropologists developed elaborate family narratives—deeply informed by their own assumptions—from minimal physical evidence.

Several essays examine the methods and role of important figures in the development of modern sexology. Funke provides a sensitive reading of Magnus Hirschfeld and his somewhat inconsistent uses of the “primitive” past. Funke is concerned to show that though Hirschfeld saw sexuality as biologically produced (and thus not an issue for moral condemnation), there are strains in his work that push toward a vision of sexuality and gender as fluid, resisting a strict binarism. De Groot takes on the complex figure of Richard F. Burton, best known for his notion of a “sotadic zone” on the earth in which male homosexual behaviors predominate. Burton turns out to be one of the least tractable figures in...


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pp. 482-484
Launched on MUSE
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