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  • How to do Early Modern Queer History
  • Todd W. Reeser (bio)
Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns
Valerie Traub
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 462 pp.
Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare's Time
Jeffrey Masten
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 353 pp.
The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830
Susan S. Lanse
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 345 pp.

What does it mean these days to do early modern queer studies in a European framework? Taken as a trio, these books herald a new episteme in the academic history of same-sex sexuality and, perhaps more important, in sexual historiography. The early modern has played a visible role in queer studies and the history of same-sex sexuality since the 1980s, but as the twenty-first century rolled around, scholars began considering more deeply how we could or should read and understand early modern sexualities. Although deeply influential in sexuality studies, Michel Foucault's supposed great paradigm shift from the premodern sodomite to the modern homosexual was developed, critiqued, and problematized. David Halperin's How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002) offered scholars a much-needed historiographical model, detailing how to do early modern (as well as modern and pre–early modern) sexual history and brilliantly and usefully extending the Foucauldian discourse-centered model into complex territory allowing for more than the categories of sodomy and homosexuality. Halperin delineated a series [End Page 183] of discursive categories under an umbrella homosexuality, complete with recurring characteristics as well as a much-needed premodern development of what Eve Sedgwick (1990: 47) famously called "the unrationalized coexistence of different models during the time they do coexist." Sodomy did not die out as homosexuality came into discursive being, of course, but began to coexist with the category in ways that may not have been possible previously. And other categories had existed alongside sodomy in unrationalized ways. Following Sedgwick, Halperin in a sense queered today's "homosexual" by ensuring that he be seen as a latecomer in the longue durée of Western sexual history. Published in the same year, Valerie Traub's Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England taught us that female same-sex sexuality was more widespread than we had previously known and that we could read lesbianism as a broad cultural formation containing even Queen Elizabeth in its fold. No longer did we have to limit the early modern queer to figures such as the tribade or Sappho. Work like these two books painstakingly avoided a modern, Western identitarian logic, de facto queering the idea of trans-historical sexual morphology and showing us how moving back in time complicated sexual matters.

Alongside or following work such as this (and at times embedded in it) were reconfigurations less of the homosexual or the lesbian than of time itself. Most prominently, Carla Freccero's lyrical Queer/Early/Modern (2006) suggested that we may be heterotemporal when studying how sexual morphologies have changed over time. Even when sexual history is studied as uneven and complicated and even as we see sexual categories as unrationalized coexistences, we should not delineate sexual categories in and over time but let the queer past affect us. We should allow ourselves to be haunted by premodern queerness through a process of "queer spectrality." In this model, the historical focus is on "porous, permeable pasts and futures . . . that enable us to mourn and also to hope" (Freccero 2006: 69). What might matter is not so much or not simply how sexual figures or subjectivities were articulated in a historical context unlike ours, but how they can touch us across the temporal divide. Madhavi Menon (2008: 2), channeling Adrienne Rich, employs the phrase "compulsory heterotemporality," which requires that past historical contexts be taken as distinct from the present and that chronological difference be "the basis for sound historical knowledge." She notes that "categorical difference might not be the best mode in which to think of either the past or of sexualities" (7). Menon's aim is not to create an assumption of temporal sameness or to disband history but to "turn away from an absolute sexual identity subtended by the reign...


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pp. 183-196
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