Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I Am the Very Model of the Modern Homosexual; or, Queer Foucauldians Say the Darnedest Things!

Almost any book you read about homosexuality nowadays will pause at some point to retell the Creation Myth of the Homosexual, from the Gospel According to Saint Foucault. (Which, like the Christian Bible, most who refer to it haven’t read. But I digress, and not for the last time.)
This myth tells how the Modern Homosexual sprang fully grown (or erupted, like a zit?) from the foreheads of 19th century European doctors, a new creation, never seen before under the sun, then spread like a radioactive virus until it had infected the whole world with its evil, modern, Western, positivistic hegemony.

When I first thought of this metaphor, I doubted its aptness, but on second thought I realized I had builded better than I knew. As with the creation myths of Genesis, this myth is not a single coherent story, but two or three, harmonized by fundamentalist theologians who mistake a fable or a wisecrack for a literal historical statement. In both cases, the myth’s advocates are ambivalent about Science: on one hand they covet its prestige, on which they seek to found their own institutional status and privilege, but on the other they distrust the hegemonic power of the Enlightenment and its works. The creation myth of the modern homosexual is at once an episode in the triumphal epic March of Progress, and a cautionary tale of sinful human pride.
But I myself should stop speaking in parables, and turn to Foucault’s own, the famous passage from the first volume of his History of Sexuality that became the John 3:16 of queer theory:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitively active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized – Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth – less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration [relaps]; the homosexual was now a species.
The most striking thing about this passage, to my mind, is what it does not say. It says nothing about identity, for example, though many writers have quoted or cited it to support their claims about “gay identity.” It says nothing about “orientation,” which many pro-gay writers confidently assert is the ‘modern’ understanding of homosexuality. (For example, Dale Martin quoting Martha Nussbaum on “our modern concept of ‘sexuality’ -- a deep and relatively stable inner orientation towards objects of a certain gender” [207f; though that is not, as it happens, the modern concept of “sexuality,” it’s the modern medical concept of “sexual orientation”].) It says nothing about how “homosexuals” thought of themselves, but only describes how they were seen by medical doctors who were not themselves inverts.
Also, the passage doesn’t put much emphasis on the word “homosexual”: Foucault treats Westphal’s “contrary sexual instinct” as its equivalent. He doesn’t even mention the invention of the word itself, by Kertbeny in 1867, which most people who refer to Foucault give as the ‘actual’ birth date of The Homosexual.
In his closing witticism about the homosexual’s being “now a species,” Foucault did not suggest that “homosexuals” themselves had changed their behavior, let alone their nature. What changed was the way sodomites and sapphists, mollies and tribades were thought about – theorized, if you like – by the emerging medical profession. I have encountered people who believed that, whether or not Foucault thought so, “the homosexual” was a new genetic mutation which first appeared in 1870, and spread around the world in a few decades. (That’s not possible, not remotely enough time; maybe homosexuality is not a gene but, like language in William S. Burroughs’s mythos, a radioactive virus from outer space.) This is what happens when people take a sacred text literally.
Nor did Foucault say that the change came about because “the early sexologists were witnessing the emergence of new kinds of erotic individuals and their aggregation into rudimentary communities” (Rubin 1984: 285). The early sexologists did not think of the cases they described as something new; they explicitly saw them as (figurative) descendants of ancient Greek and Roman pederasts. Those “rudimentary communities” had been observed in European cities for centuries before 1870; Foucault himself had previously dated the emergence of The Homosexual to the Mollies in England in the late 1600s. One very odd thing about all this is that the same sort of “aggregation into rudimentary communities” has been observed in far-flung parts of the world, outside the 19th-century medical paradigm Foucault described: in India, in Indonesia, and elsewhere – but it is taboo to recognize this because, following the anthropic principle, “the homosexual” does not exist unless he is subject to the 19th-century European medical gaze.
Though Foucault didn’t say so here, he knew (and had already written on the theme) that the same doctors were reinterpreting madness, crime, poverty, race, and other human phenomena in exactly the same way: a thief was not just a person who engaged in criminal behavior, he was a thief to the roots of his being, to the core of his brain and body. A runaway slave wasn’t morally wicked, he was suffering from a disease called drapetomania which made him try to escape from the loving care of his lawful owner. A Jew was not just a person who followed certain religious teachings, rather he was Jewish by nature, by blood, in all aspects of his life. Foucault’s description of “the homosexual” also echoes – I’d bet deliberately – the 19th-century model of The Masturbator, who also carried the signs of his deviation “written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away.”
Foucault was also tracing the course of a contest for authority among elite groups in Europe, the UK, and the US. Doctors vied with religious authorities and with secular lawmakers to claim the power to understand, explain, and correct social problems. Was homosexuality a sin, as the Church claimed, to be controlled by religious institutions? Was it a crime, to be punished by state violence or imprisonment? No, said the doctors, these are old-fashioned, unenlightened attitudes. Homosexuality is a disease, which we will treat: by confinement in asylums, by talking cures, by injection of hormones, by electroshock, and so on. This is not to say that these authorities adopted their positions cynically, purely to justify their quest for power; they believed sincerely that they knew the proper way to deal with the problems they addressed. Being children of their cultures, they took for granted that homosexuals, drunkards, masturbators, women – especially uppity feminist “New Women” – Jews, runaway Negroes, opium eaters, etc., were problems that needed to be fixed. Each way of thinking about “the homosexual” was a claim to possess knowledge, and a demand for the recognition of that profession’s claim to knowledge; but it also served to justify the exercise of power over other people: the sinner, the criminal, the patient.
I want to stress too that the medicalization of homosexuality (like the medicalization of masturbation, crime, race, and so on) was not based on new evidence comparable to that which produced germ theory; it was closer to phrenology and to anthropometry, the related measurement of skulls and other body parts that was used to “prove” the distinctiveness of The Criminal, The Negro, The Woman. These doctors knew nothing about genetics, hormones, or other disciplines that bore on biological aspects of human nature. The absence of any real evidence for the grandiose claims these doctors made, followed by a scramble to produce such evidence, is one of the most notable things about them. Except for the rote accounts of history (Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, Michelangelo, certain notorious Popes), the doctors ignored historical, cultural, and social factors in favor of the case history; it’s highly ironic that their work is used to bolster social constructionism, considering that they were dedicated essentialists and individualists. This absence of evidence continues to the present: first came the claim that “we’re born gay”, then came attempts – still unsuccessful so far – to find evidence for the claim.
The claim that “we’re born gay,” in fact, is much older than “the homosexual.” When sodomites were arrested in the 16th and 17th centuries, they often made just that claim to their interrogators and judges. In the 18th century their captors assumed that a man who sought out other men to penetrate him must be odd physiologically, so accused sodomites were sometimes examined medically for hermaphroditism. (Craig Williams [211] reports an ancient Roman fable which provided a pseudo-anatomical explanation for men who wanted to be penetrated by other men.) The men who penetrated them, though they risked prosecution for sodomy, were not seen as odd, just normally horny men unable to resist the tempting offer of an available orifice.
This connects to something else in the paragraph I quoted above. Foucault says that “homosexuality was constituted … less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself.” He’s referring here to the widely held belief that the problem lies in the man who likes to be penetrated, ‘like a woman.’
Foucault thought he was the invert, as the 19th century doctors construed him: the woman’s soul trapped in a man’s body, who sought a “normal” partner. There was a competing construction in those days, whose advocates relied on Greek models, of the homosexual as a manly man who desired other manly men – often, as Didier Eribon shows, expressing a horror of penetration. Post-Stonewall scholars tend to speak of “the modern homosexual” as more or less gender-conformist, egalitarian, twins or clones. Gendered role-playing (let alone age-stratified patterns) far from being “modern,” is seen as either hetero-imitative false consciousness or a pre-modern, traditional, indigenous model. Like the blind men and the elephant, each writer speaks of “homosexuality as we know it today” without realizing that he or she “knows” it differently than other moderns do.
A major difficulty we face is that most of the historical information we have about people who had sex with partners of their own sex comes not from them, but from the authorities who disposed of them. We have more material on medieval and later sodomites from the hands of Church officials denouncing this horrific vice than we have from sodomites themselves; and most of what we have from the sodomites is filtered through Church documents, their words uttered under interrogation and trial. (Imagine what it would be like if all we knew about twentieth-century gays were the writings of psychiatrists recounting the trials and tribulations of trying to treat these psychopaths, even when those writings purport to quote our actual words.) This was even more true in 1976, when the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality was originally published in French. Since 1980 there’s been an explosion of research and publication, heralded and inspired by John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which Foucault liked so much that he contributed a blurb for its original edition, and it led him to rethink his own work.
We’re in a better position with the world today; academic observers from the West have published vast amounts of material based on observation of people who interact erotically with persons of their own sex in many different countries, including migrants from one country to another, and have also documented the histories of same-sex eroticism in the West itself, in different regions and classes and periods. We can see that while one model or another may be “hegemonic,” paid lip service even by people who don’t fit it, there are always different configurations of erotic practice in any period or locale. Yet most of these writers try to force this data into a distorted or misunderstood theoretical model based on this single paragraph from Foucault, “especially in the United States, where what were for Foucault simply working hypotheses have been transformed into veritable dogmas -- that it has not been sufficiently noticed that Foucault himself rapidly abandoned those hypotheses and quickly reformulated his entire project, almost before the first volume had even been published” (Eribon xiii).
Even those mavericks who resist this tendency spend a lot of energy distancing themselves from it, which deforms their work in other ways. Stephen O. Murray, for example, finds it necessary to refer at least once per publication to Volume One of The History of Sexuality, usually in order to sneer at its devotees, even though he has written about his respect for Foucault and his work. Samar Habib, who flirts with essentialism in her Female Homosexuality in the Middle East, does so by focusing on one model of eroticism between women, the butch-femme model, as though there were not others active at the same time and in the same cultures.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out in The Epistemology of the Closet that there’s a lot of scholarly confusion about what “the modern homosexual” is, that scholars who use this term “underwrite the notion that ‘homosexuality as we conceive of it today’ itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces” (44). I know I’ve quoted this passage before, but I’ll probably have to quote it again because so many scholars make this mistake in the name of Foucault.
Boswell, John. Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Eribon, Didier. Insult and the making of the gay self. Durham NC: Duke UP, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. History of sexuality, volume I: introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House / Vintage Books, 1978.
Habib, Samar. Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: histories and representations. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Martin, Dale. Sex and the single savior: gender and sexuality in biblical interpretation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality.” In Carole Vance (editor), Pleasure and danger: exploring female sexuality (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 267-319.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.
Williams, Craig. Roman homosexualities: ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.