Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Middle Class As We Know It Today

I'm reading the final essay in Long Before Stonewall, Stephen Shapiro's "In a French Position: Radical Pornography and Homoerotic Society in Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond or the Secret Witness," and it's a relief after much of what has gone before it.  (Maybe I should add by the way that several of the papers are quite good, like Laura Mandell's "What's Sex Got to Do with It?" and Lisa L. Moore's "The Swan of Litchfield"; even those I have criticized here for their theoretical bumbling often include useful historical information -- but that's the problem, one I've pointed out numerous times: scholars' research often is not informed by their theory, or vice versa.)

Shapiro begins by criticizing the misuse of Michel Foucault in "sexuality studies," especially the history of sexuality, and I'm going to quote his criticque at length.
The acts-versus-identities model has had ambiguous effects for recovering sexual cultures. For the notion that conceptions of sexuality are socially conditioned and historically mutable has frequently meant that even otherwise gay-friendly critics often deny that pretwentieth century agents gave meaning to their sexual practices. The initial problem with an overly dogmatic use of Foucault is that his work concentrates on tracking the changing terms used by officials to describe sexual activity. He never attempted to develop a method for discerning how the subjects covered by terms like “sodomy” or “homosexuality” may have conceptualized their own erotic behavior. Likewise, his work never acknowledged the belatedness of bourgeois professional knowledge, where middle-class writers and politicians usually begin discussing cultural matters long after these formations have already existed, especially if they were initiated by the laboring-class or other groups on the margins of middle-class expectations. The fact that early modern authorities refused to acknowledge the presence of alternative attitudes and semicovert communities in their midst does not mean they did not exist before then.

A tendentious use of Foucault has resulted in sexuality studies policing itself in ways far more rigid and unimaginative than is the case for other kinds of social history. We acknowledge the presence of a middle class before 1800, even while we understand that the particular bourgeois ideal of antagonistic individualism protected by the refuge of nuclear family domesticity does not fully exist then because the middle classes have different traits that they emphasize as defining themselves. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe does not have the rich interiority of a nineteenth-century Bildungroman’s hero, but the novel begins by clearly nominating Crusoe as belonging to the mercantile, middling class. It would be nonsensical to argue that because Crusoe does not fit the particular form of middle-class behavior dominant in the nineteenth-century, the bourgeoisie, and the larger category of capitalism, does not exist before 1800. For sexuality studies, the overly homogeneous nature of the Foucauldian paradigm does not give us critical tools that are supple enough to make sense of sexual values that cannot easily be slotted into the acts or identities categories. This two-stage model flattens the often uneven phases of erotic practice in the post-medieval West, especially those within the eighteenth century as a phase of transition and radical transformation between the early modern and modern periods [358-9].
I like Shapiro's analogy to the emergence of the middle class, which I'll try to remember in the future when I have to engage orthodox Foucauldians.  One could also claim that the nineteenth-century middle class is not The Middle Class As We Know It Today, or to paraphrase Caleb Crain, the middle class as we (moderns) know it is modern.  But I want to go beyond his critique, because even Shapiro seems to think that the "acts versus identities model" is Foucault's.

I've pointed out before that the locus classicus, the John 3:16 of Queer Theory, found on page 43 of the English translation of volume I of Foucault's History of Sexuality, doesn't mention identities (or "orientations" for that matter).  Foucault was writing about changing conceptions of behavior, which ranged far beyond the erotic, advanced by men who were vying for authority to regulate their fellow citizens.  As Shapiro says, he had little or nothing to say about those authorities' targets and how they saw themselves, which is where one would need to look if one wants to talk about identities.  Foucault himself tended to forget this, both in The History of Sexuality and in his other writings and statements on the subject. And for all the talk of "the modern homosexual," Foucault's formulation isn't tied to the word "homosexual" -- he invokes "Westphal's famous article of 1870 on 'contrary sexual sensations' ... as its date of birth" -- and it doesn't really support the use fundamentalist Foucauldians have made of it.  But that's how it is with Scripture.

I don't think that "the Foucauldian paradigm" is really "overly homogeneous" in itself.  As I remember, Foucault warned, right there in The History of Sexuality, that changing concepts and models didn't succeed each other in a neat, linear, homogeneous fashion: different concepts co-existed, and their proponents contended with each other to gain authority.  When I read The History of Sexuality: Introduction myself, about a decade ago, I was startled to realize that not only Foucault's enemies but his fans had ignored much of what he said, on the subject of cultural homogeneity but also on "power" and other concepts that had come to be associated with him.  If a scholar really followed Foucault, she would not use his work like Scripture but learn from the way he handled evidence and ideas.  That would include pointing out when he got things wrong, which he often did, though as I've also said before, the famous passage was published in French in the mid-1970s and must have been written even earlier, before the explosion of gay and lesbian history that was detonated by John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a book that Foucault admired (he even contributed a blurb) and was influenced by.  Even experts knew much less about the history of homosexuality, even in Europe and North America, let alone around the world, than we know today.  (And we today know less than we'll know in fifty years, I hope.)  What still baffles me is why so many academics used and continue to use Foucault's work as a hobble rather than as an incentive to do their own thinking.