Bodies, Sex and Desire from the Renaissance to the Present. Edited by Kate Fisher and Sarah Toulalan . Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. x + 274pp. £55.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 28–30, December 2012
How to Cite
Cocks, H. (2012), Bodies, Sex and Desire from the Renaissance to the Present. Edited by Kate Fisher and Sarah Toulalan . Palgrave Macmillan. 2011. x + 274pp. £55.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 28–30. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12001
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
This book comes out of a 2007 conference that, the editors tell us, was ‘tremendous fun’ (p. ix). Whether readers will derive the same enjoyment depends on their tolerance for edited volumes of seminar papers that normally face the difficulty of giving overall coherence to a group of diverse chapters (twelve in this case) themes and approaches. The solution that the editors go for in this instance is to stress both continuity and change, historical specificity and the longue durée. To do this they divide the book into two sections. The first dealing with ‘Bodies and Difference’ is mainly (but not exclusively) about matters of anatomy and their relation to sexual behaviour and ‘bodily differentiation’, while the second (‘Bodies, Sex and Desire’) is more specifically about sexual acts, identities or meanings. However, the approach to these chapters taken by the editors raises many more problems than it answers.
The interpretive framework for the book is the usual one of dealing with bodies and desires as historically and culturally located, rather than transhistorical in some way. This approach entails detailed discussion of local meanings and events, which can mean that books like this end up as a series of miniatures. The editors try to avoid this by aiming to highlight continuities in the meanings and modes of sexual behaviour and discourse. For instance, they suggest that late twentieth-century thinking about perversions can be traced to nineteenthcentury notions about degeneration, which in turn inherited early modern and classical ideas like the expenditure of ‘vital spirits’ in the process of intercourse. Similarly, Renaissance notions of morality grounded in religious thought led, they suggest, to the moral and medical regulation of sexual behaviour and identity. Also, the editors and some of the contributors argue that it is false to assume that religious ideas about sexuality and morals were somehow opposed or differentiated from medical or scientific ones. More often they went together throughout this period. However, in spite of this emphasis on both local meanings and continuities, they also suggest that change has happened. From the introduction we learn that the overall picture of the history of sexuality here is that meanings and identities are specific historical constructions, but that they nevertheless show continuity over a period of 500 years or so, while on the other hand demonstrating ‘a slow but sure transformation’ (p. 19) from the moral and religious to the medical and sexological. To trample all over a metaphor, isn't this having your Foucauldian cake and eating it with your conventional intellectual history too? At any rate the effect is quite confusing. These contradictory views of the history of gender and sexuality are not peculiar to this volume, and indeed are widely shared by historians at the moment, but how they can be reconciled – other than by just living with their clashing character – is far from clear.
The chapters in part I deal with the signs of masculinity – anatomical and social – in early modern Europe; the shared philosophical empiricism of the Comte de Buffon, Locke and Fanny Hill; the certification of anatomical sex in the nineteenth-century Spanish army; the sexualized touch of the doctor in nineteenth-century medical models and photography dealing mainly with hermaphrodites and others of doubtful sex; the emergence of the sex change as a combination of freak show and science in the inter-war British press; and the way in which the self-publicizing transvestite ceramic artist Grayson Perry constructs his own life as a combination of queer indeterminacy and essentialist notions of self. Part II deals with conceptions of children's sex in seventeenthcentury Britain; the difference between sexual sin and proper marital sex in Catholic confessionals between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries; the indeterminacy of sexual truth in libertine discourses such as Diderot's Bijoux indiscrets; the problem of assessing marital sex when seen by its female participants as a duty in twentieth-century British marriages before 1960; the use of necrophilic perversions in sexological discourses; and the construction of the Nazi as sexual sadist in European critical theory and psychoanalytic explanations of the Holocaust.
Just listing these subjects is enough to make you take a deep breath, and that should tell you that this book has ambition, especially in its chronological sweep. However, this is also a problem, as where the lines of change and continuity lie are not exactly apparent. In that respect, the book reflects a much wider interpretive uncertainty in contemporary histories of sexuality. We used to be able to rely on good old Foucault (that ‘revisionist historian of sex’ (p. 201) as one of the contributors helpfully identifies him) to guide us through the transition to modernity. His account in the first volume of the History of Sexuality (though not in his later work on governmentality), which itself was based on a view of modernity that is now unfashionable if not totally eurocentric and increasingly out of date, showed us a distinct transition from the regime of acts to identities, from the moral to the legal to the therapeutic, from sin to pathology, from sodomite as juridical subject to homosexual type. But this story has been complicated by specific studies and queer readings that have complicated but not completely overthrown Foucault by demonstrating the persistence of early modern and even classical models of sexual behaviour well into modernity. The problem is that without Foucault's version of modernity, what do we do now? The emphasis on continuity tends to sit awkwardly with demonstrations of subtle or major shifts in meaning or action. The result is often an assumption a sort of chaotic simultaneity of identity, meaning and discourse. It is no wonder that in some quarters there is a style of almost pre-Foucauldian retro that attempts to reconstruct an older meta-narrative in order to find the moment when ‘sexual modernity’ emerged, or to put it another way (and in Faramerz Dabhoiwala's terms) the ‘Origins of Sex’. Instead of that, though, it would be more useful if we rethought our notions of modernity – if we are to remain attached to that concept at all. Having said that, raising this question of change and continuity is a useful service, and this volume certainly does that.