Valerie Traub. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. Haney Foundation Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 480 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4729-9.
Reviewed by Mackenzie Cooley (Stanford University)
Published on H-Histsex (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Katherine Harvey
How often do we smile knowingly at a dirty joke that goes over our heads, concealing our ignorance about sex acts that even birds and bees understand? Today and in early modernity alike, sex can be as inscrutable as it is bawdily physical. Valerie Traub’s new book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns contends that sex is not only about power but also about knowledge. In this insistently interdisciplinary collection of essays, Traub explores the impasses and intellectual blockages surrounding the intersection of queer theory, lesbian studies, the history of sexuality, and literary criticism. She contends that collaboration and common scholarly purpose rather than contestation at a distance ought to guide the questions that provoke research and shape the fruits of inquiry.
Taking up Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” in her opening chapter, “Thinking Sex: Knowledge, Opacity, History,” Traub anatomizes concepts that frame our understanding of sexuality in the past. She defines and parses ideas to reorient how scholars from different fields grapple with the historicity of sex. By following the relationship between ignorance and knowledge in an age before the “epistemology” of the closet, Traub pushes readers to “confront what we don’t know as well as what we can’t know about sex in the past” (p. 5). She asks, “What are the contours of sexual knowledge—its contents, syntaxes, and specificities—for the early moderns? And which social, intellectual, and institutional processes are involved in creating and exchanging it—for them and for us?” (p. 7). Rather than separating the historical from the present, Traub combines the two into a book-length think piece that straddles contemporary and centuries-old sources alike.
Having established her organizing questions and definitions in the first chapter, Traub divides the remainder of her text into three parts. In the three essays that make up part 1, “Making the History of Sexuality,” Traub explores and ultimately defends the inclusion of historical methodology in the study of sexuality. The first of these chapters, “Friendship’s Loss, Alan Bray’s Making of History,” unites Bray’s ideas with those of Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick (Epistemology of the Closet ). Traub considers “How do we know when there were no homoerotic desires between historical figures? What is the basis of our knowledge of the eroticism of the past? How do we know what (we think) we know?” (p. 49). This epistemic doubt is tied to Traub’s deep commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, which leads her to engage with other humanities disciplines and their ambivalent relationships to historical approaches.
In chapter 3, “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies,” Traub addresses overlapping threads in the scholarship of Carla Freccero (Queer/Early/Modern ), Jonathan Goldberg (Queering the Renaissance ), and Madhavi Menon (Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama ). She asserts that theory’s broadest claims are best tested in their ability to explain specific historical evidence. In the face of frank disagreements, she continues to facilitate dialogue between different methods of exploring sexuality, historicity, and temporality. This is a challenging task. Goldberg and Menon heartily critique historicism for the teleology that lingers behind it. Instead, they propose a “homohistory” which would queer periods and categories, seek the nonhetero, and draw out “sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism” (p. 62). Rather than focusing on periods and changes over time, this approach insists on “undoing” the history of homosexuality. Traub argues that this concept fails to illuminate specific material embodiments or social conditions central to life and sexuality in the past, although it serves as a lynchpin for queer theory. In the face of Freccero’s rejection of historical and social scientific methods, Traub deploys her skills as chair of the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Department. Diplomatic but firm, she explains that by mischaracterizing the work of the historian, these dismissive attitudes “stall exchange between literary and historical studies” and “deflect attention away from the substantive methodological challenges still faced by those intent on crafting a queer historicism” (p. 79).
Building on the methods and critiques laid out earlier in part 1, Traub closes the section with “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography.” She critiques past scholarship on lesbian history, which included an attempt to find types (the “masculine tribade,” the “sapphist,” the “chaste feminine friend”) and an insistence on diachronic change (defined by the before and after of sexuality, identity, or modernity). Instead, to explain the cultural salience of different forms of same-sex desire, future historiography must analyze recurring patterns that appear in narratives of identification, behavior, and social status across large spans of time. Marking a shift in Traub’s own thinking—her previous major book, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (2002), emphasized alterity—this future historiography emphasizes cycles of salience. Traub reviews the field’s dominant research themes, encourages exacting definitions of terms, and sets conceptual parameters. She suggests that scholars “ask whether what is sometimes presented as whole-scale diachronic change ... might rather be a manifestation of ongoing synchronic tensions in conceptualizations about bodies and desires (and their relations to the gender system)” (p. 98). Always a patient pedagogue when it comes to thinking about sex, Traub urges scholars to see the lacunae and strengths in their aggregate conversation.
In contrast to the intensive focus on historiography and theoretical disputes in the first section, part 2, “Scenes of Instruction; or, Early Modern Sex Acts,” opens with a literary essay, “The Joys of Martha Joyless: Queer Pedagogy and the (Early Modern) Production of Sexual Knowledge.” In Richard Brome’s stage play The Antipodes (1638), countrywoman Martha Joyless asks Barbara, a London woman, to help consummate her unhappy marriage by providing her with the sexual skills that her husband had failed to impart despite three years of marriage. Martha proposes a sexual relationship with Barbara or between Barbara and Martha’s husband, indifferent to the logistics of the love affair so long as she or her husband acquire the necessary sexual knowledge. Traub argues that Martha’s naïveté forces us to acknowledge a disjunction between sex and marriage and ask “What are the historical conditions of the production of erotic knowledge in the early modern period?” (p. 113). She concludes that Renaissance eroticism was “more ‘wanton’ in its forms and more ‘strange’ in its effects than we tend to recognize” (p. 116).
Returning to her major focus on cultivating interdisciplinarity, chapter 6, “Sex in the Interdisciplines,” maps out a strategy for working with the epistemological, evidentiary, and methodological problems posed by the historicity of sex. A heuristic Venn diagram denotes the overlaps among and distance between history, literary criticism, and queer theory. Separation among these disciplines produces apparently irreconcilable differences between evidentiary protocols; they “seem to speak past one another as they speed along in parallel universes” (p. 130). While gulfs between these different approaches result from dissonances within sexuality itself, Traub argues that all disciplines must grapple with the autonomy of the past, which included occurrences that actually happened regardless of what our encounters with those past occurrences are. Returning to Martha Joyless, Traub maintains that a lacuna in the historiography concerning corporeal pleasure and displeasure is the result of presumptive knowledge about sex acts rather than investigations about what these acts actually were and how the early moderns felt about them. Finally, in a return to a further core theme, Traub revisits the limits of knowledge, commenting, “In a fundamental way, the project of knowing sex, thinking sex, and making sexual knowledge is situated precisely within that tensile space where the embodied specificity of erotic desires and corporeal acts that actually happened rub up against the impossibility of our ever knowing exactly what such desires and acts were or might mean” (p. 169). Most compellingly, if simply, Traub insists that the disciplines must take each other seriously rather than simply opting out of engagement with one another with a mutual snub of isolation and disinterest.
Part 2 closes with perhaps the most impressive chapter in the volume, “Talking Sex,” which discusses clarity and obscurity in the early modern lexicon. By meticulously collecting and sorting down-to-earth words and phrases denoting sex acts, Traub takes up Cynthia Herrup’s call to “find the bodies,” and thereby access lived experience in the distant past. Traub begins with a quote from Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist (1610) and lures readers into a slower, halting reading of sexual description. Of what do sex acts like “firk, like a flounder” or “kiss like a scallop” consist (p. 171)? Knowing winks and nods are no substitute for a specific understanding of early modern sex. As Traub delineates a vocabulary of whoredom, cross-gender and same-gender relations, genitals, and breasts, she proves that while the specific activities and body parts these words describe can sometimes be imagined, they are more often than not clouded in ambiguity to past and present readers alike. By focusing on what moderns can learn from early modern history, she defends Stephen Orgel’s argument that the Renaissance delighted in opacity and ambiguity in ways that differ from dominant responses to such uncertainty today. This compelling analysis leads the reader into the heart of the early modern sexual lexicon, forcing her to delight, as earlier readers did, in its diversity and lack of clarity. “Thinking sex through Renaissance words and wordplay, it turns out, leads to an appreciation of early modern sex that is as strange and inconclusive as the most convoluted pun in Shakespeare or Middleton” (p. 226). For Traub, that incessant ambiguity is deeply productive.
A last literary-historical chapter, “Shakespeare’s Sex,” opens the third and final part, “The Stakes of Gender,” by exploring changing analyses of the canonical author’s sex in relation to his work. By providing her own reading of sonnets 31, 135, and 136, Traub considers how sexual desire relates to gender through mentions of the “lovely boy” and the “dark lady.” Traub is particularly interested in how the sonnets’ sequence and readers’ focus create meaning. Citing the example of an iPod playlist’s mutable order, Traub argues that critics might knowingly choose to play “with a gendered structure of sex and time that precedes and exceeds [one’s] own desires” (p. 264). It is particularly revealing that, following Joseph Pequingney’s 1985 text, Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it seemed clear to many that William Shakespeare wrote with erotic desire toward the young man his sonnets made immortal. Shakespeare’s sexual love for a man became a dominant feature of how the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries understood the Bard, and critic after critic used canonical materials to provide the history many needed at this pivotal moment in the LGBTQ movement. However, Traub cautions that “just as we need to think carefully about the terms by which gay marriage gains social acceptability ... we need to think carefully about the cultural and intellectual implications of the critical consensus regarding Shakespeare’s sex” (p. 232).
Returning to a subject first raised in chapter 4, in chapter 9, “The Sign of the Lesbian,” Traub navigates the past, present, and future of lesbian history in the academy. Considering lesbian history in a vulnerable position, Traub argues that scholars should follow Robyn Wiegman’s line and develop a history under the “‘sign of the lesbian’ not as a de facto sign of identity but as a sign of a historiographic problem” (p. 267). Traub’s solution to tensions between queer and lesbian, then, jumps by analogy to explain how theory and history might be mutually reinforcing rather than consistently at odds. Theory, always intent on scaling up to the largest explanatory domain, might help history expand the consequence of its purview. History, in turn, can provide the necessary friction to limit and ground the conclusions of theory. Constantly searching for common ground, Traub again tries to bring the divergent fields of sexuality studies together productively rather than divisively.
In her final chapter, “Sex Ed; or, Teach Me Tonight,” Traub emphasizes the pedagogy of sex. She concentrates on a moment during a discussion at a 2009 commemorative conference in honor of Rubin’s canonical essay. For Traub, the process of “thinking sex with the early moderns” affects all facets of an academic life—including pedagogy, research, close reading, and conferences. She argues that the theoretical merits of sex reside in its location in the “productively unknown” and in the epistemological honesty that comes with admitting ignorance (p. 319). The desire to know about sex is important to Traub, even if the murky twists and turns of sexual identity, practices, metaphor, and anatomy are impossible to know with any empirical certainty. Finally, in a concise return to a core point of her volume, Traub contends that “queer” is best used as a tool of analysis and asserts that queer theory should use historical categories more carefully.
While this book successfully weaves together disparate theoretical, historiographic, historical, literary, and pedagogical themes, its diplomatic insistence on evenhanded interdisciplinarity leaves many issues unresolved. More of the book’s questions might have been answered as well as posed by such an erudite scholar; conclusions are few and heavily hedged about with nuances. By comparing theories, Traub showcases her impressive knowledge of the field’s conclusions. She pays less attention to the various forms of knowledge that underlie these theories, including especially less literary historical sources. Her focus on Tudor and Stuart England provides a narrow source base for the book’s broad title. Finally, while Traub makes an effort to conduct a truly interdisciplinary analysis, those unfamiliar with literary criticism and queer theory might struggle with the obscurity of her analytical prose.
Traub's important contribution to the field of sexuality studies is particularly notable for its purposeful honesty. Rather than delighting in irony, Traub questions the shared elements of sexual knowledge, not assuming that all readers—early moderns and postmoderns alike—are in the know. Instead, a humbler perspective on the desire for sexual knowledge raises key questions concerning historiography, ethics, and methodology. She argues that the opacity of sex and sexuality—shrouded in secrecy, subject to knowledge differentials, often lacking records, and constantly wrapped in metaphor—helps reveal the role of the material and the metaphorical in the production of knowledge.
Above all, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns posits methodological intervention. Traub goes beyond insisting on the merits of interdisciplinarity, seeking to navigate her relationship with history, literary criticism, and queer theory. In a similar vein, she urges us to think more carefully about the methods that we use to interpret relations in the past. Finally and bravely, Traub encourages sex education policymakers, theorists, critics, and historians alike to reconsider identity categories and politics as a productive means of analysis.
. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger, ed. Carole Vance (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).
. Cynthia Herrup, “Finding the Bodies,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5, no. 3 (1999): 255-265.
. Stephen Orgel, “The Poetics of Incomprehensibility,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 4 (1991): 431-437.
. Robyn Wiegman, “Afterword: The Lesbian Premodern Meets the Lesbian Postmodern,” in The Lesbian Premodern, ed. Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Dianne Watt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 203-212.
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