Friday, February 3, 2012

David Halperin--How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002)

Following his 1990 One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, Halperin wrote the essays which form the core of this work to explore and clarify “certain historiographical problems raised by the history of homosexuality” (2).  Starting with his essay “Forgetting Foucault,” Halperin wishes to restore such a historigraphical approach—one having to do with “questions of evidence, method, strategy, politics, and identification in the writing of history” (2).  Halperin relies on foundations of queer scholarship by both Foucault as well as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in his consideration of the ways in which same sex desire has been interpreted and understood—both in by people in the past as well as by historians and others who have speculated about and studied the nature of such desire and relationships throughout history.

In his first essay, “Forgetting Foucault,” Halperin takes the title of this article (which was later included as a chapter in his 2002 How to Do the History of Homosexuality) from Jean Baudrillard’s 1977 pamphlet Forget Foucault (Oublier Foucault).  Halperin is not only critical of Baudrillard’s take on Foucault—which he disparages for Baudrillard’s insistence on “leaving the sexual aspects [of Foucault’s work and life] aside” (93)—but sees his work as symptomatic of the continued misreadings of Foucault’s work, especially that of his 1976 History of Sexuality, Volume 1.  In this article, Halperin elucidates two key misunderstandings of Foucault’s text: (1) the oversimplification and misunderstanding of Foucault’s differentiation between the sodomite and the homosexual; and (2) the misunderstanding of his deployment of “bodies and pleasures” as the “irreducible elements of sexuality” (112).

To Halperin, the most significant misinterpretation of Foucault has been to “mistake his discursive analysis for a historical assertion” (111).  What Foucault originally intended as an analysis of “discursive and institutional practices” (97) in his discussion of the differences between the early modern sodomite and the nineteenth century homosexual has been instead misunderstood as an almost dogmatic distinction between sexual practices and sexual identity.  Using the work of John J. Winkler (who examines the category of kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies) and Johnathan Walters (who compares Apuleius’s story of the baker’s wife to that of Boccaccio), Halperin explains how these works “challenge the orthodox pseudo-Foucauldian doctrine about the supposedly strict separation between sexual acts and sexual identities in European culture before the nineteenth century” (108).

Halperin intends his argument to encourage a more nuanced and complicated investigation and understanding of the ways in which sexual identities have changed over time, as well as a more nuanced and complicated understandings of Foucault’s work.  And although anymore it seems as if the inclusion of a section such as “Forgetting Foucault” is almost mandatory in queer scholarship, such clarifications do seem to continue to be necessary, as the examples Halperin gives amply illustrate.  In fact, I would argue that Halperin’s complaint that Foucault’s work has been reduced to “a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon” (94) is true because Foucault’s work (even—or perhaps especially?) in translation uses such pithy phrases to convey quite complicated ideas.  It’s very tempting to pull a line like, “Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence” (History of Sexuality 60) out of context, simply because it is so enticing—though to do so completely undercuts the statement’s meaning.

Halperin attributes much of this misunderstanding to readings which focus solely on the aspects of sexuality in the work and don’t take into account his larger arguments regarding discourse.  It’s true that Foucault “deploys” sex and sexuality (and his very specific uses of these words) within a larger discussion of the history, meanings, and interactions of power and discourse.  However, I’m concerned that Halperin himself might be misunderstood as advocating for a kind of “leaving the sexual aspects aside,” similar to that for which he takes Baudrillard to task (93).  I wonder if these misreadings might be accounted for (at least in part) because the concepts connected to sexuality are more exciting (or graspable) than those connected to discourse?    

Halperin also addresses the equally misunderstood and misquoted Foucauldian phrase “bodies and pleasures,” with which Foucault ends his text.  As I personally found this to one of the more confusing aspects of the Foucault reading, I appreciated Halperin’s clarification that “bodies and pleasures” should be understood as being elements of a different sexual economy than the current one, which consists instead of “such familiar and overworked entities as ‘sexuality’ and ‘desire’” (94).  Halperin grounds this distinction in the post 1960s sexual liberation era within which Foucault was writing, which encouraged people to "liberate our 'sexuality' and to unrepress or desublimate our 'desire' (94).  

In the rest of the text, Halperin continues to focus on differentiating between categories of thought and subjectivities.  Interrogating various categories and classifications, especially those from the classical period, the early modern period, and the end of the twentieth century, he teases out not so much the changes in practices attached to same sex desire, but rather the different categories and classifications which are connected to gender deviance and same sex desire, and what the changes in these categories reveal about the assumptions and points of view at various points in time.  Throughout, Halperin emphasizes the historicity in these inquiries, reiterating the falsity of assuming any stable entity of “sexuality” which might exist transhistorically.  Rather, building on the foundational explication of Foucault in his first chapter, in which he explains that Foucault’s focus was not, in fact, on a theory of history of sexuality per se, but rather a historical examination of discourses, Halperin examines how these different categories—from the kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies to the nineteenth century medically diagnosed invert—reflect different understandings of gender identity, sex, gender roles, sexual identity, sexual desire, and other discursive categories.

I found his chapter on “Historicizing the Subject of Desire” to be quite illuminating with regard to some of Foucault’s more opaque claims, especially regarding bodies and pleasure.  Halperin explains, that hopes to illuminate
Michel Foucault’s proposition that sexuality is not lodged in our bodies, in our hormones, or in our genitals but resides in our discursive and institutional practices as well as in the experiences that they construct.  Bodies do not come with ready-made sexualities.  Bodies are not even attracted to other bodies.  It is human subjects, rather, who are attracted to various objects, including bodies, and the features of bodies that render them desirable to human subjects are contingent on the cultural codes, the social conventions, and the political institutions that structure and inform human subjectivity itself, thereby shaping our individual erotic ideals and defining for us the scope of what we find attractive. (102, emphasis added)
It is here that Halperin explicitly explains the concept of “sexuality”: “Sexuality is a mode of human subjectivation that operates in part by figuring the body as the literal and by pressing the body’s supposed literality into the service of a metaphorical project.  As such, sexuality represents a seizure of the body by a historically unique apparatus for producing historically specific forms of subjectivity” (103, emphasis in original).  Ultimately, what he wants is a “reconstituting of the body as a potential site of cultural activism and political resistance” (103).  [and, as an aside this is where he makes the wonderful emblematic statement, “No orgasm without ideology” (103)].

Finally, Halperin conducts a wonderful discursive analysis of five categories which have been used to describe variations of same sex desire: homosexuality, effeminacy, sodomy, friendship, and inversion.  Ultimately, he demonstrates how the historical emergence of homosexuality as a category (both as a “concept and as a social practice,” as he specifies (132)) at the end of the nineteenth century “significantly rearranges and reinterprets earlier patterns of erotic organization” (132). 

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