Were I writer, and dead, how would I love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion. —Roland Barthes, Sade, Loyola, Fourier
Ever since James Paxson highlighted James A. Schultz's essay, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies” [The Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (Jan. 2006): 14-29], which is also the fourth chapter in Schultz's recent book, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality [Chicago, 2006], as a “threat-effect” that “could bear negatively on those who wish to continue studying gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages” [Paxson, comments delivered at BABEL's Kalamazoo 2007 session, “What Happened to Theory in Medieval Studies?”], I have been meaning to read Schultz's essay, and now I have. Because of the high-profile venue in which Schultz’s essay appeared [a venue, moreover, that is not pitched at medieval studies, but sexuality studies more broadly], it seems to me that this essay is important and one that all medievalists who study sexuality, and especially those who consider themselves queer theorists [in both senses of the term] should read and also debate [and I assume some of us have already—well, I hope so, but Paxson also intimated to me at Kalamazoo that it did not seem as if the essay was being talked about as much as it should be].
In short [or, however short I can make it], Schultz argues that, while many critical terms we use in our study of the Middle Ages were not, strictly speaking, available within that period, the term “heterosexuality” should not be invoked “because of the damage it does” (p. 14). Citing Karma Lochrie, who has written that, “Heterosexuality as a normative principle simply did not exist” in the Middle Ages [Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy, p. 225], Schultz also points out that the term is vexed even in its modern uses, which can be problematic, especially when it passes into legal decisions that affect the lives of real persons, which makes the term, paraphrasing David Halperin, incoherently empowering. One of the first problems Schultz cites with the use of the term “heterosexuality” in studies of the medieval period is that it is often reduced to reproductive sex, which “frustrates a clear understanding of the way medieval people classified sexual relations” (p. 16). Reproduction and heterosexuality, both in the past and also now, are not necessarily the same thing. Further, Schultz argues that a “system of sexuality that takes sexual object choice as the primary criterion of classification” is thoroughly modern:
if I desire men I am a homosexual, if I desire women I am a heterosexual, and it makes no difference whether I wear a necktie or dress or who does what to whom in bed. Such a standard is not only unusual among human cultures but is, even in the West, very recent. In the words of [Eve Kosofksy] Sedgwick: “The definitional narrowing . . . of sexuality as a whole to a binarized calculus of homo- or heterosexuality is a weighty but an entirely historical fact.”“As we know,” Schultz writes, “in earlier times sexual behavior was classified according to other criteria,” such as gender roles, abstinence versus “activity,” and whether or not particular desires were “natural” or “reasonable” [especially in relation to issues of pleasure and reproduction]. Although, it is clear to me, even though Schultz is at pains to frustrate a working definition of medieval heterosexuality that would rely on sexual “object choice,” that reproductive sex and marriage between a man and a woman are still key, even in the examples of writing on sexuality that Schultz provides from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. So I’m not entirely sure that some kind of notion of a sexuality that is “hetero” [or at least dimorphically structured] and oriented toward reproductive sexuality is not somehow operating [and also privileged] in the Middle Ages, while at the same time, I agree with Schultz that it might be very important to “think outside the terms set” by the modern “regime” of “homo/hetero,” and unless “we are willing to make this effort, we will never be able to recognize the criteria according to which medieval people understood their intimate relations. And, at the same time, we do our small part in consolidating the heterosexual norm, both as it clamps down upon the present and as it colonizes the past” (p. 20). Of course, I’m not entirely sure if Schultz’s essay doesn’t assume a too-narrow view of how the so-called homo/hetero “regime” operates in modernity [in both “straight” and more “queer” social, political, cultural, aesthetico-sexual, etc. contexts], and I think his statement that the term “heterosexual . . . conveys so little real information” regarding sexual acts in the medieval period may be overstated, but only if we are willing to agree that reproductive sex between men and women held some sort of special privilege in writing on sex in the Middle Ages—and I think it did, while I also understand, following Schultz and other scholars such as Lochrie, that what we think of today as “normal,” “heteronormative,” and “hetero-/homosexual” cannot always take into account what Lochrie terms the “overlapping modalities of desire and eroticism for women and men in the Middle Ages” [Lochrie, Heterosyncracies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t, p. xxi]. At the same time, as Lochrie writes, “the heterogeneity of medieval sexual and erotic categories does not, however, rule out the circulation of cultural anxieties about the particular trajectories of desire, especially female desire, but these anxieties are less ‘heteronormative’ in their etiology than they are ‘desiro-skeptical,’ that is, deeply suspicious of the mobility, disruptiveness, and affiliations of all forms of desire.” Further, “[i]f some categories of sexual acts, such as sodomy, exercised medieval theologians and authors of confessional summae, it is important that we not isolate the specific sexual act from its crucial affiliations with gender ideologies and political invective, both of which conditioned its meaning” [Heterosyncracies, pp. xxi-xxii]. And I would add, with social class as well, or, with “aristophilia” [this is well illustrated in Schultz’s earlier essay, “Bodies That Don’t Matter: Heterosexuality Before Heterosexuality in Gottfried’s Tristan,” in Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James Schultz, eds., Constructing Medieval Sexuality [Minnesota, 1997], and also in Anna Kłosowska’s Queer Love in the Middle Ages [Palgrave Macmillan, 2005], pp. 131-38.
Moving on to what he terms the concept of “HeterOrientation,” Schultz argues that the Middle Ages “had no notion of sexual orientation” [p. 21], a provocative statement, indeed. Schultz’s example here is a “queer” one: Boccaccio’s commentary on the circle of sodomites in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Boccaccio writes that Priscian’s presence there was not an indication of that teacher being guilty of “such a sin,” but rather, Dante put him there “to represent those who teach his doctrine, since the majority of them are believed to be tainted with that evil. For most of their students are young; and being young, are timorous and obey both the proper and the improper demands of their teacher. And because the students are so accessible, it is believed that the teachers often fall into this sin” [qtd. in Schultz, p. 21]. Therefore, in Schultz’s view, Priscian’s “sin” of sodomy [in a medieval writer’s mind] is not the result of a particular sexual orientation, but rather of a postlapsarian sinful orientation, an orientation that could move as easily in the direction of adultery with a married woman as it could in the direction of sex with boys. While this example is compelling, does it not also overlook the many instances in medieval texts—especially literary ones, where certain desires never fear to tread—where characters articulate, either in words or actions, certain sexual preferences, which then indicate certain orientations? Chapter 3 in Anna Kłosowska’s book Queer Love in the Middle Ages [cited above], “The Place of Homoerotic Motifs in the Medieval French Canon: Discontinuities and Displacements” [pp. 117-44], is instructive on this point. At the same time, I must say here that Kłosowska’s project in her book would not displease Schultz—she even follows his lead in several instances, regarding what Lochrie terms the “overlapping modalities” of desire and eroticism in medieval texts—while she is also very interested in de-ciphering [or de-encrypting] certain themes of same-sex eroticism and love within French medieval texts which are not always, strictly speaking just “between men” or “between women,” thereby avoiding the facile use of what Schultz would term the modern anachronisms “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” although Kłosowska does invoke the terms “heteronormative” and “heterosexual” on more than one occasion, but she mainly does so to correct traditional “heterosexist” readings of medieval fin’ amor [more on Kłoswoska below].
Assuming that medieval persons had sexual orientations can lead, in Schultz’s mind, to bad mis-readings of persons in medieval texts, such that certain scholars find lesbians or homoerotic desires or resistance to heterosexuality or heteronormative regimes where none of these things might have actually existed. In the process, sexuality and gender, both as conceptual categories and actual states of affairs, get hopelessly confused. The “local” particularities of history are also elided in favor of binary abstractions thought to link directly and neatly to hetero/homo, such as masculine/feminine or active/passive, that are wrongly assumed to be universal and even transhistorical. Schultz’s real concern is revealed in the final section of the essay, “HeteroQueer,” where he asks: “How is it that precisely those who are committed to queer medieval studies [many of them self-identified queers] remain at the same time so committed to medieval heterosexuality?” [p. 26]. According to Schultz queer medieval theorists need heterosexuality to be present in the Middle Ages because, otherwise, they cannot properly see what is queer. As Schultz puts it, for some theorists, “One can only be queer in relation to something else,” or, in the words of Carolyn Dinshaw, “Queerness articulates not a determinate thing but a relation to existent structures of power” [“Chaucer’s Queer Touches/A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 75-92, here 77], or again, in the words of David Halperin, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. . . . [I]t demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” [Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, p. 62]. According to Schultz, heterosexuality becomes the “norm” against which “queer” is measured or comes forward, but this norm “did not exist in the Middle Ages” [p. 28]. Schultz points to recent work by Lochrie [Heterosyncracies] and Glenn Burger [Chaucer’s Queer Nation] that admirably seeks to study, in Burger’s words, “medieval systems of sexuality and identity [that] are historically distinct from those structuring modern heterosexuality” [p. xviii], and in Lochrie’s words, that will “dispense” with certain notions of heteronormativity in order to “find” the queer “in much more diffuse and diverse sexual places” [pp. xix, xvi]. Ultimately, in Schultz’s view, the concept of heterosexuality is “a danger to the study of medieval sexuality because it distorts the very object of study” and also “thwarts history.” And it is not “just that the evidence of the past is distorted but that past and present are confused” [p. 29]. On a more political level [and it is precisely at this level, more so than the level of the “right” or “wrong” way to do academic scholarship on sexuality, that I think Schultz is aiming his critique], Schultz worries that our use of the term “heterosexuality” in studies of the medieval period allows heterosexuality to “escape history” and to be seen as “cosmic and inevitable” in our “contentious present” [p. 29].
For me, Schultz’s critique is cogent on some levels and not-to-be-ignored, while at the same time it also affirms that [doubtful—to me, anyway] chestnut of an older, historicist scholarship that the past is always “different” from the present, and further, that it is the alterity of the past that should be the primary object of our studies, more so than some desire we might have to see or “touch” ourselves [even, our “queer” selves] in that past. Schultz’s argument also belies what I think is a kind of wildly utopic political desire: if the past were somehow more “queer,” in the sense that heterosexuality did not really exist, perhaps that moment could be recaptured [or at least, be better historicized] in such a manner as to make our present unfold in directions that would no longer be hindered by a heteronormativity that would be proven to be ungrounded in history. Even if I were to agree that the modern notion of “heterosexuality” likely did not operate in the Middle Ages—conceptually, socially, politically, legally, psychically, aesthetically, sexually, etc.—the way it does now, my view of history is deeply rooted in the idea of the Annalistes of the longue durée, in which “[e]ach ‘current event’ beings together movements of different origins, of a different rhythm—today’s time dates from yesterday, the day before yesterday, and all former times” [Fernand Braudel, “Histoire et science sociale: La longue durée,” Annales 13 (1958): 725-53]. I have also taken, as two of the imperatives for my own historical work, Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum, “The elucidation of the meaning of the sentence ‘everything flows’ is one of metaphysics’ main tasks,” and Simone Weil’s admonition, “we must be rooted in the absence of place.” So, for me, the Middle Ages are, of course, not the same place as modernity [but then, even thinking of them as “places” or specific “times” can be misleading in so many different ways], but modernity would also not be what it is [however we define and understand it] without the so-called “Middle Ages” having been whatever it is we understand them to have been. One emerges out of the other [and even vice versa] in such a way that could even be called tragic. This does not mean that there are not all sorts of “events” in history that get left “to the side,” as it were, of certain primary “flows” and “intensities” [to crib from Deleuze and Guattari]--flows and intensities, moreover, that "arrive" as much as a result of attention as of inattention, of purpose as of accident--that lead to “how things turn out”: it may be that a queer history, and more particularly, a queer medieval studies, would attend primarily to what got left “to the side,” or was even pushed under.
In his lovely book Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes to the Kublai Khan all of the cities he has visited. In the center of the city of Fedora, there stands “a metal building with a crystal globe in every room.” This metal building is a kind of museum of all the possible futures once imagined for Fedora, and in each globe visitors can see “a blue city, the model of a different Fedora,” which represents “the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today.” For me, one of the chief tasks of any history would be the determination of how it is that Fedora could have only turned out one way, while it would also participate in the “taking stock” of all the missed turns and the subterranean rumblings [anxieties, desires, hopes, fears, unanswered needs] occasioned by those missed turns that continue to circulate “under the surface.” When I was completing my dissertation [2000-01], I made a crude architectural drawing on an index card, which I placed above my desk, of my dream university. There would be two buildings: one, the Musee Fedora, and the other, the Musee Histoire, and in between there would be a kind of bridge, simply called Lycee. In the Musee Fedora, artists would be busily building the models for the globes, working from their imagination and what they know about what did not happen in history, but could have happened. In the other building would be the archives and the historians, who would be busy writing causal narratives of “events,” from which narratives the artists have learned to take note of the gaps and omissions, which they see as their job to fill in. And in between, everyone would travel back and forth between the two buildings, affectively-intellectually “joining” together in conversation in the middle [the university, in other words, as the site of a certain kind of cultural “traffic,” in which Bill Readings’ vision of the posthistorical university as “one site among others” where “thought takes place alongside thought” would be possible and the “question of being-together” could be raised again and again within the margins of disciplinary structures which would be in continual "shift"], and each artist, historian, and student would be a citizen of each domain, with the ultimate aim of cultivating a mindful forgetfulness of which place was which, or who was who. I’ve kept this drawing [in a box under my desk with my unbound dissertation], and while it seems kind of silly in retrospect, I think it still gets at the kind of historical scholarship, and even a queer “humanities,” I hope is possible.
A recent roundtable discussion, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” published in GLQ 13.2-3 (2007): 177-95, can, I believe, help us to begin to sort out our “placement” as scholars interested or invested in, or desiring, a queer medieval studies, or queer humanities, and also points to some of the dangers of the hope some of us have invested in queer historicisms, or what Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon term “homohistory” or “unhistoricism,” where, “[i]nstead of being the history of homos, this history would be invested in suspending determinate sexual and chronological differences while expanding all the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism” [“Queering History,” PMLA 120.5 (2005): 1608-17, here 1609). This would be a queer history [which I can only assume scholars like Schultz might be willing to get behind], in which, in the words of Goldberg and Menon, homosexuality would not necessarily even be mentioned: “Rather, it suggests the impossibility of the final difference between, say, sodomy and homosexuality, even as it gestures toward the impossibility of final definition that both concepts share” [p. 1609]. In the GLQ roundtable, Carolyn Dinshaw writes that, as a graduate student, she felt “caught between the scholarly imperative, especially keen at Princeton, to view the past as other and my sense that present concerns could usefully illuminate the past for us now. My dissertation was basically an agon played out between these two positions” [pp. 177-78]. Further, she writes that the
refusal of linear historicism has freed me to think further about multiple temporalities in the present. Postcolonial historians have been most influential in this process, and the turn toward temporality has been thrilling: it opens the way for other modes of consciousness to be considered seriously—those of ghosts, for example, and mystics. But the condition of heterogeneous temporalities can be exploited for destructions as well as expansion: Ernst Bloch recounts chillingly the Nazis’ deployment of temporal asynchrony in recruiting Germans who felt backward in the face of an alien modernity. So we must take seriously temporality’s tremendous social and political force. [p. 178]In the same roundtable discussion, Lee Edelman writes,
Opening this conversation with a series of questions presupposing a “turn toward time” already establishes as our central concern not the movement toward time but of it: the motionless “movement” of historical procession obedient to origins, intentions, and ends whose authority rules over all. And so we have the familiar demand for narrative accountings of “how and why,” for self-conscious avowals of motivation, for strategic weighings of what’s opened up in relation to what’s shut down. Implicit throughout are two assumptions: time is historical by “nature” and history demands to be understood in historicizing terms. But what if time’s collapse into history is symptomatic, not historical? What if framing this conversation in terms of a “turn toward time” preemptively reinforces the consensus that bathes the petrified river of history in the illusion of constant fluency? What if that very framing repeats the structuring of social reality that establishes heteronormativity as the guardian of temporal (re)production? [pp. 180-81]Dinshaw, in later comments, points to the difficulties attendant upon thinking “outside linear history,” which “requires ‘the rewiring of the senses’ (Jacqui Alexander’s words) in order to apprehend an expanded range of temporal experiences—experiences not regulated by ‘clock’ time or by a conceptualization of the present as singular and fleeting; experiences not narrowed by the idea that time moves steadily forward, that it is scarce, that we live on only one temporal plane” [p. 185]. Dinshaw’s thinking here could be useful, I think, in opposing some of Schultz’s thinking that the past could only be “one way”: either a conception of heterosexuality [somewhat like we conceive of that term now] operated, on some level, in the Middle Ages, or it did not [one or the other, it seems to me, has to be true vis-à-vis Schultz’s logic]. Time can move backwards and forwards, both now and in the past, and therefore, queer, or homo-, or un-histories can also move backward and forward, and at different speeds, in different times and places. We have never been hetero. We have never been homo. We have never been modern. But where are you standing when you say that, and who [or what ghosts] are you talking to?
I don’t think we can ultimately escape the fact, as Elizabeth Freeman has outlined, that “Western ‘modernity’ . . . has represented its own forward movement against a slower premodernity figured as brown-skinned, feminine, and erotically perverse,” and therefore, “[o]n the material level, large-scale periodizing mechanisms have shaped what can be lived as a social formation, or an individual life” [“Time Binds, or Erotohistoriogaphy,” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 57-68, here 57]. Freeman has articulated a “version of queer” that I think I can really get behind, in which the term “queer,” on a political level, not only names “a pressure against the [modern] state’s naming apparatus, particularly against the normalizing taxonomies of male and female, heterosexual and homosexual,” but also includes “pressure against state and other market periodizing apparatuses” [p. 58]. But more importantly, her version of queer “insists, following Cesare Casarino, that ‘we need to understand and practice time as fully incorporated, as nowhere existing outside of bodies and their pleasures’.” Pleasure, therefore, “is central to the project” of a “deviant chronopolitics” in which “queers survive through the ability to invent or seize pleasurable relations between bodies,” and do so “across time” [p. 58]. Further, Freeman asks, “how might queer practices of pleasure, specifically, the bodily enjoyments that travel under the sign of queer sex, be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” “Against pain and loss [the Freudian model of ego formation],” Freeman writes, “erotohistoriography posits the value of surprise, of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from elsewhere, other times” [p. 59]. Finally, “we might imagine ourselves haunted by ecstasy and not just by loss; residues of positive affect (erotic scenes, utopias, memories of touch) might be available for queer counter- (or para-) historiographies,” and “historicity itself might appear as a structure of tactile feeling, a mode of touch, even a sexual practice” (p. 66).
While I think many of our readers here are familiar with Dinshaw’s work on what might be called the queer “touches” of a queer historicism—of “collapsing time through affective contact” [“Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” p. 178]—I just finished reading Anna Kłosowska’s Queer Love in the Middle Ages [cited above], and would offer it as another beautiful [and perhaps under-appreciated] example of the kind of erotohistoriography that Freeman argues for [and also as a productive counter-point of sorts to Schultz’s critique of present work in medieval queer studies, although I must state, again, that I think Schultz would approve of much of Anna’s theoretically nuanced approaches to the subject of medieval sexuality]. As some may recall, Michael O’Rourke has already offered us his “love” for Anna’s book [go here], and I can only belatedly offer my own “second” to his emotion. I will not attempt to offer a full review here, as Michael has already done that for us, so much as I want to highlight how Anna highlights pleasure—especially the pleasure of “perverse” reading, which is also queer reading—as an important component of her project, which, in broad strokes, is an overview, within canonical texts of medieval French literature, of “thematic sites, or hotspots, narrative motifs or themes [which may be “supersaturated” or “underdetermined”] that produce representations of same-sex desire,” especially in relation to how certain texts suggestively [and not necessarily overtly] produce what might be called the “intimate representations” of a “surplus” of certain queer desires [pp. 3, 116], in which “surplus” we, the readers of such texts, can take pleasure, even personal pleasure.
In order to elucidate on this idea, Anna points to Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, where Barthes “described the author, the text, and the reader as sharing the same neurosis,” one predicated [as evinced in later writings by Barthes] on a certain “perverse” homosexuality [what Barthes termed “goddess Homosexuality”] which always presides over the practice of a “queer” reading that is ethically engaged precisely because it is personal—to quote Barthes, as Anna does: “but I can always quote myself to signify an insistence, an obsession, since my own body is in question” [qtd. in Kłosowska, p. 6]. Anna notes that, while she was writing her book, “not literary or philosophical but rather historical legitimacy was the center of the debate in queer studies. It is as if the question of history became a stand-in for the question of viability, once queer medieval studies imposed themselves as a cutting edge field,” and “the question of historicity displaced the debate concerning essentialism versus constructivism” [p. 6]. Anna announces that her approach will be one that
completely evacuates the only question that might have directly related my work to that of historians: the degree of the plausibility of fiction, the proper domain of new historicism in medieval literary studies. For me, unlike historians or literary historicists, all fiction corresponds to an absolute reality—not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being, performed by the authors and manuscript makers; and continuing desire for it performed by the readers, a desire that sustains the book’s material presence across the centuries. That desire is incorporated in an existence. It is the backbone of an identity. It is an essential part of the bundle of motives that lie behind all that the body does. A part essential because it is retrievable, but also because it is privileged: art reveals more of life than life does. [p. 7]Ultimately, for Anna, medieval studies “are an intellectual space where, by and large, we have safeguarded the right not to seek pleasure in a text,” and Barthes’ practice of a “perverse” or “homosexual” reading would help us, “not to document the existence of homosexuality in the Middle Ages, but rather to experience ultimate pleasure in reading the text, while appreciating the Middle Ages in the fullness of their difference” [p. 146]. Anna’s conclusion includes a very complex discussion, following Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Laplanche-on-Freud, on what might be called the psychoanalytics of the signifying "signals" of desire, to which I cannot do justice here; suffice to say, and hopefully not misreading Anna’s argument, Anna’s book shows us how one of the most intimate relations of all is that between our desires [which are always situated in bodies—ours and others] and the realm of the imaginary. Literature provides access, finally, not only to “official” cultures, but also to their queer obverse and "unofficial" wishes, desires, & bodies, and even to that which, even today, still remains unthought, untouched, and therefore, unfelt.
UPDATE [10/8/07]: For Tim, and anyone else who cares, my crude rendering of Fedora/Lycee/Histoire [and please remember that this is juvenalia of a sort]: