Sunday, May 13, 2012

Eric Berkowitz, Sex and Punishment

by KARL STEEL

For obvious reasons, Eric Berkowitz's Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire has been getting a lot of attention on the Internets. For example, see, if you haven't already, a very popular post called "When a Medieval Knight Could Marry Another Medieval Knight", which starts like this:
"Eric Berkowitz's new book Sex And Punishment, out today from Counterpoint, is a fascinating survey of how legal systems over the millenia have attempted to regulate and police sex. In this excerpt, a discussion of the once-wide acceptance of same-sex unions between men in Europe of the Middle Ages.

Despite the risks, devotional relationships between men were common in Europe at the time, at least among the literate, and many of these affairs must have included sex at some point. Knights, aristocrats, and especially clerics left expansive evidence of their intense passions for male lovers, relationships that often ended in side-by-side burials."
My sense is that we have to file this in our too-good-to-be-true box. Using Amazon's Look Inside, I checked Berkowitz's bibliography, and it's mostly stuff from the mid 90s and earlier (Bullough, Boswell) and anglophone scholarship or translations (a problem if a book covers 4,000 years of human history!). Most seriously, it omits Alan Bray's The Friend, which I wouldn't have thought to check without a heads up from Katrina Gulliver during a fun twitter conversation (which included an important reminder from the omnipresent Tim Carmody).

Not like I need to tell you this, but I've no claims to be an expert in the history of sexuality and marriage. I don't feel as if someone's stolen fire from my hearth. I might direct readers who find Berkowitz's book intriguing to read (instead, or additionally) work by Karma Lochrie and Anna Klosowska. Others, I expect, will be recommended in the comments below. Nor do I mind that Berkowitz is an amateur. I've heard Dinshaw's work on amateurs, and love it. My problem's not even with the arrogance of his not engaging with the recent scholarship. If I have a problem, it's that a book like Berkowitz's kind of embarrasses my political side. I want strong, good arguments in favor of understanding human sexuality and marriage as historical practices, always subject to change. Berkowitz--again, from what I've seen so far--doesn't do this well enough.


Even so, Berkowitz's book has a positive value, in that it's another reminder that sex, emotion, and marriage have a history, and that it's not a binary history (regardless of Romney's great-grandfather-ignoring claims about the history of marriage ending 3000 years ago). The history's not supersessionary, not a before-and-after binary, but rather multiple and always changing. Like anything we can call historical, it's a contestatory process. Like anything we can call historical, marriage, emotion, and sex are always being invented, in our times as in others.* To claim otherwise is to be ahistorical, to be an idealist. And, as readers of J. Gil Harris (and many others) know, to claim that our "now" is singular is to be just as much of an idealist.

My call, then, is that we should go out and legislate, and practice, and think together, and see what we can come up with. Just don't try to look outside of your practices--to History with a capital G for God--to guarantee that you're doing the right thing. What I'm calling for is humility, whether your name is Berkowitz, or Romney, or Steel. Let's have fun together and see what happens.

* Case in point: I recently learned that ancient Mesopotamian law codes don't worry much, if at all, about samesex sexuality (p. 71), perhaps because they belonged to a polytheistic cosmology, unanxious about mixtures.

7 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Let me just elaborate on my post a bit.

I know that I haven't read anything of Berkowitz's book but the excerpt at The Awl and (more or less glancingly) his bibliography. So I can definitely be charged with unfairness, though not on the level, perhaps, of certain former Chronicle bloggers.

So, add what I'm about to say to the other grains of salt I've offered. Berkowitz's book strikes me as eliding the history of affect. My students--and yours too, maybe--often tend to suspect homosexuality (their term) in medieval romance. When men want to hunt and not to marry; when men swoon in grief or over each other; when they embrace and kiss on meeting: all this looks very suspect to people without a historical perspective on sexuality, affect, and desire. Those of you who teach mystics or vernacular theologians or whatever they're called now probably encounter this too. I suspect--and let me emphasize that word--Berkowitz may be making a similar error.

I don't mean to deny the possibility of medieval same-sex sexuality, in monastic, chivalric, or other contexts. My students might be right...to a degree. I mean to stress that the affect and articulations of affect may look totally different to us, because, well, they were. I'm inclined to think that the best lesson isn't to argue that some rite was or wasn't a marriage rite, and that certain articulations of friendship were, or weren't, erotically charged. The best lesson is to discover through our encounter with these medieval encounters a way to alienate ourselves from our own presumptions of secure sexual identities and practices. To feel queer. This point is an obvious one to our readers, and certainly VERY obvious to my co-bloggers, but I think it's one worth repeating.

Karl Steel said...

One more comment, a quotation from Derek Krueger, "Between Monks:
Tales of Monastic Companionship in Early Byzantium," Journal of the History of Sexuality 20.1 (2011), which I just read to get a sense of some of what's being said now about these topics. Krueger's article, on early Christian monastic male friendships and communities, and their varieties of intermixed erotic and devotional energy, includes this odd bit:

"Close friendships within the monastic community called for constant vigilance. In the monastery at Mount Sinai in the mid-seventh century, John Klimax in The Ladder of Paradise praised the discernment of senior monks who could perceive and thwart the homoerotic associations between other monks by sowing dissention between them: “Blessed are the peacemakers [Matthew 5:9]. No one will deny this. But I have seen foemakers who are also blessed. Two monks once developed a lascivious [πορνική] fondness for one another. But a discerning and very experienced father brought them to the stage of detesting each other. He made them enemies by telling each man he was being slandered by the other, and by this piece of chicanery he warded off the demon’s malice, and by causing hatred he brought an end to fornication."

My emphasis. BLESSED ARE THE FOEMAKERS. Fascinating stuff.

Karl Steel said...

For anyone who's dropping by in the comments, here's more misreading of how history works:

marriage is no sacrament this piece argues, because it became so only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Originalist, Religious Rubbish! This means it was a sacrament, and, like all sacraments, it had its start. And like all sacraments, it could be desacralized. Our author sneers at this as a "Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century" that "play[s] with people’s lives": well, sure, but we all live by fictions, which are themselves--as we know from our reading in ooo--also truths.

Eileen Joy said...

Very exhausted after Kalamazoo, but just want to say THANK YOU for this post and also your further comments here: don't forget Richard Zeikowitz's book, too, on "Homoeroticism and Chivalry." I mean, we could go on and on with all of the books and article in medieval studies on same-sex desire/affection and also on certain ways to read medieval texts subversively, etc. Anyway, I have about 1,000+ emails to answer now and I'll return to this.

Karl Steel said...

Looking forward! BTW, have any of us read the Howie/Burgwinkle porn book yet?

anna klosowska said...

Howie/Burgwinkle book is an absolute awesome read--you can't do better, people. Get one now while still hot off the press!
I am reading right now some very interesting but conventional work and am struck, AGAIN, how vision is necessary to make a project a success. This is what made Boswell, Foucault, and more recently Dinshaw so relevant.
What questions are you asking remains the BIG question. And, in the end, the one that matters most.

zion said...

Of course, the reason you get such a wide array of "sex sells" back in the sixties and seventies is because, back then, the family pocketbook was almost exclusively the man's domain. In other words, no matter what the product was, Madison Avenue had to make it appeal to the completely predictable tastes of the male species.
seo toronto