Book Review: Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker

Is sex good to think with?

Valerie Traub poses this question to her reader at the opening of Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and goes on to show how thinking with sex rather than talking about sex may offer clues that help us to interpret literary works of the early modern period. Though Thinking Sex uses literary works as source texts, Traub’s approach is primarily a historical one. She also describes the thorny relationship between historicist approaches to sexuality studies and the discourses of queer theory in an attempt to find points of reconciliation between these two equally valuable academic disciplines. Sex as an object of study is decidedly elusive; it is characterized by “opacity, absence, gaps, blockages, and resistances” (3). Rather than trying to get around this problem in order to pose a decisive reading about what early moderns did, Traub’s work embraces the sites of unknowability that characterize sex, both in the archive and in the present. This is what she means by thinking with sex.

26722986First and foremost, Traub makes it quite clear that she wants to do “something other than identity history” (11), a project that is in keeping with her previous book, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2002). As in that work, Thinking Sex locates sexual acts as indicative of erotic desires rather than retroactively fitting those acts into modern identity categories. That said, Traub launches a smart and incisive political critique of historians who would describe academic research into the history of queer sexuality as mere projection. Inspired by Dominick LaCapra’s argument that a theoretical approach to history must look at the way history has been studied in addition to the historical objects of study themselves, Traub opens the main of her book with an overview of Alan Bray’s path breaking work on early modern homoerotic friendship. Arguing against scholars who have accused Bray’s work (and that of other historians of sexuality) of projecting the identity politics of the present onto the past, Traub counters that “it is not just that leveling a charge of projection in this way is inaccurate and offensive: more important, it circumvents, and thereby obscures, questions tacitly raised by Bray’s scholarship but not resolved in it: namely, the relations between emotional and bodily intimacy, and what we make of them” (47). In other words, this early scholarship brought much needed attention to the difficulty (or even the impossibility) of identifying what sexual acts accompanied the traces of “emotional and bodily intimacy” that are evident in the literary and historical texts available for our analysis.

While, on the one hand, some historians accuse queer theory of retrospective projection, Traub identifies a counter attack among queer theorists that rejects historicism as too rigidly teleological. Just as she criticizes historians who accuse theoretically influenced histories of sexuality of projecting modern identities onto the past, Traub also dismantles the arguments of queer theorists who describe themselves as “unhistoricists.” This group of scholars claims that historians embrace an “ideal of telos” (qtd. on 61), which finds precursors to modern categories of sexual identity in the past. Instead, they reject history as a discipline in favor of a “homohistory” that opposes “compulsory heterotemporality.” Traub shows how such catchy phrases allow for a dangerous kind of “associational logic” (71) that assumes rather than argues for relationships between terms and concepts, “allowing great latitude for equivocation” (72). Despite her criticisms, though, Traub makes it abundantly clear that her scholarship and also her political sympathies are indebted to both history and queer theory. Through a nuanced and careful analysis of the political and academic stakes of both fields, Traub argues that the difference between theory and history is a “matter of scale”:

In a lot of historical writing, the desire to produce an argument out of sufficient evidence, comprehensive detail, interpretive nuance, and depth of context means that much of the intellectual effort is involved in situating and scaling down. Historical explanation tends to be grounded in the material details of experience. Theory, in contrast, tends to value the results of scaling up, of extrapolating away from context and extending the object’s import into the largest possible explanatory domain. These tendencies, I would suggest, are as complementary as they are inverse. (277)

These two approaches to epistemology, she argues, could in tandem provide just the kind of tools that scholars need “to confront the impasses of thought, as well as the agencies of the unthought and the yet-to-be-thought, in the making of sexual knowledge” (293). Traub offers what she calls “the sign of the lesbian” as an “exemplary, extradisciplinary pivot for thinking through the way history and theory circulate within queer studies” (267). In other words, by attending to same-sex desire rather than the more “universalizing category of queer (which includes women but rarely attends to their specificity),” Traub argues that the specific empirical research of historicism and the broad implications of queer theory might usefully cross and create a new approach to epistemology (267).

Traub puts her proposed union of history and theory into practice in chapters analyzing the editorial practice of glossing bawdy language in editions of early modern literature. In what amounts to a stirring manifesto filled with directives to scholars about how to avoid the heteronormative assumptions that undergird much editorial practice, Traub illustrates the value of unknowing and moments of interpretive impasse. In contrast to scholarship that makes a virtue out of arguing for a specific interpretation and hiding any evidence that the scholar might not in fact be “in the know” or have the answers to all interpretive questions, Traub proposes that academics embrace the unknowability that characterizes many (indeed most) early modern references to sex acts.

While readers (and editors) can usually sense when an expression or a song has a bawdy meaning, Traub shows that in most cases it is impossible to discern what specific acts such language connotes. For example, in a ballad featuring a series of wives who offer an evaluation of their husbands’ sexual capabilities with respect to their professions, Traub asks us “to what specific activity does ‘tapping a beer keg’ or ‘ladling a pot’ actually refer?” (183). We can’t assume a simple, heteronormative penis-in-vagina kind of activity in all, or even any, of the puns and bawdy lexica of this period, which are decidedly ambiguous about actual sexual acts (207). In contrast to the typical scholarly approach, which involves acknowledging the open-ended possibilities of a text only to close them down with a specific reading, Traub encourages her readers to “be candid about what you don’t know. Allow the ongoing production of sexual knowledge to be on display, including its opacities, trusting that not knowing may be an occasion for pleasure as well as anxiety,” an exhortation that applies to teaching as much as it does to academic scholarship (214).

Traub’s book will be of particular interest to historians working in sexuality and gender studies and to anyone interested in queer theory and literary theory more broadly. Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts will find her chapters on the sonnets especially compelling, and her carefully crafted arguments about glossing should be essential reading for anyone who edits or teaches the many early modern texts that feature bawdy language. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns is a carefully crafted and subtly argued book that can help us to understand the past in a way that offers new approaches to the future of lesbian historiography and queer theory.

Parker, Sarah - headshotSarah Parker is Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville University, Florida where she teaches courses in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and medical humanities. Her current research focuses on early modern medical treatises on popular errors. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill and MAs from UNC-Chapel Hill and Middlebury College.

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