Historicizing Romantic Sexuality
Romantic Loves: A Response to Historicizing Romantic Sexuality
Andrew Elfenbein, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
This essay responds to the essays in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_ by considering their usefulness in response to Michel Foucault. The author examines how each essay continues or complicates Foucault's ideas in _The History of Sexuality_. The author concludes by discussing the concept of love in Romanticism. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
In Volume I of The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that sex should be treated not as a matter of individual choice but as part of "the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure":
The central issue . . . is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all "discursive fact," the way in which sex is "put into discourse." (11)
The "central issue" here has nothing to do with how anyone had sex. Foucault agrees with the most startling statement in Percy Shelley's "Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love": "The act itself is nothing" (221). This is an odd dismissal. One might counter that the act is rather important, and deserves careful historical attention. Foucault, however, claims that "sex" is merely "an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality" (155). His larger point is to avoid the perceived trap of elevating sex to "the side of reality," while demoting sexuality merely to "confused ideas and illusions" (15).
Since Foucault sees little purpose in writing a history of sex acts, he is more concerned to counter the assumption that he will present a victorious history of sexual repression (bad) and sexual liberation (good). Such a history would beg the question he wishes to ask, which is how sex came to be understood as repressing or liberating at all. The important history of sexuality for Foucault lies not in the discourse itself so much as in the conditions that enabled it. What counts is not approving or disapproving of particular statements, but grasping the larger system that allowed sex to enter language at all: why sex was worth talking about, who talked about it, what institutions undergirded them, and how language about sex was recorded and disseminated. Foucault's position requires understanding language about sexuality only in relational terms, insofar as any given piece of discourse takes its place within a larger web of statements about sexuality.
For literary critics, this is hardly news: Foucault's arguments are nothing if not familiar. Yet the familiarity of his arguments at a theoretical level masks the difficulty that literary critics have had in actually carrying forward Foucault's project. For the most part, the essays in Historicizing Romantic Sexuality manifest a somewhat oblique relation to Foucault, despite the citation of his work. In part, as Jonathan Loesberg argues in his essay, this may have occurred because a rather minor part of The History of Sexuality, the supposed "invention" of the homosexual, has bulked so large in the reception of Foucault that it has come to stand for the whole. Engaging Foucault may not seem very interesting when, too often, it has come down to nothing more than agreeing or disagreeing with his dates. Furthermore, for all of Foucault's supposed omnipresence, much of the historical spadework required to place literary works in relation to a larger discursive network about sexuality remains unfinished. Decades after the publication of Foucault's work, scholars of British studies have nothing like even a fragmentary account of factors that he suggests are central to a history of sexuality. We do have some pieces, such as examinations of developments in science and medicine, political rhetoric, and literature. But other areas of potentially equal interest remain relatively untouched, such as the discourse of religion (sermons, tracts, biblical commentaries) or the codes of military conduct (the role of sexual humiliation in wartime, as at the siege of Badajoz during the Peninsular campaign). Nor has anyone put the pieces together to create even a tentative map of the deployment of sexuality across institutions, knowledges, and practices. The citation of Foucault's text has substituted for the realization of his project.
Beyond the daunting range of knowledge that would be required for a full Foucauldian analysis, disciplinary practices within literary criticism preserve many categories that Foucault wished to question. In particular, the genre of literary critical essay still bases itself primarily around the reading of individual texts, typically understood as the product of an intending author who has expressed himself or herself in them. It has proven much easier to criticize the assumptions of this mode than to provide workable alternatives to it. Essays or books that draw on historicist, materialist, or psychoanalytic theories designed to unsettle the sovereignty of the intending author often do less to unsettle it than to find ways of coexisting uneasily and oxymoronically beside it.
For literary critics, the individualism of the artistic self privileged by the conventions of disciplinary analysis chimes with the individualism that, according to Foucault, is the triumph of sexuality's regime: "So it is that all the world's enigmas appear frivolous to us compared to this secret, minuscule in each of us, but of a density that makes it more serious than any other" (156). One result is that he cautions against thinking that "we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power" when we actually are only "fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we think we see ourselves reflected" (157). Although Foucault does not make the connection explicitly, one result of this individualism is that understanding ourselves in terms of a relational web of power becomes extremely difficult: the deployment of sexuality locates our identity entirely "in" us. Literary critics appropriate this individualism when they read texts as expressing, encoding, or repressing a sexualized self that belongs either to the biographical author or to the author as figure for a cultural moment.
The result tends to reinstall as givens the categories that Foucault unsettled. Close reading alone, no matter how historically situated, cannot describe just what kind of power literature qua literature had within the larger network of discourses that deployed sexuality during the Romantic period. Unfortunately, Foucault's key concept for battling the individualizing power of sexuality, "power," is so all-encompassing that it offers only limited help. Foucauldian power is a site of "multiple and mobile . . . relations" (98) undergoing such constant transformation that they virtually defy analysis. It seems as if Foucault wants the sheer complexity of his image of power to be a guarantee of its truth. Reading Foucault's description, it can feel as if his concept of power is less a blueprint meant to be realized in a concrete analysis than a point-by-point negation of an older, inadequate model.
The great value of the essays in Historicizing Romantic Sexuality is to provide some badly needed specificity about the forms of agency that sexuality might take during the Romantic period, as an alternative to Foucault's all-devouring "power." Even as Foucault insists on the omnipresence of power, he looks to the most obvious sites for its deployment, such as religious confession and the medicalization of sexuality. The essays in Historicizing Romantic Sexuality provide a much better guide to the multiplication of sexualities by looking at such sites as the preface, the novel, poetic form, an abolitionist tract, women's clothes, and juvenilia. In what follows, I treat the essays in Historicizing Romantic Sexuality with an avowed bias: imagining how they might fit into a larger Foucauldian project by discussing the kinds of agency associated with each of these sites.
Bradford Mudge's essay examines "how sexual bodies are represented in romantic fiction" (8). After describing voyeurism in Cleland's Fanny Hill, he turns to Lewis's The Monk, in which voyeurism reveals not the "real" body as described by Cleland but the unobtainable body of male fantasy, and Austen's Pride and Prejudice, in which bodily pleasure is made subservient to "love, marriage, and family." In linking his work to Foucault, Mudge notes that Pride and Prejudiceforeshadows and encapsulates Foucault's "entire argument," because Foucault "insists" that sexuality "coheres in one central purpose"; this purpose, according to Foucault, is that of constituting "a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative." Yet Mudge seems more convinced of this point than Foucault does; immediately after the passage that Mudge quotes, Foucault writes, "I still do not know whether this is the ultimate objective" (37). Indeed, what Mudge claims to be Foucault's basic argument looks more like Foucault's self-parody of his own repressive hypothesis, which is why he quickly backtracks from it. In the larger context of The History of Sexuality, Foucault's argument is not that sexuality is politically conservative; indeed, he spends considerable time criticizing historiography that imagines power in terms of a one-sided hierarchy of oppression implied by a phrase like "politically conservative." Instead, he explains how modern discourses of sexuality work through "multiplication: a dispersion of sexualities, a strengthening of their disparate forms, a multiple implantation of 'perversities'" (37).
The relevance of Foucault for Mudge's argument is less that The History of Sexuality recapitulates Jane Austen but that Foucault specifies the question of how literature acted as a vehicle of multiplication: how did reading fictional stories about sex come to be as important as doing it? It is tempting for literary critics to conceive the answer chiefly in terms of representation: because novels depicted sexualized behavior, they were obviously an instrument shaping the deployment of sexuality. Yet Foucault suggests that an analysis of fiction's agency needs to do more, by engaging the dynamics of reception in terms of "the institutions which prompt people to speak about [sexuality] and which store and distribute the things that are said."
For scholars of the Romantic novel, answering this question might include examining the intersection between the social institution of the family and the economic apparatus of fiction marketing and production. The point is not simply that novels represented sexuality, but that the presence of novels changed in important ways the sexual dynamics of the family: novels invaded the household; defined, consolidated, or challenged relations between family members; marked living spaces as appropriate or inappropriate for reading; were kept, returned, or junked; and became subjects of conversation. The work of William St. Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period might provide a telling starting-place for a more complete investigation of the novel as a particular site for the multiplication of sexualities during this period.
The essays of Susan Lanser and Daniel O'Quinn foreground one of the most important forms of agency in the history of sexuality, the code. Foucault describes the code in terms of "the method of interpretation" central to scientia sexualis, in which "the revelation of confession had to be coupled with the decipherment of what it said" (66). Sexuality is the hidden truth that can be made visible only with the help of the expert interpreter. With the right tools, even seemingly innocent texts can be made to confess, to yield up their secrets to decipherment.
In Lanser's essay, lesbianism is the mystery encoded by poetic form; the skilled interpreter is able to unwrap the mystery by close attention to "sapphic tropes": "The transgressive potential of female friendship . . . urged the inscription of female intimacies into the ambiguities of figuration." This essay's detailed foregrounding of figuration and metrics demonstrates that poetic language has resources available to it for encoding that are not available anywhere else. Lanser's essay valuably helps to explain some of literature's peculiar place in the deployment of sexuality because of its ability to install sexuality not only in semantic meaning but also in extrasemantic aspects of language.
For O'Quinn, decoding involves interpreting the competing pressures of abolitionist discourse between Christian masochism and the history of British imperialism. His essay looks closely at an odd scene of prayer in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative. The gap between what one might expect of such a scene and what Equiano provides leads O'Quinn to read the episode as a moment of Christianized masochism, in which Equiano "is . . . acting his sexual degradation." This abasement is "necessary for Equiano's masochistic identification with the invisible church," an identification that the essay develops by examining Equiano's reference to the "Sons of Belial" in terms of its Biblical source in Judges 19.
The major achievements of O'Quinn's essay lie in foregrounding abolition and the slave trade as critical sites for the deployment of sexuality during the Romantic period, and in emphasizing the role of Christian rhetoric in mediating this deployment. Moreover, O'Quinn importantly underscores the value of masochism in forging a nexus between Christianity, imperialism, and the slave trade. Yet the status of masochism fluctuates in the essay between a rhetoric of eighteenth-century dissent strategically deployed by Equiano and something closer to a psychological neurosis, as described by Reik and Silverman. The more that O'Quinn's essay moves toward decoding, the more masochism becomes the essence of Equiano's being, what Foucault describes as "a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage" (59).
For example, Equiano tells us that George "would get up on purpose to go to prayer with [him], without any other clothes than his shirt." O'Quinn's prioritization of masochism leads him to read this scene in terms of Equiano's sexual abasement, in which George serves as Equiano's "necessary tormentor." Yet positing masochism as the truth that must be extracted from this scene leads O'Quinn to sidestep the fact that Equiano's language does not obviously reveal masochistic torment. On the contrary, when Equiano describes George's enthusiasm for prayer, Equiano notes, in the passage quoted by O'Quinn, "I was well pleased at this, and took great delight in him, and used much supplication to God for his conversion." One might argue that such a statement is a reaction formation, a defense against desire, but doing so reinscribes the sexualized essence that Foucault wished to question. (O'Quinn argues for something like such a reaction formation later in his essay when he describes a "textual repression in which physical and quasi-anthropological observations are used to regulate the power of emotion elicited by rememorative passages that are too volatile to handle.") Yet Equiano's language focuses less on his sense of threat and powerlessness than on his somewhat condescending amusement at George's naivete and his pleasure at his own power over George, his ability to "make such progress with this youth." His ultimate failure to convert George may point less to his own need to sustain a masochistic fantasy than to his opportunity to provide a negative example to his audience; they should not be like the "sons of Belial" who ultimately prevent George's conversion, but should be among those who hear the word and bear a good harvest by abolishing the traffic in slaves.
Through their investment in decoding, Lanser and O'Quinn both raise questions about the temporality of this mode of agency. Did these figurations have to wait for twenty-first century critics to unlock their ambiguities, or were they available to Georgian readers as well? Both essays seem to assume that they were indeed decipherable to their original readers. If so, they might do more to explain the reading practices whereby readers would have been acclimated to look for sexualized codes, as in the reception of satire. More generally, these essays develop in a way that Foucault does not the effectiveness of the code as a site for the proliferation of sexuality, since codes, like allegories, have a tendency to overwhelm their boundaries. If poetic form is sometimes a code for irregular desires, is it all the time? Does this irregularity apply only to sapphic representations, or to ones between men as well? If Equiano is sometimes occupying the position of Christian masochist, is he doing so all the time? If not, how does one recognize the presence or absence of coded moments? As D. A. Miller has pondered, answering such questions is particularly difficult. Ignoring coded meanings condemns sexuality to invisibility, but searching for them can at times come close to a hostile interrogation, an outing of the text (17-18).
Whereas the essays by Lanser and O'Quinn focus on uncovering what the text encodes, those by Fay and Heydt-Stevenson examine more visible rebellions or challenges to a repressive order. In so doing, they seem to disagree strongly with Foucault, who claims that "sexuality must not be described as a stubborn drive, by nature alien and of necessity disobedient to a power which exhausts itself trying to subdue it and often fails to control it entirely" (103). Both Fay and Heydt-Stevenson posit female sexuality as just such a stubborn drive, looking for modes of independence and self-expression in the face of restrictive social conditions and hostile censorship. According to Fay, Mary Robinson and Princess Caroline "felt empowered by the radicalism or laxity of their times to tease the borders of expected roles and rules engendering sexual expression"; according to Heydt-Stevenson, "Austen's representations of her heroines' fighting and drinking and lovemaking and thieving . . . offer a language for deciphering the robust, lusty female energy that social rules encrypt or entomb." They both reaffirm the rebellious woman of bourgeois feminist criticism, whose inherent intelligence and dynamism struggle against an oppressive, patriarchal environment.
Although these essays eschew Foucauldian positions, they both nevertheless raise important points for a Foucauldian analysis of the Romantic period, especially in relation to women. The association traced by Fay between clothes and female agency offers a telling contrast to what Foucault describes as the interpretive techniques of confession. Whereas some bodies need to be forced to disclose their sexual truths, others, such as those of Robinson and Princess Caroline, become all too easily legible, being reproduced with dizzying rapidity in written descriptions, prints, and satirical drawings. Her essay suggests that the Foucauldian category of scientia sexualis could be provocatively juxtaposed with a very different system of clothes and fashion as modes for producing the sexualized body. Whereas Foucault imagines a body of opinion generated by medical specialists, Fay describes a system created not merely by the British fashion industry, but also by pamphleteers, actors, cartoonists, and society painters. As Fay demonstrates, it is not enough to treat clothes simply as another item within a burgeoning consumer society: clothes had a privileged place within print capitalism's techniques of training the eye. Literary historians should have a particular interest in this use of clothes, given the parallels that historians have noted between the struggle to define literary property and the debates over the ownership of dress design.
Heydt-Stevenson's essay points to what Foucault calls "the tactical polyvalence of discourses" (100): the condescendingly repressive language of the late eighteenth-century conduct books gives rise to the "joyful lawlessness" of Austen's juvenilia. Moreover, Heydt-Stevenson importantly insists that the "abandon" of the juvenilia is not "entirely repressed" in Austen's more mature work. Her essay points to the need for further analysis of the work that the label "juvenilia" performs simultaneously to sexualize and desexualize the narrative of an authorial career. Since the time of Virgil's Eclogues, juvenilia have been associated both with displays of eroticism and with an immature stage of life that the author, thankfully, outgrows in order to engage more "serious" issues. Heydt-Stevenson powerfully demonstrates that the assumptions undergirding this developmental model need serious reconsideration.
Richard Sha's essay moves the ground of discussion from particular case studies to the larger theoretical underpinnings of the historiography of sexuality. His essay makes an important intervention not only into scholarship on the Romantic period but also into work on the history of sexuality more generally in its persistent querying of "alterity as the gold standard of history." He pursues this theme through a potent contrast between two thinkers, both "committed to the otherness of Greek sex," but for different reasons. David Halperin's discussion of the pseudo-Lucianic Erotes values alterity as a way of making us "think outside of our present concept of orientation"; Shelley's preface to his translation of The Symposium, according to Sha, uses alterity more conservatively to consign homoeroticism to the Greek past and thereby clear the way for a universally heterosexual modernity. Sha's criticism of the fetishization of alterity is a familiar theme in the history of hermeneutics; Paul Ricoeur, for example, describes the "illusion . . . that puts an end to our collusion with the past and creates a situation comparable to the objectivity of the natural sciences, on the grounds that a loss of familiarity is a break with the contingent" (74). Sha is particularly compelling in his demonstration of how the privileging of alterity encourages a sort of "lite" objectivity, a humanities-friendly version of the (supposed) factual certainty of science.
In the service of this objectivity, according to Sha, Halperin ends up portraying the Greeks as even more "other" than they were, at least on the evidence of the Erotes. The differences described by Halperin turn out to be ones of degree rather than kind, though, to be fair to Halperin, the crux of his argument is that difference existed at all. A further question about the Erotes might be not so much about difference as about about generalizability. Both Halperin and Sha suggest that the Erotes is a highly self-conscious dialogue, with two opposing points of view brought into exaggerated contrast. As Halperin writes, it might be thought of as a "passionate debate . . . between someone who eats nothing but vegetables and someone who eats nothing but meat" (99). Given this obvious rhetoricity, what kinds of conclusions can be made about differences either of degree or of kind in light of its questionable generalizability?
When Sha turns to Shelley, he reads the homophobia of the "Discourse" somewhat as O'Quinn reads Equiano's Interesting Narrative, partly as a deflection of sexual threat: "Shelley's sense of the otherness of the Greeks may well have deflected attention away from his own homosocial desires." According to Sha, Shelley blames the Greeks' homoeroticism on their degradation of women; since Shelley believes that modernity has improved women's condition, homosexuality should no longer exist. Yet, as Sha notes, this othering quickly breaks down, since Shelley both admits that "gender inequality has not been abolished" and employs essentializing rhetoric to suggest that homosexuality cannot be safely confined to the past.
Yet the psychologizing of male sexual threat in this essay, as in O'Quinn's essay, may sidestep some of the text's performative work. The Discourse introduces Shelley's translation of The Symposium, with its gorgeous, rhapsodic account of love between men. Shelley's concern in his preface seems to me to be less to confine homosexuality to the Greeks than to stave off his audience's potential rejection of the whole of The Symposium because of their assumed disgust with Greek homosexuality. Rather than confining homosexuality to the Greek past, Shelley makes an even more peculiar argument. He saves The Symposium for his audience by arguing that Greek homosexuality was not what his audience (at least some of them) might think it was: "I am persuaded that it was totally different from the ridiculous and disgusting conceptions which the vulgar have formed on the subject, at least except among the debased and abandoned of mankind" (222). Class respectability arrives to rescue the Greeks: nice Greek men really did not have anal sex with boys at all; only vulgar ones did, and only vulgar readers now would be crude enough to think otherwise. According to Shelley, respectable Greeks had such a ripe fantasy lives that they did not need penetration at all:
If we consider the facility with which certain phenomena connected with sleep, at the age of puberty, associated themselves with those images which are the objects of our waking desires; and even that in some persons of an exalted state of sensibility that a similar process may take place in reverie, it will not be difficult to conceive the almost involuntary consequences of a state of abandonment in the society of a person of surpassing attractions, when the sexual connection cannot exist, to be such as to preclude the necessity of so operose and diabolical a machination as that usually described. (222)
Rather than having full-blown anal sex, which Shelley regards not only as "diabolical" but also as just too much trouble ("operose"), Greek men "of an exalted state of sensibility" would ejaculate as one of the "almost involuntary consequences" of being "in the society of a person of surpassing attractions." One might imagine that the sheer messiness of those involuntary consequences could be just as inconvenient as the "operose and diabolical . . . machination" that Shelley deplores, but he seems to imagine that waking wet dreams are essentially more pure because they are involuntary.
The othering in Shelley's preface is not between the Greeks and the moderns but between the exalted and the vulgar in both periods; exalted Greeks had waking wet dreams; debased ones had anal sex; exalted modern readers of the Greeks understand the real purity of the love praised in The Symposium; vulgar modern readers insist on a "vulgar imputation" (222) of sodomy. As Sha argues, Shelley's presentation of sexual differences throughout is characterized by a slippage between identity and difference. With regard to Greek love, the slippage centers around the concept of abandonment. On one hand, Shelley claims that if the Greeks had anal sex at all, it was performed only by the "abandoned of mankind." At the same time, he describes the exalted wet dreamers in similar terms: their ejaculations occur when the men are "in a state of abandonment," rather like Heydt-Stevenson's depiction of Austen's juvenilia. What differentiates the abandon of the vulgar from the abandon of the exalted? Shelley's essay reveals "abandon" to be a vexed node in the discourse of sexuality, simultaneously desired and feared.
Jonathan Loesberg's essay moves questions of identity and difference to larger issues of gay historiography, without particular reference to the Romantic period. Loesberg spends considerable time in his essay exploring what Ricoeur, after Gadamer, calls the "horizon" of historical understanding (74-75). He names his own variously as "inauthenticity" and "hedgerow envy" and opposes it to those of gay historians, as represented primarily by David Halperin. The concept of the "hedgerow" enables a policing of identity and difference: because Loesberg is not gay, he can claim to have a "non-historical stake in the meaning of a historical narrative." The product of this "non-historical stake" is the conclusion that, even though gay historians are almost guaranteed to get their Foucault wrong, one should not criticize them too much because realizing the "Enlightenment ideals" of Foucault's philosophy "far exceed[s] any details of historical inaccuracy or accidents of political implication." Loesberg uses the aegis of inauthenticity to criticize and not criticize gay historians at the same time. Yet I'm not sure that the concept escapes the condescension that Loesberg wishes to avoid, since the "hedgerow" metaphor still positions gay historians "over there," enmeshed in their naive political biases, while Loesberg is "over here," enjoying the pleasures not of truth but of aestheticized, paradoxical self-consciousness.
At the same time, I think that Loesberg is exactly right about oversimplifications of the Foucauldian project, such as the reduction of Foucault either to his biography or to certain quasi-historical positions taken in The History of Sexuality. Yet the alternative to seeing Foucault as a historian may not be to treat him as a classic philosopher of the Enlightenment, whose goals are "to think outside the limits of one's own presumptions." We hardly need Foucault to think outside the limits of our own presumptions: Newtonian physics or Christian ethics, among others, would serve equally well. Foucault's interest lies less in neo-Kantian self-distantiation than in a conceptual framework that allowed a particular topic, the discourse of sexuality, to emerge as fundamental for a knowledge of modernity. Given Foucault's own interest in the structures that enable enunciations to gain power, the interest of this framework may reveal less about a philosophical or political project than an academic one: Foucault's work moved sexuality from a minor, virtually unspeakable subject within the humanities to a core concern.
By focusing on the aesthetic aspects of Foucault's project, Loesberg avoids the institutional ones. Questions of "hedgerow envy" or "inauthenticity" arise in the realm less of aesthetics and politics than of aesthetics and politics as realized in a particular site: the academy. Although, in Saint Foucault, Halperin argues for the importance of Foucault to contemporary gay activism, the activist scene may have shifted between the late 1980s AIDS activists mentioned by Halperin and current GLBT activists (15-18). Today, few GLBT books, articles, speeches, or websites designed for a nonacademic audience make substantive use of anything by Foucault. The meaningful site of Foucault's success and influence is an academic one. The relevant subject positions for Loesberg's analysis may be as much English professor versus English professor as gay versus straight. The important questions opened up by Loesberg's essay involve the convergence of Foucault's influence on the academy and the growth of "GLBT Studies," a discipline that takes Foucault's work as a founding text.The (mis)understandings of Foucault traced by Loesberg have less to do with the constraints of gay identity or politics than with the adaptation of Foucault's work by pre-existing disciplinary structures and practices in the service of creating an academic foothold where none had existed.
The question haunting me after I read these essays was whether or not the representation of the sexualized human body should be the only or even inevitable starting-point for a discussion of Romanticism and sexuality. As numerous historians and critics have suggested, the eighteenth century witnessed an increasing consolidation of heterosexual norms in literature, politics, social mores, conduct books, medicine, and so forth, all accompanied by increasing impatience with gender transgressions that could be linked to same-sex eroticism. By the Romantic period, those heterosexualizing energies had been successful—indeed, possibly too successful. Frederick Beaty's still valuable Light from Heaven details the almost overwhelming heterosexism in Romantic literature. Anna Clark's recent work, in Scandal, has demonstrated the saturation of the Georgian public sphere in heterosexuality; endless idealization of heterosexuality went hand in hand with a seemingly endless capacity to be scandalized. What Foucault describes as a proliferation of sexualities may have looked, at least for the Georgian period, more like a monotonous repetition of one sexuality in every nook and cranny of discourse.
In the face of the heterosexual onslaught, Romantic writers did not so much develop a counterdiscourse as explore possibilities lurking within an older discourse, one often overlooked by the historians of sexuality, including Foucault. This was the discourse of love. In the Romantic period, sexualities consolidate, but loves proliferate:
Eternity is in love with the productions of time. (Blake, plate 7, l. 10)
I love to be reminded of the past, Edward—whether it be melancholy or gay, I love to recall it—and you will never offend me by talking of former times. (Austen 118).
I love a public road: few sights there are / That please me more. (Wordsworth, The Prelude, 12.145-46)
Here a vain love to passing flowers / Thou gav'st. (Hemans ll. 41-42)
I love the men with women's faces, and the women, if possible, with still more womanish expressions. (Lamb 972)
The Romantics, like earlier writers, continue to direct love at the usual suspects, like God, man, and nature; in addition, "love" could serve as a convenient euphemism for sex in the period. But I am interested in the other possibilities that love made available, especially the Romantic knack for directing love at more out of the way objects. Diedre Lynch, in "Wedded to Books: Bibliomania and the Romantic Essayists," has already provided an important discussion of perhaps the most important of these: books. My interest is in just what relations these loves have to the history of sexuality as described by Foucault.
When Blake claims that "Eternity is in love with the productions of time," one might, with enough ingenuity, imagine how this could be decoded as a moment in "the will to knowledge regarding sex" (65).Yet Blake's use of "love" here proves more cryptic than a Foucauldian reading suggests it should be. Just what kind of love does Eternity have for these productions, and what is the difference between being in love with "the productions" and being in love with "time" itself? Blake uses the metaphor of "love" more to deflect knowledge than to enhance or proliferate it.Rather than permitting "eternity" and the "productions of time" to enter omnipresent regimes of power and knowledge, the love between them seems to shelter them from those regimes, or at least locate them in a place in which those regimes are not especially relevant. Romantic writers are interested in exploring the possibility that love for the productions of time or for being reminded of the past or for old china may have nothing to do with sexuality because it belongs to an entirely different place within the human psyche. They reveal desires that are not so much asexual as extra-sexual, existing next to but not necessarily in cooperation with the networks of power so vividly described by Foucault.
These loves, which may have rebelled against the consolidation of heterosexuality, later became a template for the quirky, "abnormal" loves pathologized by the sexologists, in the activity that Foucault calls "a psychiatrization of perverse pleasure" (105). Designating such loves as "perverse" pulls them away from their own discursive context into the orbit of sexuality. At best, in a psychoanalytic scheme, they could be read as sublimation, which, according to Freud, "consists in the sexual trend abandoning its aim of obtaining a component or a reproductive pleasure and taking on another which is related genetically to the abandoned one but is itself no longer sexual and must be described as social" (345). Yet there is a fine line between sublimation and neurosis for Freud, especially in relation to artists: "It is well known, indeed, how often artists in particular suffer from a partial inhibition of their efficiency owing to neuroses. Their constitutions probably include a strong capacity for sublimation and a certain degree of laxity in the repressions which are decisive for a conflict" (376).
In this Freudian light, Wordsworth's praise of "little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love" appears merely as another episode in the vicissitudes of the libido ("Tintern Abbey" ll. 34-35). Useful as such a decoding might be to later readers, it seems important for Wordsworth in his historical moment to imagine his "acts . . . of love" as something else. At a moment when the public sphere was packed with big, loudly named, embarrassingly trumpeted acts of sexual love on the part of the Prince Regent and others, Wordsworth's poetry seems interested in continuing an entirely different sense of what love might look like. This moment is hardly politically neutral; one might wish to connect it, for example, to the Burkean politics of domesticity as described by Claudia Johnson (198-199). It is, however, a representation of desire that does not mesh obviously with the regimes traced by Foucault, and it is one that Romanticists might want to engage more systematically.
Sexuality in Romantic writers can often become formulaic, while love, especially love not directed at people, more fully retains the aura of what Kenneth Burke calls the "concealed offense" (51-60). Foucault's project of tracing the network of knowledge and power around sexuality remains incomplete for the Romantic period. But it may be equally important to acknowledge histories of desire that never quite became part of sexuality during the period. In light of the importance of love, it might be worth asking about the link between bibliomania, as described by Lynch, and the history of pornography, as described by Mudge, so as to examine how the allure of graphic sexual representation interweaves with love for the medium (suspicious books, hidden magazines, exclusive websites). If Sapphic love lurks in eroticized irregularities, as Lanser demonstrates, I am also struck by the association between sapphism during the period and certain marked enthusiasms, as in the gardening of the Ladies of Llangollen and the sculpture of Anne Damer. The erotics of Equiano's relations with others on his ship meshes with his love for the intricacies of navigation, both the literal navigation of the ship and the figurative navigation of the British commercial system. In the cases described by Fay, a love for clothes may not only heighten the sexual allure of bodies, but compete with it, and Heydt-Stevenson suggests that the appetites indulged in Austen's juvenilia may or may not be pure displacements of erotic energy. The presence of love further complicates the play of identity and difference described by Sha by underscoring the potential inadequacy of a history of sexuality that focuses too exclusively on what Shelley calls "the act." It also adds another facet to Loesberg's analysis by inviting us to consider the relationship between aesthetic self-distantiation and love for a particular thinker like Foucault, of the kind that Halperin champions in Saint Foucault. If we imagine love as something other than sexuality by other means, it may offer scholars the chance to return to a seemingly old topic with a new perspective on its agency.
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1 Foucault has a complex understanding of exactly what "statement" means; see The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, pp. 106-17.
2 See also David M. Halperin's criticism of this misreading of Foucault in How to Do the History of Homosexuality, pp. 26-32.
3 For a partial bibliography, see Roy Porter and Lesley Hall, Anthony Fletcher, Tim Hitchcock, Anna Clark, Richard Sha ("Romanticism and Sexuality” and "Romanticism and the Sciences of Perversion"), and Daniel O'Quinn.
4 Compare Ellen Messer-Davidow's discussion of the constraints of literary studies on the development of feminist scholarship, pp.178-82.
5 On this phenomenon in cultural criticism more generally, see Alan Liu.
6 See Greysmith, and Kriegel.
7 See Amanda Anderson for an argument that Foucault's output is essentially divided between "the critique of bourgeois modernity” and "the shift to aesthetic modernity” (198). In these terms, Loesberg privileges the second at the expense of the first.
8 On the importance of considering love in relation to the history of sexuality, see George Haggerty, Men in Love, pp. 18-20, and "Male Love and Friendship in the Eighteenth Century," pp. 70-81.