Saturday, October 27, 2007

McKeon on Wahrman and King

Review article titled "Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century"
From SEL 45, 3 Summer 2005, 707-782.

After general comments and talk about Ruth Perry's book on changing notions of kinship we move to The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, by Dror Wahrman.

The thesis of this text is said to be: that between the first three-quarters and the last quarter of the eighteenth century can be seen a sudden, rapid, indeed a radical discontinuity in English culture.
Wahrman’s principal interest is in “the making of the modern self,” by which he means “a very particular understanding of personal identity, one that presupposes an essential core of selfhood
characterized by psychological depth, or interiority, which is the bedrock of unique, expressive individual identity” (p. xi). In summary form, the basic difference marked by this rupture is that
between ca. 1700 and ca. 1780 English people indulged a sense of self that was fluid and unstable: intermittent, unlocalizable, and unintegrated by virtue of being unanchored in the stability of an individual and essential interiority; and that all this changed around 1780 as a consequence of the English experience of the American Revolution. Before 1700, as well, there was a different sense of self than that which flourished for most of the eighteenth century—although Wahrman says little about what this was like, and when he does it sounds very much like his eighteenth-century paradigm (e.g., p. 335n72). This change in the sense of self
Wahrman takes to be symptomatic of an even broader cultural revolution, in effect the making of modernity as such.

"he undertakes to outline how the radical discontinuity that is his subject can be observed in the way the categories of race, gender, and class change over the course of the eighteenth century."
For the gender part he starts from Laqueur's Making Sex, which claims that the old view was of
a less tight connection between biological sex and gender where " biological sex is known
to be implicated within, but not determinant of, the more general category of (what we would call) gendered social behavior, which also implies social rank, legal standing, and other aspects of
identity. In the latter conception, biological sex is separated out from this gender substratum and constituted as the natural and essential determinant of personal identity. “Sex” thereby provides the antithetical term against which the explicit idea of “gender” also is constituted.
So gender here comes out of sex, and sex is naturalized and essentialized.

After a long discussion of how Wahrman misunderstands Laqueur and unnecessarily shreds notions of interiority as nonauthentic or lacking in some vital aspect, McKeon moves on to discuss The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750: The English Phallus, by Thomas A. King.

King grounds his analysis in (among other things) the thesis of an early modern shift to a biologically grounded conception of gender difference. But he combines this insight with another thesis, indebted to the work not of Laqueur but of Alan Bray and Randolph Trumbach, that
this period also witnessed the emergence of modern notions of sexuality. The result is the doubly dialectical coalescence of, on the one hand, the modern norm of gender difference and the
orthodoxy of different-sex relations and, on the other hand, the modern deviation of same-sex relations, the negative criterion of sameness by which the norm of gender difference was sustained. The suspicion that modern concepts not only of gender difference but also of sexuality were in formation at this time was spurred by the observation that, around the turn of the seventeenth century, sodomitical behavior was acquiring a new subcultural visibility,
a notoriety as not just something that all men might do on occasion but as a mode of being in which some men might subsist as though by a perverse but natural dispensation. King breaks
new ground, I believe, by insisting that we attend not simply to sodomy but also to pederasty, the specifi c form of same-sex relations that is dominant before the eighteenth century and that has a determinate sociopolitical meaning in that historical context.
Pederasty names the species of same-sex behavior that requires between its participants a marked difference in generation, power, and status and that works, like the patron-client relationship, to cement hierarchical super- and subordination through the performance of one man’s (the prepubescent youth, but also the servant or the slave) dependence on another. From a modern perspective this is defi nitively a “sexual” behavior. Within early modern culture, however, pederasty was experienced as a political relationship of subjection that had for the submissive partner the positive status of a proximity to power that in turn bespoke power. “Courtiers, male and female, fl aunted their subordination as the mark of their favor. They displayed, proudly, their proximity to sovereign spectacle as the sign of their preferment” (p. 5).
Like other rituals of subjection to the public body of monarchy, pederasty was a highly theatrical performance of abjection and self-display on the public stage of the Stuart Court. In King’s argument, when we conceive pederasty in these terms we begin to understand the ideological meaning not only of pederasty in its eighteenth-century decline but also of gender and sexuality in their contemporaneous rise. The antithetical relationship between same-sex and different-sex behavior that is thrown into relief at this historical juncture bespeaks not a transhistorical “homophobia,” nor even simply the abstract logic of structural symmetry, but a political rebellion against the old order of hierarchical subjection. In the context of the far-flung
political, social, and cultural confl icts that marked the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the critique of sodomy that is more precisely a critique of pederasty becomes intelligible as a repudiation of royal and aristocratic absolutism akin to more ostensible
critiques such as the abolition of the House of Lords, the episcopal hierarchy, Star Chamber, feudal tenures, and the like.
Over the long term, what replaced these institutions was the concept of a “civil society” that was separated out from (and thereby also constituted by) the public authority of the state and that ensured the freedom of private institutions—religious observance, economic exchange, the public sphere—from political subjection to the state. In an analogous fashion, different-sex behavior came to stand for a new order of “gender complementariness” (pp. 96, 128): not the forced penetration of pederasty acted out on the public stage but the voluntary social-as-conjugal contract; not the superficial and one-way gaze of spectacular publicity but the asymmetrical reciprocity of looks that constitutes the deep interiority of autonomous subjectivity and privacy."

SO I wonder, is all of this a matter of trying to control where things go when you take away the vertical order ... you HAVE to pretend there is some other structure that works and is natural. And back to the public-private again, some different public/private:

state civil society
civil society domestic
society family
guests/servants couple

They are like concentric circles with public always being the side with more people - more strangers - involved.

Back to McKeon on King:

Once we see pederasty as one among many analogous practices of the old regime, it becomes fruitful to entertain an analogy between the constitutive separation out of civil society from the state and that of “sexuality” from the traditional, all-inclusive category of political practice. As social contract theory posited the state of nature and the natural, rights-bearing individual as chronologically prior to and determinant of society and the political state, so contemporary “gender difference theory” separated out the gendered body as existentially and naturally—that is, anatomically and biologically—prior to whatever contrary political and social practices (like pederasty) might afterward be imposed upon it: “This separating out of practices from ‘the body itself’ would naturalize the self within a body increasingly assumed to possess its distinctive properties, including its gender, prior to and free of any external manipulation” (p. 62). So in my view, King’s thesis offers a more persuasive view than Wahrman’s of “the making of the modern self.” Henceforth the naturalness of possessing inborn rights and sex will come to be seen as the primary determinant of personal identity, and this movement toward the interior—away from impositions “from without” and toward an indwelling authenticity— will facilitate a reconception of “the self” as defined not by one’s place in the sociopolitical hierarchy of subjection but by one’s singular subjectivity. By the same token, this idea of the self, fully separated out from all circumstantial contingencies, will provide the basis for generalization about what is universally characteristic of humanity. “Remembering” pederasty, King argues, is crucial because it is the missing term in the prehistory of modern masculinity, the sociopolitical practice whose theatrical display of dependence was inconsistent with the conception of an autonomous privacy that might be universalized as a natural condition of independence. To remember pederasty therefore is among other things to challenge this naturalizing conception, to imply that like pederasty, gender difference has a “political” contingency: “[E]arly modern opposition to aristocratic publicity has been naturalized and mystified as subjective desire . . . The privatized, social, subjective body depended upon the negation of the passionate, ‘natural,’ subjected body” (pp. 128, 149). So when King speaks of “residual pederasty” in the eighteenth century he refers to the self-conscious reproduction of pederastic modes of superficial publicity and self-display that defiantly theatricalized the aura of being subjected to another, a politics of “counterresistance” to the new order of privacy and deep subjectivity that was itself resistant to the old order of subjection.

And then, then we get to the real meat of this ... so far. Katharine Gillespie’s inquiry in Domesticity and Dissent in the Seventeenth Century: English Women’s Writing
and the Public Sphere
"Gillespie argues that mid-seventeenth-century English women made use of the category of
the autonomous subject, the individual abstractly disembodied and disembedded from contextual socialization. On this basis they wrote in favor of a political contractualism that both ceded individual rights to the state and guaranteed the right to dissent from and to replace the magistrate:; they conceived themselves to be possessive individualists who had the right to own property in the wages they earned for their labor of preaching and prophesying; and they believed in the separation of the realms of the private and the public—the separation of church and state, the separation of home and state—as the institutional foundation of the free and sovereign self. As Gillespie shows at some length, these are liberal values that postmodern feminism has tended to see as masculinist ideology" .............." Gillespie counters that, often in explicit defense of women’s rights, “sectarian women writers actually forged the model of the subject that feminists actively seek to displace—that of the ‘sovereign’ or ‘abstract’ individual. Identifying them as early articulators rather than victims of this principle should challenge
us to reconsider its status as a masculine construct invented solely to further rather than ameliorate patriarchal domination” (pp. 170–1).

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