Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women's Experience of Modern War

Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women's Experience of Modern War

by Laura Doan

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For decades, the history of sexuality has been a multidisciplinary project serving competing agendas. Lesbian, gay, and queer scholars have produced powerful narratives by tracing the homosexual or queer subject as continuous or discontinuous. Yet organizing historical work around categories of identity as normal or abnormal often obscures how sexual matters were known or talked about in the past. Set against the backdrop of women’s work experiences, friendships, and communities during World War I, Disturbing Practices draws on a substantial body of new archival material to expose the roadblocks still present in current practices and imagine new alternatives.

In this landmark book, Laura Doan clarifies the ethical value and political purpose of identity history—and indeed its very capacity to give rise to innovative practices borne of sustained exchange between queer studies and critical history. Disturbing Practices insists on taking seriously the imperative to step outside the logic of identity to address questions as yet unasked about the modern sexual past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226001753
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/11/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Laura Doan is professor of cultural history and sexuality studies at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture and editor of Sexology in Culture: Labeling Bodies and Desires, among other books.

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Disturbing Practices

History, Sexuality, and Women's Experience of Modern War

By Laura Doan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-00161-6



An Uncommon Project

The Discipline Problem Reconsidered

The emergence of queer theory in the early 1990s posed difficult challenges to the practice of lesbian and gay social history, still largely in a recuperative mode of discovering a hidden past. Already under considerable pressure to rethink its foundational assumptions in light of what is commonly known as the "cultural turn" (the turn toward cultural analysis in historical investigation in response to poststructuralist and postmodern theory), lesbian and gay social history faced a particularly determined and highly specific queer critique of its research methods and paradigms. To queer observers, social history's ways of understanding the world, its faith in the progress narrative of liberation politics, its investment in making hidden things visible, its confidence in the knowability of the sexual self, and its methodological relation to historical evidence (often characterized as an empiricist window onto the past) were no longer sustainable. Any attempt to summarize succinctly either the transformative effects of the cultural turn in academic history or the queer negotiation of history inevitably oversimplifies. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that lesbian and gay social history—intellectually enthused and politically motivated by its core belief in a coherent and identifiable sexual subject—was profoundly at odds with a queer theory that, despite its own internal disputes about the cultural significance of sexualities, blasted to smithereens the possibility of fixed identities, stable meanings, and knowable truths. To satisfy its intellectual, affective, and imaginative needs for history (its "overwhelming desire to feel historical"), queer studies soon turned away from a social history it judged unpersuasive and grew increasingly disenchanted with an academic history insistent on the enduring importance of the empirical. Gravitating not to the new cultural history but to cultural theorists such as Frederic Jameson (whose configurations of "history" as the name given "to the impossibility of reconciling personal life with the movements of a total system" were deemed more compelling), queer studies would take little notice of the changes wrought by the move from the social to the cultural in historical practice.

I am by no means the first to notice this. As early as the mid-1990s queer historian and cultural critic Lisa Duggan published an influential essay ("The Discipline Problem: Queer Theory Meets Lesbian and Gay History") in which she outlined, first, the wobbly status of lesbian and gay history within academic history. Departments of history, she warned, were so unconvinced about sexuality's importance in historical investigation that younger scholars risked professional suicide in investigating the lesbian and gay past. It is still true—as evinced in numerous recent historiographies—that academic history remains largely unreceptive or indifferent to the proposition that sexuality is as crucial a category of historical analysis as gender, though, as I discuss in chapter 2, there is evidence that this too is now changing. Duggan's second point was her prediction that queer studies would be unforgiving in its treatment of social historians who failed to come to terms with queer theory. If the prospect of long-term unemployment wasn't scary enough, those who persisted in writing "underdog history" without engaging with the queer critique of sexuality would go "unacknowledged" or be "dismissed with an implied sneer." According to Duggan, lesbian and gay social history as practiced in the 1980s and 1990s was thus doubly stigmatized by a mainstream history that deemed its project worthy but marginal and by a queer theory that ignored its findings or dismissed its methods as naive (though in the latter case the feelings of disdain were reciprocal in that some lesbian and gay social historians regarded queer theory as jargon-ridden, trendy, star-obsessed, and elitist).

In the years following Duggan's one-two punch, historians of homosexuality have responded differently to the unhappy predicament that Martha Vicinus described—in her judgment of the state of lesbian history in 1994— as "all theory and no facts or all facts and no theory." A random perusal of the leading journals in sexuality studies (Journal of the History of Sexuality or GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, for instance) suggests that most scholars fall somewhere in between, with very few social historians wholly resistant to theory and with theoretically sophisticated specialists in fields such as LGBT studies (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans) attentive to, and respectful of, historical work, even if refraining from entering the archives themselves. With lesbian, gay, and queer historical work entering a new phase in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the polarizing effects of mutual distrust seem to be receding, as historians interested in homosexuality have, to a greater or lesser extent, heeded Duggan's caution that ignoring queer theory would be "a devastating mistake." Far less evident is a thoroughgoing assessment of the losses and gains of the turn, for some practitioners, toward queer or an assessment of the epistemological consequences of a queer critique that sometimes invents what it thinks history means and how it operates. In other words, it is important to reconsider the discipline problem, because sexual history is produced within academic history but also across disciplines where, on the one hand, the impact of new theoretical perspectives such as queer theory is felt unevenly over time (embraced early on in literary and cultural studies, for example, and negotiated much later in academic history) and, on the other, the gap between history as practice and "history" as an idea conveying "pastness" obscures the object and objective of historical inquiry.

In 1993 queer theorist Michael Warner pointed to the historical as a major force in producing theories of sexualities, alongside—though not equal to—psychoanalysis (thus placing history at something of a disadvantage). Warner credits psychoanalysis with providing the more "rigorous and sophisticated" theory of sexuality (clarifying the "psychic structures" of the "preoedipal, innate bisexuality, the exchange of women, reverse oedipalization, the instability of identification"), but he argues that psychoanalysis has not been effective in crafting a "subtle" understanding of "historical or cultural differences." Despite Warner's early recognition of history's vital importance in the theorizing of sexuality, queer theorists would be characterized as not interested in "historical questions," and queer studies (despite vibrant interdisciplinary period-based work such as ancient, medieval, early modern, eighteenth-century, and so on) would come to be regarded as a field with primary interests in contemporary cultures and representation. Ostensibly uninterested in academic history's actual methods and procedures, queer studies became famously and inextricably linked with presentism, even though from its inception queer work was manifestly interested in the power of historical analysis to yield insights about the queer present and inform historicist reading practices of literary and cultural texts. In this chapter my interest in the queer engagement with historicity—the deployment of terms such as "archive," the call for an "erotohistoriog raphy" ("a politics of unpredictable, deeply embodied pleasures that counters the logic of development"), or the proposal that "perverse presentism," "impossible love," or the "fantasmatic" could serve as other models of queer historiography—may exaggerate the presentism of queer studies, but my aim is to clarify how such tendencies and discursive playfulness make little sense to the historian. At the same time, there is no reason the tools and methods of academic history should not be available to, and given another life by, queer scholars based in other disciplines interested in the past and historicity. But equally, history cannot be reduced to a trope, since its practices too require careful and nuanced interrogation. These very appropriations of historical discourse by queer critics suggest the advantages of closely examining what happens when disciplines and subfields rub shoulders.

Queer literary and cultural critics have been fascinated by history's power to bestow political and cultural meaning in the present, and the queer willingness to probe the darker corners of the collective closet and critique a hermeneutic of visibility, decipherability, and recognition is unquestionably provocative and long overdue. With the collapse of a unified political subject and the loss of stable identities, the queer yearning for a lost past is congruent with Jameson's notion of a "nostalgia for the present." Queer critic Heather Love identifies "longing for community across time" as a "crucial feature of queer historical experience," a far cry from Vicinus's characterization over a decade earlier of the queer critique as deeply "ahistorical." Historians have long understood that the past (everything before the present moment) is not the same as history (a constructed account of what came before), but the helpfulness of that distinction eludes some queer critics and theorists who have not been in dialogue with an academic history in flux. No one scholarly community is at fault in failing to initiate critical exchange. The task here is not to assign blame but to open up channels of communication by raising, on the one hand, queer studies practitioners' awareness of history as a discipline interested primarily in change over time and, on the other, professional historians' awareness of the usefulness of sexuality in historical investigation as well as the power of queer analysis. If, as I argue throughout this book, it is not enough simply to incorporate "women, subalterns, primitives, gays, people of color, immigrants" into Western "accounts of 'history'" but a "matter ... of rethinking history in terms adequate to the present age," it is vital to recognize the common interests shared by queer practitioners and critical historians in exploring the "possibility of the present as history." The queer critique of identity similarly points to the advantages of thinking beyond the categories that falsely represent ontology and experience, but the queer entry to the past has often been via literary or cultural studies rather than academic history—and we need to know how and why this different pathway matters. The lateness in considering the epistemological implications of the disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity of the LGBT history project likely accounts, at least in part, for the history of sexuality's status as a still emerging field of academic inquiry, its promise not yet fully realized. Just as the impact of poststructuralist theory on history was "tardy and contested," so too has queer theory been slower in infl uencing historical practice, ever deferring the famed demise of queer theory.

The usefulness of queer theory to social and cultural historians was first proposed in 1995 by the guest editors of Radical History Review's "Queer Issue," who asked:

Is queer theory useful for historical work? Can "queer" be a historical, historicized category? What might a queer historical practice look like? Although "queer" is posed as a term that is meant to include men and women alike, might it elide gender in the way the term "gay" tended to in the past? Does queer erase differences between and among those whose variously deviant sexualities correspond to very different histories of marginalization? What is the place of empirical historical research in queer studies? What is the relationship between studies of queer reading strategies and representations and those that seek to explore the meaning and texture of people's lives?

This earliest adumbration of queer historical practice leaves the difficult job of defining "queer" largely to two scholars based outside departments of history, Donna Penn and Martha M. Umphrey (underscoring Duggan's point about institutional resistance). Penn and Umphrey make good use of the work of Foucault, Warner, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayle Rubin, and Judith Butler to expose how, in their view, lesbian and gay social history limits "the historical imagination." For Penn and Umphrey, the power of queer theory, by comparison, seems formidable in providing historians with a strategic escape from the hegemony of rigid systems of classification, stable sexual subjectivities, and fixed relational binaries. What, of course, has proved more difficult in queer historical practice—a field still in conversation with identity— is the challenge of working out how to dislodge and destabilize the structure of modern sexual knowledge itself, suggesting a project "divided against itself" in seeking to historicize both queer lives (queerness-as-being) and queerness in the past (queerness-as-method).

Recent queer history has begun to address—often more implicitly than explicitly—many of the RHR editors' questions, thus demonstrating that "queer" is very much a historical and historicized category. Thanks to new work on the variations of sexuality, we are beginning to see what a queer historical practice—as an epistemology and a methodology—might look like. The RHR cluster of questions anticipates the unsettling effects of the queer troubling of identity for "those that seek to explore the meaning and texture of people's lives"; however, concerns that queer would erase women or collapse "very different histories of marginalization" into an undifferentiated history of deviant sexualities seem unfounded, with the publication of work under the rubric of queer history focusing on both women and men, if seldom in relation to one another. Discrete histories of sexual practices that resist heteronormativity—lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans—have been deeply informed by aspects of queer theory in ways that preserve the distinctions of recognizable cultures and experiences. Even so, such progress in the development of queer historical practice belies the persistence of an "uncomfortable tension" between "lesbian / gay history and queer studies." Despite insistent calls by Duggan and others for productive intellectual exchange, historians and queer critics have only infrequently engaged in sustained dialogue, and it is this singular failure to communicate that has allowed to go unchallenged the queer depiction of history as a haven of positivist empiricism or historical writing as a "neutral chronicle of events." Only those uninformed about the vibrant and extensive debates in academic history "between those who assert the transparency of facts and those who insist that all reality is construed or constructed" would characterize the field as under-theorized and empirically driven. To reiterate, my aim is not to chastise one side or the other, but to clarify what is at stake in determining how or if the history (or "history") that outsiders produce differs from the professionals' by looking at the results of the border crossings between academic history and queer studies. Some queer critics, often drawing on "the most conservative methodological claims by historians," fashion a historical practice to suit their arguments and show little inclination to deepen their understanding of its range and diversity. Some trained historians, on the other hand, construe queer historical work as cultural criticism and miss opportunities to engage with bold queer theorizing of historicity, transhistoricism, temporality, and change, all topics to be discussed in this chapter and the next. The first task, however, is to unpack a stubborn binary that can sometimes appear to cordon off the practice of history from untrained outsiders.

Proper and Improper History

The reasons for the long-standing marginalization in academic history of the study of homosexuality or queer theory are just as manifold and complex as the reasons some queer critics construct what they think history is and how it works, but one thing is certain: the various constituencies with the most to gain in working across disciplinary boundaries—social and cultural historians interested in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and so-called heteronormative sexualities or in sexuality as an analytical tool; literary and cultural critics interested in writing the history of sexualities or in generating historicist readings of texts; and queer critics and theorists interested in sexuality's historicity—though not estranged, nevertheless too often remain unaware of or uninterested in the epistemological consequences stemming from the very different ways they have gone about their work. Thinking about the vital operations of disciplinarity in producing historical knowledge in relation to sex, the sexual, or sexuality is important because social and cultural historians (with varying degrees of institutional support) have not been alone in their pursuit of a lesbian and gay past. They have always worked alongside popular historians, activists, independent scholars, and scholars based in other fields, especially literary and cultural studies, often sites where queer theory evolved and still flourishes.


Excerpted from Disturbing Practices by Laura Doan. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: History and Sexuality/Sexuality and History

1  An Uncommon Project: The Discipline Problem Reconsidered
2  Genealogy Inside and Out

3  Topsy-Turvydom: Gender, Sexuality, and the Problem of Categorization
4  “We Cannot Use That Word”: On the Habits of Naming, Name Calling, and Self-Naming
5  Normal Soap and Elastic Hymens: Historicizing the Modern Norms of Sexuality


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