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Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England.

Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England James Bromley and Will Stockton, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013

Since the publication of Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982), the field of early modern literary and cultural studies has been having a robust conversation about the history of sexuality. Yet as Valerie Traub points out in her "Afterword" to James Bromley and Will Stockton's Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), "the content of sex has been strangely presumable, apparently interpretable through ... ready-to-hand transhistorical rubrics" (3, emphasis mine). Bromley and Stockton's volume subjects this supposed "content" to close scrutiny, arguing that despite the presumptive sine qua non of (penile-vaginal) intercourse, there is no single, transhistorical definition of sex, and no clear taxonomy or hierarchy of sexual acts. ("Sodomy," scholars fluent in the conversation know, "is an utterly confused category"; Sex Before Sex suggests that this may be the case for the whole field of sex itself). Bromley and Stockton argue that "the epistemological recalcitrance of sex," and the complexities of its representation make it a singularly exciting, if challenging, area of inquiry: one that asks us to question what we think we know not only about the past, but about the present as well. Fully aware that the authors in the volume are working with both modern and early modern epistemologies of sexuality--or more accurately, that both are working fictions of our own creation--the volume endeavors to theorize and historicize sex through a series of essays based not (only) on particular acts, but on questions about how sexual acts might signify. While the editors take account of legal definitions and injunctions (for example, Edward Coke's precedent-setting legal claim that the "emission of semen without penetration maketh no Rape" [5]), they suggest that the licit is only one way of reading (for) sex; acts that are "unremarkable within [legal] discourses' criteria" may be harder to see, but they are just as worthy of our attention.

Bromley and Stockton are also refreshingly interested not only in new archives and methodologies, but also in refusing to police "the boundary between 'reading' and 'reading into'" (6). (They cite Stanley Wells's prudish and proprietary indictment of the "dirty minds" of certain interpreters, but I always think of Alan Sinfield's amazing line in "How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist" (1996) when such considerations come up: "If gay men say 'OK, this is how [Antonio] speaks to us'--that, surely, is our business.") If sex is not really 'there' apart from specific discursive "deployments of sexuality," the editors ask, then are not literary texts--and, indeed, our readings of those texts--particularly rich sources of knowledge? If we suspend the idea that there is 'knowledge' to be had, then how does attention to acts that have "no immediate connection to the most prevalent, politicized, identitarian discourses of sexuality in the present" help us to "expose the limits of, and challenge the dominance of current discourses of sexuality" (8, 9)? If the earlier project of "queering" the Renaissance meant to "expose the ways that heterosexuality and heteronormativity shape critical perspectives on the Renaissance past as well as to recover expression of homoerotic desire and evidence of homoerotic relationships before the advent of homosexual identity," then is it not time to look at the sexual past not in terms of difference, development, or supersession, but rather in all its hitherto unremarked upon variety? Refusing an approach that defaults "sex to penile-vaginal intercourse" and relegates "all other acts to the category of the queer" (10), the erotic imagination that Sex Before Sex brings to the fore is one that is bracingly plural--not only in its variety, but also in its relationship to gender, intimacy, intersubjectivity, and, refreshingly, the presumptively dyadic nature of sexual behavior.

Some essays in the volume focus on specific sexual practices. Will Fisher's essay takes "chin chucking," or the erotic stroke or pinch of another person's chin (as when Hamlet tells Gertrude not to let Claudius "Pinch wanton on your cheek" [3.4.167]), as his subject, and James Bromley focuses on rimming, or oral-anal contact (as when Petruccio jokes: "What, with my tongue in your tail? / Nay, come again, Good Kate, I am a gentleman" [2.1.216-17]). Both chin chucking and anilingus are interesting for their indeterminate status: they can be done by and to both sexes; they are difficult to harness to a sexual orientation or telos; they are not genitally-focused. Sometimes Fisher undersells, and thus underarticulates, his argument ("I simply want to call attention to the existence of this gesture"), and sometimes Bromley oversells his. To call out an essay called "Rimming the Renaissance" for overstatement solicits charges of prudish resistance to queer flamboyance, but the claim that rimming "interrupts the taxonomizing of individuals and the march toward modernity that the proliferation of such taxonomies supposedly implies," is more an assertion than a convincing claim (186). Leo Bersani and Guy Hocquenghem, both of whom Bromley references, have already shown how libidinal investment in the anus avoids the type of indexing to dominant culture's terms, institutions, and goals that goes along with transgression; this central insight, both convincing, and extant in the literature, is thus not the grounds of my resistance. Rather I find the claim in the middle of the essay that rimming conflicts with the "hierarchies of bodies and pleasures that official early modern culture spun anything out of missionary-position heterosexual congress" (189) simply bewildering in the context of a volume keenly aware that there is no "official" early modern culture, let alone one that knew anything called either "heterosexual congress" or something like a "missionary position."

Some essays are perhaps too faithful to earlier ways of queering the Renaissance. Nicholas F. Radel's "'Unmanly Passion,'" for example, which argues that status-based prohibitions on expressions of desire between men help to distinguish between authorized and unauthorized forms, is familiar to readers of earlier work on the subject (notably books by Alan Bray, Alan Stewart, and Mario DiGangi). Others infuse familiar feminist and queer questions with new life. Kathryn Schwarz's essay returns to a familiar concern of feminist Shakespeare critics--the ways in which the (uncertain) project of patrilineal succession relies on virgins and chaste wives as "figures that signify fixed sexual states"--to ask new questions about the "conceptual plurality" of sexual knowledge. Starting with the famous, and almost pathologically reiterated, example of Lucretia, Schwarz argues that as "a social requisite that impersonates a physical fact," chastity "raises the question of whether sexual virtue can either derive from or refer to an embodied condition." In her reading, chastity is only confirmed by the "evocative corpse" of a dead virgin, and reminds us that there is no fixed referent for a given term or concept in the history of sexuality. Will Stockton's essay on Comus happily deploys psychoanalysis, for some years a critical red-flag in the field of early modern sexuality studies. Returning, with feminist hindsight, to a 1990s debate between the critics John Leonard and William Kerrigan (Kerrigan argued that Milton's Lady's "virtue is bound to a repressed wish for sex," and Leonard that her resistance is real), Stockton argues that the masque operates in the space of fantasy, staging "an imaginary scene, or a sequence of them, in which the Lady defends herself against the very assault for which she wishes" (235). Stockton is particularly interested in Jean Laplanche's "theory that sexuality originates in [...] moments of intrusion on newly constituting and vulnerable egos" as an explanation for "why experiences of desire and violation are so frequently inextricable within fantasy." Seduction experiences "are always undergoing translation, a repeated rendering-into-sense, as the subject matures in his or her desire" (246). In Stockton's reading, this is precisely the trajectory of Milton's masque: the story of a young Lady (with a "newly constituting ego") who experiences an early scene of seduction in which she follows Comus ("Shepherd, I take thy word") into the woods, and later retranslates that experience into a "betra[yal of her] credulous innocence" as she undergoes a series of further temptations (248). Stockton offers new insight into the Lady's "sharp distinction between her infantilized body and her discerning intellect," and of the ways in which sex attaches itself to the alimentary. (Both the cup she refuses to drink from, and the singularly resistant-to-interpretation "gumms of glutenous heat" that paralyze her, look different, and fresh, in his reading.)

Other essays in the volume are more clearly in dialogue with new critical trends, particularly the surge of recent (queer) interest in ecology. Stephen Guy-Bray's "Animal. Vegetable, Sexual," for example, which offers readings of Donne's "Sappho to Philaenis" and Marvell's "The Garden" in light of Sir Thomas Browne's remarkable wish in Religio Medici "that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction" (196), resonates nicely with Marjorie Swan's recent, and very good, essay on "Vegetable Love" in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature (Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi, eds. [New York: Palgrave, 2012]). Others evoke contemporary sexual practices and modes of consumption as ways of understanding representations of sexual acts in the past. Melissa J. Jones's "Spectacular Impotence," for example, reminds us that 30% of contemporary porn viewers are women (including on sites like "My Tiny Dick") in her reading of the titillating effects of impotence in poems like Nashe's "Choise of Valentines."

The best essay in Sex Before Sex, Christine Varnado's "Invisible Sex!," serves as a kind of headnote for the volume as a whole. Varnado argues that present assumptions about what sex "looks like" condition a critical (non) recognition of sex in literary representations, particularly in plays that gesture toward but do not stage sex acts. She points out that the most famous sex act in Romeo and Juliet (commemorated by Juliet's "Wilt thou be done? It is not yet near day" [3.5.1]), which is presumed to be (and often filmed as) heterosexual intercourse, is not actually staged at all. Moreover, it actively--even necessarily--solicits "acts of imagination, recognition, and affective hailing" on the part of the audience. Audiences (and readers) must see what is not there--and this, for Varnado, is a hermeneutic constitutive of playgoing (and of reader-response more broadly) rather than a historical problem. For Varnado eroticism is what "leaps out and hails our libidinal participation in a text." It is not an object of analysis but a way of reading, and we ought to "harness and use the power of erotically and affectively invested critical identification as a new, queer form of knowledge production that can uncover new sites, new forms, and new valences of 'sex' within the vastly different social and discursive contexts of the early modern world" (30). Stockton's insight in his essay that all sex is the object of ongoing translation, and, as such, resistant to decisive and singular translation, resonates nicely with Varnado's insight about the ways in which offstage 'sex' hails audiences to translate it into operative meaning in the present. Along with others in the volume, these essays offer exciting bridges between what are sometimes, and falsely, called "historicizing" and "presentist" approaches to early modern texts.
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Author:Crawford, Julie
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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