Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany: 1700-1815.
Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany offers a bold reevaluation of how modern state and society evolved in Germany. For Isabel Hull gender is central to the construction of both. Moreover, the sexual and gender definitions forged in the period 1700-1815 "remained archetypal, surviving revolution (1848), unification (1871), and capitalist development largely untouched and unquestioned." (p. 411) The paradigm Hull describes had three major elements: a strong state that "creat[ed] and guarante[ed] the non-state (society)"; the legal establishment of the private sphere; and, perhaps most important, the reworking of the definition of citizen into a "quintessentially male" category.
Although Hull's title suggests a starting date of 1700, the author reaches back into earlier centuries to consider the regulation of sex in what she terms traditional society. Building on Foucault, Hull points out that "[t]he axis from repression to free choice is wholly inadequate" (p. 47) to understand sexual experience and sexual control. The Reformation and its "discipline ordinances," however, did bequeath the basic laws of sexual regulation to the absolutist state. The Reformation urged moral reform based on the idea that Christian moral behavior undergirded the community and endowed it with an unseen but nonetheless robust strength. Reformation cities in setting up their lords of discipline and morals courts at the same time focused on the day-to-day sexual life of the laity and not, as the Catholic Church had done before, principally on the sexual misdeeds of its clergy.
Moving from the Reformation to the "peculiar epoch" historians have named absolutism, Hull delineates the creation of the private sphere. In a perceptive critique of the reigning orthodoxy of Sozialdisziplinierung, Hull shows how fallacious it is to regard the absolutist state as inherently coercive. In fact, the absolutist state proved a "self-conscious failure" and, while successful in gearing up the efficiency of the state, actually reduced its attempts to supervise and contain sexuality.
The self-doubt and limited failure absolutist bureaucrats felt led them to reevaluate how best to manage sexuality and, in even broader terms, to rethink the proper relationship of the government to the governed. The general trend observable, for instance, in the mitigation of penalties for such "sex crimes" as unwed pregnancy, illegitimate births, and infanticide, was the slow, but inexorable erosion of the willingness of the state to interfere in issues of sexual behavior. While the absolutist state never abandoned such regulation entirely, governors themselves began to follow "the reform initiatives of . . . extra-governmental voices," those Hull refers to as civil society's first "practitioners."
The two questions that guide the rest of the book, and that give it analytical structure and coherence, revolve around examining (1) the degree to which officials began to exchange state regulation of sexuality for civil self-regulation and (2) how civil society began to "set the content of sexual expectations that law would somehow reflect." Here, Hull steers skillfully through the maelstrom of eighteenth-century reform projects, legislative drafts, and philosophical treatises, to show just how the concepts of civil society shaped nineteenth-century sexual regulation and molded legislation.
It was that quirky, long-winded bunch of thinkers known as the cameralists who, according to Hull, first "conceived of civil society on its own terms, separate from government" and who also came to regard "sexual behavior as a social issue, not a political one." (pp. 161, 172) Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi, for example, in structuring a private sphere, stressed the absolute centrality of gender to the "constitution of the modern state and modern society." (p. 190) But if Justi was (might one say it?) a seminal thinker, his construction did not pattern the subsequent unfolding of civil society nor determine the system of sexual regulation that eventually emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Hull traces no simple or smooth lines of development from, for instance, Justi's thoughts on civil society to the ways in which Baden implemented the Code Napoleon.
Much of the reorganization of thinking about sexuality and sexual behavior took place somewhat later, during the Enlightenment. The German Aufklarer much concerned themselves with sexuality and revealed that abiding interest in extensive "thought experiments" on marriage, masturbation, and infanticide. Despite the many varieties of Enlightenment Hull depicts - ranging from liberal to conservative - all seemed to agree that moral harmony alone could preserve civil society, and much of that harmony derived from how successfully civil society regulated sexual behavior. Sexual images became more important and more frequent in the prevailing discourse on what full-blown civil society should look like (the cameralists and Aufklarer alike were convinced that while civil society was in the process of formation, it had not yet reached maturity). As civil society expanded in the discursive arena, so too did the relevance of gendered distinctions and "[w]here once gender differentiation had ordered the private, nonstate world and created at most symbolic echoes in the public, it was now supposed to organize both." (p. 296) There were, of course, many strands to late Enlightenment and early liberal ideas about sexuality: Immanuel Kant's "implicit sexual model" found more similarities than differences in males and females and Theodor von Hippel's "model of sexual irrelevancy" stressed domestic egalitarianism. But it was J. G. Fichte's "explicit sexual model" that "was becoming the rule" and that laid the "the sexual (not gender) ground for political rights." (p. 314) The citizen, henceforth, was endowed with the attributes of rationality, independence, and activity; all qualities deemed male. (p. 312)
In this new civil society and in the state it influenced, legal reform determined how to apportion rights and duties. The sexual views of civil society invariably skewed the rights of men and women, and what civil society thought about sex had profound implications for the civil and political rights of individuals. The Code Napoleon in Baden, for example, raised "maleness" almost to a "privileged Stand." (p. 375) This condition persisted at least until the late nineteenth century.
Throughout this long volume, one is struck by how the author, even when reviewing well-known episodes in German history, such as, for example, the much-examined debate over infanticide during the 1780s, manages to draw from them new perspectives that are, for the most part, convincing and sometimes strikingly penetrating in their acuity. Hull is interested in the public sphere (although her sense of the public sphere deviates in crucial ways from Jurgen Habermas's now classic formulation) and looks to the documents of public discourse - tracts, pamphlets, legal codes, journals, and the like - for her evidence. There are no archival finds here, nor has the author sought them for, as she observes, "the development of civil society is less a matter of archival record than of written public opinion." (p. 2) Clearly in her shrewd exposition of the legal framework of civil society and how it came into being, her records serve her well. Sexuality, State, and Civil Society is, without doubt, an extremely important work on the relationship of law and civil society. But whether these "sexual and gender definitions that founded civil society" actually - as Hull claims - affected "the everyday expectations of the people who inhabited the new order" (p. 411) remains a thesis that has yet to be tested.
Mary Lindemann Carnegie Mellon University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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