Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0
Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.
Chapter 1 - How to Do the Sexuality of History
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Riffing off the title of Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Lanser turns the underlying question around. Rather than questioning what historic sources can tell us about human sexuality, she asks what the discourse about human sexuality can tell us about history. This book focuses on published discussions or treatments of “sapphic” themes in the 16-19th centuries. Rather than using them to try to identify or examine the lives of actual women, Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, movements, and so forth. In essence, to ask “do large-scale historical patterns have a ‘sexuality’ that is expressed concommittantly?”
Lanser’s thesis is that preoccupation with the potential for female homoeroticism and its expression defines and accompanies the rise of “modernity” defined as a break with the notion of static history and the reign of tradition, and an embracing of individual human experience as a worthy focus of interest. She explores the relationship between these two phenomena as a matter of “confluence” rather than “influence” and so setting aside arguments over the directionality of causation.
Inherent in this study is the presupposition that female homosexuality is not simply a differently-gendered reflection of male homosexuality, but that it has a unique meaning within and to the societies it is a part of, and that that meaning can be traced in the differential attention paid to sapphic motifs in different times and places. Lanser’s data is drawn primarily from contemporary published materials (as opposed, for example, to private diaries and letters) precisely because she is not examining the private experiences and desires of individuals but the larger social engagement with sapphic themes as abstractions.
This first chapter lays out the plan of her analysis, discusses the history of the study of sexuality in the modern era, defines the terms under which she will be working, and discusses the advantages and pitfalls of her particular methodological approach. The chapter concludes with a summary of what the further chapters will cover, proceeding chronologically and correlating different treatments of sapphic themes with their corresponding social and historical developments. Lanser specifically notes that she uses “sapphic” precisely because it has become relatively obsolete in current use and therefore is less likely to stir up confounding resonances in the reader.