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What is Sexual Modernity?


While Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976) is known primarily for its pathbreaking description of the emergence of sexuality, it offers an equally important account of modernity. In his history of modernity, Foucault describes a shift from the sovereign’s “right to take life or let live” to the state’s biopolitical concern with “the right to make live and to let die.”[1] This biopolitical “administration of bodies” and “calculated management of life” is associated for Foucault with the growth of capitalism, democratic states, secularization, and administrative institutions such as “the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies” (History of Sexuality, 140, 141). Since Foucault suggests that societies that do not embrace biopower are left on the “threshold of modernity,” he makes clear that biopower is the constitutive force of modernity (143).

What relation does this account of modernity bear to the animating question of this cluster of essays: “What is Sexual Modernity?” For Foucault, control over life was characterized by two complementary forces: biopower with its “regulatory controls” of “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity” and “an anatomo-politics of the human body” that disciplines, optimizes, controls, and manages the body and conceptualizes it as a machine (139). While both these forces are implicated in sexuality, Foucault understands sex as a “pivot” between them, providing “access both to the life of the body [anatomo-politics] and the life of the species [biopolitics]” (146). In tracing the sexuality of biopower and the biopolitical, I mean to suggest that for Foucault modernity and sexuality are one and the same, that sexuality is modernity inasmuch as the “entire social body was provided with a ‘sexual body’” (127). The deployment of sexuality and its shuttling between anatomo-politics and biopolitics gives rise “to infinitesimal surveillances, permanent controls, extremely meticulous ordering of space, indeterminate medical or psychology examinations, to an entire micro-power concerned with the body . . . as well [as] to comprehensive measures, statistical assessments, and interventions aimed at the entire social body” (145-46). Thus, for Foucault sexuality and modernity are associated with the construction and regulation of the norm and the normal.

If for Foucault modernity is subject to the surveillance and control of sexuality, then sexuality is also measured by and constructed through discourses of modernity. As scholars like Alison M. Moore and Dana Seitler have argued, sexual categories were understood to be signs of progression, retrogression, atavism, and degeneration.[2] Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) provides the most famous account of this thinking, correlating historical and individual stages of sexual pathology. This alignment between the non-modern (the primitive, the barbaric, the racial other) and the sexually perverse is, as many commentators have noted, in no way limited to psychoanalysis, but typifies a much broader cultural discourse.   

With the imbrication of sexuality and modernity in mind, then, we might consider how much the equivalence between modernity and sexuality is an imposition routed through imperial and colonial projects. Mark Rifkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight? (2011), for example, “demonstrates how U. S. imperialism against native peoples over the past two centuries can be understood as an effort . . . to insert indigenous peoples into Anglo-American conceptions of family, home, desire, and personal identity.”[3] Reading native sexuality as a site of “indigenous-settler struggle,” Rifkin understands the reshaping of native kinship structures as an imperialist assault on native governance insofar as the “dynamics of family formation and household construction” are “central aspects of the kinds of collective identification, spatiality, decision-making, and resource distribution that conventionally are understood as outlining the contours of a polity” (When did Indians, 11, 10). Rifkin here suggests that competing ideologies and organizations of intimacy, family life, and sexuality represent competing visions of governance, importantly positioning sexuality at the heart of political economy.

For Rifkin, sexual modernity is analogous to and synonymous with heterosexuality and with the hetero/homo binary. Afsaneh Najmabadi shares Rifkin’s position, asserting that “[i]n the nineteenth century, homoeroticism and same-sex practice came to mark Iran as backward; heteronormalization of eros and sex became a precondition for ‘achieving modernity.’”[4] But a great scholarly dissensus characterizes the question of the sexuality of modernity. In The Sexuality of History (2014), for example, Susan S. Lanser “invert[s] the conventional wisdom that modernity consolidates a heteronormative order to argue that modernity can also be read as the emergence of the sapphic as an epistemic plausibility.”[5] By “epistemic plausibility,” Lanser means that the sapphic emerges as a phenomenon which is simultaneously thinkable, unexpected, and recurrently new thus marking the limits of modernity. Her claim for a sapphic modernity cuts against Najmabadi. While both these critics boldly ascribe a particular sexual content to what we might think of, following Frederic Jameson, as a singular modernity, Heather Love’s account of “the losses of queer modernity” opens the possibility that a nonnormative sexualized modernity might exist alongside of, or in dialectical relation to modernity so called.[6] Along these lines, Love writes: “The idea of modernity—with its suggestions of progress, rationality, and technological advance—is intimately bound up with backwardness. The association of progress and regress is a function not only of the failure of so many of modernity’s key projects but also of the reliance of the concept of modernity on excluded, denigrated, or superseded others” (Feeling Backward, 5). For Love, modernity is dependent on the erasure of queer modernity, suggesting that singular modernity’s failure produces multiple modernities.

While the essays in this forum underscore this range of positions, they also take Foucault’s hint to query the sexual content of modernity, particularly his explication of the simultaneous speciation of a “thousand aberrant sexualities” (“zoophiles,” “zooerasts,” “auto-monosexualists,” and many others) alongside the homosexual (History of Sexuality, 44, 43). By posing the question “does modernity have a sexuality?”  this cluster of essays both attempts to ascertain the content of that sexuality (as do Lanser and Najmabadi) and to follow Rita Felski’s lead in The Gender of Modernity (1995) in asking what is at stake in, or what changes occur, when we define the sexuality of modernity as queer, sapphic, heteronormative, perverse, or otherwise. The essays seek, as Elisa Glick suggests, to contest “those models of modernity that separate the aesthetic/erotic from the economic” and political and instead locates sexuality at the center of modernity in all its forms (“as an uncompleted philosophical project, a global socioeconomic system, a distinctive array of aesthetic techniques, or a specific phenomenological reality.”)[7] This reconsideration seems particularly urgent in light of the competing demands of Susan Stanford Friedman’s controversial Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (2015), which elongates modernism to a periodization ordinarily reserved for modernity and David James and Urmila Seshagiri’s “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” which attempts to return modernism to “the chrysalis” of its “early-twentieth-century genesis.”[8]

Susan S. Lanser’s essay begins precisely the kind of recasting of modernity that Gluck calls for,,exploring Walter Benjamin’s famous claim that “The lesbian is the heroine of la modernité.”[9] Lanser’s essay flips what she calls “the scholarly coin from the history of sexuality to the sexuality of history: from the premise that sexuality is historically constructed to the claim that history is also sexually constructed and that the large movements of societies and cultures can be read as and through sexuality.”[10] In order to track the effects of this shift, she aggregates a profusion of sapphic texts published in and around 1928, noting their picaresque qualities. This sapphic picaresque demonstrates not merely the exclusion of lesbians from domestic space (as the history of sexuality shows), but also “that the absence of home spaces in these novels” transforms lesbian characters into vehicles for the exploration of life outside domestic ties. This unmoored life enabled by the class privilege of international mobility functions to displace “sexual transgression onto a leisure class” and thereby preserve “heteronormativity for the working bourgeoisie.” At the same time, these incredibly mobile figures challenge “the mythology of the stable (and hetero-normative) nation-state.”

Cuncun Wu’s contribution similarly explores the nexus between modernity, sexuality, and class. Wu contends that late sixteenth and early seventeenth century (late Ming) Chinese pornography and erotic fiction reformulated the contours of desire — making legible the cultural existence of female desire and that of urban commoners. Taking the plebian erotic short fiction of the Lower Yangtze region as her primary example, Wu argues that this new lower class pornography reformulated morality away from strict demarcations of right and wrong to a more negotiable set of ideas about “fair dealing” and “equivalences.”

Like Lanser and Wu, who explore sexuality in the picaro and erotic fiction respectively, Vaclav Paris, in “Beginning Again with Modernist Epic,” understands genre and the epic in particular as crucial to apprehending the sexuality of modernity. For Paris the epic epitomizes modernism and many of its most canonical works: James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Marcel Proust’s À la Rechere du Temps Perdu (1913), Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1915–1962), T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925). But the epic is also notably associated with the premodern and premodernity and thereby summons alternative lifeworlds. In this way, Paris sees the queer epic animating this pastness to sidestep or recast the heteronormativity of the epic embodied in what Bakhtin understands as its preoccupation with the “world of fathers and founders of families.” Queer epic functions for Paris as a tool for unthreading the heteronormativity of modernity, echoing Heather Love’s contention that queer modernities arise from the failure of hegemonic and singular modernities and heteronormativities.

Reading the film Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Melissa Hardie examines the streetscape as a site that does not merely embody modernity and urbanization, but facilitates—as the queer epic does for Paris—its dissolution. Hardie reads the street just outside the bank (undergoing a botched robbery) as an “ante-closet” that in its very spatiality (both outside the bank surrounded by police and yet inside the police perimeter) operates as a crucial site of sexual modernity, summoning the dialectic of liberation and incarceration (heard in the chant of “out of the closet and into the streets”). Hardie understands the historical belatedness of Dog Day Afternoon (set in 1970s New York) in relation to narratives of sexual modernity as marking a movement away from overly individualized accounts of sexual identity and identification. Rather, Hardie theorizes a collective closet that functions as “a theatre of action rather than a space of subjective revelation, identification, or empowerment.” This theatre of action loosens the forces of identification instead forging a competing and contradictory narrative space of figurability that does not require the singular meanings of identity or sexuality or subjectivity.

Brian Glavey, too, explores a space of competing sexual narratives—both under- and overdetermined—understanding “epistemological uncertainty” itself as an operation of sexual modernity. In his “Modernity and Other Noctural Distempers,” Glavey writes:  “It is not simply that modernity is a concept without any specific ideological content, or that there are in fact multiple competing modernities. Instead there seems to be something about the sexuality of modernity that propagates these dichotomies, veering between the hyper- and the anti-social and promising a break with the past even as it binds us more fully to history.” For Glavey, this entwinement of modernity with its reviled others—primitive, antiquated, atavistic, aging, Victorian—ineluctably structures our affective and historical relations to the modern. 

Matt Houlbrook’s essay serves as a capstone by offering a kind of reversal, or at least torsion, of the historiographical questions that the cluster explores, questioning the sexuality of modernity and interrogating “our impulse to make the modern sexual.” Though he does not use this term, his essay offers what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would call a “reparative reading” of an incident in which Netley Lucas—“royal biographer, best-selling crime writer, and gentleman crook”—encounters a glory hole aboard a ship bound for Cape Town. Rather than attempting to ascribe a content or fix a particular meaning to the glory hole, Houlbrook uses its historiographic emptiness to refashion sexual modernity as contentless. Or rather he uses its potential contentlessness to explore an array of emergent social, psychological, affective, generic, and other features of 1920s and 1930s British culture.

While some essays offer a modernity with a specific sexual content (sapphic in the case of Lanser or hegemonically heterosexual and a bit queer in the case of Paris) and others imagine modernity with no sexual content at all (Glavey, Houlbrook), it is my hope that the array of positions offers a fertile field for continued discussion. This variety emerges in part from a debate over the temporal cynosure of sexual modernity with Wu’s essay trained on the eighteenth century and others focused on the twentieth century (Paris, Hardie, Houlbrook), with Lanser and Glavey moving between these periodizations. This tension implicitly exists in the larger field of sexuality studies between a group of eighteenth century scholars (Randolph Trumbach, Alan Bray, Theo van der Meer, Michael Warner) for whom the modern regime of sexuality coalesced at the end of the seventeenth century and scholars working with more contemporary materials (Foucault, Sedgwick, David Halperin, Joseph Boone, Peter Coviello) who agree that sexuality emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Trumbach, for example, asserts that by 1880 “modern Western homosexuality and heterosexuality had existed for nearly two hundred years. The new names therefore only represent a new stage in the public discussion of these roles, however much the discussion may have changed the political environment in which the roles were enacted.”[11] This view stands in pointed contradistinction to the title of Halperin’s book One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990). These two bodies of scholarship have not taken account of each other, have not been put in dialogue in large part because of Sedgwick’s axiomatic assertion that we not seek the “Great Paradigm Shift” that marks the emergence of the hetero/homo binary.[12] I understand this cluster as a call to begin the work of this dialogue, this adjudication, historicizing the great paradigm shift and tracking the emergence of sexual modernity and sexual subjectivity.



[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 136 and Michel Foucault, “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France (Picador, 2003), 241.

[2] Alison M. Moore, Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2016) and Dana Seitler, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[3] Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 8.

[4] Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 3.

[5] Susan S. Lanser, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 4-5.

[6] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.

[7] Elisa Glick, Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 4; Rita Felski, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 56.

[8] David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87-100, 91.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 4, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings  (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003), 56.

[10] Susan S. Lanser, “Mapping Sapphic Modernity,” in Comparatively Queer: Interrogating Identities across Time and Cultures, ed. Jarrod Hayes, Margaret R. Higonnet, and William J. Spurlin (London: Palgrave, 2010), 72.

[11] Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution: Vol. 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 19.

[12] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 44.