This essay interrogates our impulse to make the modern sexual. Focusing on two stories, told in the decades after the Great War by the British confidence trickster and crime writer Netley Lucas, I explore what happens when we take the notion of sexuality out of modernity. In so doing, I tease out the intellectual possibilities of thinking queer about a particular historical subject and moment.
Self-published in 1928, the annus mirabilis of queer modernism, Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack is a landmark of sapphic modernity. As Susan S. Lanser notes in her introduction to a 1992 edition of Barnes’s idiosyncratic almanac, the text’s “lesbian cosmology” constitutes a radical revision of “Western culture, creating alternatives to patriarchal ritual, dogma, and myth.”
Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon represents sexual identity in the early 1970s in terms of an “ante-closet” temporally and spatially located “ahead” of or “before” more familiar closet epistemologies.
In his 1978 book, On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson famously claimed that “the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have." His idea, which has since given rise to a field of sociobiology called “Epic of Evolution,” is that human beings have a primal need for explanations of their existence and cosmic order, a need better served by evolutionary science than religion or literature.
The concept of modernity appears to be particularly problematic when applied to China—not least because China’s urbanizing agrarian civilization found itself unprepared for the rapidity of Western imperial expansion.
1928 has been widely recognized as a “banner year” for lesbian literature; Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is only the best known of a chronological convergence that includes Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, to name the most prominent.
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.”