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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, thou shouldst be living at this hour
Here’s a classroom exchange from Cris Beam’s I am J (2011):

“Whitman did also love men.”
“You mean he was bi?” someone said. […]
Bisexual wasn’t a term widely used in Whitman’s day, so we shouldn’t ascribe language that isn’t historically accurate,” Charlie said. “But he did love both men and women.”

I quote this passage, but could equally have quoted many others: it’s a common idea, after all. And it’s true that conceptual categories change over time and cannot be unproblematically mapped from one age to another. We might reasonably state that there were no heterosexuals in the 16th century, for example, because neither the term nor the urge to categorize people on that sort of basis yet existed; nor would they exist until science (and pseudoscience) had developed further and been applied to human subjects. To state that Henry VIII was a heterosexual man is thus, in one sense, quite misleading.

So yes, I see where people are coming from when they warn against anachronism. But there are real problems with the alternative approaches, too. I’ve talked about one – the problem of erasure – elsewhere. But there’s another obvious question, namely: if we don’t use modern terminology, what terminology can we use? The passage I’ve quoted offers one alternative – “He did love both men and women”. But this is only a semi-solution, because these words, even though they are older and more fundamental to the English language than words like “heterosexual” and “bisexual” – are no less liable to changes in meaning and connotation. Tennyson loved Arthur Hallam and also his wife Emily: does that make him like Walt Whitman, in the sense being enquired about here? Probably not. Such vagueness is less than helpful.

If the aim is to avoid anachronism, then the obvious solution might be to use the terminology of the time in question. But much of that terminology is now seen as offensive (are we really calling for articles asking “Was Shakespeare a sodomite?”), and the conceptual and moral categories that give rise to them are in many cases ones that we now reject as invalid and of little utility.

So, if modern terms are inadmissible because anachronistic, and period terms are inadmissible because offensive and/or wrong, what is the best way of discussing these subjects historically?

We might of course claim that to ask “Was Whitman bisexual?” is simply to be incoherent. But (questions of erasure apart) how far would we wish to push this approach to language? What about disease, for example? Is it incoherent to say that John Keats died of tuberculosis because the word postdates him? That seems OTT.

All thoughts welcome, as ever.

If I was discussing social attitudes about the disease Keats died of, I'd call it consumption. If I was discussing his symptoms, I'd call it tuberculosis.

Sexual behavior, like disease, is a fact. But sexual orientation itself, let alone the names for it, is a social concept. If you're just trying to get across that Walt Whitman voluntarily had sex with both men and women, bisexual is a reasonable term. But it does have a lot of baggage that could be extremely misleading if you're trying to talk about how Whitman saw his own sexuality, or how it functioned in his time, or how his contemporaries perceived it.

I would probably describe the sexual behavior and leave the anachronistic terms alone when discussing historical figures. "Men who had sex with men/men who had sex with women/men who had sex with men and women" is a little clunky but, to me, more accurate.

That's much better, I agree, though in many cases (I don't know about Whitman) we'd be wanting to refer to sexual desire rather than behaviour, so perhaps "was sexually attracted to" rather than "had sex with"?

Yes, I would think so.

You make the same points I would make, about social construction of concepts like bisexuality being problematic to associate to times when those constructions did not exist.

So, if modern terms are inadmissible because anachronistic, and period terms are inadmissible because offensive and/or wrong, what is the best way of discussing these subjects historically?

I often find myself discussing behavior with as few technical terms as I can get away with, unless they are important to how the subject of the discussion saw themselves. "He did love men and women" is vague, but I'm not sure I see anything wrong with "he had both male and female lovers."

As I mentioned to rachelmanija above, the only problem with that is that sexual attraction isn't always acted upon. But of course there are ways to rephrase to take that into account.

the only problem with that is that sexual attraction isn't always acted upon.

Of course. It's not required to be in order for the definition to work (although it might be relevant to the person's self-definition, or conceptions of behavior at the time). But that approach still feels less clumsy to me than back-projecting distinctions and concepts the time might or might not have cared about.

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I'd say, that the only problem with that is that sexual attraction isn't always acted upon is one of the most common problems, at large.

Personally, I just tend to say I'm interested in people.

John Keats was consumptive as the contemporary term had it.

Even more wonderfully, according to some, he suffered from phthisis- I adore that word!

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Sometimes translations can be somewhat odd!

He was turning into a parrot? :)


If the word has simply changed, that's one thing, like consumption. But theTV shift of conceptual boundaries is another. It would be like saying Beethoven was born in the Federal Republic of Germany. That's where it is now, but not what it was then.

I think that's a sound principle, but it may not be as easy to apply. In science especially (though I don't know how far this applies in the case of consumption/tuberculosis) the new term often reflects our different understanding of the aetiology and nature of the thing itself. Is oxygen the same thing as dephlogisticated air? In one way yes, in another, no. To some extent, all language is deictic.

With consumption/TB, it's not so much that medical understanding has changed as that social understanding has changed. Consumption had a lot of social ideas attached to it that are no longer in use; if I recall correctly, it was the glamorous illness of doomed, creative youth. There's always a social niche for one of those. For a while it was AIDS. Those illnesses and their meaning tend to gravitate downward in time, eventually becoming markers of the lower class. I assume because once an effective treatment is discovered, mostly poor people die of them or suffer from them.

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I myself would not object to an article with the title 'Was Shakespeare a sodomite?' if it included a critical examination of the meaning and cultural significance of 'sodomite' in late sixteenth-century England.

Yes, I think that might be the ideal. And 9 times out of 10 an article that asked that question would be doing so in a context where a more extensive look at the terminology would not be out of place.

My problem with the argument that using such language is anachronistic is twofold:

1) The assumption that shifts in language equate to shifts in concept. I'm not convinced of this. It's an assumption that language and literature professors are fond of; it seems self-evidentl to us. But it would, wouldn't it? We're a self-selecting bunch, and what we select for is the people to whom language is most important, who are the most deeply invested in language. It's like pro athletes talking about how playing sports taught them discipline and teamwork and other good stuff. It's no doubt true, but there's no way in hell playing sports ever did or would do that for me. I'm far from convinced that language is as formative a force in thought for most people--or even indicative of changes in thought--as this assumption would have it. I mean, what about the many people who think mainly visually? Or the smaller group of people who think kinesthetically? Why assume that a shift in language reflects anything about their thought at all?

2) What is the real question being asked? With questions of this nature, it's hardly ever really "Did Whitman identify himself as a bisexual and think of himself as a member of a group called "bisexuals'?" It's hardly ever "Did Whitman consider his identity to be essentially formed by his attractions to both men and women?" The real question usually being asked is "Did Whitman [want to] have sex with men as well as women?" The question is being asked in the present day, and the word "bisexual" has a reasonably clear meaning (as clear as any other word, anyway) in the present day. So let's quit screwing around, so to speak.

Essentially, I find this to be a linguistic version of "we can't judge them by the standards of the present," an argument I abhor when employed politically. We are living in the present. Pretending that we can step out of that just by using the right words is...arrogant and to my mind, incorrect.

By the standards of its own time, The Well of Loneliness tells the story of an invert. And when I teach it, we talk about that in class. But I would be seriously remiss if I just ignored the resonance lesbians, queer women, and trans men have found in the novel historically and currently in an effort to avoid anachronism.

Edited at 2015-07-09 10:06 pm (UTC)

Well, I'm sure you're right that academics tend to obsess about these things more (or at least at greater length!), but I really don't think it's such a niche interest, especially where the terminology comes with a heavy freight of negative connotations. When I think of how language change and changes in social attitude have marched almost in lock-step in the cause of civil rights in the USA, for example, it's clearly something a lot of people feel strongly about. Someone could easily get fired for using the wrong word to refer to a certain racial group, even though it's denotatively "right".

Totally agreed about the importance of what the questioner is interested in. As for judging by the standards of the present - well, you're right, what other standards are ultimately available to us? One of those standards does involve a consideration of mitigating/aggravating factors, though, which complicates things. Understanding comes before judgement, and for that some attempt at a kind of historical empathy has to be made, however imperfectly (and it will always be imperfect).

Your approach to teaching The Well of Loneliness seems the ideal one to me.

I take your point, but at the same time I think it in some ways proves mine. If you look at the fairly rapid rate of change for such words, it suggests to me that the change in diction doesn't actually work. I was watching "The Murdoch Mysteries" the other day and there was the following exchange between the Inspector and a young constable regarding a witness who was what we would now call autistic:

Inspector: Can you trust her? She's an imbecile.
Constable: Oh, sir. That word's considered offensive now. That's not what we say.
Inspector: Fair enough. What's the word now?
Constable: Moron.

And when I was young, it was "retarded." But that quickly became derogatory as well, because changing the words doesn't solve the conceptual issue, which is that people are mean and also will value a person by his/her conventional intelligence. The words keep on changing, but that doesn't change the concept, no matter how much the people who change the words want it to.

Thanks re: Well of Loneliness--it was the first time I taught it, and I was taken aback at how well it fit the framework I think of as "trans man." Coincidentally, I taught I am J in the same class, a course on queerness and childhood in literature...

I've always figured there was a decent chance that Radclyffe Hall was actually trans, which might be why she liked the more ambiguous word "invert." But I haven't read a ton about her.