Published: Nov. 1, 2003 By

[1] For more than twenty years now, as I’m sure you know, scholars, theorists, and historians of sexuality have been engaged in a heated debate over the relationship between homosexuality, history, and society. Commonly referred to as the essentialist/constructionist debate, the controversy has centered around whether modern conceptions of homosexual “identity” are, among other things, universal or historical, natural or cultural, innate or invented. Those in the first camp are the essentialists; those in the second, the social constructionists: whereas the former see such identities as the intrinsic properties of individuals, the latter see in them all the hallmarks of historical and cultural relativity (see Stein, 325-53).

[2] I bring this rather weary debate to your attention yet again, not to take sides in it, nor to offer some new synthesis, but to interrogate it at a more fundamental level. I want to ask, in particular, what it is that motivates and sustains this debate. Most critics today, if asked this question, would say something about politics—that essentialism supports a conservative political agenda, for instance, constructionism a more radical one. The fact, however, that the reverse can also be true—that essentialism can be radical, constructionism conservative—should warn us against any too easy alignment with the political realm (see Fuss, xi-21; Sedgwick, 40-44).

[3] It is, then, in order to approach the question of a motive which remains irreducible to politics that I offer the following reading, a reading of two texts arguably at the center of the essentialist/constructionist controversy over homosexual identity: Michel Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality and Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual. If these two are in any way representative of the broader debate (and I think they are), attention to their individual motives might ultimately afford us a new perspective on the debate itself—and beyond that, on the persistence in Western academe of essentialist and constructionist paradigms more generally. Such, at least, is the wager of this essay.


[4] In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, titled in French La volunté de savior, Michel Foucault makes the now-infamous claim that

[a]s defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the legal subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage: a past, a case history and a childhood, a character, a life form, as well as a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. . . . [T]he psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized—Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth—less by a type of sexual relations than by . . . a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a relapsed criminal; the homosexual was now a species. (43, translation modified)

This passage—quoted again and again by historians and theorists of homosexuality—is of course the locus classicus for the social constructionist argument that a homosexual identity has not always existed, that, to the contrary, it was “constructed” in the late-nineteenth century—in 1870 to be exact. Historians have spent a lot of time quibbling over this date, usually arguing that it should be pushed back or that the effort to locate a shift should be abandoned all together (as when essentialists argue that homosexual identity has in fact always existed).

[5] Whatever their differences, critics participating in this debate have generally relied on a single common assumption about Foucault’s argument—namely, that it’s a statement about different kinds of people. According to David Halperin, however, it’s not: Foucault’s “schematic opposition between sodomy and homosexuality,” he claims, “is first and foremost a discursive analysis, not a social history. . . . It is not an empirical claim about the historical existence or nonexistence of sexually deviant individuals. It is a claim about the internal logic and schematic functioning of two different discursive styles of sexual disqualification” (99, emphasis in original). According to Halperin, in other words, Foucault’s claim is not about the difference between two kinds of people but between two kinds of discourse; it is a claim in which 1870 marks—not the emergence of the first self-identified homosexual—but the first time the modern homosexual appeared in print, as it were.

[6] Halperin devotes considerable attention to the famous passage not only because he wants to correct what he calls the “current dogmatic and careless reading of Foucault,” but also because he wants to assure us that research into the existence of homosexual identities prior to the modern period is itself properly Foucauldian: “Nothing Foucault says about the differences between those two . . . discursive strategies . . . prohibits us from inquiring into the connections that premodern people may have made between specific sexual acts and the particular ethos, or sexual style, or sexual subjectivity, of those who performed them” (100). To prove his point he then offers an impressive—and thoroughly Foucauldian—analysis of homosexual “proto-identities” in several ancient Mediterranean societies (100-109).

[7] I have a different reason for bringing the passage to your attention once again. I do so—not to argue over the date, not to champion discourses over people, nor even to endorse constructionism over essentialism—but simply to read it. I honestly don’t believe anyone ever has. By which I mean I don’t think anyone has yet gone beyond trying to figure out what Foucault meant in order to read what he actually wrote. Halperin makes some headway in this direction but I think he stops short: although he reads Foucault far better than most, he still reads him primarily for his ideas.

[8] I am not interested in Foucault’s ideas. At least not in the traditional sense of the word, the sense in which “ideas” refer to things like claims, theories, histories. To read what Foucault actually wrote in the famous passage we must, I think, look past these things to another sort of idea, one less conceptual and more fanciful than we have been trained to find in Foucault. I’m referring here to the fact that the famous passage composes not just a theory and a history but a story—that of the homosexual’s “birth.”

[9] To refuse to read this story as a story is to refuse to read Foucault fully: it is to sacrifice his imagery to his ideas, his words to his meaning, his writing to his philosophy. In order to read the story itself, however, we must approach the passage not as an account of actual events in history to be verified or disproved but as a narrative to be interpreted. Only in this way, I suggest, can we begin to approach the question of motive—of what it is that Foucault hoped to accomplish with his little story and, perhaps more crucially, why it has been so stunningly popular with social constructionists.

[10] To begin such a reading I want to focus on what is perhaps the most outrageous moment in this story: Foucault’s unqualified assertion that “Westphal’s famous article of 1870 . . . can stand as [the homosexual’s] date of birth.” This claim has a rather peculiar status in Foucault’s text. As many have noted, the absurd specificity of its date suggests not so much historically-informed scholarship as “polemical bravado”—a provocative rhetorical flourish on Foucault’s part (Sedgwick, 44; see also Jagose, 10-11; Eribon, 67). To this I would add that it also runs counter to Foucault’s method in La volunté de savior: to analyze sexuality in relation to a “multiplicity of force relations” rather than in relation to a single famous article (92, my emphasis).

[11] Given this contradiction, it seems unlikely that Foucault would be unaware of the outrageousness of his claim. To the contrary, it seems far more likely that when he casts Westphal as the father of the homosexual, Foucault in fact knows he’s telling us something of a tale, that he’s pulling the wool over our eyes a bit. Whether he actually knows this is less important, however, than the fact that this claim is implicitly marked as such in La volunté de savior—that the location and date of the homosexual’s birth is marked in this text by a certain outrageous dubiousness. As such, whether Foucault is mocking the attempt to pinpoint an origin for homosexual identity or endorsing it un-self-consciously, his narrative of the rise of that identity calls to be read not so much as history but as something more along the lines of fantasy. La volunté de savior, in other words, implicitly asks us to read “Westphal’s famous article” not as the true historical origin of homosexual identity (be it a feature of discourses or of people), but as the mark of adesire for such an origin, as a fantasy that such an origin might actually exist.

[12] In light of this, I want to suggest that Foucault’s narrative of the homosexual’s birth might be read as a kind of “primal fantasy.” While it was Freud who first posited the existence and importance of “primal fantasies,” the concept now arguably belongs to Laplanche and Pontalis, who, in their short essay, “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,” clarify and systematize Freud’s ideas. There they suggest that, “Like myths, [primal fantasies] claim to provide a representation of, and a solution to, the major enigmas which confront the child. Whatever appears to the subject as something needing an explanation or theory, is dramatized as a moment of emergence, the beginning of a history.” The “major enigmas” which primal fantasies seek to explain are “the origin of the individual” (explained through the fantasy of parental sex), “the origin of the difference between the sexes” (through fantasies of castration), and “the origin and upsurge of sexuality” (through fantasies of seduction) (19).

[13] Though not strictly equivalent to any of the above fantasies, Foucault’s narrative clearly “dramatize[s] . . . the beginning of a history” in order to explain an “enigma”—in this case the enigma of homosexual identity. Locating the origin of that identity in “Westphal’s famous article of 1870,” Foucault pinpoints a specific “moment” in history to account for this enigma, what Laplanche and Pontalis call a “moment of emergence.” The fact that Foucault also calls this “moment of emergence” a “date of birth” (“date de naissance” [Histoire, 59]) further suggests that at stake here is one of the three “major enigmas” referred to above—namely, “the origin of the individual.” At the same time, however, Foucault’s narrative provides little in the way of a fantasy of parental sex, the fantasy that would supposedly explain such an event. We are thus left to ask what type of fantasy might arise to fill its place, to explain, that is, the origin of this particular individual.

[14] Before doing so, however, a word of warning: my attempt to understand La volunté de savoir‘s famous passage as a “primal fantasy” should not be taken too literally. It is neither an analysis of Foucault’s psyche nor an endorsement of the reality of such fantasies. Rather, “primal fantasy” here designates a heuristic for analyzing the logic of origins—or, as Laplanche and Pontalis put it, for “interpret[ing] the problematic of the originary” (28). In more general terms, this essay aims not to psychoanalyze Foucault but to use psychoanalysis as a tool for interpreting his text (and by extension, the persistence of the essentialist/constructionist binary in Western thought more generally). Given Foucault’s famous resistance to psychoanalysis, however, I should probably add that to read him psychoanalytically is not necessarily to be anti-Foucauldian. What Foucault objected to was a use of psychoanalysis which contributed to the linking of truth and sexuality, to psychoanalysis as a confessional practice. This essay, by contrast, has nothing whatsoever to say about Foucault’s sexuality; it uses psychoanalysis, not to reveal the secrets of a sexual subject, but to interpret the structural intricacies of a written text.

[15] That said, let us return to the question of La volunté de savoir‘s “primal fantasy.” As a first step, we might note that Foucault attributes the emergence of homosexual identity to the rise of “inversion” theory: born through Westphal’s article, nineteenth-century homosexual identity was characterized by “a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. . . . a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul.” Foucault here refers to the dominant theory of homosexuality in fin de siecleEurope, the theory of “sexual inversion.” In its most famous formulation, this theory understood homosexuality on what was essentially a heterosexual model: the male homosexual’s desire for men was attributed to his having “a female soul in a male body” while the lesbian had the reverse. Although inversion theory would go through many variations on this theme, it remained consistent in its claim that homosexuality was referable to a combination of “male” and “female” characteristics in the individual, what Foucault calls “a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul.”

[16] Not just one theory among others (as it is sometimes thought of today), the theory of sexual inversion is for Foucault the theory of homosexual identity: by locating the “birth” of the homosexual in Westphal’s article, he suggests that without this theory—e.g., the theory of “contrary sexual sensations,” a theory of inversion—there would never have been a homosexual type, a distinct homosexual identity. Whether it exists in discourses or in people, homosexual identity is thus inextricably tied for Foucault to the identity of the invert: without inversion there would be no homosexuals.

[17] There would, however, be sodomites. Indeed, Foucault suggests that prior to the advent of a distinct homosexual identity, homosexuality existed only in and through “the practice of sodomy”: he claims that “[h]omosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny”—when it became, in other words, a way of being rather than something one merely did, an identity rather than a practice. As Eve Sedgwick has argued, Foucault here constructs “a unidirectional narrative of supersession,” a narrative in which the birth of homosexual identity through inversion theory must entail the “eclipse” and “withering away”—rather than the simultaneous persistence—of an earlier model of homosexuality represented by the sodomite (46-7). By this logic, the birth of homosexual identity is clearly tied for Foucault not only to the rise of inversion theory but also to the demise of the sodomite.

[18] But not only that. Consider the fact that whereas the sodomite had been “nothing more than the legal subject” of “a category of forbidden acts,” the homosexual was to become a “personage” with a whole set of unique characteristics. What I find most striking here is not the implicit suggestion that the sodomitical subject had no identity as a sodomite, but the simple fact that he was a “legal subject” and “nothing more” (“n[e] . . . que le sujet juridique” [Histoire, 59]). One cannot fail to be struck by the “nothing more” here, by the way it sharply contrasts with the myriad of things the homosexual “personage” will become: “a past, a case history . . . a childhood, a character, a life form . . . a morphology . . . an indiscreet anatomy . . . a mysterious physiology.”

[19] Foucault clearly constructs this list to impress upon us the notion that the homosexual’s sexuality was thought to infuse every recess of his life and being, such that his sexuality became “consubstantial with” and “everywhere present in” him, his “singular nature” (43). By this logic, we might say that this new “personage” was in fact “nothing more” than a homosexual, that everything about him—his past, his character, his morphology, et cetera—revealed nothing but his homosexuality. But the fact remains that Foucault narrates the emergence of homosexual identity as a move not from singularity tosingularity but from singularity to multiplicity, from the singularity of the sodomite who is “nothing more” than a “subject” to the multiplicity of the homosexual whose sexuality exists on a variety of levels. From this perspective, it seems that the birth of the homosexual “personage,” the move from practice to identity, entails a multiplication of the sites to which homosexuality can be attached, the dispersal of homosex into a variety of locations.

[20] This multiplication and dispersal is also implicit in the way Foucault opposes the sodomite to the homosexual as subject to body: he begins his story with the sodomite as “legal subject” and then moves to the “morphology” of the homosexual body, a morphology he then subdivides into an “indiscreet anatomy and . . . a mysterious physiology” (“une anatomie indiscrète et . . . une physiologie mystérieuse” [Histoire, 59]). In contrast to the sodomite who is “nothing more” than a subject, who thus appears quite literallywithouthis body, the homosexual here bears the burden of the body thrice over: his body has not only a “morphology” but also an “anatomy” and a “physiology.” The homosexual’s birth is thus synonymous with the sodomite’s move into this subdivided body: to be born a homosexual he literally had to “embody” his sexuality on each of these levels.

[21] I want to take a closer look at this body, and in particular at its “indiscreet anatomy.” In the sense that “anatomy” refers to the body as a whole, Foucault would merely seem to be saying that the homosexual’s body was thought to be noticeably, even blatantly different from other bodies. I refer here to the fact that the word “indiscreet” literally means “not prudent, cautious, or subtle” and so refers to something coarsely obvious or inappropriate, something that stands out from everything else. In this sense, the homosexual body with an “indiscreet anatomy” would not only fail to keep its secret (e.g., the secret of its homosexuality), but would blurt it out for all to hear (or see). Such a notion is consistent with Foucault’s claim that the homosexual’s sexuality was “written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away” (43). Both phrases refer to the notion that evidence of homosexuality can be found in the structure of the body itself.

[22] There is, I think, another sense of “anatomy” at work here, however. Consider the fact that Foucault pairs the homosexual’s “indiscreet anatomy” with a “mysterious physiology.” In so doing, he evokes not only the whole body but also the constitutive parts of the body. In fact, by pairing “anatomy” with “physiology” (as, for instance, college texts and courses often do), Foucault suggest that they can be opposed as “structure” to “function.” “Anatomy” would thus refer to the structure and boundaries of the various parts of the body, “physiology” to the study of what those parts do, the different biological functions they serve.

[23] To have a “mysterious” physiology in this sense would thus be to have body parts whose purposes remain unknown, a mystery. I think here of male nipples. To have an “indiscreet” anatomy, by contrast, would be to have a body with clearly differentiated parts, with parts which blatantly announce themselves in some way. I think here of the ever-popular notion that gay men, to put it somewhat “indiscreetly,” have bigger dicks than their heterosexual brothers, lesbians larger clits than their straighter sisters.

[24] Be that as it may, with the sense that “anatomy” refers to the constitutive parts of the body we have in fact arrived at the origin of the word itself, a fact which I think merits our attention. Truth be told, both meanings of “anatomy”—the whole body or its parts—derive from the Greek word for “dissection” (anatomê), which in turn derives from the Greek for “a cutting” (tomê). This meaning survives today when we use “anatomy” to refer to the dissected and labeled body, such as in all those pictures of “The Human Anatomy” that fill biology books—pictures, most often, of the interior of the body. As this example makes clear, to have or be an “anatomy” is to have a body that can be divided into parts, a body that can be dissected, cut up, and studied. To have an “indiscreet” anatomy in this sense—an anatomy with clearly differentiated parts—might thus be to have a body which is easily dissected.

[25] For Foucault, however, it is not just the body of the homosexual which is dissected and studied, but his entire life and existence: his “past,” his “childhood,”  his “character.” The homosexual’s dispersal among these various states of existence stems from the fact that he is first and foremost an object of scientific scrutiny, a scrutiny which dissects every recess of his being and body in its search for evidence of his sexuality. As such, we might say that when the subject of sodomy becomes a homosexual he acquires not only an identity and a body but an identity and a body which have been dissected, cut up, “anatomized.” Previously a bodiless “subject” and “nothing more,” the sodomite-become-homosexual is now a body—and a life—in bits and pieces.

[26] It is in this context that I’d like to consider a passage which appears only a few pages after the more famous one above. In this passage, Foucault claims that the “manifold sexualities” which came into existence in the Victorian period—including, he tells us, “the sexuality of the invert”—”were actually extracted from people’s bodies” (47-8) (“ont été réellement extraits du corps des hommes” [Histoire, 65]). Here we have yet another account of the rise of homosexual identity: given that “the sexuality of the invert” was understood to be “consubstantial with him,” his “singular nature,” what Foucault here describes is not so much the emergence of a new form of sexuality as a new way of mapping sexuality onto identity, a mapping which locates sexual identity on and in the body. As such, when Foucault claims that “the sexuality of the invert” was “actually extracted from people’s bodies” he would seem to be saying that homosexual identity—the “consubstantiality” of the invert and his sexuality—was already inherent in the body of the sodomite, that it was there just waiting to be “extracted.” In other words, he’s saying much the same thing as he did when he claimed that the homosexual’s sexuality was “written immodestly on his face and body”—a claim which likewise implies that the sexuality of the invert was already present in the sodomite’s body, that it was there just waiting to be “read.”

[27] And yet to have a sexuality “written” on the body is not quite the same as having it “extracted” from that body. Although both claims suggest that homosexual identity arose through a process of identifying sexuality with the body, they do so in radically different ways, through radically different metaphors: whereas a sexuality “written” on the body evokes an image of something added to the body’s surface, an “extracted” sexuality suggests something taken out of and away from that body.

[28] This latter image clearly resonates with that of the homosexual as a kind of dissected sodomite: like the body subject to anatomical investigation, the body subject to “extraction” is one that can be anatomized, cut up, taken apart. Indeed, Foucault’s metaphor seems to rely almost exclusively on the word’s medical meaning: “extraction”—as something that “actually” happens to “people’sbodies“—seems to refer rather literally to a kind of surgery, to a procedure which cuts or pulls something out of the body. I think here of a surgeon extracting a bullet or a dentist extracting a tooth (procedures which, incidentally, usually leave either a scar or a gap where something else once was).

[29] In this case, however, it is not a bullet or a tooth which was “actually extracted” from someone’s body, but “the sexuality of the invert.” And in the present context, the context of the metaphor, this would seem to imply—not that the invert’s sexuality was located in his body—but that it was removed. It seems to imply, in other words, that the invert’s sexuality was an actual, physical part of his body which he now lacks.

[30] At the level of La volunté de savoir‘s rhetoric, the level of its fantasy, this suggests that in order to become a homosexual the sodomite had to undergo not only the scattering of his subjectivity and the dissection of his body, but also the extraction of a body part. Indeed, given that the “extraction” of the invert’s sexuality is synonymous with his “birth” as a homosexual, with the “writing” of that identity on his body, it can only be the sodomite who suffers the “actual extraction” itself—the event which marks the beginning of his life as a “personage.” Taken together, then, these images of scattering, dissection, and extraction all point to one thing: they suggest that the fantasy which ultimately explains the enigma of homosexual identity in La volunté de savoir is none other than a fantasy of castration.

[31] If I call these things “castration,” it is because they all point to a radical loss of bodily and subjective coherence, a loss which, although not strictly equivalent to a loss of the male organ, has long been equated with it. In other words, I use the word “castration” primarily in the Lacanian sense of “symbolic castration”: to refer to the idea that in order to assume a symbolic identity—to learn even to say the word “I”—I must sacrifice a portion of my very being, forfeit what Lacan calls my “jouissance.” As he puts it in one well-known formulation: “Castration means that jouissance must be refused, so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder of the Law of desire”—e.g., through the symbolic (“Subversion,” 324). Put more simply, this means that in order to speak I must subject myself to a symbolic order I can never fully control and which can never fully represent me, thus alienating me from some part of myself.

[32] Although we are generally unaware of it, this is in fact the state of existence of the human subject as such—at least to the extent that he or she speaks. When we do become aware of it (e.g., the fact that we are symbolically subjected or “castrated”), this knowledge often comes to us, Lacan suggests, through images of the fragmented or dismembered body, the body in “bits and pieces,” the literally castrated body (“Mirror Stage,” 1-7).

[33] We find a near perfect example of this, I think, in Foucault’s description of the sodomite-become-homosexual. Here we find not only images of a fragmented, dissected, and castrated body, but also a striking example of subjection to a symbolic order: namely, the “writing” on the homosexual’s body. I’m referring of course to Foucault’s claim that with the advent of homosexual identity, the homosexual’s sexuality was “written immodestly on his face and body” (43).

[34] Now, given that for Foucault the homosexual is not a self-created entity but rather the creation of Victorian sexologists, it’s fairly clear whose pen must be responsible for this writing: while they undoubtedly claimed the “words” had always been there just waiting (as I suggested above) to be “read,” the writers in this case can be none other than the sexologists themselves, the creators of this new creature. Foucault thus implies that in order to become a homosexual the sodomite had to submit his body to a kind of writing, to a form of symbolic inscription. This in fact makes perfect sense when we consider that the homosexual was born not of flesh and blood parents but, according to Foucault, out of “Westphal’s famous article“—a piece of writing.

[35] From this perspective, the apparent contradiction between the addition of “writing” to the sodomite’s body and the “extraction” of his sexuality ultimately disappears, since in the logic of symbolic castration they are really just two sides of the same coin, conjoined if not exactly synonymous. Foucault in fact takes this a step further, however, by casting the two processes as simultaneous and synonymous: both metaphors—one of a body subjected to “writing,” the other of a body subjected to “extraction”—describe the same process by which the “sexuality” of the homosexual is unequivocally located in his body. As such, by implicitly equating a form of symbolic inscription (the “writing” on and of the homosexual) with a loss of bodily coherence (the “extraction” of the sodomite’s sexuality), Foucault—in his attempt to explain the origin of homosexual identity—provides us with what I would now call not just a fantasy of castration, but a fantasy of symbolic castration.

[36] Following Laplanche and Pontalis, we can now see that this fantasy functions to explain not only the origin of a particular individual (e.g., the homosexual) but also the origin of a sexual difference—in this case the difference between the homosexual and the sodomite. Although this is a difference between two types of men, the fantasy nonetheless explains it in exactly the same way that the child, once privy to the primal scene, will explain the difference between its mother and father (and by extension women and men): in terms of “castrated” versus “phallic.” Indeed, if in La volunté de savoir the homosexual is “castrated,” then he must first have been not only a sodomite but a “phallic” one to boot (“phallic” both in the literal sense of the word and in the sense of a state without subjection or lack). I’m tempted to say this means that, whereas the homosexual is a castrated sodomite, the sodomite is a phallic homosexual. But since “phallic homosexual” is a contradiction in terms in this context, I’ll just say that in the logic of this fantasy the sodomite must have what the homosexual does not—namely, a subjectivity and a body free from “castration.”

[37] We see this most clearly, I think, in the sodomite’s body itself—in the fact that it never actually appears in La volunté de savoir. I refer here not only to the fact that Foucault literally never mentions it, never inscribes it into his text, but also to his claim that the sodomite was “nothing more” than a “subject.” Foucault opposes this simple “subject” to the homosexual—not just as a “personage”—but as a personage with a “morphology,” an “anatomy,” and a “physiology.” A personage, that is, with a body. Opposed in this way, the body of the homosexual must designate something more than being a subject: one of the various things the sodomite, as nothing more than a subject, cannot have. And if he cannot have a body, then he cannot be castrated.

[38] It might be objected that such a reading stems, not fromFoucault‘s portrayal of the sodomite, but from the way “sodomy was . . . defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes” (43). To this I would reply that, although the Ancients may have defined sodomy without reference to the sodomite’s body, it is onlyFoucault who contrasts this bodiless state with the marked embodiment of the homosexual. And this, coupled with La volunté de savoir‘s own refusal to inscribe the sodomite’s body, suggests that the sodomite can be neither literally nor even symbolically castrated, that he is a subject not only without a body but also outside of language itself—a subject in utopia.

[39] I call this fantasy “utopian” because it posits a state of existence which is clearly impossible: the sodomite obviously cannot exist somewhere outside of language and without a body. As such, although I am arguing that the sodomite’s body never appears in La volunté de savior, it would in fact be more accurate to say that it never appears as a sodomite’s body. It does appear, however, when the sodomite must succumb to have his sexuality “written immodestly on his face and body”—when he becomes, that is, a homosexual. We might thus say that if the sodomite’s body appears at all in La volunté de savoir, it does so only as the body of the homosexual, as a body that has been subjected to a castrating symbolic inscription.

[40] It appears, in other words, just as every body must: inscribed within a symbolic system. Indeed, it seems only logical that in order for a body to appear as a body it must first be inscribed into a symbolic system, a system which provides at least a minimal definition of what a “body” is. If this is true, and I think it is, then what we find in the body of the homosexual must in fact be none other than the undisclosed truth of the sodomite’s body—namely, that it’s a body like any other, far from phallic in its subjection to a symbolic order it can never fully control.

[41] La volunté de savoir chooses not to disclose thus particular truth, preferring instead to evoke the impossibly utopian fantasy of a life without the body and so without the threat of castration. To do so, however, the text must transpose the sodomite’s essentially, symbolically castrated body onto the body of the homosexual, a body which will bear the burden of castration for him so that he may remain phallic. Only in this way, I suggest, can the sodomite remain a “subject” and “nothing more.”


[42] By way of comparison, I turn now to the very different—though no less utopian—account of homosexual identity in the work of Rictor Norton. In The Myth of the Modern Homosexual, and in sharp contrast to Foucault, Norton argues that rather than being a “constructed” phenomenon homosexual identity is an in-born and “essential” feature of being homosexual. Of particular interest in the present context are two examples Norton uses to support this argument. In both examples, he attempts to counter what he sees as a tendency in social constructionist theory to ignore the “innateness” of homosexual identity in its search for the “constructedness” of gender. In the first, he refers us to “The hijras of modern India—mostly transvestite or transsexual male prostitutes who perform music and dance at important social festivals.” He claims that the hijras “have been reduced to specifically gender phenomena by modern [social constructionist] theorists despite the overriding importance of homosexuality in their lives. The hijras are of course ‘constructed,’ in the sense that they castrate themselves, but they maintain that their hijras identity predates that castration and is specifically a homosexual identity” (18).

[43] In contrast to the social constructionist argument to which he refers here, Norton suggests that hijras identity is not really a “constructed” identity. Neither is it, according to him, primarily agender identity, the identity social constructionists supposedly think it is. To the contrary, Norton suggests that hijras identity is a “specifically . . . homosexual identity,” one which “predates [their] castration”—the “construction,” that is, of their gender identity. The implication here is that, while we might think of the hijras’ genderidentity as constructed (if we must), we should not think of theirhomosexual identity as such. Their homosexual identity “predates” their gender identity, and so, Norton contends, should not be seen as a construct but as the essential and defining feature of who they are.

[44] I must admit that, aside from what Norton here tells us, I know very little about the hijras and so am not in a position to adjudicate between these two arguments. Neither, however, am I particularly interested in doing so. What interests me, rather, is much the same thing that interested me in Foucault: not the historical (or anthropological) accuracy of Norton’s argument, but its rhetorical function—specifically, the way it functions to define homosexual identity.

[45] Norton defines the hijras’ homosexual identity as innate or “essential” in contrast to the so-called “constructedness” of their gender identity as eunuchs. In doing so, he equates “construction”—albeit somewhat jokingly—with castration: “The hijras are of course ‘constructed,'” he claims, “in the sense that they castrate themselves.” We should not, however, take this statement as an endorsement of social construction theory, for Norton’s point would still seem to be to criticize the theory of construction—precisely by equating it with “castration.” In using this word, Norton clearly seeks to contaminate the concept of construction with the traumatic negativity of castration, the implication being that if we don’t want castration then we shouldn’t want the theory of construction either. He suggests, in other words, that we reject the theory of social construction for the same reasons we would reject being castrated: because they are both seriously lacking.

[46] Norton’s tactical conflation of construction with castration might also provide a clue as to why he rejects any and all social constructionist theories. While I argued above that Norton reads the hijras’ castration as evidence of their so-called “construction,” his conflation of the two concepts can just as easily support the reverse argument: that he sees the idea of construction in general as a form of castration. To be socially constructed in this sense would be equivalent to being castrated, a notion which could easily explain why Norton rejects the theory of construction tout court. From this perspective, we might say that Norton in fact reveals what is only ever implicit in Foucault (and perhaps in the theory of social construction more generally)—namely, that construction entails castration.

[47] Norton, in other words, reads Foucault just like I do. Except, of course, for the fact that he refuses to follow Foucault in seeinghomosexual identity as the primary site of this castrating construction. In contrast to Foucault, Norton forcibly separates both construction and castration from homosexual identity. He implies that the hijras’ homosexual identity exists not just prior to but also independently of both construction and castration: “The hijras are of course ‘constructed'[/castrated], but . . . their hijras identity predates that castration and is specifically a homosexual identity.” For Norton, then, homosexual identity is not only “essential” and in-born (e.g. not “constructed”), it is also phallic (e.g., not “castrated”). Unlike Foucault, who sees homosexual identity as castrating, Norton sees that identity as a sign of phallic wholeness.

[48] It is with this in mind that I want to turn to the second example Norton uses to support his argument for essentialism. The example appears a mere three paragraphs after his discussion of the hijras and is part of the same attempt to counter the supposed over-emphasis on gender in social constructionist theories. Norton begins this example by asking an age-old question, one which has plagued many of us for years. “Do queers walk funny?” he asks (19).

[49] Norton goes on to say that this “is a question still half-seriously debated in Internet news groups, the general consensus being that the walk imitates female prostitutes” (19). Despite its dismissive and jokey tone, I’d like to pay some serious attention to this example. Norton suggests that “internet news groups” represent the typical social constructionist position, a position which claims—if we take him at his word—that something we might call “the gay walk” was constructed in imitation of “female prostitutes.” According to this position, “the gay walk” is not a uniquely or innately homosexual phenomenon; it is not something “essential” to gay men, but contingent upon social context. It is derivative . . . constructed.

[50] Norton explicitly counters this position in his next paragraph, arguing that phenomena like “the gay walk” are part of “an independent Gay cultural tradition” and so “essential” at least to thatculture if not to all gay people (20). He also implicitly counters this position in the sentence immediately following the one about the prostitutes; there he claims (without reference or support) that homosexual “men . . . in the 1930s and 1940s . . . felt that the real construct was the exaggeratedly masculine walk of heterosexual men” (19). If the way heterosexual men walk is “the real construct,” then the way gay men walk is something like “thefake construct”—a somewhat confusing and perhaps inappropriate concept here, but which I nonetheless take to mean that “the gay walk” isn’t really a construct at all. By locating “the real construct” in heterosexual men, Norton implies that “the gay walk” is essential to and innate in gay men.

[51] Once again, I am not in a position to decide between these two positions, to decide whose walk is “thereal construct.” But I can say this: Only three short paragraphs after Norton equates the hijras’ castration with “construction,” he endorses the claim that the hetero-male walk is “the real construct.” In between these two examples, Norton makes no reference whatsoever to the concept of social construction or to social constructs; these concepts are only ever implied, never stated explicitly. We are thus left with only two sentences in these paragraphs which actually refer to social construction, two sentences which yearn, I think, to be brought together: “The hijras are of course ‘constructed,'” Norton claims, “But . . . the real construct [is] the exaggeratedly masculine walk of heterosexual men” (18-19).

[52] “In the sense,” of course, “that they castrate themselves.” Indeed, it is nearly impossible to read the play of construction and castration in Norton’s text and not come to the conclusion that he sees heterosexual men as castrated. Unlike Foucault, in other words,Norton associates castration not with homosexual identity (which he sees as phallic and whole) but with heterosexual men. And yet, just as Foucault displaces the body of the sodomite onto the homosexual, so too does Norton displace onto heterosexual men something that actually belongs to the homosexual. We see this most clearly in his discussion of the hijras: because he cannot repair their castration, because he cannot purge it from their bodies, Norton projects it onto heterosexual men (as evidenced by the fact that it is they and not thehijras who are “the realconstruct”). Only in this way, I suggest, can the identity of the hijras remain “specifically a homosexual identity”: an identity freed from the body and so freed from castration.

[53] The hijras, however, are not the only homosexuals Norton hopes to free from castration. He in fact wants to free us all. Consider, for instance, Norton’s rather programmatic approach to queer history in the eighth chapter of his book, “The Great Queens of History.” There Norton writes of—and promotes as exemplary—what he calls “the best-known paradigm of queer cultural history”: “the list of famous homosexuals” (216). He promotes such lists because to him their “primary purpose . . . is to banish a sense of alienation . . . . [by] celebrat[ing] that [we] are part of a cultural unity . . . . [that] we have a unified historical identity” (223). Norton here casts queer “cultural unity” as the exact opposite of queer “alienation.” The “primary purpose” of the list of famous homosexuals—and of Norton’s vision of queer history more generally—is to replace this “sense of alienation” with a knowledge of “cultural unity.”

[54] By the same token, in the last paragraph of the book Norton attributes what he calls the “malaise and weakness of the modern gay community to . . . [q]ueer people [being] cut off from queer history,” claiming that we “can only be empowered and enriched by recognizing links with queer culture through the ages” (292). Here Norton opposes “malaise and weakness” (which stem from being “cut off” from history) to empowerment and enrichment (which come from “recognizing links” to history, from “unity” with our forebears). The more we read, however, the clearer it becomes that there are really only two options here: on the one hand there is alienation, malaise, weakness, and being cut off; on the other, unity, empowerment, enrichment, and more unity. Translation: castration versus phallic wholeness.

[55] From this perspective, it seems that the vision of history Norton endorses, his program for a better queer history, is one which seeks to defend all homosexuals from castration. It is a project which seeks to banish “alienation” and castration so that homosexuals may become a phallic “unity”—in other words, an impossible and utopian project.

[56] Just like La volunté de savoir. Indeed, although their terms are different, it seems clear that both Norton and Foucault are motivated in their historical projects—at least in part—by a desire to escape the threat of castration. On this level, they differ only in who they see as castrated, who phallic: whereas Foucault casts the homosexual as castrated and the sodomite as phallic, Norton locates castration in heterosexual men, phallic wholeness in homosexuals.

[57] As I indicated in my introduction, I want to suggest that these differences might usefully inform the essentialist/constructionist debate over modern homosexual identity. If, as I suggested there, these two are in any way representative of the broader debate, then we might conclude that that debate is motivated and sustained, not by politics, nor even by conscious theoretical differences or understandings of history, but by utopian fantasies of escaping castration that appear to be largely unconscious.

[58] Such a reading of the debate would suggest that, rather than argue over whether homosexual identity is “constructed” or “essential,” we should attend to the unconscious motivations behind promoting any vision of homosexuality. We should attend, that is, not to the historical veracity of understanding homosexual identity in essentialist or constructionist terms, but rather, to the fantasies that motivate and sustain allassertions of identity. Only in this way, I suggest, can we truly guard ourselves against the effects of castration: the ways in which our anxiety leads us to substitute fantasy for history, our projections for the particularity of the other. For ultimately, it is not castration which is the problem here; the real problem is ouranxiety about castration and the ways we attempt to deal with it.

[59] Castration and utopia, anxiety and its disavowal. These—not essentialism and constructionism—are the terms of the debate as I now conceive it. By way of conclusion, I’d like to suggest that these terms (or others like them) may in fact be relevant to a wider range of essentialist/constructionist debates than that over homosexual identity (debates, for instance, over gender, racial, and class identities, to name only the standard trio). Toward that end, let me reiterate that (in this essay at least) both essentialism and constructionism have tended to fall on the side of utopian disavowal. On the other side, however, I have placed—rather tacitly and without much ado—psychoanalysis. Not the psychoanalysis of over-bearing mothers and weakling egos, of sexual pathologies and normative cures (there is no cure for symbolic castration), but the psychoanalysis which teaches us an ethical approach to otherness, which enjoins us to check our projections and to acknowledge our castration. It is this psychoanalysis which I would offer as an alternative to debates over essentialism and constructionism, a psychoanalysis which demands that we ask not only who we are and how we came to be, but also—and perhaps more importantly—why we insist we are who we are.


Acknowledgements: For their generous help and support I thank Jane Gallop, Gregory Jay, Jeffrey Merrick, Judith Butler, Ann Kibbey, and Joel Richter.

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