Greta LaFleur is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Yale University. Her interests include North American literary and cultural studies, the history and historiography of sexuality, the history of science, and queer studies. Her current book project is tentatively titled Conditional Desires: Histories of Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century, British Colonial North America.
Q1. In your dissertation, “American Insides: Popular Narrative and the Historiography of Sexuality 1674-1815,” you “theorize and argue for the use of a presentist, affective historicism as an alternative methodology for producing histories of sex.” How does your work challenge the existing historiography of sexuality?
G. L. My dissertation (which I finished in 2011) has now become a book manuscript, tentatively titled Conditional Desires: Histories of Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century, British Colonial North America. It’s a pretty different project, at this point, than what it was in dissertation form, but the way that it engages the historiography of sexuality remains fairly consistent with its earlier iteration. The biggest and most important way that it challenges conventional historiographic approaches to sexuality is that it does not assume sexuality to bear a privileged relationship to interiority; the book, in fact, argues that in eighteenth-century studies, we need to move to a framework for thinking about sexual behavior that does not privilege the subjective, or the human. More simply put, I argue that during the eighteenth century, people understood sexual impulses– behaviors, inclinations, etc– to derive from a wide variety of sources, but primarily understood sexual behavior as the result of the dynamic interaction between bodies and environments. In other words, people understood sexual behavior as situational during the eighteenth century, an idea that historians of nineteenth-century sexuality such as Regina Kunzel, and scholars of late-nineteenth-century (and early twentieth century) sexuality such as Benjamin Kahan have also explored. Sexual behavior, during the eighteenth-century, was less about individual expression than environmental circumstance; one’s social, physical, climatic, or natural environment was understood to have the potential to shape one’s sexual behaviors and even desires. This argument re-orients the way that we think about sexuality away from the human (or the ‘subject’) and centers it more in the environment, which is a significant historiographic shift.
Q2. How did you get into early American sexuality studies (as opposed to 19th, 20th, etc. centuries)?
I arrived at early American sexuality studies via the emergence of institutionalized psychology in the 19th century. As I began my dissertation project, which I initially imagined would be a study of early psychology (Benjamin Rush, etc), I found myself asking a lot of questions about how residents of colonial and early national North America understood the experience of desire, in all of its many forms (sexual and otherwise). I wanted to know how these people made sense of wanting and of pleasure. Did they understand these experiences as feelings? Emotions? Lack? Were these feelings important to them, or incidental? Did they experience these feelings as unique expressions of their own particular social, spiritual or community positionalities? These questions are all bound up in a larger set of inquiries pertaining to the history of the subject (or the history of consciousness, or of certain forms of consciousness), and at the time, were animated by my interest in the long history of identity politics, and in how or whether identity could be conceived of before the modern period (roughly the turn of the twentieth century, in this case). As I continued work on what I thought would become the dissertation project, I ended up tarrying in earlier and earlier parts of the eighteenth century, and ended up thinking about historically-specific, large-scale categories of experience (“venery,” for example, which in many C18 colonial communities could have included forms of sexual immoderation such as fornication, but also the act of taking too much pleasure in eating– gluttony– or immoderation in drinking). So, I really arrived at sexuality via the category of venery, but what has always been most interesting to me is the historiographic challenges of characterizing forms of behavior that look, to us, like “sexuality,” but that existed in an era before there was any framework for understanding them this way.
How do the developments you study contribute to a broader understanding of sexuality and its construction over time?
One of the central arguments of the book is that emergent knowledge frameworks that people used to make sense of sexual behavior were borrowed from, and also contributed to, extant frameworks that were initially developed to explain and theorize racial difference. As scholars of the history of race have long known, before the early- to mid-nineteenth century (when racial definition became very firmly attached to skin color and bodily morphology), environmental diversity was understood as a major, if not a primary, source of racial differences. Roxann Wheeler (among others!) has done some very important writing on this. A great example of how this worked can be seen in environmental determinism, a series of ideas that are at least as old as the medieval period, and which argued that one’s skin color was determined by the region in which one lived, usually due to differential exposure to the sun. So, if you lived in what was called the “Aethiops” climate, for example, you would be likely to have darker skin, but natural philosophers also imagined that if a dark-skinned person moved to a cooler and less sunny climate, in several generations, his or her progeny would become light-skinned. What we would now call “race,” then, was understood to be at least partially determined by environment during the eighteenth century. The interesting thing about theories of environmental determinism is that they were never just about skin color– they were also about temperament. Being hardworking, quick to anger, lazy, amative or lascivious, somber or melancholy, and many more traits that we would now call “emotional” or “sexual,” were also linked to particular climates or regions. Warmer climates, for example, typically produced more “lusty” individuals, an idea that we can still see circulating today, and also an ideology that was conveniently engineered to support missionary colonialism (among other things). I’m interested in the way that sexuality and racial differentiation emerged as modern human “sciences” at around the same time (“science,” of course, being nothing more than the Latin word for ‘knowledge,’ scientia) and in the way that both “sciences” drew from a common intellectual framework around humans’ inherent vulnerability to environment. I want people who read or listen to my work to understand that when we talk about sexual behavior, even in our own time, we are almost always also talking about race. Raising historical consciousness about the ineluctable embeddedness of racial and sexual politics is incredibly important to me, and it is one of the central political stakes of my work.
Q3. It seems like you draw from a variety of disciplines in your work. Could you talk a little about the types of sources you have consulted for your book project, or any interesting items/collections you found along the way?
My work is incredibly interdisciplinary. In terms of primary sources, I look at widely-circulating texts, mostly print– but I also look at manuscripts in my first chapter on Barbary captivity narratives. I’m primarily interested in popular narrative, so I mostly look at forms of print culture, usually cheap print culture, that were being read by the widest swath of readers in any one moment. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of library catalogues and subscription lists from the late eighteenth century, to understand what people had access to, what they were reading, what was popular, and what kinds of ideas had the largest reach. Because I’m interested in the popular, a lot of the texts at the heart of my book project are cheap print culture (the equivalent in our time might be a grocery-store tabloid) telling “true histories” of individuals, many of which are fictionalized or entirely fictional. Most of the texts at the heart of my book project invoke or aspire to a kind of “truthiness,” and many are first-person accounts (but again, many of them are fictionalized or downright fictional, such as a series of short narratives I examine in the last chapter of my book, entitled The Female Marine, printed and reprinted between 1815 and 1818). In terms of secondary, critical, or theoretical materials, I read a lot of excellent work on the history of sexuality, the history of race (Roxann Wheeler, Jennifer Morgan, Felicity Nussbaum), queer theory, critical ethnic studies, and increasingly, work on the history of the environment. Recently, I have been reading Mark Rivkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty and have been very inspired by that.
Q4. What are some of the challenges posed by studying cultural understandings of sexuality when looking at a period so culturally different from our own?
Well, there are many. First, there’s the archive problem: sexual behaviors were not frequently the object of archival interest unless they were considered aberrant in their own time (so, criminalized forms of sexual behavior appear in archives because court records were saved, but socially-supported or secret sexual behaviors are not typically prioritized in archival collections); for this reason, some people think it’s easier to write histories of, say, man-to-man sexual interactions than it is to write a history of heterosexuality (I am not one of those people, but this idea exists). Also, institutional archives have historically been, and frequently continue to be, tied to or supportive of the state, so we need to always understand them as working in the service of a particular narrative of state organization and dominance, so sexual practices or ways of thinking about sexuality that were dominant in communities that were not prioritized by the state (or that were targets of eradication, such as many indigenous American communities) were not initially saved in many archives. Anjali Arondekar does a great job of thinking through this problem in her book (For the Record). Beyond the archive problem, there’s also the “modernity” problem, or the inherent impossibility of talking or even thinking about sexuality in the same terms that were used by the eighteenth-century subjects of our inquiry. Because the epistemological framework that we have to even think about the history of sexuality is radically, perhaps fundamentally different than the frameworks that were available to the cultures we study, it’s as if we are speaking two different languages– our twenty-first century language for sexual behavior, steeped as it is in the identity paradigm, and the eighteenth-century, suspiciously and simultaneously pre-modern and modern language for sexual behavior. Scott Larson, another early American studies scholar, has defined the work of the historian as the work of translation, and that definitely resonates with me. And there is actually no possibility for translation. Some scholars think that we need to approach the past on its own terms; I actually believe that this is impossible. But I see a lot of potential in that impossibility; it means we have to develop new methods for thinking about the history of sexuality, and it also means that we can be more imaginative and speculative about what sexuality might have been. Pete Coviello talks a bit about this in the introduction to his recent great book, Tomorrow’s Parties. So, for me, the challenges of working on the history of sexuality during a period both distant from and also, in my opinion, uncomfortably close to our own is actually the best part of the work I am doing.
Q5. What does your research mean for LGBTQ populations today? How does your work not only inform scholarly discussions of sexuality, but also general discussions of sexuality outside of academia?
I think of my work as relevant to not only queer people today, but also to anyone invested in the importance of feminist and otherwise anti-oppressive sexual politics. I think of my work as contributing to the project of building historical consciousness about the history of sexuality, and particularly about the way that the state has demonstrated an investment in both controlling the meaning of sexual behavior as well as controlling specific practices of sexual behavior more generally, and about the way that the state learned or borrowed its strategies for controlling specific sexual populations from its older strategies for controlling poor populations and populations of people of color. I want to be clear, here, that I am not creating an analogy between racist oppression and sexual oppression; these two forms of state and social intervention work differently and have distinct, if at times related, histories. I think of my work as in part trying to write the history of how each of these forms of social specificity (racial difference and sexual aberrance) became targets of state intervention, in the form of criminalization, control, and other forms of management, and how the logic of sexual oppression was frequently invoked to develop strategies for the subjugation of non-white people, and alternately, how the logic of racial oppression contributed to the formation of an idea of a homogenous state that could then justify criminalizing sexual minorities (sex workers, people who participated in same-sex liaisons, etc). To me, this feels like a critical form of consciousness for LGBTQ and queer people everywhere. A wider acknowledgment of the centrality of the overlap between these histories of state intervention would support the project of developing better solidarity politics among people especially vulnerable to state oppression.
I also think of my work as contributing to a longer history of “queerness,” as distinct from a more identity-based LGBTQ positionality. I love the way that people in the eighteenth century seem to have understood sexual behavior as, at least in part, contingent on one’s situation; as someone living in the twenty-first century, reading warnings that merely walking the streets in certain parts of town might have the capacity to morally corrupt a person feels like a wonderfully proleptic account of the way that we now broadly understand queerness: as an unstable, unpredictable, dynamic form of being and desiring, that often (to me) seems simply more fun than the idea of waking up every day with a solid, unchanging sense of who we are and what we want, because those things also inevitably determine what we can do. Personally, I believe that dynamism supports individual growth, and understanding ourselves less as moored to or mired in a particular identity pattern, and instead as eminently vulnerable to the impressions of the world around us, feels exciting and like it harbors a ton of possibilities.