by Marilyn B. Skinner
“Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
”William Butler Yeats, “Leda and the Swan
“A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes.
”Adrienne Rich, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”One morning in October 1985, the little world of Anglo-American classical scholarship woke up to find itself engulfed in the maelstrom of high-concept poststructuralist theory. No one could have been more astonished than the general population of classicists themselves, once they discovered what “poststructuralism” meant. The occasion was, of course, the appearance in English translation of The Use of Pleasure (L’Usage des plaisirs), the second volume of Michel Foucault’s audacious Histoire de la sexualité. First published in Paris just one year before — along with its companion volume The Care of the Self (Le Souci de soi), which came out in English shortly afterward — the book represented a new departure in Foucault’s exploration of “sexuality” as a dispositif historique, a culturally constructed discursive apparatus. In Athenian culture of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., the French thinker now located a chronological moment at which sexual subjectivity had arguably taken shapes far different from those deemed “natural” in present-day Western European societies. From that starting point, applying his genealogical method, he had intended to chart the subsequent development of the desiring subject, using the alterity of the past to challenge contemporary belief in the existence of universal norms of sexual conduct grounded in human nature (Foucault 1985: 3-13; cf. Poster 1989: 90-92).
In 1984, however, the historian’s premature death from AIDS left that large project incomplete. Yet within American classical scholarship his last major works have since created their own minor legacy, a posthumous “Foucauldian school” of research that seeks to extend his cognitive paradigm by using it as a framework for more specialized inquiries into Greco-Roman sexual ideology. Those corollary investigations have in turn sparked off bitter intramural controversy among individual members of two politically engaged scholarly communities, each dedicated to analyzing classical sex and gender scripts in order to better understand, and thus more effectively contest, present structures of oppression. It is that theoretical quarrel over the foundations of ancient and modern sex/gender systems with which the following paper is concerned. In it I will try to unpack certain postulates about gender, sexuality and scholarship on both sides of the dispute as a first step toward possible reconciliation. By intervening, no doubt rashly, in the so-called “sexuality wars”, I hope to bridge a disastrous rift among progressive classicists who should, on the face of it, be natural allies.
Before I begin, though, some explanations are in order. My title is intended to recall the fiercely argued essay that ignited this controversy — Amy Richlin’s “Zeus and Metis: Foucault, Feminism, Classics” (1991). There Richlin employs Hesiod’s bizarre tale of Zeus swallowing the pregnant Metis and producing Athena from his own head ( Th. 886-900) as the mythic paradigm for a tendency to absorb women’s intellectual efforts without attribution, which she ascribes to “postmodernist” academics, specifically Foucauldians. Thus she encodes that claim of unfair appropriation as rape. My own gesture toward mythology problematizes her rhetoric by suggesting that, their shock value notwithstanding, rape metaphors are semiotically ambiguous. In the epigraphs to this paper Yeats, no feminist, retells Zeus’ most notorious assault as an allegory of resistance — a proleptically Foucauldian resistance at that — while the feminist poet Rich, in a pointed intertextual rejoinder, portrays it as cooption, with an outcome morally equivocal at best. In each case the violated Leda comes to occupy the subject position of her assailant, who transfers his technologies of domination to her. Though confined to the figurative realm, such a shift in perspective makes a difference in the way one looks at the academic politics surrounding ancient sexuality.
I should also specify what matters my paper will not address. This controversy mirrors the more comprehensive argument between gay libertarian theorists and radical feminists over the relationship of sexuality to gender and the acceptability of so-called “minority” sexual practices (Connors 1995). Within classical studies, however, disagreement does not center on sex as a locale of pleasure or danger, but rather on issues having to do with the construction of academic knowledge and its bearing on political activism. Those will be my focus of concern as well. Again, the debate is restricted, at least at present, to Americans; consequently, I do not survey recent contributions to feminist scholarship on Greek and Roman sexuality by British and continental European researchers (e.g., Cantarella 1992; Edwards 1993). I apologize for this omission, inappropriate for a publication in a transatlantic journal, while anticipating interest in the theoretical and methodological aspects of the dispute even on the part of a foreign and not necessarily specialist audience.
Finally, let me remark on my employment of “gay” and “feminist” as labels, since both terms are admittedly problematic. Given the intense deliberation among queer theorists over categories of personal identity, my arbitrary imposition of the word “gay” might be considered an unwelcome act of normalization (Butler 1993: 308). I use it here only because of its ready accessibility to readers, acknowledging its limitations. The category “feminist”, on the other hand, is self-assigned, as Richlin’s subtitle indicates. But feminism is not monolithic: if I call Richlin’s stance “feminist”, I am not saying that all other feminists subscribe to it. Many scholars who so define themselves are also sexual constructionists who affirm a large intellectual debt to Foucault (e.g., Zeitlin 1990; Konstan 1994: 6-7). Indeed, I number myself among them (cf. Skinner 1993).
To resume, then. Immediately after its English debut, despite some reviewers’ grave reservations (Lefkowitz 1985, Nussbaum 1985, Lloyd 1986), Foucault’s account of ancient sexual protocols became all but canonical among specialists in Greco-Roman culture on this side of the Atlantic. So charged was the author’s name, so lofty his place in the realm of contemporary European thought, that his opinions could automatically command an impressive degree of professional authority despite his status as outsider. Meanwhile, classicists (heretofore prone to think of themselves as late arrivals to any intellectual movement, joining the parade just about the time it broke up) now found themselves unexpectedly poised on the cutting edge of radical philosophic inquiry. It was a heady feeling, and it galvanized the field. Research projects inspired by the History of Sexuality were soon under way. Before the end of the decade, articles expressly acknowledging Foucault’s influence had already begun to appear in leading philological journals (e.g., Katz 1989; Konstan 1989; Wyke 1989).
The explosion of interest in ancient sexual systems became fully evident in 1990, as several additional articles, three book-length essay collections, and a special journal issue dedicated to the topic appeared well-nigh simultaneously. Among this plethora of publications, two stood out: together, David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and John J. Winkler’s Constraints of Desire signaled the emergence of the “Foucauldian school” and thereby focalized subsequent discussion of Greco-Roman sexual ideology. If I devote exclusive attention to those two volumes, omitting consideration of other important items from that extraordinary year (e.g., Halperin, Winkler and Zeitlin 1990; Konstan and Nussbaum 1990), it is only because the pairing of Halperin and Winkler has come to signify much more than a joint contribution to classical studies — more, even, than a shared scholarly posture. Although their perspectives on ancient society differ considerably (Nussbaum 1990), their view of the relation of past to present is much the same. Together they advocate the appropriation of Greco-Roman cultural history as a strategy for subverting received notions of sexual identity.
Though both authors are primarily involved with the ancient Greek world, each also grapples, profoundly and polemically, with the scheme of erotic assumptions informing late capitalist society. Each positions himself intellectually as a gay man personally invested in the larger conclusions to be drawn from detailed examination of ancient Mediterranean sex/gender systems. In opposition to essentialist claims that sexual categories are biologically determined, objectively real, and unchanging over time, Halperin and Winkler adduce the exotic, supposedly “unnatural” protocols of classical Athens as confirmation of Foucault’s hypothesis that sexual subjectivities are culturally specific and constructed through social interaction (Halperin 1990: 29-38 and 41-53; Winkler 1990: 3-5 and 45-70). Studying the “cultural poetics of desire” in ancient Greece opens a window onto another conceptual universe — a universe not necessarily better, but at the very least other — and so provides the opportunity to attain a more comprehensive sexual self-understanding (Halperin 1990: 39-40). At a time when conservative forces in America and elsewhere manipulate homophobia and fear of AIDS so as to justify the surveillance, regulation, and ultimate triage of stigmatized groups, that self-understanding, as a precondition for committed political struggle, is undeniably a matter of life and death (Singer 1989: 49-54, 63; Rubin 1993: 26-27).
The fact that classical Greece occupies an archetypal place in our Western cultural annals makes it, from a Foucauldian point of view, a privileged source of historical counter examples. Greek sexual practices become first a standard for testing the validity of conventional norms of human sexual conduct and then an instrument of cognitive modification. In the process, antiquity is converted into a semiotic system in its own right, or, more precisely, into a dispositif historique like Foucault’s “sexuality”. When Halperin (1990: 70) magisterially sums up the meaning of the past for the present, Greek culture is in effect relegated to the function of trope: “[T]he Greeks are hardly alien or lost to us. They are, on the contrary, all about us not because we are (allegedly) their inheritors, not because we may expect to find vestiges of them buried within ourselves, faintly discernible beneath layers of historical encrustation, transformation, and displacement. Rather, the Greeks are all about us insofar as they represent one of the codes in which we transact our own cultural business: we use our “truths” about the Greeks to explain ourselves to ourselves and to construct our own experiences, including our sexual experiences. To redefine our relation to the Greeks is therefore to inject a new element into our cultural, political, and personal consciousness; it is to discover a new way of seeing ourselves and, possibly, to create new ways of inhabiting our own skins.”
This formulation imposes a corollary set of directives upon colleagues: if the “Greeks” operate within the current intellectual milieu chiefly as code or trope, the mission of the classicist will be altered fundamentally. The scholarly productions of Halperin and Winkler confront the discipline from a politicized gay male position. Scenarios of antiquity promulgated by revered English and German academics of earlier generations — “NATO Classicists”, in Winkler’s dismissive phrase (1990: 13) — are censured not only for their unconscious ethnocentrism but also for reinforcing widely circulated social discourses at once patriarchal and homophobic. The discipline is accordingly unmasked as what Foucault himself termed a “régime of truth” — an “ensemble of rules”, in his words, “according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true” (1980b: 132). Since historical truth, in this scheme of things, is generated out of power relations existing in the present, descriptions of Greco-Roman realities are necessarily implicated in contemporary networks of domination and resistance. Once their intimate links to repressive hierarchical systems have been exposed and demystified, stories of the past can be reprogrammed to counteract the effects of such systems (cf. Foucault 1980a: 100-02).
In these two volumes, then, as Ralph J. Hexter incisively observes, “the well-defined role of a ‘classicist’ is being dissolved” (Hexter 1991: 147). The expert on Greek or Roman antiquity should no longer be expected to buttress accepted social tenets by appealing to the seemingly timeless values of classical texts, as she routinely did two or three decades ago. She is instead urged to apply her specialized learning first to scrutinizing contemporary truth claims ostensibly supported by readings of ancient materials, then to dismantling those deemed prejudicial. This revolutionary notion of the commentator’s task underlies a remarkable passage in which Winkler (1990: 126) entreats his fellow practitioners to devote their interpretative skills to purposes larger than the automatic retrieval and transmission of presumed authorial meanings: “But the larger methodological issue is whether readers should simply be trying to reproduce the author’s meaning (if he had one — that is, if he had one) as the goal. Should we concede that much authority to the writers we read? If our critical faculties are placed solely in the service of recovering and reanimating an author’s meaning, then we have already committed ourselves to the premises and protocols of the past — past structures of cultural violence and their descendants in the bedrooms and mean streets and school curricula of the present. This above all we must not do.”
This summons to look beyond the mere recovery of information about the past “to become”, as Winkler elaborates, “resisting readers in the complex guerilla fighting of cultural studies” — imposes an added moral obligation to activate the unsettling and transgressive potential of classical knowledge in wider arenas. Halperin and Winkler set a precedent for doing so by publicly donating half the proceeds from the sale of each volume to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Furthermore, in openly living as a person with AIDS, Winkler, who died in 1990, made his very presence among colleagues and students a compelling testament to his convictions.
Given the content and objectives of both books, even reviews could not avoid stirring up controversy. To be sure, a few evaluators made a conscientious effort to weigh them chiefly as contributions to Greek cultural history, addressing methodological or technical points (e.g., Cohen 1992; cf. the more extensive treatment in Cohen 1991: 171-202). Many other reactions, however, split along the lines of current ideological debate. Enthusiastically greeted by fellow constructionists, the books were denounced no less vehemently by reviewers hostile to poststructuralist skepticism and, of course, by champions of an essentialist explanation of sexual behavior. Here I will only contrast, as ready examples, Verstraete’s congratulatory remarks (1991) with the dismissive rebuttal by Thornton (1991) and the slanderous tirade of Paglia (1991), whose fifteen minutes of fame are, one hopes, about up. In an academic climate as politically polarized as that of the United States, responses driven by prior convictions could be anticipated, and most were only too predictable.
What was clearly not bargained for, though, was an abrupt and electrifying outbreak of hostility from feminist quarters. Both Halperin and Winkler proclaim themselves intellectually indebted to the feminist critique of gender difference. When dealing with the asymmetrical organization of power relations between the sexes in Greek culture, each explicitly adopts a feminist viewpoint. At the same time, both investigators recognize a latent potential for inauthenticity in that assumed stance: Winkler confesses to an unseemly preoccupation with “phallic issues” (1990: 206) and Halperin acknowledges the inherent danger posed by a male-authored feminist analysis which concludes by reinscribing female absence (1990: 149-51). Such marked sympathy with feminist political concerns might well be expected of gay cultural critics, for the highly sophisticated theoretical platform of gay studies, as Joseph A. Boone remarks, is directly owed to “the informing influence of feminism” (1990: 23). It is noteworthy that two separate initial appraisals by women classicists had coincided in pronouncing Halperin and Winkler unusually sensitive to feminist principles (Gutzwiller 1991: 15; cf. Keith 1991: 54).
Thus Amy Richlin’s violent indictment of Foucauldian scholarship, published in the late autumn of 1991, must have seemed all the more staggering for its unexpectedness. Richlin begins by accusing cultural theorists in anthropology, literary criticism, and the New Historicism of ignoring feminist research while expropriating its substantial contributions to postmodernism. In particular, Foucault’s famous exploration of sexuality as “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” (1980a: 103) neither takes account of gender nor credits feminists who first probed that alignment. Again, the Foucauldian project of Halperin and Winkler “replicates and silences” pertinent earlier studies of ancient Roman sexual ideology. Omissions such as these are not confined to Foucault and his disciples. Instead, Richlin concludes, they are symptomatic of a widespread mentalité that permits male scholars to ingest and later regurgitate original feminist ideas while forgetting to cite sources — or, better, choosing to remember only those sources deemed worthy of notice (1991: 177). Her remonstrances were echoed shortly thereafter by Judith Hallett, who stated at a major interdisciplinary symposium that “exclusionary and unfair” scholarly behavior on the part of Foucauldians was a crucial professional problem surrounding the debate on ancient sexuality (Hallett 1992). The ancient historian Nancy Demand has now reasserted the feminist origins of constructionism (1994: xvii-xviii). Yet — as if to prove the point that mainstream indifference to feminist work is endemic — Cohen and Saller, who engage in wholesale censure of Foucault’s errors in representing ancient sexuality, mention in passing previous critical discussion of “his lack of interest in women” (1994: 262 n. 1), but do not provide references.
In the introduction to a revised edition of The Garden of Priapus, her well-known study of Roman sexual and aggressive humor, Richlin advances one further objection to Foucauldian descriptions of ancient sexual ideology (1992a: xiii-xxxiii). The “Greco-Roman” sexuality plotted out by social constructionists is, in her view, fundamentally skewed: by giving priority and weight to Hellenic materials, the paradigm erases Roman cultural specificity. Absence of due attention to Rome is a crucial flaw, Richlin contends, because characteristic Roman expressions of misogyny and phallic thinking, along with xenophobia and homophobia, resemble contemporary phenomena to a “noncoincidental” degree. Thus, despite his theoretical insistence upon local difference, Foucault’s account slights a key set of cultural indicators pointing, paradoxically enough, to the continuity of patriarchy and the real persistence of women’s oppression across space and time.
When voicing this protest, Richlin consciously speaks on behalf of other feminist investigators (e.g., Janan 1991), but goes far beyond many of her associates in her appeal to essentialist and materialist assumptions. Feminist treatments of antiquity, she asserts, must unapologetically begin by adopting two cardinal postulates: first, that patriarchy is a recurrent feature of social systems, structured as they are on genuine underlying differences in male and female natures; second, that direct, reliable testimony to the subjective experience of actual men and women can be obtained from imaginative products such as texts and images. On this hypothesis, resemblances between the forms of misogyny familiar to us and those attested in, e.g., Roman texts may be presumed to originate in similar social and political arrangements. In studying such material, then, researchers can legitimately resort to gauges of oppression derived from contemporary data. By the same token, they can also impose contemporary value judgments upon their findings. Richlin’s theoretical stance finds practical expression in her edited collection Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (1992b), where notions of sexual representation engendered by the feminist debate over pornography are retrospectively overlaid upon ancient subject matter.
In a later essay (1993a), Richlin resolutely attempts to move current discourse on ancient sex/gender systems beyond schisms over essentialism vs. local difference. Yet she is deeply exercised by the teleological challenge that a Foucauldian treatment of antiquity ostensibly presents to the feminist classical scholar. Discussion of the past within a poststructuralist intellectual ambience is problematic for her insofar as it makes the causal connection between feminist historical research and direct political pra=cis appear tenuous. In the absence of “grand theory”, with its axiomatic assumption of enduring social realities, investigators can no longer attempt to trace Western patriarchal ideology back to its classical roots. Nor can they claim to achieve political objectives by “recovering” the lives of Greco-Roman women. Descriptions of ancient female experience turn out to be scarcely more than fictions: the evidence is so subject to manipulation, and the researcher so disposed to site it on a positive or negative grid preconstituted by her own subjectivity, that the result is virtually useless as history. But if knowledge of the past cannot be used to explain present conditions, and if earlier female experience is not retrievable, what is gained for women by studying antiquity? To such an encyclopedic question Richlin is honest enough to refrain from proffering slick answers; her critique terminates in indecision.
There are three obvious areas of contention, then, between Halperin and Winkler, on the one hand, and Richlin (along with like-minded feminists), on the other: first, the degree of rigor to be applied in identifying feminist contributions to our current understanding of Greek and Roman sexual systems; next, the proper consideration to be allotted to strict heterosexual dimorphism, and to patriarchal arrangements based upon dimorphism, as uniform and continuous features of such ancient and modern systems; lastly, the uses to which the past itself can be put, if historical reconstructions are to be henceforward always already suspect. Each of these issues encapsulates vital tensions between gay and feminist perspectives on antiquity. I will now attempt to give those tensions an airing.
Let me begin with Richlin’s charge that Foucauldian scholars slight feminist literature. At first glance, the accusation seems absurd, for both Halperin and Winkler constantly gesture toward feminist theory. Yet on closer examination it does have merit, since each author categorizes feminist analysis per se as somehow lacking. For Halperin, feminism and Foucault represent two successive and incremental steps in the understanding of sexuality as a cultural production: as feminists “detached ‘gender’ from the facts of anatomical sex, of somatic dimorphism”, so Foucault, in his turn, divorced “sexuality” from “nature” and explained it as the effect of political technology (1990: 6-7). When Winkler, for his part, takes up the tools forged by feminist anthropologists, he pronounces his methodological predecessors more successful at analyzing gender, as opposed to sexual, configurations once more giving the impression that sex had to wait its turn until Foucault appeared on the scene (1990: 3). The feminist interrogation of gender is thus treated as a preliminary stage of inquiry, fruitful but necessarily incomplete.
As a point of departure, Halperin and Winkler have invented their own αἴτιον, or originary myth, of gay scholarship on ancient sexuality. When we strip that myth down to its basic components, we uncover a plot-line reminiscent of Aristotle’s model of biological generativity: while feminist scholarship contributed the preexisting mass of postulates surrounding gender, Foucault finally supplied the informing seed of sexual constructionist theory. Thus gay scholarship as practiced by Halperin and Winkler is able, without contradicting itself internally, to site itself within a matrix of undifferentiated, and uncredited, assumptions labeled “feminist” and still look back to Foucault as its onlie begetter. That developmental narrative cries out for reconsideration. As intellectual history it is grossly inadequate, for it oversimplifies the tangle of convergences between feminist inquiries into ancient and modern sex/gender systems and sequential volumes of the Histoire de la sexualité — particularly during the long interval between volumes one and two, when feminists assimilated Foucault while Foucault himself was reading Pomeroy (1975) and other early work on women in antiquity. Revising its evolutionary chronicle, and in the process finding another, less reductionist, framework for portraying a network of bilateral influences, is accordingly one of the major tasks that should be undertaken by gay scholarship on antiquity. It may have better success if it distances itself critically from the reflex assumption that the history of a field must be presented as an uninterrupted linear progression. For, as Nimis has observed (1984: 128), the habit, widespread in classical studies, of justifying new contributions as obligatory corrections of previous errors or gaps impedes defacto collaboration in the pursuit of scholarly goals.
The next generation of Foucauldian-oriented researchers should also venture beyond the confines of Hellenism to access what is now a sizable and well-integrated body of feminist writing on Rome. Like Foucault’s own work, those studies of Roman sexual ideology have been deeply influenced by Dover’s argument that ancient gender roles were not altogether coterminous with anatomical sex but assigned on the basis of social dominance and submission (1978: 100-09). Beginning more than fifteen years ago, as Richlin showed in “Zeus and Metis”, sustained feminist discussion of gender configurations in Roman polemic and satirical texts has produced significant observations — among them, that public discourses on sexuality were privileged means of expressing social concerns metonymically and that gender asymmetry was mapped onto power differentials between ages, classes, ethnic groups and professions, blurring distinctions in kind. Through a close focus upon the social contexts of Latin obscenity, many scholars who pursued this line of inquiry have independently arrived at the conclusion that sexual systems are locally organized and diverse, rather than monolithic. In concentrating on negative gender stereotypes and explaining them as a reflex of competitive male self-aggrandizement, they took into account both the semantic burden of scurrilous rhetoric and its probable reception by various audiences, by women and ordinary citizens as well as the senatorial elite. That approach required use of a broad spectrum of evidence, ranging from imaginative literature to legal and forensic documents and to popular forms of expression such as inscriptions and graffiti. In their scholarly trajectory, then, feminist researchers on Rome differ considerably from Foucault, whose “search for an ethics of practice” in volumes two and three of the History of Sexuality(Bartkowski 1988: 51) led him to concentrate upon a “normative model of the erotic self” derived largely from prescriptive texts (Goldhill 1995: 44-45). As the product of a parallel but separate investigative project, this body of research can accordingly equip Foucauldians with a useful base of comparative data as well as a critically needed complementary perspective.
When we turn to the debate over essentialism vs. social constructionism, we perceive that Richlin’s assault on the latter is itself framed as a crusade against error, one in which the very possibility of feminist resistance to misogyny is at stake. By denying the biologically-based origins of gender asymmetry, she contends, social constructionist thinking wipes out the long record of female oppression. “If we agree that there is no such thing as male or female, then how do we explain crimes regularly committed by men against women?” (1992a: xix). From a gay male standpoint, however, the implications of that rhetorical question may well be profoundly disturbing. In assigning ontological causality to the categories “male” and “female”, Richlin imprisons herself in a Platonic universe where a conceptual disjunction can be held responsible for material phenomena. If physical oppression is rooted in gender polarity, then, by inference, all men (and only men) oppress all women (and only women) at all times — a patent absurdity on every count. If poststructuralism can be accused of obliterating gender, Richlin’s formulation threatens to obliterate race, class, and sexual preference as other interrelated, though not necessarily congruent, categories of oppression. Of the three, the most vulnerable to eradication is sexual preference.
In an incisive review of Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, Earl Jackson Jr. remarks that dimorphic models such as Richlin’s “fail to account for sexual diversity, basing reified dichotomies of sexual dynamics on heterosexually derived stereotypes completely inadequate for rethinking gender and sexuality” (1992: 387). Indeed, one urgent project of current gay theory is to distinguish between gender and sexuality as separate analytic axes, so that gender issues can be more accurately filtered through the prism of sexual multiplicity (Sedgwick 1990: 27-35; Rubin 1993: 32-34). Since gender-based analytic perspectives are intrinsically biased toward heterosexual and heterosexist assumptions, a gay interrogation of sexuality must arrive at conclusions deviating in marked ways from those reached by a feminist inquiry into gender alignments. As Sedgwick remarks (1990: 34): “The most dramatic difference between gender and sexual orientation — that virtually all people are publicly and unalterably assigned to one or the other gender, and from birth — seems if anything to mean that it is, rather, sexual orientation, with its far greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness, that would offer the apter deconstructive object. An essentialism of sexual object-choice is far less easy to maintain, far more visibly incoherent, more visibly stressed and challenged at every point in the culture than any essentialism of gender.”
Thus Richlin’s attempt first to make feminism consonant with gender-based essentialism and then to locate it at the pole of absolute opposition to a Foucauldian concept of culturally determined sexual variance precludes any possibility of employing feminist and gay investigative trajectories simultaneously. That restriction, in turn, must necessarily limit our understanding of the full spectrum of ancient sexual heterogeneity.
The importance of combining both ways of approaching the evidence can be illustrated by turning to the last of the three areas of disagreement I have identified, namely the political benefits of investigating the past. Here the issues, and the actual lines of argument, become complicated. For gay males, one advantage is self-evident: a demonstration that ancient society organized sexual relations so as to permit and even encourage a modicum of same-sex contact, however circumscribed by custom, will counter dogmatic proclamations that “homosexuality” is always and everywhere contrary to human and divine law. As a feminist, on the other hand, Richlin is acutely aware of the distasteful underside of Greek and Roman valorizations of boy-love: the systematic denigration of women, especially older women, and of effeminate adult males (1984, 1993b). Still, the divergence in perspectives is not that clear-cut. In one of the most incisive chapters of his book, Halperin argues that in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens economic freedom of access to permitted sexual objects was a key factor in the creation of an ostensibly homogeneous “democratic body” and was therefore contingent upon the disenfranchisement of male prostitutes and the availability of cheap, possibly state-subsidized, female prostitutes (1990: 98-104). As he lays bare the oppressive apparatus undergirding Athenian sociosexual ideology, Halperin never forgets that “sexual preference”, insofar as it can even be said to have existed in antiquity, was a prerogative of citizen males alone, with physical and economic exploitation of members of both sexes its inescapable corollary. Antiquity is, according to this analysis, a highly unsatisfactory model for the present.
Winkler, for his part, refuses to accept any ancient pronouncement on sex or gender at full face value and consequently appears to entertain a more benign, indeed consolatory, notion of the past. In the aggressive posturing of Greek citizen males, he submits, androcentrism was a social protocol defining the special character of public transactions, its meaning “never seriously questioned and yet never taken literally” (1990: 5). Like exchange of generalizations about women, abuse of the κίναιδος — the cultural emblem of deviant passivity — was another standard protocol. Yet actual surveillance of male sexual behavior, and punishment of persons alleged to have sold their corporeal integrity, may have been “a public fiction normally held in abeyance and only put into operation as a political strategy within a relatively tiny — though conspicuous — fraction of the social body” (1990: 46). Lastly, he speculates, in a society in which female reproductive activity was more highly valued than it is in the contemporary Western world and where procreation was essential to the economic and social stability of οἶκος and πόλις alike, women may themselves have possessed an “alternative consciousness” concerning the meanings of sex and gender, one asserting their own greater centrality to the reproductive process (1990: 188-89). As might be expected, Richlin takes Winkler to task for dismissing Greek woman-bashing as “coffeehouse talk”, construing his hypothesis as a denial of the psychological effects of misogyny (Richlin 1992a: xxiv-xxvi; cf. Winkler 1990: 6-8). Hallett associates his seemingly rosy outlook with conservative classicists’ reluctance to admit the moral shortcomings of ancient societies. Conjecturing misogyny into nonexistence, even as “an innovative and provocative idea playfully advanced by what many would regard as a radical feminist theoretician” (1992: 5), is, she feels, patently ahistorical and irresponsible to boot.
To claim the past as a “lost golden age” of homoerotic activity without due attention to its repressive mechanisms would indeed be ahistorical. Yet Halperin demonstrably does nothing of the sort; instead, he unpacks the political and economic operations of such mechanisms, adopting the same class-based analytic stance as feminist researchers. Nor does Winkler, as I read him, lose sight of gender subjugation. In calling attention to problems of women’s victimization, both in the limited context of erotic binding spells and in the more nuanced sphere of imaginative literature, he acknowledges that a rhetoric of female submission to male control is necessarily self-validating (1990: 93-98, 101-26). Behind his attempt to recover the mental framework of male discourses on sex and gender, however, lies the provocative, but nonetheless potentially informative, question of whether ancient women would have been as sensitive to the surface misogyny of such discourses as modern scholars, whether they would in fact have heard the same vituperative messages we hear (1990: 75). The assumption that common biological experience fosters a uniform, transhistorical consciousness among women capable of overriding the impact of vastly different social environments requires rigorous scrutiny by feminist classical scholars, far more than it has received to date. Winkler deserves their gratitude for putting this matter on the table.
Richlin takes up the question when she divides those studying women in antiquity into “Optimists” and “Pessimists” on the basis of epistemology, contrasting adherents of “grand theory” with relativists who dismiss historical certainty. The field, she notes, generally looks for patterns of similarity rather than differences, but oversimplification and lack of methodological reflection have led to an impasse in current debate: “the question is reduced to ‘how bad was it for women in antiquity, really’?” (1993a: 289). Relative inaccessibility of women’s voices heightens preoccupation with negative female images in male-authored texts, a less productive approach than attempting to recover credible data about the material conditions under which women lived their lives (Culham 1990). To escape the quandary, Richlin proposes that feminist scholars avail themselves of a broader analytic framework capable of dealing with ancient women as agents, as members of particular social classes and ethnicities, and thus as possible oppressors as well as oppressed victims. Extending a model originally created by Judith Hallett to clarify the anomalous gender status of elite Roman women, she advises colleagues to master the trick of viewing ancient women as both “Same” and “Other” in respect to themselves (1993a: 290; cf. Hallett 1989). I endorse Richlin’s proposal wholeheartedly, for the adoption of such a stereoscopic perspective cannot help but reveal the strategic value of demystifying current beliefs by appealing to ancient counter examples.
Although investigating the origins of patriarchy is an attractive rationale for studying the operations of gender in the ancient world, it must not be purchased at the price of affirming biological determinism as its inexorable corollary. Basing the legitimacy of such historical scholarship on appeals to women’s unique biological experience “closes down inquiry into the ways in which female subjectivity is produced, the ways in which agency is made possible, the ways in which race and sexuality intersect with gender, the ways in which politics organize and interpret experience — in sum, the ways in which identity is a contested terrain” (Scott 1993: 406). In contrast, as the Marxist historian Peter Rose asserts, undermining the sociobiological doctrine of genetically programmed female behavior is “one of the prime liberatory potentialities of the study of women in classical antiquity” (Rose 1993: 218). Taking this argument a step further, I would say that Foucault’s genealogical method can be used to eradicate the determinism that persists, as a residue of patriarchal ideology, even within feminist theory. Confronting modern images of “normal” femininity with their ancient equivalents permits the researcher to gain a critical purchase on gender ideology. To mention just one case in point, the notion of the biological mother as deeply bonded with her infant, as nurturing, self-sacrificing and permissive — a stereotype championed by essentialist feminists as well as by conservative politicians and religious leaders — is drastically challenged by the Roman ideal of the uncompromising severa mater, whose duty was not to nurse or mind the child, but to mould its character through discipline (Dixon 1988: 1-7). Thus Richlin’s “ethnographer’s dilemma” can be transcended, and her call for an effective feminist praxis obeyed, if a feminist classical scholar employs past alterity to develop in herself, her readers, and her students a firmer intellectual leverage against the inculcated present. This strategy, already put to productive uses by Halperin and Winkler, may turn out to be progressive classicists’ most serviceable mechanism for promoting radical change.
What I am urging on my feminist collaborators, in conclusion, is a more holistic approach to the study of ancient sex/gender systems, one in which the undeniable fact of female oppression is assigned its constituent place in the cultural register and understood as the armature of a vast network of affiliated discourses and practices embracing the whole domain of ancient sexuality, including spheres of homosocial, homoerotic and heterosexual relations. Though women’s private subjectivity is all but lost to us, that broad ideological environment within which women were conditioned to perform as gendered beings is readily available for analysis. I have argued that judicious scrutiny of the local features of Greco-Roman gender ideology can serve current political ends. One example is provided by Page duBois, who, in a spirited defense of Foucault’s importance to feminist research, uses his model of ancient sexuality to trouble prevailing assumptions about the accessibility and transparency of Sappho’s homoerotic desire, thereby contributing to contemporary theoretical debate over the constitution of lesbian identity (1995: 152-56).
Phallic elements in particular should not be treated in isolation from other components of the symbolic system. One must observe both their multiple semiotic functions and the kinds and degrees of affect attached to them as signifiers. Moreover, an accurate grasp of the dynamics of ancient phallogocentrism can be achieved only by factoring in certain emerging principles of lesbian and gay studies. It now seems clear that patriarchal systems mandate both female subordination and compulsory heterosexuality, with its corollary homophobic strictures, concurrently (Sedgwick 1985: 1-5, following Rubin 1975: 182-83). Yet any resulting taxonomies of gender and sexuality, though necessarily interdependent, are still distinct and must be anatomized with discrete, finely honed conceptual tools (Sedgwick 1990: 27-35, 40-44). Under renewed pledges of mutual assistance, then, feminists will need to borrow new matrices of understanding from gays, as gays once absorbed their theoretical basics from feminists.
Such reciprocity, or repayment, holds out the hope of transcending the rhetoric of the sexuality wars — a practical necessity for members of a discipline whose survival is perpetually at issue and an ethical obligation all the more compelling within an academic frame of reference in which antiquity has become a dispositif historique and classical studies a “régime of truth”. Poststructuralist critiques of received epistemology have not turned out to be wholly liberatory for poststructuralists themselves. What was once a hard line between subjectivity and objectivity is now blurred, a circumstance that converts ad hominem attacks on intellectual positions from a gross impropriety into a valid, and highly effective, tool of discreditation (Halperin 1995: 133-39). Opposition to Foucault’s ideas cloaks itself in corrosive slanders that fuse theory-bashing and gay-bashing, rendering his work “suspect and dangerous because it too is infected with sadomasochism and the AIDS virus” (duBois 1995: 161). In such a discursive realm tropes inflict political blows by means of a ploy only too familiar to students of lurid Roman priapic invective, that is, by provoking horror, rage and revulsion through metonymic slippage. Hence the searing impact of the rape figure in “Zeus and Metis”, which imbues an accusation of failure to cite, itself no more than an offense against intellectual property, with overtones of wanton violence and enduring injury.
Yet, as we have already seen, “rape” as trope is infinitely tractable, in a way that the physical experience of sexual assault cannot be. So let me destabilize its negative content. As deconstruction informs us, meanings are fixed by their contrarieties, making the tenor of signification reversible automatically (Kennedy 1993: 53-54). In the act of swallowing Metis or penetrating Leda, could Zeus conceivably avoid contamination by the feminine? I think not, and I furthermore believe that Foucault, having engorged feminist classical scholarship, will likewise be unable to remain as gender-blind as he once was. For “Foucault”, like “Marx” or “Freud”, is also a trope, shorthand for a whole set of late-twentieth-century discourses clustered around the ideational node “sexuality”. Within classical studies, “Richlin” represents one structural proclivity of such discourses, “Halperin and Winkler” its antithesis. Whether or not this essay has succeeded in its mission of mediating between them, it too is now part of “Foucault”, as presently constituted. And from my own vantage-point of speaking self within the text, as author-function (not author), I can presume that eventually its labor of conciliation will no longer be needed. Like other life-forms, discourses mutate. In the same manner as accretions to the literary tradition, each received scholarly contribution to an ideational nexus alters not only the present consensus of opinion on the subject but the very reception of its predecessors, all the way back to the beginning.
* This is a revised version of a paper originally entitled “The Sexuality Wars”, which was presented on March 5, 1993, at Brown University as part of the Feminist Theory and the Classics lecture series sponsored by the Department of Classics. It was first published in Thamyris 3.1 (1996) 103-123 and is reproduced here in Diotima with the kind permission of the journal editors, Jan Best and Nanny de Vries. My thanks to David Konstan and his colleagues for their exceptional hospitality and to Elizabeth Weed, Director of the Sarah Doyle Center at Brown, who offered perceptive comments on the oral presentation. In preparing this essay for publication, I have profited greatly from Professor Konstan’s suggestions, from other helpful observations by Judith Hallett, David Halperin and Amy Richlin, and from the judicious advice of two anonymous referees. I take full responsibility for all remaining errors and omissions and any remarks that may strike a reader as poorly considered.
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