Letters

Fall 2005, Vol. 14, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Pre-Modern Others: Race and Sexuality

Leah Marcus and Holly Tucker


The 2005/2006 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, “Pre-Modern Others: Race and Sexuality,” brings together a diverse group of scholars to examine issues of race and sexuality from the classical period through 1700. While there has been broad interdisciplinary scholarship in modern constructions of race and sexuality, the problems and possibilities of imposing more recent theories on earlier periods are only beginning to be addressed.

Participants will explore a variety of questions in the seminar, including: How can we talk about racial and sexual identities in pre-1700 cultures? To what extent are Eurocentric models challenged by non- Western evidence and theory? What are the particular interdisciplinary advantages of considering pre-modern race and sexualities together?

The program’s co-directors are Leah Marcus, Edwin Mims Professor of English, and Holly Tucker, associate professor of French. In a recent interview with Letters, Professors Marcus and Tucker discussed the fellows program, its relation to their current research, and some of the larger issues their ongoing discussions will engage.

Letters: This year’s program comes from a faculty group that has met for several years at the Warren Center. Could you say more about this group and the kinds of intersections you see developing between this smaller venue for your discussions?

Marcus: The seminar used to be called the Early Modern Interest Group but we changed the name to the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies. The new name has a specific link with innovative methodologies because it connects us to the national conference GEMCS (Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies) that meets every year. The conference focuses on new approaches to cultural issues in the early modern/Renaissance period, and we wanted to give our group a similar perspective. But this year’s Warren Center cohort will be broader than just scholars in the field of Renaissance and early modern studies. Our fellows program will include three medievalists; in our larger seminar, we had only one medievalist who met regularly with the group. In addition, we will have participants who have never been members of Vanderbilt GEMCS.

Letters: How did you determine this year’s theme, “Pre-Modern Others: Race and Sexuality”? Where do you see discussions going, or what do you have planned for this year?

Marcus: Our purpose was to bring together a dynamic group of scholars across several disciplines to discuss topics of particular interest in current scholarship. It really is a new area for inquiry in our early fields, and neither Holly nor I have a defined perspective on it. The whole point of our year’s work is to be exploratory.

Tucker: There’s also a certain timeliness to this. We, of course, want to bring together scholars with overlapping interests on the Vanderbilt campus. Our visiting Fellow, Jean Feerick, does research that intersects brilliantly with everything the rest of us are doing. The program is also timely in the sense that our study of race and sexuality is so pertinent to what I see as a chronic “othering” happening in American society right now. We’re really interested in looking at how earlier periods and cultures can inform contemporary discussions of race, sexuality, and subjectivity more generally, and also where our modern understandings of “difference” break down when viewed historically. We will be trying to locate where the questions are and where the theoretical quicksand might be as we start to read modern views of race and sexuality in tandem with the pre-modern.

Marcus: Yes—there are some scholars, such as Walter Benn Michaels, who are presently suggesting that race studies should be abolished as an academic topic. They hold that by continuing to talk and think about race, we are reifying and essentializing racism in a way that is not productive. They argue that if we don’t focus on race in the academic community, this will help to eliminate race as a category of difference in the culture at large. It is an interesting and problematic position, as well as a very controversial one. It goes without saying, however, that our culture’s ways of defining sexuality are similarly in flux. The fact that our own definitions are so labile at present may allow us to recognize some aspects of the medieval and early modern periods that we couldn’t see when we thought we knew what race and sexuality were.

Leah Marcus

One of the reasons this is a new area of pre-modern studies is because of a prominent recent view, held particularly by nineteenth-and-twentieth-century literary scholars and historians, that race didn’t really exist as a category until the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The reason scholars believed this was because they were imagining race pretty exclusively in terms of color difference. Color difference certainly exists as a category for defining racial difference in our culture, but it may not be the most important category. Now it seems that perhaps the color line is becoming eclipsed by other kinds of cultural differences, such as, for example, religious differences—particularly the challenge to traditional Western values posed at present by radical Islam. In our seminar, we want to investigate whether the same kinds of cultural constructions that our own culture has tended to define in terms of color can be seen to operate in earlier cultures through other mechanisms.

For example, a couple of years ago I wrote an article on Shakespeare’s Othello in which I talked about the two different early texts of the play, the quarto version published in 1622 and the folio version published in 1623. I was fascinated by the fact that almost all of the racist comments in the play—or what look to us now like racist comments—were in the folio version of the play and not in the quarto. What does this mean? Does it mean that dramatists and players in Shakespeare’s time and a little after understood race so clearly in terms our culture would understand that they could add or subtract racist materials to the play, depending on their audience and other factors that were changing during the period? Or did they so completely lack our contemporary understanding of race and racism that the differences between the two versions had a completely different meaning for them? The whole problem seemed to me uncanny. I still don’t have an explanation, but I think it’s extremely interesting that a given culture could generate two texts that are so different. If we only had the first quarto version of Othello, I doubt whether Othello would be considered, as it has been so frequently in our own time, as the Ur-text for modern fears of miscegenation. It may be that the unbridgeable gap in Othello is not race but religion. What happens at the end of the play is that Othello is first isolated from the rest of the community, and then, as he kills himself, turned into a religious other, the Turk. In his final speech he talks about how he killed a Turkish “dog” and then he kills himself. The whole question of religion is as interesting as color in Othello. We are very interested in exploring the ways that religion may have served some of the same functions in earlier cultures that skin color has served in our own time.
We especially want to think about these questions in more local terms. I think in our own culture it’s also the case that race and sexuality must be understood locally. Part of the purpose of bringing scholars together from a variety of backgrounds is not to come up with one unifying discourse, but to create ways of defining specific patterns from one period as over against other specific periods and practices. The terms race and sexuality did not exist in the periods we’re studying. Race was a term that was used to refer to one’s family background, as one might still say “He comes from a race of heroes.” I don’t know that much about the historical construction of sexuality, but I’m quite sure the idea of sexuality wasn’t used in the way that we use it until fairly recently.

Letters When were they changed, the terms?

Marcus: The term racism is from the late nineteenth or twentieth century.

Tucker: You don’t see it in early modern texts at all. Racism as something negative, as a discriminatory action or judgment, does not enter Western vocabularies until quite late. Race, on the other hand, can be found in the earliest texts, but, as Leah mentioned, it is used mostly to refer to notions of family, lineage, or nobility. Even Diderot and D’Alembert’s massive Encyclopédie mentions race as a biological difference in passing, almost as a second thought—and just in reference to different types of horses, not humans. Now, even if the lexicon to describe racism did not seem to exist, I don’t think we could say that racism itself did not exist. However, the races that might be subject to racism may not be what we would anticipate them to be.
Looking at race through this type of historical lens seems crucial to me. It brings a helpful dimension to recent scholarly moves to call deeply into question racial and sexual identity as something that is inherently stable and part of a “natural” order. In the wake of theorists such as Foucault, Sedgwick, Butler, and others, it is clear that many of the same questions we’re asking in contemporary gender and sexuality studies have to be addressed in medieval and early modern scholarship as well. As we begin to nuance our understandings of culturally constructed identities, we have to take stock of the past. Does what we look like or who we sleep with (and how) necessarily dictate who or what we are? Not necessarily for early moderns. However, while recent approaches to gender and sexuality allow us to ask new questions of our early texts, it would be premature to assume that the answer to these questions will look the same in every historical and cultural context.

Marcus: And then, of course, there’s the interesting problem of sexuality as performance. In every culture, behaviors that for us fall under the rubric of sexuality were performed publicly for various purposes. An obvious example might be the androgynous presentation of early modern monarchs: Why did Queen Elizabeth I of England or François I of France deliberately present themselves to their publics as uniting male and female attributes? What were the relationships between such public performances—as well as the histories, literature, art, and music that have preserved them for us to study—and more private forms of sexual practice? For that matter, to what extent are the cultural artifacts themselves performances? We certainly can’t take the naïve view that cultural monuments are reliable mirrors of the culture out of which they emerged.

Tucker: Right. We are very interested in exploring the myriad ways in which race and sexuality may have been put to use. We know in the modern period—and in tragic and violent ways in these last few years—that race and sexuality can be deployed for political, economical, religious purposes. In some instances, there is striking overlap. In others, the pieces don’t always fit the way we would expect them to.

Marcus: For example, what we think of as nationalism also didn’t quite exist in the pre-modern period. It is hard to associate racial identity with national identity in this period. That makes it interesting and troubling to try to figure out how processes of collective self-definition worked in those times. Similarly, in pre-modern times and places, the family didn’t have the same structure that it typically has now. In our culture, traditional sexual definitions have grown out of a model of family structure and expected sexual roles. But what might sexuality look like in times for which the so called modern family had not yet been invented? The fact that sexuality hadn’t yet been conceptualized as a separable human category means that it’s hard for us to conceptualize in contemporary terms.

Letters So modern conceptions of race and sexuality cannot be applied to the pre-modern period?

Marcus: That’s correct. When reading medieval texts, people unfamiliar with that period might believe that the concept of race did not exist at the time. But they did have the same kind of racial dynamic; it was just organized differently.

Tucker: It is interesting, too, that the notion of the nation-state, as Leah mentioned, is in a moment of great flux. For example, in seventeenth-century France, there is a continual underlying tension and unease as Louis XIV works to solidify notions of divine monarchy and the autonomy of the nation-state. Sexuality is deployed here in some fascinating ways, from clandestine writings about the king’s sexual impotence to the idea that syphilis is not a French disease.

Marcus: Except the English called syphilis the French disease!

Tucker: The English called it the French disease; the French called it the Italian disease or the English disease. So, sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases become not just about the body. They are also about nationalisms that are in the process of developing. As you define the diseases you can’t have but your neighbor can, you’re creating maps—you’re reifying the idea of contained nations.

Marcus: That is a process also by which modern ideas of race and sexuality began to intersect, because the idea of disease perhaps came to be associated with racial otherness. One of the questions we ask in this project is: How and in what ways is it profitable to think about race and sexuality together? I think one reason that modern scholars have tended to think of them together is because of the legacy of the late twentieth century. In the 1970s and 1980s, when women’s liberation and desegregation were for the first time in our lives becoming highly visible national political agendas, anti-feminist and anti-racist agendas were perceived as operating together. Now we simply assume that race and sexuality are parallel ideas in some of their political and cultural functioning, but the periods we will be exploring are hundreds of years before the 1980s. It will be interesting to see in what ways ideas about race and sexuality do work together for the pre-modern era, if at all. We assume that they do.

Letters: What was the reasoning behind cutting off the modern period at 1700?

Tucker: Leah and I have talked together on several occasions about our decision to use 1700 as the cutoff date for the group. It is admittedly arbitrary, as is any attempt to impose temporal boundaries on the human experience. Epistemologically, nothing really lines up that neatly. There is actually something very appealing to me about not marking in concrete terms where the pre-modern begins and ends. It resists to a certain degree the modern, taxonomic impulse.

Marcus: One of the big debates we’ll have at the very beginning of the seminar meetings is about what is at stake in talking about the “pre-modern.” What the term “pre-modern” does, among other things, is to take away the aura of privilege that the Renaissance has traditionally had as opposed to the medieval period. For scholars of the early modern, the medieval period has been defined as the period that’s in-between, serving as a place holder between the classical and the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, supposedly people suddenly started acting modern and behaving like individuals instead of members of a larger corporate entity, as in the medieval period. Well, that traditional construction of difference between the periods is going out the window. I’m really looking forward to dismantling a lot of the stereotypical understandings of identity and period identity that have gone along with the idea of the Renaissance.

Letters: How did each of you come to this point in your research? What led you to it?

Holly Tucker

Tucker: I work in the history of medicine, and I am especially interested in how medicine and literature intersect. Literature and medicine are telling very similar stories, though they are using different genres both to respond to one another and also to establish their own definitions of the world. Reproduction and the studies of reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries start to get at the really difficult questions related to race and sexuality—and establish in many ways the presuppositions on which the notion of racial hierarchies was established. With the scientific revolution, old questions are posed, but now there are different data. For example, why is it that some people are born white-skinned and other people are born brown-skinned? How does that happen? How is it that children do or don’t resemble their parents? A new model of reproduction, preformation, takes center stage beginning around 1670. Animaculism, the idea that little baby humans existed fully formed in the head of each sperm, is the better-known version of preformation. However, it was actually ovism, the idea that all of humanity was preformed in Eve’s ovaries, which dominated embryological theory for over a hundred years. The ovary was passed from woman to woman, generation to generation, and each child actually existed in miniature in Eve’s ovaries. It is just a matter of a sort of unhusking, like Russian dolls.

Marcus: Until the very beginning of time?

Tucker: Until the very beginning of time. For as odd and even funny as it seems to us, preformation made perfect sense in a late seventeenth-century context. The human egg had just been discovered, and existing theories had a hard time keeping up. But preformation brings up some key dilemmas: If all humans were pre-formed in Eve’s ovaries, then how do we explain that some humans were pre-formed with white skin and other humans were pre-formed with brown skin? Then we get into genealogies. There are all types of ways to explain this. Perhaps the whites were unhusked first, right? Then toward the inside are the darker-skinned people. In one fell swoop, we have just codified racial hierarchies in a scientific context. How do we explain birth defects, or what the early moderns would call “monstrosity?” Why would God pre-form these imperfect humans, making some missing limbs and arms? But then, again, if whites are closer to perfection in racial hierarchies, could theories on birth anomalies also be used to understand racial differences? So here also, in preformationism, we might find early examples of pathologized bodies and a local snapshot of the complex intersections between race, sexuality, and religion.

Marcus: I got into this area of study because I was interested in examining the history of editorial practice in relation to Shakespearian texts. I was especially interested in how certain versions of Shakespeare’s plays have been demonized, or at least ignored. I have already talked about Othello: the quarto version of the play, which is less “racist” to our modern perceptions, has been forgotten in favor of the more “racist” folio version of the play. The idea that there might be more than one version of Shakespeare’s plays has long troubled scholars; hence, they have tended to seize upon a single text as the play Shakespeare must have intended and to suppress the other ones that are different. If you call something a bad quarto, then you can just ignore it. Sometimes the texts that have traditionally been marginalized as part of the Shakespearian record are the very texts that manage issues of race or sexuality differently than the received versions. Even in plays for which there is only one text, there are often cruxes that our culture would traditionally have considered racially or sexually anomalous situations and they are simply edited out.

An interesting example is the blue-eyed hag from The Tempest. Caliban’s mother is said to be blue-eyed. All the editors say that that doesn’t mean she has blue eyes—because she’s from Algeria and she’s a witch—but instead that the phrase means she was bluish-black around her eyes as a result of pregnancy. Editors have found various clever ways of getting around the fact that in Shakespeare’s time there may not have been a stable dichotomy dictating that if you’re from Algiers you had to have dark eyes. Many North Africans have blue eyes! Interestingly, I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Alice Randall’s new novel, which centers on The Tempest. As an African American woman studying The Tempest, Randall also thought that Shakespeare’s “blue-eyed hag” had blue eyes. She constructs a classroom situation in the novel that relates to her own experience of being put down as a student for thinking beyond the color line. I see that artificial limitation of a text’s potential range of meaning happening over and over again.

In another example, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays were enormously popular in sixteenth-century England. Tamburlaine was supposed to be a Mongol leader from Uzbekistan. At one point Marlowe’s text says that his skin is snowy white. Tamburlaine also has red hair, according to Marlowe. Editors over time have changed snowy to sinewy and they’ve given up the idea of white entirely, so the challenging idea of a Muslim Uzbeki leader who looks uncannily like a stereotypical Englishman is lost in modern editions. It is extremely interesting to look back at the texts we thought we knew and realize the extent to which their presentations about race and sexuality have been filtered through nineteenth-and-twentieth-century presuppositions.

For an example about sexuality, in Othello, at one point in his growing distrust of Desdemona, Othello says “My name, that was as fresh / As Diana’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face.” As we might expect, given what I said earlier, this quotation is from the folio version of the play. Before the onset of his jealousy, Othello had been imagining himself in terms of Diana, who is the goddess of chastity and the hunt. Editors just couldn’t conceptualize that this male warrior would think of himself in that feminized way, so most editions change “my face” to “her face” therefore changing his statement to mean Desdemona’s face. This example also speaks to the intersection of race and sexuality. What does Othello’s sense of his own blackness have to do with his conviction of Desdemona’s infidelity?

One of the things we’re interested in doing as part of this Warren Center seminar is getting away from a Eurocentric Middle Ages and a Eurocentric early modern era. We need to realize that in pre-modern culture there was often more globalization going on than we had been willing to recognize. To a degree, our traditional sense of the narrowness of these cultures was part of the business of constructing nationalism. French or British culture was supposed to rule the world.

Tucker: With this in mind, I am especially hoping that we can reconsider some of the universalizing ways in which we have traditionally understood the pre-modern era.

Marcus: Especially to the extent that those universalizing elements actually turn out to be western European elements.

Tucker: Absolutely. A few years ago, I had a chance to spend a week in Paris in a small faculty seminar on “Rethinking Scientific Knowledge” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, one of the top scholars of early-modern Indo-Persian history, gave a talk on mapping the coastlines of Asia. I remember him showing illustrations of early maps of India, maps in existence before all of the Jesuit travels, before all of the European empire building. They were so very different than anything I had ever seen. I’ve done some work with early European maps, which are a fascinating experience in and of themselves, but these maps were so incomprehensible to me. There was a whole system of colored dots used to represent both space and time. It was exciting and unsettling. We just have this tendency to think that maps look the way they do because, well, they’re supposed to look like that.

Marcus: Because that’s the way it is. That’s the way the world is.

Tucker: And so much of how we, particularly as Westerners, view things has been conditioned by our pre-modern, European heritage. But how can we be sure we know what we’re seeing? After all, the Mercator Projection—which is used to plot a round earth on flat longitudinal and latitudinal lines—is a late sixteenth-century invention. And one that remains controversial at that. Is it a faithful representation of the relative size of one continent, or country over another? Or was Mercator’s math also inflected with political and economic subtexts? To be sure, race and sexuality have also been “mapped”—and with results that we all feel, every day, in a plurality of ways. We envision this year’s seminar as a remapping that will enrich all the participants’ work, and that will take us to a deeper understanding of our own cultural assumptions and what our pre-modern precursors can teach us.

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