ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Main Argument: Pflugfelder, like other "constructionists," ascribes to the eminently defensible notion that "desire, sexual or otherwise, is not a constant or a given, but is shaped in crucial ways by the very manner in which we think and speak about it" (3)--in other words, what and who people desire, and how they talk about those desires, varies widely across place, time, and culture. In contrast to Foucault's "orientalizing vision," the construction of male/male sexuality in Japan has changed greatly over the years surveyed in this study. Pflugfelder focuses not on sexual practice (which is to a great extent unrecoverable) but on sexual discourse, namely, "how [people] wrote and spoke about these acts and the meanings that they attached to them" (8). As Pflugfelder notes, "In Japanese as in Western cultures, male-male erotic relations have been a key site over which sexual meanings have been contested, albeit in historically distinct ways" (4), and this book seeks to explore those distinctions.

Historiographical Engagement: Pflugfelder follows to some extent in the footsteps of classicists, who have dealt with a sexual paradigm very comparable to that of Edo Japan, as well as in tandem with more recent theorists and historians of sexuality outside Japan, as his study is one of the first book-length approaches to the topic that does not anachronistically read contemporary gender binaries back onto the past (i.e. Jennifer Robertson, Gary P. Leupp).

Introduction: Argument, Sources, Examples Discourse on male/male sexuality moved from a celebration of male/male sexuality very comparable to that of the ancient world in the Edo period, with a concomitant official focus on disciplining the excesses brought on by this type of sexual desire. In the Meiji period, when male/male sexuality was briefly outlawed entirely, this legal discourse shifted to "civilizing" erotic behavior by focusing on the genital nature of the sexual act itself, thereby inculcating a new paradigm of sexuality. From late Meiji until the 1950s, a medicalized, sexological paradigm held sway that framed male/male sexuality "as a sexual pathology that demanded the attention, above all, of medical and scientific professionals" (21), and sexual desire itself played a central role in this discourse, leading in part to its embrace in popular discourse as a form of "perversion," offering a new realm of pleasure as well as allowing for the construction of new subjectivities.

Discourses of desire )

Critical assessment: This is a really, really excellent book. It's impossible to overstate Pflugfelder's sensitivity to his material, or to the nuances of the gap between discourse and reality, and it was really nice to read a text written by a man which discussed misogyny as such and which was also sensitive to the fact that the history of female/female sexuality cannot simply be equated with the history of male/male sexuality. The history of the former in Japan needs much more explication, but Pflugfelder has done a masterful job of illuminating the history of the latter.

Further reading: David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love; Eve Kosofosky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire; Graham Robb, Strangers; Pflugfelder, "'S' Is for Sister: Schoolgirl Intimacy and 'Same-Sex Love' in Early 20thC Japan."

Meta notes: If I may be permitted to indulge in a bit of speculation unrelated to my main scholarly interests, reading this book put me in mind of a question that got more than a little ink spilt over it in 2012, when New York legalized gay marriage, namely: in the 1960s, was the concept of "gay marriage" something that people could think about and want, however futilely? My conclusion at the time was yes, and evidence since then, such as interviews with Edith Windsor, has accumulated to bear me out. Readinig Pflugfelder, however, makes me think that the current discourse of gay marriage as possible and as equivalent in every way to straight marriage could not have arisen without earlier changes in the idea of (unmarked, and thus straight) marriage in the 19th and 20thC. As marriage became something more than an economic transaction and the idea of companionate marriage took hold in Euro-America, many of marriage's previous social functions fell by the wayside. When marriage was reduced , by the late 20thC, solely to an expression of emotional bonds, with a side dish of economic benefits, gay marriage became eminently thinkable. I suspect that part of the reason gay culture remains comparatively much less visible in Japan than in the United States or western Europe lies in the much greater strength of more traditional notions of marriage, and in particular the economic and political fetters that are failing to drive women to marriage at the rates which they used to, but which still exist, as well as the continued near-absence of children born out of wedlock.

I saw, at the time that DOMA was struck down, a blog post to the effect that anti-gay marriage laws in the United States were in effect attempts to regulate gender and gender expression. I found the arguments unconvincing, and what Pflugfelder's work brings home to me is how centrally our notions of sexuality are tied to a binary gender continuum in which biological sex is determinative of gender--a marked contrast to early modern Japan or ancient Greece and Rome, which so privileged a phallocentric worldview that gender was immaterial to what constituted the ambit of who and what adult men could desire. I don't know whether the spread of gay marriage will contribute to a loosening of the constrictions of the sex/gender suturing in discourse; one can only hope.

Finally, I spent a good chunk of the last year looking at shunga prints and other erotic material from the Edo period, and scattered comments by Pflugfelder confirm my strong suspicion that the sources contain much more homosexual content than has been republished in art books, facsimile, and translation. Censorship does not befit scholarship, and this deliberate neglect is deplorable.
ahorbinski: A picture of Charles Darwin captioned "very gradual change" in the style of the Obama 'Hope' poster.  (Darwin is still the man.)
The discursive process is a complex negotiation of knowledge, practice, and power, whose work lies precisely in obscuring the ontological gap that separates reality, in all its multiplicity and polysemy, and its representation, whose effect is to close off certain forms of meaning in favor of others. All this is a rather complicated way of saying that readers of this book should not assume that sexual behavior actually took place, in all instances and for all individuals, in the way that written texts describe it. Let us ourselves hope that future generations will not judge what we do in bed, or who we are as people, simply on the basis of the portrayals in our fiction, the proscriptions in our law codes, or the diagnoses of our physicians and psychiatrists.

       --Gregory Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950 (9)

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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