The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

 
"Sexuality and the Transformation of Culture: the Longue Durée"
 
It is a commonplace that the regulation of sexuality is at the heart of a society’s political, moral, and more broadly cultural order. And yet, even if we should know better, it still comes as a surprise when debates about contraception, marriage and celibacy, masturbation, pleasure, homosexuality not to speak of the status of women to name but a few, are so passionate, so disruptive, so hyperbolic, so seemingly out of proportion to the questions at hand. This amplification of matters sexual is the result, this talk suggests, of their inextricable connection with cultural transformation, with the coming into being of a new moral order and with the defense of the old. Not every question is like the incest taboo, which, as Levi-Strauss famously argued, stands at the boundary between nature and culture. But, in general, questions of sexuality are close to the bone. They register, provide a way to think through, and mediate— arguably even cause — matters of great consequence to both the social order and the individual. I hope to flesh out this view with three historical cases drawn from my research and that of others as well as from my teaching: Augustine, Galen and the one sex model; masturbation, two sexes, and the ethical subject in the Enlightenment; homosexuality in the religious and political debate in our own time.
 
Professor Thomas Laqueur
University of California, Berkeley

 "Les Choses et les Mots: “Missing Words” in the History of Sexuality "
 
In Solitary Sex, Thomas Laqueur adopts a position that might be called constructivist but not discursivist. He shows in fine detail how masturbation became “a morally and medically important topic” in the eighteenth century, but he does not speak, as historians with an allegiance to Foucault’s work often do, of “invention”. This divergence does not signify a general rejection of Foucault’s theoretical position: Laqueur readily agrees, for example, that the terms “homosexuality” and “homosexual” “may well have come into use only when the thing to which they refer came sharply into focus”. But masturbation was not invented in that way. It was, he argues, “something that had been perfectly well understood since Antiquity, even if it was variously classified and named”. In the early eighteenth century, this longstanding practice simply took on on a quite different status. An elaborate set of anxieties and diagnoses was constructed around it, as we see in Onania and elsewhere, but such expressions as “self-pollution” or “self-abuse” should not, Laqueur insists, be considered to mark the invention of a radically new disorder. While it is true, he concedes, that “the Greeks may not have had a technical name for what came to be called onanism”, “they knew what we were talking about”. The thing was there already: the word, and any change in words, came later. This claim is of course contrary to discursivist assumptions that word and (cultural) thing are cognate in principle. Unabashed in his heterodoxy, Laqueur holds out for the possibility of some transhistorical recognition of the thing of which he is speaking, asserting that “no radical conceptual chasm separates [Greek] categories from ours”. He is led as a consequence to contend with the notion of the missing word, of the thing that does not have a name. “We never really know what the absence of a word in a culture means”, he says. This paper will ask some questions about what it might mean for the history of sexuality to talk about unnamed things, missing words, or absent expressions. My examples will be taken from the history of frigidity. I will attempt to trace the problematic absence of a name, and the name of a problematic absence.  
 
Professor Peter Cryle
University of Queensland
  
 "The Invention of Sadism?"

Defining sadism in the history of sexuality poses a unique set of theoretical concerns about the relationship between discourses of sexuality and the words that invoke their emergence and ongoing usage. This paper will show how it is possible to look beyond neologic invention as the primary indicator of a turning point in the history of sexuality by examining how important discursive change can occur even when a word remains the same. The distinction between the ‘sadism’ invented by Krafft-Ebing in 1886 and the sexual visions of Sade represented a clear shift from desire to discourse. But there are other less commonly recognised problems around ongoing usages of the word ‘sadism’ that suggest that ‘it’ is a highly unstable object for study in the history of sexuality discourses. A self-reflexive awareness of the historian’s own subjectival position must entail an untangling of the impacted meanings attached to words in current day usage, in order to tease out the historically specific significance of their moment of invention. In the early twentieth-century, Krafft-Ebing’s neologism was radically transformed by psychoanalytic theory and by renewed psychiatric discussions about the relationship between cruelty and desire in the aftermath of the First World War. ‘Sadism’ was even more radically transformed after the Holocaust. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialektic der Aufklärung drew a direct line backwards from the worst violence of Nazism to the philosophical anti-humanism of Sade, while post-war Italian neo-realist cinema implied fascist cruelty and violence to be sexually motivated. Bound to psychic drive-theory and to symbolic examples of collective violence, the ‘sadisms’ of the postwar era bear little resemblance to the 1886 term. Constructivist approaches that focus on the naming of sexualities may thus help us to locate important shifts from concept to discourse. However, the example of sadism shows us that the emphasis on neologisms must be mediated by a consideration of how changing contextual usages of words may reflect equally dramatic paradigm shifts.
 
Dr Alison Moore
University of Queensland

"Coining Spermatorrhoea: Medicine and Male Body Fluids, 1838-1866 "
 
When Lallemand coined the term spermatorrhée in the first volume of Des pertes séminales involontaires (1838), an earlier discourse on “seminal weakness” was transformed into something new: a recognisable and treatable medical disorder, with its own specific etiology and nosology. Many of the symptoms of spermatorrhoea remained consistent with those of seminal weakness, mostly comprising perceived lapses in mental or physical self-control such as blushing, crying, exhaustion, breathlessness, melancholy, lack of confidence, masturbation, extreme sensitivity and self-consciousness. But to these were added symptoms such as spermatozoa in the urine, testicular asymmetricality, and genital pathologies detectable only with the use of new, microscopic medical technologies. The discursive proliferation regarding male body fluids catalysed by Lallemand’s neologism was, in this way, representative both of an increased medical scrutiny of the body (and the sexual body in particular) and of the production of new male sexualities and subjectivities in the mid century.
 
Spermatorrhoea rapidly became the subject of a medical epidemic, described by specialists as one of “the most dire, excruciating and deadly maladies to which the human frame is subject” (Hayes) and “a disease that degrades man, poisons the happiness of his best days, and ravages society” (McDougall). The treatment for spermatorrhoea was accordingly severe, incorporating physical restraints, local injections and cauterisation. While such practices reflect an increased anxiety about male leakiness and fluidity at this time, the spermatorrhoea panic also produced a profound change in the medical profession itself. The flourishing of “quack” doctors in this area forced licensed physicians to see the treatment of sexual disorders and diseases as a required, if slightly distasteful, part of general practice—a shift which directly contributed to the restructuring and professionalisation of medicine in the late 1850s. 
 
Moreover, in primarily affecting the white, male, middle-class, heterosexual bodies that have traditionally shaped norms about sexuality and corporeality, the spermatorrhoea panic represents a unique cultural moment, one in which the fear of leakiness and seepage traditionally displaced onto the female body becomes encoded in mainstream masculinity. Through analysis of the letters written by self-diagnosed sufferers to medical practitioners, this paper will examine what men’s readiness to identify themselves as suffering from spermatorrhoea, and their willingness to submit to experimental—and often very painful—treatment, reveals about the medicalisation of sexuality at the mid century.
  
Dr. Elizabeth Stephens
University of Queensland
  
"Histories of Sexual Identity: The Case for a Turning Point"
 
This paper critically analyses the extensive historiography on the history of sexual identities in the West. It explores key debates around the invention of homosexuality/heterosexuality as categories of being and the disputes around the timing for the emergence of such identities — with the suggested timing for the emergence of specific sexual identities ranging from the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century (there is even some work by John Howard indicating that in the Southern States of America modern identities did not emerge until the 1960s). The paper will focus on the evidence for the persistence over millennia of a classical trope of active/passive in the organisation of male sexuality. It then explores the evidence for seeing the eighteenth century as the key point of emergence for the production of modern sexual identities.
 
Professor Stephen Garton
University of Sydney

"Looking on a Turning Point in the History of the Body: From the One-Sex to the Two-Sex Model."

The work of Thomas Laqueur offers us three key turning points in the history of the body: the emergence of the spermatic economy can be dated to the appearance of the pamphlet Onania in 1712; the development of the view of “incommensurable opposition” between the sexes, as Laqueur calls it, can be dated between 1789 (beginning of the French Revolution) or 1791 (production of The Magic Flute) and 1820 (the Queen Caroline Affair); and the implosion of this oppositional view can be said to begin in the Belle Époque, or “on or around December 1910,” as Laqueur ironically paraphrases Virginia Woolf. This last turning point can also be dated to the emergence of the sexologists if one looks at Foucault’s famous comment, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

I propose to examine the function of these turning points in the emerging meta-narratives of the history of the body, using visual as well as textual evidence. I will argue that each illuminates a different plane of the history of the body.

Professor Charles Sowerwine
University  of Melbourne
 
"The Politics of Pleasure Talk in Eighteenth-Century Europe"
 
 In Solitary Sex, Thomas Laqueur highlights an apparent irony in the fact that the eighteenth century in Europe saw an increased concern with the evils of masturbation despite developing acceptance of the pursuit of pleasure, even sexual pleasure, as a legitimate activity. It was, he claims, because it represented at that time ‘the wrong kind of pleasure’.   This paper will situate Laqueur’s story about masturbation against the background of eighteenth-century European conceptions of pleasure and debates about its place in psychological and social life. It will argue that the policing of pleasure that Laqueur detects in the history of masturbation needs to be understood in the context of a wider set of contemporary discourses about the variety of pleasures available to humanity and the means by which they might productively, and securely, be pursued. The persecution of masturbation, far from highlighting a limit to the legitimisation of pleasure during this period, is typical of a broader set of mechanisms by which the sanctioned pursuit of the latter was accompanied by campaigns to define its true nature, the appropriate means of its procurement, and its place in the hierarchy of human goals – campaigns which spanned a range of cultural fields with varying, and sometimes durable, results.
  
Dr. Alexander Cook
University of Queensland
 
"Libidinal Economy and the Prostitute"
 
Foucault is not ‘quite right’, Laqueur suggests in Solitary Sex: the story he tells about the bio-political shaping of modern sexuality is only ‘an aspect of another, more compelling one: the story of the joint march of commercial and civil society’ (Solitary Sex, p. 274). But Laqueur himself shares Foucault’s suspicion of economic explanations of the history of sexuality, rejecting the view of Enlightenment masturbation-phobia as an anxiety about wasted expenditure of the working-body’s vital resources, based on the equation of libido with money, in favour of a Kantian view of masturbation as a pathology of the imagination. In rejecting the explanatory power of the libido-money analogy, however, does Laqueur’s approach elide other, equally compelling stories of modern sexuality? If we gave free explanatory rein to what Barker-Benfield has called ‘the spermatic economy’, what other stories might we come up with? Turning from the solitary vice to the social evil, for example, what might libidinal economy tell us about the discursive history of prostitution?
 
This paper will reconsider the tradition of explaining sexual psychology with economic models by tracking the figure of the prostitute in discourses of libidinal economy ranging from nineteenth-century anthropology, through Freudian psychoanalysis, to Wilhelm Reich’s ‘sex-economic revolution’, Bataille’s ‘general theory of expenditure’ and Lyotard’s ‘libidinal-economic’ re-reading of Marx. It will show how early Victorian constructions of the prostitute as both a compulsive shopper and capitalism’s ‘drain’ and outlaw were taken up by anti-capitalist radicals such as Reich, Marcuse and Bataille and deployed as images of libidinal subversion of capitalism — but also how the arguments of these radicals uncannily parallel those of pro-capitalist economists who advocated a shift from a productivist to a consumerist fiscal mindset.
 
Dr. David Bennett
University of Melbourne
 
 
  

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