Chapter 3 of David Halperin’s “How to do the History of Homosexuality”—“Historicizing the Subject of Desire”

In this chapter, Halperin clarifies misinterpretations of Foucault’s arguments on the discourse of sexuality, and then compares his own interpretation of the pseudo-Lucianic ancient text titled Erotes to modern discourses of sexuality.  In the process, Halperin affirms Foucault’s argument that sexuality is a historical apparatus that produces historically specific forms of subjectivity, which in and of themselves, determine sexual desire and shape erotic ideals.  Halperin claims that Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality should not be read as a history of sexual categories or representations of sexuality present in specific discourses as many scholars have assumed.  Instead Foucault’s work should be understood as identifying the “seemingly heterogeneous mass of discourses, social practices, disciplinary mechanisms, institutional structures, and political agencies, all of which, arose out of different circumstances and different contexts throughout history” (87).  Together, Halperin explains, these discourses, institutions, mechanisms, and practices formed a pervasive and complex network, which constitutes a single apparatus and correlates to what Foucault calls “bio-power”—the administration of life (87).  These,  in turn, determine sexual subjectivities and shapes their sexual relations and desires in particular moments of time (87).  Essentially, Halperin points out, Foucault aims to analyze how sexuality, as an apparatus, constitutes human subjects, orders social relations, authorizes certain knowledges, normalizes erotic desires and behaviors, etc. (88).  By historicizing the subject of desire as a history of erotic subjectivity, Foucault offers a means to develop a history of sexuality, which Halperin claims, has yet to be fully realized by scholars—a scholarly project to which Halperin himself hopes to contribute in this chapter by recovering and analyzing the ancient text titled Erotes, which Foucault himself analyzes in a chapter of Le souci de soi.


According to Halperin, Erotes is a philosophical dialogue between two men, Charicles and Callicratida, who rationally debate whether women or boys provide more sexual pleasure for men (90).  A rich analysis of this dialogue, Halperin notes, raises a number of compelling questions (which he identifies on pages 90-91), provides insight into both ancient and modern sexual regimes, and serves as a useful site for interrogating common contemporary assumptions about “sexual preference, erotic identity, and the linkages between them”  (93).  Halperin’s ultimate hope is to “defamiliarize current sexual behaviors and attitudes and to destabilize the binary opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality” (93). 


Through his analysis of Erotes, Halperin identifies nine topics for consideration, all of which I quote below:

  • The text’s emphasis on paederasty to the exclusion of homosexuality
  • The masculinization of the paederast and the effeminization of the lover of women
  • The paederast’s lack of social marginalization
  • The shared queerness of both interlocuters
  • The ability of each interlocuter to put himself in the erotic subject position of the other
  • Their common knowingness about both women and boys
  • The paederast’s capacity to eroticize the elements of the human anatomy independently of the sex of the pwron whose anatomy is being eroticized
  • The lover of women’s utilitarian appeal to quantitative factors as a basis for calculating relative sexual value
  • Both men’s treatment of sexual object-choices as a matter of taste (99).


By comparing Erotes with The Great Mirror of Male Love by Japanese writer Ihara Saikaku, which fits within the same genre as it argues for paederasty, displays misogyny, and playfully explores multiple possibilities of sexual pleasure for men, Halperin insists that what Erotes reveals is that sexuality is a historical construct—“a seizure of the body by a historically unique apparatus for producing historically specific forms of subjectivity” (103).  As such, as Foucault makes clear, the objects and bodies that human subjects desire are historically constructed as well by the apparatus and biopower that construct subjectivity itself (103).

 Questions and Comments:

 Halperin writes “new critical vocabularies are helplessly overwhelmed and reabsorbed…by older and more familiar ones, while prior epistemologies and methodologies continually resurface within the intellectual framework of even the most radical innovations” (86).  He also claims that many of us suffer from a “psychology of rumor” and in effect, produce a kind of “terminological shift,” which results in a simulacrum of sorts (86).  This issue has come up in all of my courses this semester. In learning from other scholars how to write history, what do you think of Halperin sneaking in this important point?  How does this rhetorical move weaken/strengthen his argument?

 What did ya’ll think of the part on page 99, when Halperin suggests for us to think of the dialogue between Charicles and Callicratidas along the lines of a contemporary debate over “dietary object-choice between a committed vegetarian and an unreconstructed omnivore” or between “someone who eats nothing but vegetables and someone who eats nothing but meat” ?  Even though he admits the ludicrous nature of these analogies, are these analogies appropriate, persuasive, necessary, helpful?? 

I think Foucault’s point is really important to understand and one that is not easy to persuade people of in day to day conversations outside of the academy.  I appreciate Halperin’s clarification and affirmation of Foucault’s point and think it is useful.   Halperin is very conscientious of the fact that he is trying to persuade us of his interpretation of Erotes.  Does he convince you with his interpretation of Erotes?  Why or why not?  Do the conclusions he makes seem justified by the text as he presents it or does he move a bit quickly from his analysis to his conclusions?   Does showing his vulnerability weaken or strengthen his argument?  (See page 102 and elsewhere).  

What are the assumptions beneath Halperin’s argument?  Does he identify those assumptions appropriately in this chapter? Should he?  For instance, on page 98, he claims and assumes that “most bourgeois Westerners” have not yet realized that sexuality is historically constructed by the subjectivities shaped by the ruling apparatus and the prevailing biopower and that instead thinks that homosexuality is simply a genetic construct without considering homosexuality could be perhaps a rational decision.  What are the risks in making a claim that identifies “Western bourgeois” as culprits of the genetic argument about sexuality when that term has perjorative connotations?  When we perform historiography, should we risk employing  such terms?  How else could Halperin have framed the debate?  (Thanks, Kelly, for helping me be more specific with my question?)










Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

9 responses to “Chapter 3 of David Halperin’s “How to do the History of Homosexuality”—“Historicizing the Subject of Desire”

  1. I thought this was an interesting and useful summary of Halperin’s chapter. I want to press a bit on one claim. You write:
    “he assumes that “most Western bourgeois Westerners” have not yet realized that sexuality is historically constructed by the subjectivities shaped by the ruling apparatus and the prevailing biopower and that instead thinks that homosexuality is simply a genetic construct without considering homosexuality could be perhaps a rational decision.”
    I think his argument may be more nuanced than that. He is jumping into a long-standing and highly contentious debate about the genetic or social basis for sexuality. I believe that his point is that people misread Foucault as a social constructionist when he isn’t talking about sexuality, per se, but the emergence of sexual subjectivity. Ultimately, he seems to encourage historiographers to historicize (that’s his favorite word, no doubt) in order to more honestly reconcile the inescapablility of contemporary lens that look to write histories that can never actually match history.
    Just some thoughts…

  2. legries

    Thanks, Kelly. I agree with your nuanced reading of Halperin’s argument and think his over all goal with this chapter and probably the book (I’ve only read one chapter) is to persuade historiographers to historicize the formation of sexual subjectivities. And I appreciate your clarification that he is stepping into a long term debate about whether genetics or social construction is the basis for sexuality (not just homosexuality). I do realize that he is stepping into this debate and so I understand his assumptions in this claim are warranted in the larger context. I was just surprised, not having read his introduction, that he framed the debate in this chapter by labeling “bourgeois Westerners,” which has perjorative connotations, as the culprits of making genetic based arguments about sexuality rather than framing the long standing debate itself or framing the culprits in a more neutral, objective light. In trying to learn how write history from the scholars we read, I am curious as to how to frame our arguments. Just how careful do we need to be, in other words, when we frame ongoing debates? What assumptions can we make in writing for a scholarly argument? Do we need to be as careful as we think we do??? Small questions, but curious all the same…and ones that would probably not even have come up in this case had we read the entire book or at least the introduction. Thanks for responding. You should come to our class on Thursday…

  3. I see your point. Perhaps part of his sweeping generalization is his own culpability as a “bourgeois Westerner.” In other parts of the book, he is self-critical, though in the chapter you read he mostly turns his gaze on Foucault and misreadings of Foucault in particular. I’ll have to go back to that passage and look more closely at his argument. You are right, though, that he could be more careful in framing the debates he is speaking to, particularly since they are so recent and so vast. I wonder where he originally published that chapter? I’ll check that out, too, and get back to you. I believe the book is a collection of essays that were published elsewhere, so that may change his imagined audience. He also carefully distinguishes in the introduction that he is not doing history…he is doing historiography. Perhaps he sees that distinction as re-framing his audience? Lots of “perhaps” phrases. I’ll follow up on a few things later.

  4. Okay…sorry to keep dragging this conversation out, but I want to follow up on the publication stuff:
    This chapter was originally published in two different publications, one in 1992 (in a book titled Discourses of Sexuality), the other in 1994 (in a book titled Foucault and the Writing of History). While he says that he significantly edited the chapter, it is still noteworthy that his original material was from the early 1990s–roughly the time when ‘queer’ emerged as an academic term/analytic. This may be useful to consider because some of his sharp distinctions may be in response to a conscious effort to separate from LG studies. Still, your point about carefully defining audience would be even more important in this context–but since the version you’re reading in class is a hybrid publication that has various audiences spread across more than a decade, perhaps he wasn’t able to do so.

  5. legries

    Thanks, Kelly. This information is useful, and I’ll bring it up in class.

  6. Eileen

    Kel, thanks for weighing in here. I think one of the factors we need to consider as we read Halperin is his location in classics. He spends quite a bit of time in the introduction to the book situating himself in relation to classics and dissecting how his work has been read and perceived by those in the field. He comments with evident amusement on how others in classics have dismissed him as a Foucauldian.
    He also underscores the point you bring up, Kelly, that he his collected essays are a series of reflections on historiographical issues “because they have to do with questions of evidence, method, strategy, policies, and identification in the writing of history” (2).

    More to say, but I’ll save it for class–his reading of Erote strikes me as a great way to work on/work out historiographical questions–especially identification.

  7. zstuckey

    Weighing in late but still here. I really enjoyed the Erote section, in fact it made me think of how Jay Dolmage writes on and recovers Hephaestus, the Greek winged and disabled god. Hephaesus’ feet are “deformed”, turned outward. Dolmages goes back and overturns the idea that the Greeks thoroughly dismissed disability as weakness or pathology. Rather, for Dolmage, Hephaestus is an example of metis or cunning-ness.

    Halperin does similar work. He’s reviving the idea that queerness (in our terms) was more complex in Greek times than we could ever imagine. His work that crosses time is interesting in light of queer temporalities. Do notions of queer temporalities or a timelessness (non-heterosexual time) allow him to go back and do this work?

  8. Your temporality question is important, Zosha, and apropos for queer time, post-dates Halperin’s work. As Eileen says, it is important to situate Halperin as a classicist. As such, I might tentatively suggest that he has an investment in time that disavows the logic of queer temporality. He is quite comfortable with historicity, which in many ways, is what some queer theorists advocating queer temporality are working against altogether–any sense of cohesive/logical time. Halperin discusses contemporary lenses and offers important theorizing about identification being motivated by desire, but he never actually troubles the stability of time/history. He is absent from the GLQ issue on Queer Temporality, I think, because he isn’t “queering” temporality. All that being said, I still believe that it could be argued that he engages with temporality in a queer way…I just don’t see him destabilizing the logic of temporality as a whole.

  9. zstuckey

    Yes, i see the other side of my question. I was thinking that his specific historiographic method of tracing changes over time seems not to queer temporalities; however, he seems to queer history by recognizing that the changes that happen over time are not uniform–we can not say that things were once this way and now they are this way.

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