Tag Archives: queer rhetorics

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