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Event Recap: Extinction Thresholds//Toward an Environmental Theory of Early Sexuality with Greta LaFleur

by Ami Yoon, Student, English & Comparative Literature

As a part of the “Extinction Thresholds” lecture series, Professor Greta LaFleur (Associate Professor of American Studies, Yale University) spoke on environmental logic in theories of early sexuality in her talk, sharing work from her first book, The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). As a model of a dynamic reading practice, LaFleur’s methodology in approaching eighteenth-century narratives circulating throughout the British colonies for discussions of sexual behavior, via the optic of racial difference, struck me as a canny way of engaging with historical, scientific, and literary texts that are, most of the time, unforgivingly racist and sexist. There was a kind of critical intimacy in how LaFleur opened up the hostile space of eighteenth-century natural history texts to trace a multiplicity of sexual behaviors in a period that long predates conversations about sexual identities and politics through the lens of modern sexology or queer studies. Moreover, LaFleur’s work in denaturalizing terms such as race and sex as stable categories enacts a perennially relevant lesson for students of women and gender studies.

Beginning with a 1614 narrative, A Collection of Voyages and Travels, by an Englishman named William Davis, LaFleur guided us through how Davis’ casual but confident characterization of the “Turks” of Algiers as “villains” and “altogether sodomites” indicates an early modern rhetorical habit of assessing ethnic or cultural difference through sexual behaviors. Such judgments and ideas about sexuality, closely tied to race, thread throughout eighteenth-century natural histories—from Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae to the writings of Thomas Jefferson—and migrate into popular narratives. In her work, LaFleur studies examples from four kinds of popular narratives that index how discussions of racial behavior rendered visible varieties of sexual acts in this era before sexology: Barbary captivity narratives, execution narratives, cross-dressing narratives, and antivice narratives.

The suturing of racial politics to sexual politics also comes linked with eighteenth-century conceptions of the human body as porous to the environment. Environmental logics of humoralism or climate theory (in which climate is thought to affect personal disposition and physiology) influenced readings of the body, such that eighteenth-century science effectively bound sex to race. As race and sex are being brought together again in contemporary discriminatory discourse, LaFleur highlighted how there has been a consistent relationship between racial science and sexual behavior for a long, long time. LaFleur thus explores what sex was like in the world of British North American colonies, before the concept of sexuality came into existence in modernity; indeed, in his introduction to LaFleur’s talk, Professor Jack Halberstam affirmed the importance of LaFleur’s book in offering us a prehistory of sexuality.

LaFleur commenced her lecture with a warning that her work delves into what she called “ugly” texts, fraught with multiple orders of violence, and toward the end of the session broached afresh the difficulty of reading early Atlantic world texts for adequate representations of sexuality. The challenge concerning the question of representation in her archives, LaFleur remarked, is perhaps not unlike what Saidiya Hartman confronts in “Venus in Two Acts” or Marisa Fuentes in Dispossessed Lives. The critical framework that LaFleur embraces in studying early sexuality is to read for technologies of representation, as almost none of her subjects speak on their own behalf about their sexual behaviors. Her historiography is a careful one, mindful not to turn into any kind of queer hagiography, but alive to what she describes, in her book, as the risk of a “devastating erasure of the relentless specificity of the everyday realities of people very distant from us, people who were grappling, in their own time and in their own terms, with both the philosophical and ethical question of making sense of human difference” (15). The decentering of the subject required by such a critical practice, too, resonates with the interests of feminist and queer scholarship, and as material for students to study, LaFleur’s work seems particularly well suited for fostering a dynamic receptiveness to queer ideas and methods.

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