Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fate of Gay and Lesbian Studies

I have many interests, though probably my most significant publications are in the field of gay and lesbian studies. 
Spoiler alert as this old dog opens a can of worms. Is the field of gay and lesbian studies still vital? in 1980 I and my collaborators sought, as best we could, to lay the foundations in our Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 
At that time we assumed that the major obstacle to progress would be lingering homophobic sentiment. Alas, in my view the rot began from within, first from the Social Construction trend, which discouraged transhistorical and cross-cultural studies. Queer Theory assimilated us all to a larger category, but the q-term was divisive. Then gender studies devoured everything.

Of course useful studies are still appearing, especially of hitherto neglected aspects of same-sex relationships in Eastern Europe and Asia.  But postmodernism has thoroughly eroded the theoretical foundations, leaving what survives as little more than the smile of the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

The biggest problem these days is the rise of the concept of gender and orientation fluidity. Back in the day we stoutly opposed demands that we "just get over it," accepting the cure in the guise of "therapy." By contrast, we were convinced of the following truth: whether its origins stemmed from nature or nurture, after its consolidation in youth sexual orientation was essentially immutable. Maybe this was always an overstatement, according little attention to bisexuals, for example.  

Still, there remains personally for many of us a basic stability in this realm. Yet now comes the idea that, as one formula trenchantly puts it, sexual orientation is like a suit of clothes - we decide each morning what dress to wear. This idea appeals to some notion of absolute human freedom. But is it realistic?

The upshot is that in terms of identity there are no homosexuals as such - only on occasion same-sex conduct, "as you like it." Hence the pall that in Western nations at least is gradually shrouding these studies. 

Of course individual work is continuing as I. have acknowledged, but the center of gravity has shifted massively. This shift is the point that I think my critics are missing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Sagas and old Iceland

In my medieval courses I tended to give short shrift to the Vikings as their incursions in Western Europe were so destructive. But there are positive sides as well. I have always liked the art, and now I have gone on to tackle the Icelandic sagas, which I find on the whole to be a pleasant and easy read (in translation of course). 

Strictly speaking these tales are not realistic, but still they tell us something about early Icelandic society, which at first seems a kind of egalitarian, quasi-libertarian paradise. There were no cities in old Iceland, just a network of farms and small holdings. In principle there was no monarch - just the annual meeting of the Althing, in which disputes could be settled. 

Yet there was a dark side as well. There was a lot of violence, based on perceptions that one's honor was violated. One way this could be triggered was to label someone an argr, or passive homosexual. 

The most disturbing feature was the pervasiveness of slavery, the slaves having been obtained via the predatory raids. Slaves did most of the work on the farms. And if they had babies their master did not want, the infants were exposed. So the upshot is that one can have equality for a few if one deprives others of it.