David M. Halperin, UNSW

Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality

In *The History of Sexuality, Volume I*, Michel Foucault famously distinguished between the mediaeval construction of the "sodomite" and the nineteenth-century construction of the "homosexual" as follows: "As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their author was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, a character, a form of life; also a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing in his total being escapes his sexuality."

Foucault's formulation is routinely taken to authorize the doctrine that before the nineteenth century the categories or classifications typically employed by European cultures to articulate sexual difference did not distinguish among different kinds of sexual actors but only among different kinds of sexual acts. In the pre-modern and early modern periods, so the claim goes, sexual behavior did not represent a sign or marker of a person's sexual identity; it did not indicate or express some more generalized or holistic feature of the person, such as that person's subjectivity, disposition, or character. Whence the conclusion that before the modern era sexual deviance could be predicated only of acts, not of persons or identities.

I argue that such an interpretation of this famous passage in *The History of Sexuality, Volume I*, is as inattentive to Foucault's text as it is ignorant of European history. Foucault was actually making a carefully limited point about the differing styles of disqualification applied to male love by pre-modern legal definitions of sodomy and by nineteenth-century psychiatric conceptualizations of homosexuality, respectively. Nothing Foucault says about the differences between those two historically distant, and operationally distinct, discursive strategies for regulating and delegitimating forms of male same-sex sexual contacts prohibits us from inquiring into the connections that pre-modern people may have made between specific sexual acts and the particular ethos, or sexual style, or sexual subjectivity, of those who performed them.

In the remainder of the paper I discuss two figures of male deviance, the ancient figure of the *kinaidos* and Boccaccio's portrait of Pietro di Vinciolo in the *Decameron*. I contend that both of those figures, in very different ways, challenge the orthodox pseudo-Foucauldian doctrine about the supposedly strict separation between sexual acts and sexual identities in European culture before the nineteenth century. To be sure, neither the *kinaidos* nor Pietro should be understood as exhibiting a sexual identity, or a sexual orientation in the modern sense--much less the modern formation known as homosexuality. Rather, the task they pose to historians is to describe the construction of sexual identities before the emergence of sexual orientations, and to do this *without* recurring to modern notions of sexuality or sexual orientation.

We need to find ways of asking how different historical cultures fashioned different sorts of links between sexual acts, on the one hand, and sexual tastes, styles, dispositions, characters, gender presentations, and forms of subjectivity, on the other. Foucault himself would surely have been astonished to discover that his distinction between the discursive construction of the sodomite and the discursive construction of the homosexual had become the chief obstacle blocking further research into the rudiments of sexual identity-formation in pre-modern and early modern European societies. Not only was he much too good a historian ever to have authorized the incautious and implausible claim that no one had ever had a sexual subjectivity, a sexual morphology, or a sexual identity of any kind before the nineteenth century. His approach to the history of the present was also too searching, too experimental, and too open-ended to tolerate converting a heuristic analytic distinction into an ill-founded historical dogma.