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“Back to the Future of Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies”
Sidney Donnell, Lafayette College


Resistance or repetition? This is the deceptively simple theoretical question that has concerned many scholars in the humanities and social sciences for several decades, and that constitutes the primary concern of participants in this Forum on queer approaches to the study of medieval and early modern Iberia. Do queer readings contest hegemonic understandings of the history and literature of Iberia? Or do they perpetuate outdated paradigms that venerate Spain’s and Portugal’s respective imperial pasts? What are the promises and perils of queer epistemologies?

These questions were addressed at “Return to Queer Iberia”, a recent symposium organized by Michael Solomon and sponsored by the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania (October 19-20, 2001).1 Many of its participants had contributed chapters to the groundbreaking collection Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, edited by Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson (1999). This volume makes a major contribution to Iberian historical and literary studies, and is one of a handful of works that has brought theoretical sophistication to studies of sexuality within the field. The Forum presented here moves beyond the already exemplary contribution of Queer Iberia. Like the volume, it explores exciting new directions in medieval and early modern Iberian studies.2

A unifying theme among the historians and literary critics whose work is collected here is the exploration of difference. This theoretically charged term is used by many of the contributors to advance a richer understanding of what some would call “multicultural Iberia”. It is clear from the nature and scope of the presentations that the search for evidence about social norms and alternative sexual practices now requires extensive discussion of not just sexuality alone, but its relation to “race”, class, ethnicity and gender as they are mutually constituted in the history and literature of the Iberian peninsula. It is also evident from the Forum that the battle to take sexuality seriously in Iberian studies has moved quickly beyond narrowly construed identity politics or the mere refutation of conservative disavowals of the interpretive significance of same-sex desire. Competing visions of difference and inequality have propelled the field forward in new and exciting directions in an astonishingly short period of time.

What does it mean to queer Iberian studies? We find a number of answers to this question in the work of Forum contributors because the term “queer” does not in this case indicate a single, theoretically unified project. Indeed, the polyvocality of the term has opened up multiple interpretive possibilities, several of which are represented here. Many contributors would agree with Gregory Hutcheson’s claim that the term “queer” cannot be translated to a single word in the Romance languages when it is used to reference the ways sex and sexuality destabilize the binary logic of a predominant culture. In this orthodox sense, “queer” is a term that signals the subversion of hegemonic cultural logic. It therefore underscores the power of any form of desire to disrupt what many refer to as “normalization”. Others, such as Daniel Eisenberg, use “queer” to mean “lesbian” and “gay”. For these scholars, queer is a term for naming the identities of medieval subjects and their sexual practices and desires. The essays in this Forum represent the spectrum of identitarian and post-identitarian approaches in sexuality studies. Taken together, the reflections collected here implicitly ask the provocative question of whether theories of lesbian and gay identities in the present are the most productive basis by which to label or explain same-sex desire as it manifests itself in the past.

Through its historicizing strategies for the study of same-sex desire, one of the most interesting and important contributions of the Forum is its challenge to some of Luso-Hispanism’s more hegemonic assumptions about the history and literature of the Iberian peninsula. Jean Dangler, for example, argues that we should be careful to avoid the anachronistic imposition of hetero/homo definitions on the interpretive process as it applies itself to the medieval and early modern periods. What is required, instead, is careful attention to cultural history - to the sets of discourses and their attendant strategies through which subjects, sexual or otherwise, are formed. Dangler is especially concerned with current approaches to medieval texts that assume a categorical distinction between history and literature, whereas Iberians during the Middle Ages often made few distinctions between the two. Similarly, Josiah Blackmore reminds us of the shifting cultural landscape of medieval Iberia, and that the identities of many of its inhabitants were in constant flux. For instance, slippages between “the predominant languages of learning and literature” (Latin, Hebrew and Arabic) complicate our understanding of cultural production and cultural heterogeneity. While attending to instabilities in linguistic categories, Blackmore also provides an historical account of gender dissidence. He points to David Higgs’ work (1999) on Portuguese Inquisitors who, as Blackmore states, were preoccupied with “naming, defining, and delimiting queerness”, without regard to the ethno-religious, class, or gender identities of the subjects interrogated.

Several contributors discuss some of the risks of pursuing queer approaches in the context of contemporary academic politics. Mary Gossy argues that we currently face a juncture where we must choose between, on the one hand, normalizing and then peddling queer readings as a commodity of the corporate university system, and, on the other, constantly reconfiguring queer approaches so that our work remains a sincere and honest effort to resist all forms of imperialism. Regarding normalization and queerness, Hutcheson addresses the troubling criticism that, by using the word “queer” in the title Queer Iberia, he and Blackmore inadvertently imposed Anglo-American hegemony over non-English-speaking scholars of Iberia. He claims that the volume is only temporarily “canonical” in a normalizing sense because Iberian scholars will eventually write their own histories about the peninsula’s queer past, “whatever term [they] might end up using to designate that past”. To this I would add that modern speakers of Romance languages, especially Spanish, are in the process of borrowing the word “queer”, just as they did “gay” many years ago. Is this imperialization or radical appropriation? The impact of what I am tempted to call the “globalization of queerness” on Spanish scholarship is still very much an open question.

In a forward-looking contribution to the Forum, Israel Burshatin also discusses academic politics, but from a slightly different point of view. He directs our attention to Carolyn Dinshaw’s monumental work, Getting Medieval (1999), which highlights “queerness” as a historical process. Burshatin is intrigued by her call for coalition building, particularly among those who, according to Burshatin, study “subaltern subjects silenced in the past”. In keeping with other contributors to the Forum, Burshatin proposes that we continue to widen the definition of “queer” beyond (but not excluding) the topic of sexuality in order to find allies among the numerous scholars with critical perspectives on cultural history and difference, especially as regards “racial”, ethno-religious, class and gender identities. He is specifically interested in any discipline (including queer history and subaltern studies) that resists further repetition of the same, weary hegemonic understandings of Luso-Hispanism. Like Blackmore and Hutcheson, he concludes that our best long-term strategy of resistance is to expand our horizons beyond the geographical and chronological boundaries of Iberia in the Middle Ages or Renaissance and engage in more interdisciplinary approaches to the study of power and difference.

Several contributors to the Forum have already made this move. Leora Lev adds modern texts into the mix, showing how queer readings of Iberia in the Middle Ages and Renaissance contribute to our understanding of modern Hispanic culture. Along similar lines, Harry Vélez Quiñones discusses how queer Iberianists can instruct modernists and modern society about the long-running conflict between Christians, Jews and Muslims -which has particular salience at the present, given the events of September 11, 2001- and the homophobic reactions that ensued among many pundits and politicians, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell. And although Daniel Eisenberg takes a different theoretical approach than many of the other contributors, his focus complements their calls for investigations of texts dealing with social norms and alternative sexual practices in medieval Iberia, allowing us to shed new historical light on the sexual cultures of the period. His work especially encourages us to take a look at what the history of same-sex desire in Islamic Iberia can teach us today.3

It should be apparent that the theoretical is also political for most Forum contributors. And the political is personal for them as well. Contributors offer some important reflections on their roles in their respective communities as both teachers and scholars. They discuss how scholars might identity themselves today as sexual subjects in different academic contexts, especially in the classroom. Vélez Quiñones, for instance, reminds us that we teach with our bodies as well as with our minds, and codes of silence are often self-imposed habits based on years of fearing for both our physical and our psychological well-being. To this I would add that “straight” people who engage in queer studies may, upon occasion, have to be concerned with more than combating heteronormativity on the purely intellectual front. Getting some colleagues to take queerness seriously will require politicization on a number of contradictory fronts, among which includes protecting jobs and tenure, areas where post-identitarian politics may be of limited use in battling multiple forms of discrimination.

Finally, in many other disciplines (English and French come to mind) there is a sense that queer readings may have run their course. Just as they have begun to ask, “Is queer studies dead?”, we are now asking, “What is ‘queer studies’?” For us, “queer” helps us to counter conservative readings in our field that have ignored both sexuality’s predominant role in Iberian history and culture and the historical fact of same-sex desire. Moreover, queer theory’s most important contribution to date has been to show us the absences and omissions of difference that are produced when essentialized conceptions of lesbian and gay identities are imposed across time and space. Though colleagues in English and French studies may have once been perceived as the purported leaders in the application of queer theory to their respective fields, Iberianists need not replicate their work. The future of queer Iberian studies rests in our ability to juxtapose queer theory with those questions of “race”, class, ethnicity and gender so relevant to our own field. Rather than leading us to reject the concept of agency that many have done in other fields, queer theory can become an integral part of diverse, microhistorical approaches to the study of people’s lives and cultural production in medieval and early modern Iberia. If we pursue this direction, then we might breathe new life into queer theory by naming it for ourselves.4



1 In addition to Solomon’s planning, much of “Return to Queer Iberia’s” success can be attributed to the active participation of graduate students of Romance Languages in follow-up discussion and to important interventions by the majority of the Department’s faculty members in Spanish: Carlos J. Alonso, Marina Brownlee, Toni Espósito, José Regueiro and Jorge Salessi.

2 As Solomon said in his opening remarks at the Symposium, “although there is much to praise in the production and reception of this work [Queer Iberia], we come here now less as an act of celebration than one of commemoration”. In other words, both the present Forum and Symposium from which it is derived should stand apart from Queer Iberia because they look toward the future of medieval and early modern Iberian studies.

3 Other speakers at the Symposium revisited their original submissions to Queer Iberia and now seek out new means of applying theory to specific historical and literary texts. Their work is queer precisely because they look at broad issues of sexuality that disrupt dominant cultural binaries in the Middle Ages: Sara Lipton’s study of the use of sexual slander to diminish the importance of royal kinship ties for political gain; Barbara Weissberger’s analysis of anti-Semitic propaganda that conflates circumcision and sodomy; Benjamin Liu’s research on jokes about female sex workers; and Louise Vasvári’s anthro-linguistic examination of the discourses of sodomy. In the Forum that follows, Harry Vélez Quiñones responds to the oral presentations of Lipton, Weissberger and Liu, while Jean Dangler reviews that of Vasvári. Dangler also served as respondent to Daniel Eisenberg and Leora Lev, whose revised presentations appear here.

4 I gratefully acknowledge Jeff Maskovsky, Greg Hutcheson, Harry Vélez and Bianca Falbo for their advice and editorial assistance with this essay.


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A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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