Call for Papers – Politeness and Prurience: Situating Transgressive Sexualities in the Long Eighteenth Century

Deadline for abstracts: 10 September 2012, Conference: University of Edinburgh, September 2-3 2013

This major international conference at the University of Edinburgh seeks not to present illicit sexuality as an underbelly to a dominant polite culture, but to reconcile the ‘two eighteenth centuries’ that have for too long been presented as the subject of two discrete discourses – politeness and prurience. The conference will address the interface between politeness and prurience as it appears throughout eighteenth-century visual, material and literary culture. Embedded within the narrative of John Cleland’s infamous novel Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), for example, is a vignette which affronts the moral compass of even the tale’s sexually promiscuous protagonist. Having attended a ‘drag masquerade’, Fanny bears witness, through a convenient crack in a wall, to a sodomitical act, which she finds ‘not only universally odious but absurd’. Despite her apparent condemnation, Fanny pruriently watches on. In its dichotomous nature, Fanny’s reaction – suggestive of both outrage and intrigue – mirrors reactions to homosexuality in the eighteenth-century and in its subsequent historiography, wherein it is treated at once as a site of fascination, but considered separately from the history of normative sexualities. Yet, situated as it is, within this literary feast of heterosexual eroticism, Fanny Hill’s same-sex love scene may seem incongruous.  Cleland’s text however, proffers a way to approach homosexuality as both explicitly aberrant and problematic, but still located within the general lexicon of eighteenth-century sexual congress. By the same token, Cleland offers a model for resituating the homosexual narrative within a wider historiography of sexuality, where its relationality to dominant modes, not its difference from them, might fruitfully be used as a way to re-evaluate transgressive sexualities during the period.

In his 2006 article ‘Queering Horace Walpole’ George Haggerty advocates an approach to the history of sexuality wherein the search for a ‘concrete account of same-sex sexual behaviour’ is rejected, forcing the historian ‘to look elsewhere in almost every case’. Accordingly, this conference will privilege the assessment of cultural evocations of the ‘other eighteenth century’; the transgressive will be firmly identified as, and sought within dominant modes of eighteenth-century culture and its discourses. In the realm of visual culture, transgressive and deviant sexualities have previously been interpreted as autonomous and distinct from these prevailing modes. Hogarth’s famous print-series A Harlot’s Progress (1732) and A Rake’s Progress (1735) have been interpreted simplistically – in accordance with their appellation – as ‘modern moral histories’. As such they have routinely been presented as providing antitheses to a broadly defined moral exemplar of ideal polite culture.

Such a prima facie interpretation however, boldly precludes the rich scopophilic potential provided by scenes of prostitution and illicit sexuality, locating it instead within the polite framework of moralising art.  Like Fanny, the viewer of such images is at once repulsed and titillated. Yet Hogarth’s satirical oeuvre is not merely a visualisation of moral imperatives central to polite culture, but a vivid visualisation of a real section of contemporary society. In reintegrating these apparently oppositional forms of behaviour a clearer picture of eighteenth-century society and culture emerges. Hogarth’s images may therefore be viewed not as simply the commentary on the mores of an apparently ‘polite’ society via the representation of its very opposite, but, analogous to David Halperin’s definition of ‘queer’ in Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1997), as ‘a positionality vis à vis the normative’.

In an attempt to highlight underwritten facets of contemporary sexuality, texts such as G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter’s Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (1987) which have labelled themselves as examining the ‘other’ or ‘underworld’ have instead further problematised the role and import of such histories to wider eighteenth-century culture. The aim of this conference is therefore not to present illicit sexuality as an underbelly to a dominant polite culture, but to reconcile the ‘two eighteenth centuries’ that have for too long been presented as the subject of two discrete discourses – politeness and prurience. As well as dealing with the interface between politeness and prurience as it appears throughout eighteenth-century visual, material and literary culture more generally, specific topics for papers could include:

  • Bodies – the venereal body, castrati, physicalities, sadomasochism
  • Settings – home and abroad, urban centres, rural backwaters
  • Spaces – the architectural exterior and the private interior, the bagnio, the brothel, the masquerade
  • Gaze/Experience – viewing sexualities, the keyhole testimony, description and biography
  • Material Evidence – the objects of sexuality, dress, sex aids, collections, erotica
  • Masculinities and Femininities – gender roles, reversals and subversions
  • Modes of the illicit – sodomitical, Sapphic, pathological, pederastic, extra-marital, rape
  • Public & Private – reception/reaction, fear/celebration, homophobia, display, expression
  • Language – parlance, designation, rumour, slander, code

We invite abstracts of no more than 500 words to Dr. Viccy Coltman (Head of History of Art), Jordan Mearns & Freya Gowrley at politeness.prurience@gmail.com by 10 September 2012.


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