Disturbing Practices

Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality and Women’s Experience of Modern War, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Jane Mackelworth

‘The problem for the historian of sexuality is how to explore the sexual past, even the modern past, without falling back on … seductively simple labels’ (p. 52).

Laura Doan’s latest book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sexuality and particularly its methodological practice. Yet scholars interested in the critical practice of history more broadly should also take note, for Doan suggests that if researchers in other fields incorporate sexuality into their historical analysis, it could open up a richer understanding of past lives.

Disturbing Practices is a natural successor to Doan’s earlier Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (2001) but makes an important theoretical departure. Doan argues that her earlier project was flawed in that it was too informed and structured by our modern understanding and conception of sexual identity. Doan reports that this gave her a sense that she “knew more about the sexuality of women in that period than they did themselves” (p. xi). Her current work seeks to counter this and to consider alternative methods for historians of sexuality.

Disturbing Practices reads like a call to action. One of its key tenets is its assertion that historians should engage more fully with Queer Theory as a methodological approach. Doan acknowledges and details the uneasy tension between the two disciplines yet argues that a combination of approaches could see a new form of Queer Critical History which would ask different questions about the past. By this Doan means that we should never take for granted “regime[s] of truth or knowledge” (p. xii) or a priori assumptions. Rather we should interrogate and question these. She includes within this a need to deconstruct our current ‘regime of sexuality’ (p. xii). In utilising queer theory, historians would probe that which is taken for granted (our current categorizations of gender, sexuality or class for example).

As Doan explains, the history of sexuality first emerged as a genealogical endeavor, a quest to find, recover and identify examples of same sex desire, and identities in the past. While Doan emphasizes the importance, value and ongoing relevance of this ‘recovery’ history she argues too that it can hold ‘few surprises’ because it is founded on seeking antecedents of modern day arrangements and identities.

When Queer Theory first emerged it sought to destabilize and challenge the idea of fixed sexual identities. While this threatened the genealogical project to some extent Doan argues that it also opened up new possibilities for historians, new ways of seeing the past.

However, Doan argues that the discipline of history has yet to fully realize the possibilities opened up by Queer Theory. She suggests that when historians do incorporate Queer Theory into their archival work the preoccupation is often with ‘queerness as being’ i.e. that a certain individual has a queer identity (p. xv). Doan suggests that this is, in effect, another version of the ‘genealogical impulse.’ It still aims to categorise, to delineate and to name.

Doan suggests that in restricting ourselves to ‘queerness as being’ we allow the past to elude us. She draws on Lee Edelman’s premise that; “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one” (p. viii) Doan argues that we should instead concern ourselves with queerness as method. We should explore how structures of knowing operated in the time we are studying. Quoting Joan Scott’s canonical paper she asserts that we must seek to uncover how sexual difference ‘is established, how it operates, [and] how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world’ (p. 4).

Doan illustrates her argument with several case studies drawn from the First World War period and from later reflections on those years. She revisits the topic of her 2006 article, ‘Topsy Turvydom: Gender Inversion, Sapphism, and the Great War’ to argue that ‘gender inversion’ or appropriation of masculine clothes during the First World War years was not a signifier of same sex desire (at least for the vast majority of people) despite becoming so in later years. In further chapters Doan looks, for example, at the trial of Violet Douglas-Pennant noting the language that was used (or not used) throughout her trial. She looks too at the close friendship of Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker who served during the First World War who did not appear (at the time) to conceive of their friendship in romantic or erotic terms.

Doan notes that as historians we must resist the desire not only to impose later categories of understanding on women such as Douglas-Pennant, Chisholm and Knocker, but to resist the desire to categorise and name altogether arguing that ‘a preoccupation with sexual identity … obscures the variations, deviations, and complications of actual lives of individuals who were unaccustomed to sexual self-reflectivity’ (p. 162).

Having also studied papers, letters and diaries of women during the first half of the twentieth century myself, I echo Doan’s observation that women of this period do not easily fit into preconceived categories or identities and recognize the need for forms of history and for a queer critical history which acknowledges and allows for this. I want to suggest one or two possible examples of ways in which we can approach same sex (and opposite sex) relations in the past which may enable us to ask different questions, and to move beyond a focus on identity and categories.

For example, drawing on methodologies from the history of the emotions we can consider the lives of women in the first half of the twentieth century through an analysis of expressions and meanings of love. We may learn more when we explore, not identity, nor a prevailing sense of ‘being’ but perhaps ways in which women chose to live their lives together. This seems, to me, a way of considering the past on its own terms. How did women understand their lives together? How did women represent, express their love and friendship for another? How did they make sense of this? Doan notes that she did not find ‘private papers’ disclosing innermost thoughts about romantic desires, sexual entanglements, preferences or inclinations during the First World War period. However, while it is true that documents are rarely self-reflexive I would argue that they do contain evidence of professions of love and belonging. And so what is of interest is not how we may categorise those women today (or then) but how we can make sense of the ways in which women described or represented their feelings for one another.

Considering the role of space or material culture can also open up new questions. How did women share space together? What did it mean to set up home together? What does it mean when women received joint Christmas presents? Or exchanged rings?

This type of approach means that we focus less on the things that we can’t identify, which are unknowable and start with the things which we do know.

While the history of sexuality covers a multitude of topics, its gravitational pull, as Doan notes, concerns the history of same sex love. Some topics covered in the history of sexuality sit within this field only because they deal with the lives of people who would be identified as LGBTQ today. Therefore their inclusion within the discipline is dependent on categorization and taxonomies. For example, a project detailing the domestic life of married men and women would not (arguably) belong, or rather would not cite itself, in the History of Sexuality unless aspects of a couple’s sex life, contraception for example, were touched upon. Whereas a similar project concerning the lives of two men sharing a home may well be found in the History of Sexuality because it concerns same sex lives. Therefore, the existence of a History of Sexuality discipline can actually end up reinforcing categories and identities by what it includes and excludes. And conversely other areas of history are able to restrict their attention to the expected ‘categories’ within their field and to an expectation of what will be found, thereby excluding certain aspects of love and desire.

Therefore, if we are seeking a critical queer history of sexuality, how do we decide what’s in and what’s out or rather who’s in and who’s out? How far should our taxonomical categories today be used to structure research interests and research groups? Similarly, if historians of sexuality adopt queer theory wholeheartedly, while other historians do not, then these divisions and separations could be reinforced.

Jane Mackelworth is a PhD candidate at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary. She is researching Love, Home and Belonging in (Sapphic) Friendships, 1900–1960.

If anyone is interested in discussing further ‘What is the History of Sexuality’ then please come to the new IHR History of Sexuality seminar series which starts in January 2014. Our first session will be a discussion on this topic. Details to follow.