A Genealogy of Queer

George E. Haggerty
University of California, Riverside

The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, Volume 2: Queer Articulations (Wisconsin, 2008) is the second of two in Thomas A. King’s grand study of masculinity and sexuality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first volume, The English Phallus, was published in 2004. In that book, King begins the consideration of “how men’s investment in gender complementariness—an investment that had never been necessary to the proper functioning of traditional patriarchy and may have indeed been detrimental to it—enabled their construction of political and personal privacy.”[1] This is the project he completes in Queer Articulations, and in this volume he looks more directly at theatrical articulations of masculinity. As he asks in the Introduction, “What discursive struggles have forged a link between theatricality and queerness, such that queerness in men could be defined as affectation, insincerity, and lack of being?” (7). The answer to this question is contained in five of the richest and most complex (and rewarding) chapters ever to have been devoted to the topic of “the gendering of men.”

In his Introduction, King looks at some of the ways in which twentieth-century stage and screen performance was coded, and he argues that he is interested in “locating, on the surface of the body, a genealogy of queer practices, rather than positing a history of queer subjectivities” (17). He also explains his use of the concept of “queerness”: “Queerness marked an affectation, theatricality, and residual publicness that, seen from the outside, remarked a failure of privacy. I use queerness, then,” he says, “to name those competing and disjunct practices of residual publicness and emergent privacy through which male- and female-bodied libertines, fops, cross-dressers, lovers of friends, prostitutes, sapphists, sodomites, and female husbands could be said to have established, from their various class positions and contradictory interests, overlapping and counterpublic spheres” (14).

King makes clear early on that he does not “read extant texts for evidence of an emergent or already articulated and singular homosexuality but rather [he] trace[s] the multiple residual and pre-emergent practices and relations available for negotiating, resisting, enacting, and containing an array of erotic and gendered practices, desires, and identifications” (19). This is refreshing in a field that seems insistent on fighting the same battles over and over again. King offers us entirely new ways to think about bodily articulations and to interpret something other than an either–or identificatory choice. As he insists when talking about the homoerotic scene in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748–49), “Cleland’s text seduces the reader from a heteronormative to a homoerotic spectatorship position. But Cleland’s seduction . . . begins from a place of proximity; erotic pleasures (including the pleasures of voyeurism, discourse, and writing) provide a field of negotiation among shared interests in privacy, citizenship, and the definition and control of public space. . . . The surveying gaze, [Michel] Foucault insisted, cannot be identified with any particular ‘norm,’ center, or class interest; the distinction of modernity . . . is that the gaze has become ‘anonymous’” (37).

For King, “in Cleland’s text,” then, “and the others [he] read[s] in the following chapters, erotic and gendered pleasures emerge as a field of embodied techniques with which social actors may negotiate the proximity of modern class positions and subjectivities to the disavowed statuses of premodern society” (38). In the first of his chapters, King considers the gesture of “arms akimbo,” first celebrated in representations of European Renaissance courts and later the monarchs of England’s Stuart courts. “How,” King asks, “did a gesture signaling the absolute difference of the aristocratic body from all other bodies come to register the fraught distinction of the queer man’s body from those of all other men?” (47).

King answers this question by looking at a range of representations, which include the mid-twentieth-century film Tea and Sympathy (1956), paintings of the Stuart court, and designs for Ben Jonson’s masques, including Oberon, The Fairy Prince (ca. 1611). In all these works or the images representing them, men stand with arms akimbo with wrists turned back: “not just a display of aristocratic power, this spectacular body [that of Charles I in the masque Salmacida Spolia (ca. 1640)] was the performative production of that power, an exercise of power occurring within and against contestation over the uses of and entitlement to spectacle. Setting his arms akimbo, the king occupied a spectacular power that could not belong to him but was invested in and across all the bodies and hands that produced the spectacle of kingship” (63). King discusses the way this emblematized power becomes a “residual power” (63), and he argues that “resistance would make publicity, in its residual form, a vehicle for disidentifying from privatized subjectivities” (63–64).

Among the images that King discusses at length in this chapter is William Hogarth’s intriguing first plate of the Analysis of Beauty (1753). King examines the statue of Antinous, which, King says, “was located, in Hogarth’s day, in the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican Museum” (69). He questions the critical readiness to take Hogarth’s comments about the figure, held to possess the “utmost beauty of proportion” among the statues represented (69).[2] King points out the very clear exaggeration of proportion, as it were, in this case—“here, Antinous depends on the French dancing master for support, as if he were a prima ballerina being presented to the audience by the danseur” (74)—to point up the degree that the ease of conventional masculinity is always at risk (“English manliness risks the very affectation it disavows” [74]); and to remind us that after all “the providence of an Antinous . . . provides a genealogy manqué of the official and residual uses of pederastic desire at the very time of its opposition and containment” (76).

In this chapter King explores Antinous, and the cult that grew up around this image, in the eighteenth century and beyond, from Johann Joachim Winkelmann to Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds and others, and then he returns to early modern aristocracy and its (often ignored) obsession with “antique coins, medals, and statues; sixteenth-century Italian paintings and architecture; and cabinets of ‘curiosities’ or rarities that countered . . . the developing empiricism of Sir Francis Bacon, William Harvey, and John Locke. . . . The virtuosos’ collections of Roman antiquities provided a visual language unifying humanism and courtly power, courtesy, and corporeal distinction” (89–90). King also looks extensively at bodily display in images of contest and exploration, from Theodore de Bry’s account of Balboa’s slaughter of Indians (for King, “a devastating image of the persecution of sodomites” [101]) to John Bulwer’s Cirologia (1644) and watercolors from the Roanoke expeditions organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. “A gesture,” King says, “not only has a history but is the embodied articulation of a history, or, more properly, of a genealogy” (110). King shows these male figures of colonial rule presented with arms akimbo as a way of asserting dominance, but this image is also repeated in images of native figures: “the gesture, through its repetition in the North Atlantic, assimilated present-day exercises of specification, rationalization, and subjugation to an increasingly anachronistic economy of status, similitude, and honor. The indigenous American with an arm akimbo performed, for European and English imperial gazes, their fantasy of having conquered a noble and ancient lineage; enacted the assimilation of colonial expansion and mercantilism to a progressive and universal vision of history; and staged, as contrasting gestural economies, the racialization of those anonymous, massed bodies whose enforced labor supported and enabled the intellectual and aesthetic projects” (111–12) that King has outlined.

King ends this remarkable chapter with a section called “Performing Akimbo: Notes on Camp.” “To recuperate akimbo,” he says there, “—to reclaim queer practice over and against the inscription of homosexual inwardness—would be to reassert the primacy of performance beyond the epistemology of depth on which all private subjectivities (homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, heterosexual) depend” (137). This is a profound insight and a call, almost literally, to arms. Let the recuperation begin!

Other chapters in this astonishing book are as riveting as this first one. In “Mollies’ Privacies” (chapter 2), King looks at all the available information and misinformation we have about the molly houses, and he makes more sense of this material than has ever been made before. As he reminds us, “rather than a social history of homosexual identity, satires and trial records offer traces of practices lacking identity: promiscuity, prostitution, masquerade, expenditure without capitalization, and repetition without an ethics of consolidation. Can social history,” he asks, “refuse the twin traps of personality and the domestic plot?” (145). King shows us exactly how this can be done. He asserts boldly: “I mean to rethink [Alan] Bray’s self-aware subculture and [Barry D.] Adam’s organized collective as a disparate network of pleasures neither identical to domesticity nor invariably structured according to, and perhaps resisting, the asymmetries of pederasty and libertinism” (145).

Correcting work of my own on this topic, on the relation between these sodomy accounts and the emergence of a homosexual identity, King says that “to the extent that Haggerty has been correct to see representations of same-sex affection in the eighteenth century as different from both the heroic or republican male–male friendships and the libertinism of an earlier age, . . . his study points, not to the transgressive difference of a molly subculture from an established ‘heteronormativity,’ but to the parallel and proximate development of two new and competing claims to privacy and pleasure” (167).[3] I take King’s point, and think his conclusion to this section is more than justified: “Because sodomy has been overdetermined as a refusal of personal and political privacy, founded on but irreducible to procreation, and not just a refusal of a ‘natural’ procreativity, even the modern tendency to weaken the link between heteroerotic pleasures and sexual reproduction has not brought with it an obvious right for homosexuals or heterosexuals to re-publicize sodomy—to claim public space and state ideology, that is, for sodomy” (167–68).

In chapter 3, “The Canting Queen,” King talks about Colley Cibber’s “disavowal of the boy player” (237), and he talks about the question of effeminacy and performance on the English stage. Building on the work of such scholars as Kristina Straub and Raymond Stephenson, King explores the pitfalls of “the modeling of masculinity per se on aristocratic authority” (244) and talks at length about the career of Edward Kynaston, one of the last actors to go on stage to play female characters.[4] King examines various manuals of physical movement from the period and says that “the physiognomic theory underwriting this equation of difference among bodily lines with essential and embodied distinctions of station, occupation, age, or sex (maintained onstage as in the official representations of public and private bodies according to the principles of decorum) was widely established among the cultural elite in England” (254).

In chapter 4, “How (Not) to Queer Boswell,” King takes on “the question of how to read Boswell’s strong identification with other men and his insistent desire to pose in their gazes” (307). King claims that “through residual display, Boswell performed a manliness differentiating the status-bearing body from the emergent class body under capitalism” (308). He proceeds to read Boswell’s journals more interestingly than they have ever been read before, and he reaches the conclusion that “the liberal fantasy of masculinity . . . is necessarily constituted in and constrained by the fantasy of its own loss” (310). “If we respond with outrage to the scandal of Boswell’s text . . . are we not seduced by the performativity of modern heterosexual masculinity, reinstating it, in liberal terms, as that ideal of citizenship capable of accommodating to its normative structure of privacy and sociability, sincerity and politeness, individuality and gendered reciprocity?” King asks (311). I think we have to agree, and if Boswell is the image of “immaturity, narcissism, and foppery”—all signs of sodomy—he is also the measure of what liberal masculinity has had to disavow. This chapter has clear significance for everyone doing the history of sexuality. King goes on to give a rich and arresting response to the material in Boswell’s journals that has been read as potentially queer, and he shows how much more complicated a story they actually tell.

“The Castrato’s Castration” (chapter 5) takes on this vexed topic and explores its meaning for the history of sexuality. As King says, “the castrati have been entered into the history of the national and class-based struggles articulated as, and articulating, gender and sexuality” (347). “It is the tendency of modern critics to hear an appropriated femininity within the male body of the castrati is a resistant reading,” he argues, “one based on our own assumptions about gender, privacy, and self-possession. Staging their own resistances, some among the castrati’s contemporary audiences, by contrast, might have heard effeminacy, on the one hand, and a penetrating, ravishing power, on the other—the doubled, pederastic economy of placement and mimetic agency” (369). Looking at Farinelli and other famous eighteenth-century castrati, King makes the important point that “to claim that the severing of a boy’s vas deferens imposed a loss of masculinity would be to posit the individual’s possession of a manly body (personal discipline and political autonomy) prior to his temporal and differential negotiations of space and acquisition of status—to posit, that is, a political and cultural equivalence of biologically male bodies” (384). Further, King argues crucially that “to attribute a lack of masculinity to atrophied and infertile testicles would be to locate the idealized equivalency, or fraternity, of the liberal public sphere in individual male bodies rather than in the political field located among adult, property-owning men and interpellating them as embodied subjects of free manhood” (384).

That is a remarkable insight and a suitable one with which to end this review. King is able to see such distinctions clearly and to articulate them in ways that we can ponder to our deep satisfaction. This is a wonderful book that redefines the issues facing those of us working in the field of sexuality. Building on scholars who have come before him in this field, he makes it clear how deeply these issues matter for an understanding of modern culture. “Modernity appears as an unfinished project wherever a queer or camp body claims its own representativeness, its own freedom to represent public virtue” (409), he says in the Conclusion. King has taught us why this must be true and what it means to those interested in the workings of culture. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


[1]   Thomas A. King, The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, Vol. 1: The English Phallus (Madison, 2004), 5.

[2]   William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (London, 1753), figs. 17 and 18.

[3]   See George E. Haggerty, Men In Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1999).

[4]   See Kristina Straub, Sexual Subjects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton, 1992), and Raymond Stephenson, The Yard of Wit: Male Creativity and Sexuality, 1650–1750 (Philadelphia, 2004).