Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Emergence of Sexual Difference in the 18th Century: Economies of Pleasure in Herder's Liebe und Selbstheit1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the Emergence of Sexual Difference in the 18th Century: Economies of Pleasure in Herder's Liebe und Selbstheit1

Article excerpt

Auch in der Freundschaft ist Ein Theil immer der thätige, der andre mehr beihelfend und leidend: jener männlich, dieser weiblich; oft umgekehrt nach Geschlechtern. Einklang ist in dieser Ehe der Seelen weder angenehm noch nutzlich, noch moglich.

The Enlightenment, which enthusiastically propagated man's universality and humanity's progress, also produced a "profound transformation," even "revolution" in views on sex and gender (Schiebinger 189 and 206, Trumbach). Not only did the polarization of the sexes increase dramatically, but it also acquired a new quality. While sex previously had joined a series of other categories-such as age, color, region, and diet-to determine a subject's humors, temperament, and position within a continuous socio-cultural hierarchy of beings, it came to mark a fundamental distinction by the end of the 18th century. The two sexes became incommensurable, each capable of its own perfection, and at the same time complementary, that is, each was conceived as lacking and becoming complete only through union with its complement. This transformation is intimately linked to the construction of heterosexuality that occurred most forcefully by way of medical discourses on homosexuality during the 19th century, but arguably began already in the early 18th century (Trumbach). Historical research has highlighted how a variety of discourses sought to ground a radical gender binary in nature by opposing men and women on every level, including their anatomy, physiology, psychology, and moral character (Hausen, Honegger, Schmersahl). Biological essentialism, as it was analyzed by much 20th-century feminist criticism, can thus be said to originate in the 18th century.

That the tight, causal connection of sex and gender should have a fairly short history would seem to support the influential distinction between (biological) sex and (socio-historically constructed and variable) gender. Yet this distinction has also been questioned by the theoretical and historical argument that "sex is as culturally constructed as gender" (Butler T). Judith Butler's Gender Trouble refers in particular to Thomas Laqueur, who identifies a shift in the 18th century from a "one-sex/flesh model" (in which woman is an imperfect version of man, into whom she could conceivably transform) to a "two-sex/flesh model" (in which male and female bodies differ in every respect). While many cultural, political, even epistemological reasons can be given for this shift, Laqueur insists that scientific discoveries about the body and its sex were not among them. In view of his and Londa Schiebinger's account of pre-modern conceptions of gender as a cultural and cosmological category more fundamental and primary than sex, one could say that the priority of gender over sex-or of culture over nature-carries over to the production of opposite sexes. "Gender shaped sex" (Schiebinger 161) not only in antiquity, but also in modernity, so that one can conclude that sex "was always already gender" (Butler 7).

Although the 20th century did much to unsettle the enormously successful grounding of gender and sexuality in nature, it did not return to a pre-modern continuity of beings. If gender shapes sex, critiques of both essentialism and the assumption of a pre-discursive sex binary must indeed be ineffectual. The more fundamental issue is the radical disjunction between opposite genders (or other categories). The 18th-century break with the continuity of gender prior to its foundation in sex, is here of particular interest. The point is not to find a pure, absolute origin, but on the contrary to exploit the transitional character of this historical moment in order to recover traces of the preceding, continuous taxonomy and the rationale for excluding it together with alternative options.

My opening quote indicates that Johann Gottfried Herder's essay liebe und Selbstheit (1781) belongs precisely to this moment. By noting that gender ("mannlich"/"weiblich") is often aligned inversely to sex ("umgekehrt nach Geschlecht"), it makes clear that gender is not (yet) reduced to sex. …

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