Interiors

Sex and the Body in Dickens

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Maryland wcohen@umd.edu
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Not so long ago, the topic of Dickens and sex might have seemed entirely entailed by Foucault's inquires in the first volume of the History of Sexuality. In that work, Foucault argues that sex is not a biological donnée but is instead an effect of discourse, a culturally variable vehicle for the exercise of power in many different directions. Emerging out of Foucault's studies of social institutions such as prisons and madhouses, the History of Sexuality emphasises the disciplinary imperative of sexual knowledges; it argues that individual subjects internalise surveillance mechanisms, experiencing them through and as their sexuality. One of the beneficiaries of the Foucauldian paradigm, which dominated Victorian literary studies from the late 1980s until recently, was queer theory. Queer theory interrogates rather than presuming identity categories (such as homosexual, lesbian and gay), but it has always sat in an uneasy relation to identity politics, simultaneously relying on and deconstructing stable notions of gender and sexual identity. Some critics have employed queer theory to discover lesbian, gay or queer characters and practices in Victorian literature (not to mention finding more properly nineteenth-century types, such as the hysteric, the onanist and the sodomite). Such projects have often understood the function of sexual representation as part of modernity's more general disciplinary structure.

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