[The latest installation of a (usually) Friday series profiling Group of 88 members, which has included posts on Wahneema Lubiano, Grant Farred, Sally Deutsch, Joseph Harris, and Kathy Rudy. The posts examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, trying to delve into the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process. An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control the hiring process. The people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, select new hires.]
Duke’s History Department features three professors who study the history of Hispanic Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America outside of Brazil). Pete Sigal, Irene Silverblatt,* and Jocelyn Olcott are all members of the Group of 88. Each also signed the statement of the “clarifying” faculty.
Pete Sigal has a B.A. from Bucknell and a Ph.D. from UCLA. This coming fall, he’ll be teaching courses in colonial Latin American history and a junior seminar entitled “Sexual History around the Globe.” That course asks,
“What does it mean to sexualize history?” We will ask how we can sexuality not just as a topic of study, but as a reading practice. What happens when we focus a feminist and queer analysis on history? How does the historical narrative change as we use sexuality as our reading practice? What happens to the sign of history when confronted with the sign of sexuality? As we read historical narratives that focus on a wide variety of topics, we will discuss those topics by developing sexuality as our reading practice. Thus, when we read a military history, we will ask not just about sexuality as a topic with the military (did soldiers have sex with other soldiers? did soldiers impregnate prostitutes?), but also about sexuality as a reading process (what happens when we center our entire analysis of the military by sexualizing the bodies of the soldiers? what happens when we read the military as a sexualized institution?) Similarly, all other topics will be sexualized in our reading practice. We will read primary and secondary literature from various time periods and locations: hence will perform sexual histories around the globe.
Sigal has published one book (From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: The Colonization of Yucatecan Maya Sexual Desire); edited another (Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America); and written several journal articles. He has condemned the “Eurocentric biases” of studies of homosexuality (in effect, criticizing gay and lesbian studies from the left, not an easy thing to do), and has suggested that his own scholarship sheds light not just on history “but also on current academic and political controversies regarding the cultural and social constructions of sexual identity.”
To give a sense of the themes prevalent in Sigal’s work, here are some chapter and subchapter titles from his 2002 book, which examines colonial Maya society:
- “Transsexuality and the Floating Phallus”;
- “Fornicating with Priests, Communicating with Gods”;
- “Pedagogy, Pederasty, and Political Power”;
- “Having Sex in a Church”;
- “Blood, Semen, and Ritual”;
- “Gendered Blood and Transsexual Bodies”;
- “Ritualized Bisexuality”;
- “The Phallus without a Body.”
In From Moon Goddesses to Virgins, Sigal argued, “The gendering of blood signified the transsexuality of fantasy and desire . . . the Maya fantasy world showed that the people would allow the phallus to play a central role in creation.” This development, however, was “mitigated by the importance of the vagina.” In the end, “the phallus certainly was vital, showing a male dominance, but its vitality was most important when it was attached to nobody.”
In a 2002 article, the Group of 88’er maintained that colonial Maya social structure was based on a “phallic signifying economy” that “stratifies the political system based on gender and age.” Maya stories, contended Sigal, showed the “bieroticism of desire as they primarily discuss sexual acts between men and women as they present the male body in an erotic manner, attaining the pederastic relationship.”
In the end, Mayans recognized that “it is the desire for the phallus that will allow access to political power.”
Maya society, it seems, was a hotbed of sexual radicalism. But when Sigal explained how he reached his conclusions about “the central location of homosexual desire” in colonial Latin American history, his arguments sounded a bit more dubious.
The Group of 88’er conceded that much of his evidence was not readily apparent in the texts—even that other scholars had examined the very same documents he used and not detected his “previously unrecognized pederastic political rituals.”
How, then, did Sigal achieve this historical coup? He combined insights from “poststructuralist gender studies and queer theory influences” with use of philology and postcolonial theory to “understand the texts that I read as literary devices which I decode in order to represent the cultural matrix.”
In a 1998 article, Sigal wrote that historians needed to avoid the “traps of reading the evidence too literally.” (Facts, indeed, can be inconvenient things.) Spanish sources, for instance, claim “that the Incas despised sodomy”—but “we cannot take them at their word.” Sigal appears to have gone to the opposite extreme and assumed that any text of whose message he disapproved could be ignored or creatively re-interpreted.
The net result of such theorizing? A discovery that “Maya writing ostensibly was about politics, religion, ritual, and warfare but subtextually was about gender and sexual desire.” And in these texts—as redefined through Sigal’s “matrix”—“homoeroticism is presented as a universal and positive sexual desire, which maintains and enhances the survival of Mayan society.”
Some people might call Sigal’s “matrix” little more than a rationalization intended to produce an outcome that fits the historian’s preconceived political and social agenda. Regardless, creatively interpreting the texts to suggest that the West imposed anti-gay attitudes on a more sexually tolerant Maya society uses history to promote Sigal’s beliefs about current “political controversies regarding the cultural and social constructions of sexual identity.”
Irene Silverblatt has a B.A. from Swarthmore and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. In more than 25 years as a professor, she has published two books: a study of the Inquisition in colonial Peru; and Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. Silverblatt has described her work as part of “research into the origins of women’s oppression—both symbolic and institutional”; she suggested that her first book contributed to debates over “the transculturality of women’s subordination.”
Silverblatt has urged gender historians to recognize that “the interplay between sexual assault, resistance, patriarchal control, and political dominance is intricate.” To take some examples: “What of indigenous women who did not resist forcible rape? Should their lives and actions be deemed any less heroic or any less virtuous? And what, on the other hand, of those who used their sex to open what were often only the most meager opportunities for themselves or their families? Are they any less virtuous for surviving?” Her essay did not explain the reasons for her apparent assumption that historians should view “indigenous women” as “heroic.”
Her general approach? In a vaguely Maoist line from a 1988 article, Silverblatt gushed about the “exciting literature of self-criticism and reflection,” a development that she deemed critical to understanding the origins of women’s oppression.
The third in the trio of Group of 88 Latin Americanists, Jocelyn Olcott, rejoiced at having “started college at a moment when Latin American Studies distinguished itself for its insistence on simultaneous engagement with both scholarship and politics.” She attracted some attention shortly before the lacrosse case emerged, when she joined her future Group colleague, Diane Nelson, in attempting to shout down David Horowitz during his address at Duke.
Olcott describes her research interests as the “feminist history of modern Mexico”; her book “shows women activists challenging prevailing beliefs about the masculine foundations of citizenship” by examining “how women inhabited the conventionally manly role of citizen by weaving together its quotidian and formal traditions, drawing strategies from local political struggles and competing gender ideologies.” In her acknowledgments, she expresses appreciation for intellectual guidance from fellow Group of 88 members Wahneema Lubiano, Sally Deutsch, Laura Edwards, Esther Gabara, Diane Nelson, and Priscilla Wald.
Last spring, Olcott co-taught a class with Lubiano (Introduction to Critical U.S. Studies), which attracted seven students (for 40 slots). The jargon-laden description gives a sense of why: “The course,” Lubiano and Olcott wrote, “will ask us to think about what it means to be an ‘American.’ Thinking about that concept demands considering the critical production in the United States from different disciplinary perspectives. We will take what we learn about ‘making’ the U.S. and apply what we learn to problems closer to ‘home.’”
What course will this self-described specialist in Mexican feminism, whose most recent journal article is entitled “Miracle Workers: Gender and State Mediation among Textile and Garment Workers in Mexico’s Transition to Industrial Development,” teach in fall 2007? “Regime Change and U.S. Interventions,” which
will examine episodes of U.S. interventions abroad that resulted in the overthrow of democratically elected regimes. While we will focus on Latin America as the primary region of study, we will also consider comparative cases. Readings and research will consider cultural, social, and economic tools of intervention as well as military and diplomatic methods. Students will divide into four research teams and, using documents provided by the instructor as well as those that student find on their own, will research and write histories of U.S. interventions in Guatemala, Chile, Iran, and Congo.
The ideal of a research university is based on the belief that professors will use their research to bring new knowledge into the classroom. In this instance, for $43,000 in tuition and fees, parents are sending their children to be taught about U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and the Congo by a professor whose research has come in . . . Mexican feminism. But Olcott is a Group of 88 member, which apparently is all the qualification needed in some quarters of the Duke faculty.
With their research and teaching interests, is it any wonder that Sigal, Silverblatt, and Olcott all rushed to judgment in spring 2006; and then refused to apologize for their actions last January?
---------In the end, Duke students who want to study the history of Mexico, Central America, and South America (other than Brazil) can choose between taking classes from:
- a specialist in Mexican gender history;
- a specialist in Maya gender history;
- a specialist in Peruvian gender history.
That’s intellectual diversity, Group of 88-style.
*--Silverblatt has a joint appointment with the Department of Cultural Anthropology.