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Identity  
 
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Constructionist Cultural Critics

Constructionists would find such analysis reductive and historically suspect. Broadly influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, constructionists look askance at any work that attempts to impose the categories of "homosexual" and "heterosexual" on texts predating the creation of those terms in the late nineteenth century.

Although there can be no doubt that individuals engaged in same-sex erotic acts before the late nineteenth century, constructionists would argue that such individuals did not necessarily assume an oppositional stance to society that resulted in a clear sense of sexual identity. Rather, such activity would have fallen under a category of proscribed acts that included theft, forgery, adultery, and other legal or religious transgressions.

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In volume I of The History of Sexuality, Foucault traces the metamorphosis of the social discourse on sexuality in the nineteenth century that he feels results in the creation of specifically sexual identities; before Havelock Ellis and other researchers of the period branded the "homosexual" as a "type," there were no discursive means by which sexual activity alone could lead to an identification of the self that would be socially uniform enough to allow us to responsibly analyze it as "homosexuality."

Lesbian- and gay-relevant themes may resonate throughout the history of literature, and modern readers may find that they share emotions or experiences with past authors, but constructionists would argue that we cannot impose ourselves and our categories onto vastly different and potentially unknowable sets of discourses and desires.

Constructionists thus account clearly for the explosion in gay- and lesbian-themed works near the end of the nineteenth century. The new psycho-medical designation of "homosexual" allowed for a categorization of feelings and encounters that resulted in literary expressions of a well-defined homosexual identity, as is evinced in the erotic novel Teleny, usually attributed to the Oscar Wilde circle.

In this work, the main character, Des Grieux, feels incomplete and unfulfilled until he realizes that he is sexually drawn to men. That realization allows for an assumption of a lifestyle that is both erotically and aesthetically satisfying, since it is based on certain high-cultural values.

According to constructionists, such a homosexual identity should be understood as a direct result of late-nineteenth century elitism and Francophilia.

In a similar way, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness can be read as an expression of a specific time and place, Paris in the 1920s, rather than an evocation of a transhistorical lesbian identity or set of experiences.

Two prominent literary critics who work from a constructionist model are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Lillian Faderman. Sedgwick's work focuses specifically on literature written by men and traces changing representations of social and emotional ties between men.

In her first work of gay-relevant criticism, aptly titled Between Men, she delineates from homosexuality, exploring the use of women in literature to mediate diverse forms of desire between male characters. In doing so, she carefully avoids terming all such desire "homosexual" or even "sexual."

Her study moves from the erotic sonnets of Shakespeare through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries as she traces the historical contexts that have variously allowed and limited expressions of male-male desire.

She expands this analysis in Epistemology of the Closet, which explores the creation and effects of closeted homosexual life as it is reflected in literature from Melville through Proust. In this work, as elsewhere, Sedgwick argues that the construction of homosexual identity in the 1880s and 1890s resulted from intersecting class, gender, medical, and social discourses, ones that mandated control over reproduction and the uses of the male body, but that also operate to expose and identify homosexual desire in ways that continue to subvert moves toward its suppression.

The same complex awareness of historical contexts that Sedgwick brings to discussions of desire between men, Faderman reveals in her classic study of romantic friendship between women, Surpassing the Love of Men.

Although occasionally using the anachronistic term lesbian to describe women's experiences from early periods in English history, Faderman argues that there is no transhistorical essence that constitutes lesbian identity or experience, rather the spectacle of female-female sexual contact has been used variously to arouse men as well as incite anxiety about feminist threats to male hegemony, even as the possibility of bonding, both sexual and nonsexual, between women has offered to some individuals an opportunity for a construction of a safe space away from domineering men.

She, like others, pinpoints the end of the nineteenth century as the time when sexologists constructed a pathological lesbian identity that served diverse regulatory needs but that also formed a new concept through which women-loving-women could identify themselves.

Although not deploying Foucault's theories, Faderman's work clearly lends support to the French theorist's statements that discourse, in this case fiction, works as both a tool of oppression and as a mechanism for identification that subverts oppression.

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