Intellectual history

JHI Issue 82.2 Now Available

The new issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April 2021, 82.2) is now live on Project MUSE.

Over the coming weeks, we will publish short interviews with some of the authors featured in this issue about the historical and historiographical context of their respective essays. Look out for these conversations under the new rubric Broadly Speaking.

* * *

Christa Lundberg, The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles, pp. 185–205

Bruce Buchan and Silvia Sebastiani, “No distinction of Black or Fair”: The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy, pp. 207–229

Patrick Anthony, Making Historicity: Paleontology and the Proximity of the Past in Germany, 1775–1825, pp. 231–256

Pietro Terzi, Contingency, Freedom, and Uchronic Narratives: Charles Renouvier’s Philosophy of History in the Shadow of the Franco-Prussian War, pp. 257–278

Timo Pankakoski, Wartime Pamphlets, Anti-English Metaphors, and the Intensification of Antidemocratic Discourse in Germany after the First World War, pp. 279–304

Ian Tregenza, The “Servile State” Down Under: Hilaire Belloc and Australian Political Thought, 1912–53, pp. 305–327

Alisa Zhulina, The Tyrant and the Martyr: Recent Research on Sovereignty and Theater, pp. 329–349

Notices (pp. 351-353) 

Intellectual history

The Year in Review: Best of 2020

As the year is drawing to a close, we are looking back on some of the highlights we have published over the course of 2020. A big thank you to all of our authors, contributing editors, and readers!


Featured Image: From Élisée Reclus, “La Terre: description des phénomènes de la vie du globe. I. Les Continents. II. L’Ocean, l’Atmosphere, la Vie” (Paris, 1868).

Intellectual history

In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte about Human Rights and Neoliberalism

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Whales, about her new book, Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso: 2019).

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast · Human Rights and Neoliberalism: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte

Intellectual history

Old People and Ancient Cellar Holes: Colonial Memory in Late Eighteenth-Century Maine

By Daniel Bottino

Symonds Baker, a thirty-two year old resident of Little River, near the mouth of the Androscoggin River in mid-coast Maine, testified in 1796 that during May of the previous year “I was walking along By a Place (at the Head of the Ten Miles Falls so called on Amorouscoggin River) Where there was an appearance of an old cellar and Chimney and that I found the Blade of a small sword.”  In another deposition taken two days later, Abraham Witney, also of Little River, confirmed Baker’s find of a sword and added that “about twenty four or five years ago there was an old iron hoe with an iron handle ploughed or dug up about fifty rods from Purchases Cellar which appeared to be a garden hoe.”  The “old cellar” mentioned by these two men was the presumed house site of Thomas Purchase, one of the earliest English colonists of Maine, who had come to the area around the mouth of the Androscoggin sometime during the 1620s. 

The depositions of Baker and Witney, along with more than 50 others taken around the same time, were recorded with the object of determining the location of Purchase’s long abandoned dwelling, a subject of considerable controversy and legal import.  A thoughtful historical analysis of these depositions, currently held as part of the Pejepscot Papers at the Maine Historical Society, reveals much more than local disagreements between neighbors in late eighteenth-century Maine.  For through these documents I believe we are afforded a rare glimpse into the processes of colonialist memory creation and perpetuation.  In the multitude of voices that speak from this collection of depositions, a dominant theme emerges: the belief that English colonization could leave an indelible trace upon the landscape, thereby creating a memory that could endure through the generations as a justification for continued possession and colonization of the land. 

The legal case that occasioned the inquiry into Thomas Purchase’s house site was a dispute between the state government of Massachusetts (of which Maine was a part until 1820) and the Pejepscot Company, a land company that had sponsored eighteenth-century English colonization in the region just north of modern-day Portland, Maine.  As the Pejepscot Company’s claims to legal title could be traced back to the original land grant of Charles I of England to Thomas Purchase, it seems that the court put considerable effort into ascertaining where Purchase had lived in the hope of establishing the correct bounds of the Pejepescot Company’s land claims.  Significantly, there seems to have been no extant copies of the land patent held by Purchase by the time of the court case.  As a 1683 deposition in the Pejepscot Papers reveals, Purchase’s personal copy of his patent from the king was lost when his house burned down sometime before 1653.  The loss of this document must have been of great concern to Purchase, for another deposition from 1693 reveals that, aged nearly 100 years, he sailed to England “as he said purposely to look after & secure his said Pattent.”  It is not known whether he found the document, and I do not believe it to exist today.  Thus, after Purchase’s death, in the absence of this written document, it was the disputed and contradictory oral memory of Purchase’s inhabitation that assumed the primary burden of validating his legal claim to colonization in Maine. 

This was a rather dubious enterprise, as the testimony of the deponents, a group consisting for the most part of middle-aged and elderly men, demonstrates that opinion was split between two possible sites of Purchase’s house, with no conclusive proof for either site.  But what all these men did agree on was a shared conviction that “one Purchase,” as he was often termed in their testimony, had at some distant time early in the seventeenth century begun the English colonization of the land, a colonization maintained and continued by the region’s white inhabitants in their own time.

It is in this context that we should understand Baker and Whitney’s discovery of a sword and a hoe at the site where they believed Purchase had lived, for these were symbols of successful English colonization par excellence.  In the minds of late-eighteenth Mainers who saw themselves as heirs to Purchase’s pioneering colonization, he had asserted his land claim through his military prowess (the sword) and his willingness to farm and thus “improve” the land (the hoe.)  Whether these rusty artifacts did really belong to Purchase, or indeed existed at all, the assertion of their existence by Baker and Witney represents the attempted creation of a memory of English colonization tied to the landscape in which they lived.  Indeed, it is the apparently evident Englishness of Purchase’s supposed house site that appears over and over in the depositions.  For example, John Dunlop recounted that “I have seen at the head of s[ai]d falls on the easterly side of the river, a place which appeared to be the settlement of some English planter where a large cellar was dug, and remained still to be seen, which I never saw in any Indian settlement, which appears to be very ancient.”

Dunlop’s account stresses what he saw as the non-Indian appearance of the cellar hole—his mention of “some English planter” also emphasizes the fundamental association of English colonization with agriculture.  This “improvement” of the land, as it was often termed in seventeenth and eighteenth-century documents, appears in many of the depositions.  Thus Richard Knowls told the court that as early as 1742 he had seen “a Celler on said Place and the Old People told me that this Celler and Place had before that time been improved by a Mr Purchas…there was likewise a peace of Mowing ground on said Caring place which produced good English Grass which Mowing ground the said Old People informed me was cleared & brought to by the said Purchas while he lived there.”  In describing the site’s “good English Grass,” Knowls marks the abandoned cellar hole as a mnemonically powerful site, whose grass perpetuates the memory of Purchase’s colonization across more than a century.  In doing so, Knowls and the “Old People” who passed on their memories of Purchase to him were participating in the creation of a history of successful English colonization in Maine, a fabricated history that also, critically, aimed to erase the memory of Native inhabitation.

Deposition of Richard Knowles, Collections of Maine Historical Society, Coll. 61, Volume 7, Box, 5, Folder 21,

However, this process of colonialist memory creation was neither stable nor unchallenged, and the depositions reveal this quite clearly.  In addition to the most prominent flaw in the construction of the memory of Thomas Purchase, namely the disagreement over the location of his house, some deponents even raised doubts over the supposed Englishness of one of the possible house sites (the other site was undoubtably English, and dispute centered around its age).  Most notable in this respect are the words of Timothy Tebbetts, who when asked how he thought the supposed cellar hole had been made, answered “Either by Indians or English it look’d like the work of some human Creature.”  Although other deponents, such as John Dunlop, had testified that this same cellar hole was undoubtably English in origin, in Tebbetts’ testimony we see an element of doubt enter into the picture.  At least for Tebbetts, the mnemonic power of the landscape was insufficient to distinguish English settlement from Indian settlement—if the cellar hole had indeed once been Purchase’s house, in Tebbetts’ estimation the ruins were no longer able to transmit the memory of Purchase’s ancient inhabitation.   

This deposition confirms a fundamental truth about the colonial memory I have explored here: it was rightly perceived as extremely fragile in all of its forms, whether textual, oral, or as physical marks upon the landscape.  This is why so many times in the depositions, as we have seen in the case of Knowls, “old people,” often fathers or relatives, are described as revealing widely held historical memories to young men.  This was a mainly oral tradition whose stories were only rarely written down.  And it is important to remember that written texts were also fragile, especially in the context of life in rural Maine, as we have seen with the example of the loss of Purchase’s original land patent.  As the marks Purchase made upon the landscape were overtaken by nature, the fragile oral memory of his inhabitation slowly faded out.  But despite the tenuousness of the memory of Purchase by the 1790s, it still endured to be recorded in the written depositions that have survived to the present day. 

Above all else, these depositions reveal a deep-seated desire among many male white inhabitants of the region to assert the success of earlier English colonization in Maine, of which they were the symbolic heirs.  For these men, ancient claims of English ownership of the land assumed pre-eminent importance, such that they even dug around in old cellar holes in search of rusted artifacts as proofs.  But it is important to remember that this view was not shared by everyone.  And so I will end with the deposition of Martha Merrill, the only deposition in the archive of the Pejepscot Papers made by a woman alone.  Speaking to an agent of the Pejepscot Company in reference to the company’s land claims, Merrill declared that “I would not give him two Coppers for it all.”

Daniel Bottino is a PhD student at Rutgers University, where he studies early modern European and early American history.  His dissertation research focuses on the interaction of cultural memory with the law and the physical landscape in early modern England, Ireland and colonial Maine, with an emphasis on the role of cultural memory in the process of English colonization.

Featured Image: Cellar Hole in Vaughan Woods State Park, South Berwick, Maine. Photo courtesy of author.

Intellectual history

The Virus, the Virtual, the Virtuoso’s Cabinet, and the World

By Saara Penttinen

This blog post was supposed to be about something else.

Being inspired by the ongoing coronavirus situation is not something I expected or wished to happen. In fact, I feel conflicted about even admitting it despite many rather stimulating articles written in apparent lighting speed exploring, for example, epidemics and plagues in history, sprouting up in recent weeks. There might never be a return back to ‘normal’ – everything might have changed before we got a chance to say good-bye. There’s nothing else to do except to adapt, as people have done countless of times in history. I haven’t been able to write in about a month, but today I felt it was the time. Perhaps this is me, adapting.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some difficulties in centering my scattered thoughts, especially since the focus of this text has changed so drastically. But I want to start from the beginning: in the original marble lid of the famous Tradescant tomb in Lambeth. Since the early modern collections commonly known as cabinets of curiosity became a popular research subject in the last decades of the 20th century, the inscription – dedicated to father and son John Tradescant, eager seventeenth-century curiosity collectors – has been quoted in numerous publications The most quoted lines go as follows:

By their choice collection may appear
Of what is rare, in land, in seas, and air:
Whilst they (as HOMER’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut.

Especially the last line describing the Tradescant collection, aptly called The Ark, as “a world of wonders in one closet shut” has been perceived to sum up nicely the microcosmic nature of these collections; in other words, they were understood as worlds in a miniature form. But how exactly were they ‘worlds’? What was their relationship with the wider world, the macrocosm? Were they considered substitutions of the real thing, simulations, or worlds in themselves? Since asking these questions in the beginning of my PhD studies, I have fallen deeper and deeper into the abyss of early modern ambiguities and analogies. Especially one of my key concepts seems to evade me. This concept is virtuality.

Virtuality is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot nowadays – I mean a lot. It has been used so much especially since the beginning of the internet age that it has lost its novelty and started to appear commonplace, even mundane. Despite its popularity, virtuality as a concept is more often than not taken for granted and not actually understood very well. What does virtuality, in fact, mean?

Nowadays everything seems to be virtual from shopping and entertainment to therapists, maps and communities. Through a huge array of avatars on different social platforms also our social lives and most intimate communications are, at least partially, virtual. But this was the situation only in February – it is nothing compared with were we are right now. If there ever was a time for virtuality, that time is undoubtedly now. How to be present without being present – that is the question on everyone’s lips. How to work, or go to school? How to visit elderly relatives? How to stay sane, or to feel connected with the world, even just a little bit? How to substitute the experiences that were taken away from us? Is it okay to drink a bottle of wine alone, if you’re doing it on Zoom?

Virtuality as a term holds many futuristic connotations, even if the future seems, to some extent, to be already here. The virtual future might mean an era of connectivity, shared experiences, and democratic opportunities. It can also mean a time of blurred lines between right and wrong and losing the touch of reality. Though many things are arguably gained in the current dystopia, many are also lost, perhaps for good. Besides the devastating human and economic cost, some of the loss happens in the very translation of the actual to the virtual, never to be recovered again.

Despite the futuristic connotations, and the contemporary usage of the term, virtuality has a history just like everything else. The first associations for most people are the different technologies, such as virtual memory, simulations, and virtual realities. The history of virtual reality is usually stated to have started in the 1930s, sometimes with a mention of earlier technologies, such as 19th-century stereoscopes and panoramas. The main function of virtual reality technologies seems to be in creating a sensory immersion of a kind – essentially, in fooling the eye and sometimes other senses too to feel like the experience is taking place somewhere completely different. Oliver Grau’s 2003 book Virtual Art takes a media history’s point of view and traces the history of illusory techniques in art from modern days all the way to Antiquity. My own research period, the seventeenth century, had a huge array of ‘virtual art’ alongside a multitude of devices for creating spatial and optical illusions. In general, the early modern period can be described as an era of un utmost interest in modifying the sensory experience.

Nevertheless, virtuality doesn’t only entail technologies, devices, or even illusory techniques. What’s the thread holding it all together – what’s the essence of virtuality itself? Alongside the computer-related meanings, the modern-day definition of virtuality according to a (virtual) dictionary is “in effect or essence, if not in fact or reality; imitated, simulated” while actual is “existing in act or reality, not just potentially”. Therefore, the term could be used in context of something being ‘as good as’ something else – as can be perceived in the everyday use of the adverb virtually.

The etymology of virtual most likely originates from Medieval Latin’s virtualis derived from the notoriously equivocal Latin word virtus, meaning for example, ‘excellence, potency, efficacy’. In a late 14th-century meaning, virtual meant something in the lines of “influencing by physical virtues or capabilities, effective with respect to inherent natural qualities.” In the beginning of the 15th century, this had been concentrated to the modern meaning: “capable of producing a certain effect”, and therefore, “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact”.

Virtual travel is a concept that instantaneously comes to mind when thinking of substituting the real thing with something ‘as good as’. For most seventeenth-century people, travelling virtually was the only way to see the world. Most classes, professions, and age groups rarely travelled. Religions and customs often frowned upon the concept of ‘worldliness’, and people were suspicious about wanderers and rootless people. Even those that were able to travel, usually only got to do one big journey in their lifetimes – such experiences were cherished and relived, and eventually turned into travel writings, plays, and collections for other people’s armchair travel. Experience didn’t necessarily have to be direct; even an ad vivum picture could be made by an artist only consulting a previous representation of the subject.

Before March, I had no idea I wanted to travel (or at least, to wander aimlessly through hardware stores) as much as I do now. A couple of weeks ago, at the pajamas stage of the pandemic, I witnessed a morning show host pointing at the window behind him, and with a straight face suggesting, that for those viewers not being able to go outside, their windows could substitute the world outside. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The question of substitution becomes especially important when thinking about people who can’t experience things actually: How to replace the world for people confined to their homes? Even before the COVID-19 this was an important issue. For decades, there has been a growing market for technological innovations designed for the lonely, the disabled, and the sick. Now that a vast number of people have found that their world has been taken away, there’s suddenly a desperate need for some kind of a window back to it. If virtual is something that can replace the actual, the question is: what can be replaced, and what cannot?

However, virtuality is not simply synonymous with replacement; according to Wolfgang Welsch, its philosophical roots go back at least to Aristotle’s concept of dynamis, meaning literally potentiality – something later writers, starting from Thomas Aquinas, called virtual. However, dynamis, or Aquinas’ virtual, didn’t mean an alternative to the actual, but a prerequisite; a possibility, in the limits of which reality was able to actualize. In later centuries the nature of the concept changed with different writers, slowly disconnecting virtual from the actual. As the one-two step connection vanished, the virtual realms could in some cases even exist separately from the actual. The eventual actualization didn’t necessarily empty the realm of the virtual possibilities; they stayed alive, in some other realm. At some point, we ended up in the situation we’re in now, with the virtual and the actual existing in completely different, but in some ways, mutually supportive realms. (3–6)

The idea of having something beyond or before actuality, something to possibly support, to substitute or even to replace it, fits well to many phenomena in different eras, cultures, media, and genres: the idea might be generally human and global, a concept larger than the etymology of the term itself. In fact, all time periods and people have had virtual media of some kind, and experienced virtual travel in some form or another: reading books, going to the theatre, listening to stories, daydreaming, playing, and creating – all of them have a quality of substitution, of making plans awaiting realization, of dry running, of conceptualizing. Virtuality might just be a way of life for humans, to some extent.

The multiple nuances of the term enrich (or confuse) my research on the relationships of the cabinets of curiosity and similar collections had with the world: they can be seen, all at once, as representations of the wider world; as private worlds of the collectors; as cultural lenses to the world; or as worlds in themselves. Could the collections, just like the television and the internet nowadays, substitute the world at large, and be a replacement for travel? And whose travel was that – and whose world: the visitors’, the collector’s, or someone else’s?

The research on the virtual worlds in cabinets of curiosity can open up interesting connections to the modern-day conversations on virtuality. There is surprisingly little research that takes into account or even acknowledges the full history of the concept – usually the focus is on some niche contemporary meaning. Virtuality is not solely about technologies and illusionism, but about much larger and more fundamental themes: what is reality? What is experience? What is the effect of different kinds of media to experience and its authenticity? How does cognition work? How do we make sense, simulate, and create worlds?

This new and sudden era of virtuality might be a modern society’s attempt to cling onto an old version of the world; to save it in an ark – in ‘one closet shut’, as the Tradescants did with their collection. At the same time, something brand new is beginning to form. We might even realize that some of the old is not worth replacing after all. Perhaps the situation will force us to re-evaluate our priorities: is it more important to be constantly productive and active, or to take it slow, to keep in touch, to touch, to walk in the park, to be able to sit down outside and watch the spring arrive. What is the right ratio of the actual and the virtual for the recipe of human happiness? What even is real, and what does it mean to be real?

I’m sure that in the end, we will find the balance – we will all, yet again, adapt to the new world we are thrown into.

Saara Penttinen is a PhD Student at the University of Turku department of European and World History working on virtual worlds in seventeenth-century English cabinets of curiosity. She’s currently a visiting associate at the Department of English at Queen Mary University of London.

Featured Image: Engravings of the Tradescant Tomb from Samuel Pepys Drawings, Philosophical Transactions, 1773.

Intellectual history

The Dissident Voice inside Our Heads

By Justin Abraham Linds

What are we to do with the dissident voices inside our heads—the ones telling us that there are gradations of permissible disobedience to the quarantine? Surely, repression is one response. You suppress the thought as irresponsible and selfish and accuse others who confess this thought to you of being careless and thinking only of themselves. Denial, too, is a way forward: You claim that this is not a thought you have had, that you are a completely obedient subject of governmental and public health management, and you continue to pursue a moral and perfectionist goal of total compliance with regulations that are changing every day, that are disagreed about, and that are really only available to the most privileged members of our society. There, too, is moderate embrace, which can be distinguished from total embrace. A total embrace of dissidence looks like the “anti-quarantine” protests, which have emerged around the world in places like India, Germany, and most heavily in the United States. People attend these protests in complete defiance of social distancing orders and yell about government over-reach. In Michigan, total embrace of dissidence during COVID-19 quarantines looks like protesters showing up with rifles to the State Capital building.

I am interested here in querying the meaning of moderate embrace of dissent during a global health quarantine or state-ordered lockdown without relying on simple condemnation or ignorant endorsement. There are forms of dissidence that move from a place of collective care rather than violent self-interest. And, perhaps, by decoupling dissidence from anti-facticity and spotlighting instead its skeptical practices, we can redeem the creativity, knowledge, and progressive visions that lie within dissident actions. At the tense intersection of social dissidence and compliance during dangerous times there is a road, not very much travelled, that runs through a rich history of authors, including Frederick Douglas, David Walker, Franz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire, who have explored the social, political, emotional, and creative potential of disobedience.

In his lecture of March 1, 1978, the French philosopher Michel Foucault questioned the forms of political revolt that are enacted against pastoral power—forms of power that shepherd subjects and their behavior. Looking at a large swath of time from the Middle Ages to “modern forms,” Foucault offered refusing to bear arms, political parties as counter-societies, and “medical dissent” as three examples of revolt against governance as bodily management. Since the end of the eighteenth century, Foucault put forward, medical knowledge, institutions, and practices have been primary sources of management for the pastorate, so the refusal of medical governance has likewise been a primary site of dissidence:

From the refusal of certain medications and certain preventative measures like vaccination, to the refusal of a certain type of medical rationality: the attempt to constitute sorts of medical heresies around practices of medicine using electricity, magnetism, herbs, and traditional medicine; the refusal of medicine tout court, which is frequently found in certain religious groups (200)

Foucault eventually gave the name “counter-conduct” to these forms of dissidence that refuse a type of power that “assumes the task of conducting men in their life and daily existence” (200). Counter-conduct is a rejection of society’s values. It is a withdrawal from behavior contributing to the “nation’s salvation” (198). A concept that appears haunting if somewhat opaque, even for Foucault, counter-conduct is “a refusal of the relationship to the death of others and of oneself” (198).

Perhaps you’re now thinking: counter-conduct sounds dangerous. Indeed, it is. Or, at least, it’s risky. It certainly is disobedient, but it does not involve so much an attempt at erasing power as a process of finding a new source of power. Counter-conduct is marginal and risks being labeled as mad. In fact, according to Foucault, some forms of counter-conduct “may well be found in fact in delinquents, mad people, and patients.” (202) But the potential madness of counter-conduct does not disqualify dissident behaviors outright. Elsewhere, I have written about counter-conduct across species in which humans choose non-human lifeforms as entities to guide their behavior. In that piece, I looked to AIDS activists from the beginning of the North American AIDS epidemic who found in viruses and bacteria guides for how to behave in a pandemic. Their behavior did not produce a cure for AIDS (no behavior has yet produced a cure for AIDS), but it did offer a range of disobedient tactics for surviving with AIDS beyond the treatments offered by biomedicine. Counter-conduct is not about abandoning responsibility, for it is also productive: counter-conduct produces, organizes, and solidifies new truths, new forms of existence, new leaders for guiding conduct. I wish to expand on this work here and think through the work of two AIDS activists who present a unique case study to examine the possibility of ethical dissidence during an epidemic. Mapping a historical example of counter-conduct might allow us to glimpse valuable forms of dissidence for our present moment and provide a tentative answer for the question: what do I do with my dissident urges?

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach,” cover page.

Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, both twenty-eight years old at the time, wrote and published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach” in 1983. By the time Tower Press had printed five thousand copies of “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic”, approximately 2,118 people in the U.S. had died from AIDS. In 1983, the mortality rate of AIDS was close to three out of four, and even if the exact cause of AIDS was unknown, many understood that sexual activity was a mode of transmission. Despite mounting calls for abstinence and widespread fear about sex in the gay community (or perhaps because of these things), “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” affirmed the need for sex. The forty-page document was stigma-bashing —“Sex doesn’t make you sick–diseases do” (3)— and life affirming —“Our challenge is to figure out how we can have gay, life-affirming sex, satisfy our emotional needs, and stay alive!” (4). It took on toxic masculinity and fear, and it affirmed that gay men must find ways to love each other “despite continuing and often overwhelming pressure” not to do so (38).        

Importantly, “How to Have Sex” did not seek to change the minds of people who were choosing to avoid sex. Instead, it addressed itself to men who still craved sexual intimacy and pleasure, to people who may have even been more turned on as they used sex to distract themselves and connect with others while their friends and lovers were dying and their world felt like it was crumbling. The authors of “How to Have Sex” knew that governmental power bearing down and prescribing abstinence, or talking about sex as a taboo, rarified, and vanishing thing, might just make some people crave sexual pleasure even more. So instead of criticizing their behavior as “unsafe,” it sought to help them.

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” epigraph.

In 1983, “How to Have Sex” first acknowledged that sex had become risky behavior but then proceeded by suggesting ways to diminish riskiness without giving up sex. The document’s authors sought to pin the word “responsible” to sex, a place it perhaps had never gone. They sought to create a community—rather than a governing body— of sexually active people looking out for each other’s health. They took gay sexual desire as a shepherd leading people’s behavior and preached forms of conduct for following like sheep.

Without reservation, for instance, the pamphlet states, “Unfortunately, sucking your partner can not be made risk free (unless your partner is wearing a rubber!).” But the authors were not so naive as to think that just because a sexual behavior is deemed risky, people will stop exhibiting it. The document carries on, consequently, with advice for people who are not going to stop having oral sex: “If you want to REDUCE your risk… suck but don’t let your partner come in your mouth”(18). This is insightful, realistic, harm-reducing public health talk: if you are going to do something, it advises, here is how to do so in a safer way. Instead of seeking an ineffective ban on human contact, the pamphlet sought to mitigate the riskiness of the contact. “How to Have Sex”, though, even goes a step further: “If your partner ‘accidentally’ comes in your mouth or if you get a taste of pre-come fluid, spitting it out will probably reduce your risk” (18). The apostrophes around accidentally here speak volumes: do not distract yourself justifying, explaining away, or shaming yourself because you have had risky sex, they imply. Rather, they contend that even up to the point of the riskiest sex acts, there are still ways for you to be responsible.

“How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” table of contents.

Certain modifications to your behavior can “probably” reduce risk for yourself and your community; although what we see in “How to Have Sex” is probable harm-reduction, not proven. The authors of “How to Have Sex” argued that it was possible for gay men to imagine and practice thoughtful, ethical, and pleasurable forms of sexual behavior even when they lacked comprehensive guarantees of the ‘rightness’ of their choices offered to them by scientific, governmental, epidemiological, and moral discourses relying on their own brands of authority.

The irony I find most compelling about “How to Have Sex” is that its recommendations are based on scientific knowledge we now know to be incorrect, and yet those recommendations and the document itself remain inspiring and useful. Without getting into the details of cytomegalovirus and the multi-factorial thesis, it is clear that the authors of “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” based their recommendations on a theory of AIDS transmission that is now disproven. While the science is faulty, though, the findings hold up. How is that possible? Because ethical, caring advice based on imperfect medical knowledge is still valuable knowledge. The authority of the document does not come from its scientific findings. Quite the opposite: the authority of the document comes from its dissidence in the face of the dominant discourse, its embrace of care, and its interest in relaying subjugated knowledges.

The document is ‘incorrect’ about the disease but ‘correct’ about the treatment, and that is a form of dissidence potentially useful to us now. Equitable ethics is more important than a kiss blown at six feet, or mimed at three feet, or done with bodies up against one another. Innovative and creative acts of social togetherness that tweak quarantine regulations to mitigate other harms not prioritized by the state are more important than vying to be the most successful adherent to social distancing. Julia Marcus, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, has recently made a similar observation and she too finds this lesson in “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” Governments manage bodies at a population-scale and struggle to nimbly respond to nuance, difference, subculture, and resistance. In response to state-ordered ‘social distancing’, marginal communities —especially those with already fraught relationships to government managers — inevitably devise their own ways of responding. Communities evaluate risks and then come up with ways of mitigating those risks. In 1983, this looked like masturbation clubs (“they provide a unique atmosphere which is friendly, communal, well-lit and intensely erotic” (31)) or a ‘closed circle’ of sex buddies (“merely an expanded version of monogamy” (30)).

Today we would add to this list by recommending phone-sex, sexting, webcam sex, and any kind of sexual play that is digitally mediated or spaced out. Indeed, the New York City Health Department currently recommends “video dates, sexting, or chat rooms” as forums for sexual pleasure during quarantine. Similarly, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands suggests seeking a “seksbuddy” for coping while social distancing measure are in effect. However, I think an “expanded version of monogamy” is highly suggestive and deserves a brief consideration. In New York City, where I live, I have noticed that popular public spaces like parks have been nearly purged of groups that are not heterosexual pairs or heterosexual pairs plus babies. It’s as if we all agreed that the nuclear family was the safest unit of togetherness. However, letting the nuclear family naturally imply safety is risky in itself because it suggests that other human groupings become dangerous the more they diverge from the epidemiologically sanctioned norm. Friend groups, mutual aid networks, and queer families all of a sudden look like people disobeying social distancing orders when in fact they are essential forms of togetherness that keep people alive.

To end, “How to Have Sex” preaches a generous definition of love. “It is vital to the survival of each member of the sexually active gay community”, the pamphlet affirms, “that the issues of your own health and the health of your partner(s) never become separated” (15). Through an expanded notion of love the document encourages people to think broadly about care for their partners: “If you love the person you are fucking with–even for one night–you will not want to make them sick” (39). Is it possible that love could be a shepherd of counter-conduct? Foucault does not suggest it. But as the United States feels more and more jingoistic, more and more interested in individualistic betterment for only certain citizens, more and more supportive of grotesque wealth accumulation for a select few individuals rather than large groups of laboring communities, it seems like collective behavior motivated by love, care, or affection could actually be quite dissident. A conclusion from “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” might also be a conclusion for the question of what to do about that dissident voice: “Maybe affection is our best protection” (39).

Justin Abraham Linds is a PhD candidate at New York University.

Header image: Snails in search of affection. Wikimedia Commons.