Sensuous Objects: Writing the History of Sexuality from Ancient Art

Caspar Meyer (Birkbeck)
14 June 2016

It is commonplace among classicists to criticize Michel Foucault’s studies of ancient sexuality for its undue reliance on elite texts and the corresponding absence of female perspectives. One aspect of ancient sexual experience that has been neglected by Foucault and his critics alike is its sensory constitution. Although recent years have seen a surge in publications dealing with the history of the body in antiquity, as far as its material sources are concerned this work has resulted in re-classification of the contents of the discipline’s established corpora rather than re-consideration of classificatory pursuits per se. Whereas new histories of ancient art tend to order their pictorial subjects according to gender, status and age instead of the traditional stylistic and typological criteria, they rarely address the dynamics between object, image and person that render classification desirable in the first place. The goal of this paper is to explore what phenomenological approaches to time and embodiment hold out for reinserting objects into histories of sexuality. It starts by examining the unacknowledged dependence of Foucault’s own work on Greek sexuality on the pederastic scenes of Athenian painted pottery as an example of a modernist tendency to view objects as commodities, existing beyond time, and then moves on to exploring some of the possibilities which ancient art can present for writing history of sexuality as a history of visual representations with specific durational qualities, existing in human time.

Geographical area: 
History type: