University of Rochester

Culture Has Been Shaping Identity for Centuries, New Book Says

December 12, 1996

Have you ever heard the expressions "You can never be too rich or too thin" and "It's better to be a white male than anything else?"

These comments reflect identities that are influenced, shaped and praised by certain cultures, says Thomas DiPiero, a University of Rochester professor who has co-edited a new book that looks at how identity and desired characteristics have been shaped by society and culture.

Published this November by the University of Georgia Press, Illicit Sex: Identity Politics in Early Modern Culture discusses how power, wealth and social prestige all continue to control access to designated, culturally valued features, constituting what the authors call identity politics.

"Certain forms of identity are legitimized by a culture," DiPiero said. "Other forms are kind of suppressed."

Identity, which traditionally had been personal, became politicized when early modern culture began to set standards for particular characteristics. Focusing on Europe of the 17th to 19th centuries, the essays in Illicit Sex show that culture has the power to encourage desired identities in gender, sexuality and nationality.

The collection of essays is co-edited by DiPiero and Pat Gill. DiPiero, an associate professor in the University's modern languages and cultures department, teaches visual and cultural studies, as well as French. Gill is an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University.

DiPiero and Gill, friends since graduate school, decided to collaborate on the book project after attending a forum that did not allow time for identity issues to be discussed.

Aside from co-editing the book, DiPiero contributed the essay "The Spirit and Laws of Desire" and co-authored the introduction with Gill. DiPiero's knowledge of the history of culture and identity stems from his graduate school work at Cornell University, where he earned a Ph.D. in romance studies.