by EILEEN JOY
To think outside narrative history requires reworking linear temporality. It requires ‘the rewiring of the senses’ (Jacqui Alexander’s words) in order to apprehend an expanded range of temporal experiences—experiences not regulated by ‘clock’ time or by a conceptualization of the present as singular and fleeting . . . .
It seems to me that the whole point of doing historical work is to situate it along the seam of its becoming-historical, which is a way to keep it in touch with that which eludes it.
[the citations of Dinshaw and Nealon are from “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” ed. Elizabeth Freeman, GLQ 13.2-3 (2007): 177-95]
About two years ago, I stumbled upon the work of Elizabeth Freeman [an Americanist, cultural critic, and queer theorist at UC-Davis] when I read her essay, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” which was included in a special issue of Social Text, edited by David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz, devoted to the question “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” In that essay, Freeman argues that “we need to understand and practice time as fully incorporated, as nowhere existing outside of bodies and their pleasures,” and against [or rather, alongside] the recent turn in queer studies to loss, shame, and grief [e.g., Christopher Nealon’s Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall and Heather Love’s Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History], Freeman asks us to consider how “this powerful turn toward loss . . . may also be a premature turn away from a seemingly obsolete politics of pleasure that could, in fact, be renewed by attention to temporal difference” [pp. 58-59]. Further, “how might queer practices of pleasure, specifically the bodily enjoyments that travel under the sign of queer sex, be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” [p. 59]. Erotohistoriography would name a practice of tracing histories written on queer bodies—more precisely, it would trace “how queer relations complexly exceed the present,” and “against pain and loss,” it would “posit the value of surprise, of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from elsewhere, other times” [p. 59]. With the idea of time’s “binding,” Freeman wants to invoke two senses of the term:
not only attachments in the here and now but also those forged across both spatial and temporal barriers: to be ‘bound’ is to be going somewhere. Yet even as it suggests connectivity, ‘binds’ also names a certain fixity in time, a state of being timebound, belated, incompletely developed, left behind, or not there yet, going nowhere. [p. 61]In relation to this idea of time’s binding, Freeman also refers to an idea she developed in an even earlier essay, “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations” [New Literary History 31 (2000): 727-44]: that of temporal drag, “a kind of historicist jouissance, a friction of dead bodies upon live ones, obsolete constructions upon emergent ones” [p. 66]. I find Freeman’s idea of temporal drag really exciting for helping me to conceptualize—in Old English and Anglo-Latin hagiography—the ways in which so-called “sacred” subjectivities [i.e., martyr-saints] are constituted by a temporal drag in which the bodies of these saints register, in Freeman’s words, “on their very surfaces the co-presence of several historically-specific events, movements, and collective pleasures,” and thereby “articulate . . . a kind of temporal transivity” [“Packing History,” p. 729]. Saints—in their own time—are “moderns” and also “queers” of a sort [queermoderns], who allow themselves to be pulled backward by the undertow of the mainly mythologized history of Christ’s [and other martyrs’] suffering in order to stage a kind of camp or drag performance of that suffering, leading to both a negation and fulfillment of the self from elsewhere, other times (the past but also the future, because these are, as Butler might say, repetitions with a difference). As Virginia Burrus has written in relation to late antiquity, hagiography is “the site of an exuberant eroticism”—an eroticism, moreover, that draws upon deep reservoirs of both pain and pleasure—and it might be argued [as Burrus does, convincingly] that late antique and early medieval sacred narratives formulated an ars erotica that “does not so much predate as effectively resist and evade the scientia sexualis that likewise emerges (derivatively) in late antiquity and eventually culminates in the production of a modern, western regime of ‘sexuality’” [The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, pp. 1, 3]. The question is also begged: is eroticism nearer to theology than to anything else? [Burrus seems to say: yes.] The more important, and troubling, questions for me are whether: 1) this sacredly exuberant eroticism [which is also, in its sadomasochism, a set of counterpleasures] engages in a type of ethical violence, or 2) does it, more hopefully, open bodies to more generously affective and utopic relations with other bodies in and across time? [I suspect it does both, in different times and places, and the time and place of such questions—which also relates to questions of writing and reading—will always matter in the determination of our answers.]
More broadly, over the past two years, I have found myself drawn to Freeman’s erotohistoriography and notions of binding and temporal drag, as well as to Carolyn Dinshaw’s thinking toward “a postdisenchanted temporal perspective” [“Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” p. 185], in relation to two current projects of mine: first, my book [for which I am currently on a teaching leave] on the representation of traumatic history in art in Beowulf and in other, later works of literary and visual art, such as the paintings of Stanley Spencer and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the pull of the dead upon the living is often figured in queer libidinal terms; and second, what I have planned as my next book project on the Old English and Anglo-Latin narratives of the Lives of Saint Guthlac, where I want to trace in these hagiographic narratives certain histories of:
1) itinerancy/unsettledness/low & diasporic subjectivities;Especially in relation to the Lives of Guthlac, but also to Old English hagiography more broadly, I’m interested in how current thinking on history, historicity, and temporality in queer studies (and, especially in Freeman’s work, on “addressing history in an idiom of pleasure” and on “feeling historical”/the “feelings” of history written on the body) might contribute to our understanding of early hagiographic narratives as forming, in the words of Bob Mills, “the point at which doctrine, violence, and imagination coalesce” in a kind of “suspended threshold zone” [Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture, p. 120]. As Mills writes further,
2) various oblique angles opened by queer relations and queer touch (and related to this, the connections between phantasmic sadomasochism and ethical violence, but also between phantasmic sensuality and utopic inter-“bodies”/inter-“being”);
3) incestuous desire/transitive gender(s); and
4) the politics of in(di)visible friendship
the sacred body is the focal point for an exploration of positions of strength and weakness, pain and pleasure, identity and otherness; and the martyr, like the cross-dressing actor, provokes a crisis of categorization that undermines any attempts at constructing a binary typology based on sexual difference alone. [p. 144]Also important for my purposes is the plea Mills makes toward the end of his book, that we not “discard completely theological readings [of medieval martyr narratives] emphasizing the spiritual and the sublime,” but at the same time, that we recognize that, “within the sphere of medieval devotion, religious sublimation and carnal desire can become powerfully intertwined,” and the “worldly and the transcendent are not always at odds with each other . . . but may well produce one another” [p. 176; this is partly Burrus’s argument as well in her book The Sex Lives of Saints; I cannot recommend both Mills’s and Burrus’s books highly enough].
Strictly speaking, Guthlac is not a martyr-saint, but is what is known as a confessor-saint—an ascetic who dedicates his life to God by retreating to a life of abjection in the so-called “wilderness,” and who lives in a time and place (8th-century England) when Christianity is established well enough that the brutal persecution of Christians has receded to a mythic past, and therefore, the primary route toward epic physical suffering is through various forms of self-imposed asceticisms and with any luck, the visitations of sadistic demons. Confessor saints mainly establish their saintliness through the performance of miracles [Guthlac’s are somewhat hilariously underwhelming in my opinion—talking to birds, locating hidden beer, finding lost gloves, and the like] and by predicting the exact hour and minute of their deaths [and also by dispensing sage and prescient advice to anyone who happens to wander by and ask for it]. I sometimes think that the end of the so-called “Great Persecutions” [itself a myth of sorts—on this point, see Michael Lapidge, “Roman Martyrs and their Miracles in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Miracles and the Miraculous in Medieval Germanic and Latin Literature, ed. K.E. Olsen, A. Harbus, and T. Hofstra (Leuven: Peeters), 95-120] spelled a kind of crisis for Christians who desired to be martyrs and who were drawn to the delectations of intense physical pain and self-deprivation, and for whom various modes of waiting, suspense, and delay [chief operations—both symbolically and more literally—in Freeman’s erotohistoriography, and also in Karmen MacKendrick’s Counterpleasures, a cultural study of s/m eroticism from saints’ lives to Sade and beyond] were to be passionately cultivated. Because there are no Roman or other magistrates to torture Guthlac, and the monastery at Repton is somehow too comfy and populated [and perhaps also because he has to make up for time spent as a dissolute warrior youth who raped and pillaged his way through Mercia], he seeks out a desolate barrow in the fens and girds himself for the onslaught of demons, and of course they arrive, because saints need, and enjoy, physical temptations and torture. There is almost a comic aspect to the predictability of this script, but I do not want to dwell on that—for the moment, anyway.
I am getting ahead of myself a bit, because what I mainly want to do in this and a subsequent post is provide a slightly more detailed overview of Freeman’s thinking, as capitulated in three articles: “Packing History” and “Time Binds,” cited above, but also the more recent essay “Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History,” differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 19.1 (2008): 32-70, all of which I assume serve as previews of sorts for her forthcoming book, Time Binds: Queer Histories, Queer Temporalities. I want to do this for several reasons: 1) it simply helps me to collate and synthesize some of Freeman’s work relative to my own personal projects, and to also hopefully gain productive feedback from ITM readers directed toward those projects; 2) Freeman will be serving as the respondent for a BABEL panel at Kalamazoo this coming May on the place of pleasure in scholarship [which panel will also feature Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Anna Klosowska, Cary Howie, Nicola M., and Dan Remein], so I also simply wanted to immerse myself in her current thinking on history, time, and pleasure; 3) I think scholars working in premodern studies on matters relative to the relations between gender, sexuality, historicity, and temporality would find Freeman’s thought to be of great value [and Freeman herself has already acknowledged intellectual debts to medievalist and early modernist scholars, such as Dinshaw, Louise (now L.O. Aranye) Frandenburg, and Carla Freccero, and therefore there is already an established dialogue “across periods,” as it were, but this dialogue could and should be more expansive]; and 4) I think Freeman’s thinking could benefit by being pushed a bit by scholars working in earlier periods, since one of the claims she makes for herself is that she attends to something under-attended to in queer studies—the theorizing of the historicity of queer bodies/sex practices—and also because she also pays such beautiful attention to the drag of the past upon what I will call queermodern bodies and subjectivities [with the term “modern” needing more full elaboration in all periods, for every period is modern in its own way]; therefore, a more engaged dialogue between Freeman and scholars working in medieval and early modern studies on sexuality, eroticism, embodiment, temporality, and the like, would be of great mutual benefit.
What I am going to do is simply offer my own reading notes on Freeman’s three articles, highlighting what I think are her most important and valuable theoretical insights, and also asking her questions as I go along [this is a highly informal approach, but I hope it will be clear and helpful, and even more so, I hope our readers will read Freeman’s work in its entirety after getting some bits of it here]. I will include the first two articles here [“Packing History” and “Time Binds”] and will return to “Turn the Beat Around” in a following post [I find the premises of this most recent article the most ethically troubling, yet also beautifully persuasive, and it is quite a long article—it requires its own post]:
“Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” New Literary History 31 (2000): 727-44
Freeman here introduces her notion of “temporal drag”: retrogression, delay, pull of the past on the present (i.e., the “gravitational pull that ‘lesbian’ sometimes seems to exert upon ‘queer’”)
To Judith Butler’s idea that repetitions that are backward-looking are only citational (copies without an original), Freeman counters: “. . . to reduce all embodied performances to the status of copies without originals is to ignore the interesting threat that the genuine past-ness of the past sometimes makes to the political present” [p. 728].
“‘Generation,’ a word for both biological and technological forms of replication, cannot be tossed out with the bathwater of reproductive thinking. Instead, it may be crucial to complicate the idea of horizontal political generations succeeding one another, with a notion of ‘temporal drag,’ thought less in the psychic time of the individual than in the movement of collective political life” [p. 729].
*Freeman devotes the bulk of this essay to an analysis of Elisabeth Subrin’s experimental video Shulie (1997), which is a shot-by-shot remake of an unreleased 1967 documentary of the same title on then 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone, a student at the time at the Art Institute of Chicago who later founded New York Radical Women and New York Radical Feminists and also wrote The Dialectic of Sex in 1971, a really important second-wave feminist text (I would note here that Freeman is a beautifully astute and sensitive interpreter of contemporary cinema and all of her work that I have read incorporates analyses of avant-garde films, especially queer cinema [although in one article, not covered here, she also takes on Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.!]; I find myself wanting to know what she would write about certain films, especially Todd Soldonz’s Palindromes and the films of Catherine Breillat, which—big confession—I hate; I will share why in a future post on Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell)
“Listening to Shulie’s commentary [about her time spent at the Art Institute and her frustrations there as a female student with male professors], which is startlingly à propos to our own moment, audience members are forced to confront the fact that the prehistory of radical feminism is very much like its aftermath, that we have a certain postmodern problem that no longer has a name—or rather, whose names are under increasing erasure” [p. 731].
“. . . Shulie (1997) suggests that there are iterations, repetitions, and citations which are not strictly parodic, in that they do not necessarily aim to reveal the original as always already a copy, but instead engage with prior time as genuinely elsewhere. Nor are they strictly consolidating of authority, in that they leave the very authority they cite visible as a ruin. Instead they tap into a mode of longing . . . .” [pp. 734-35].
We can never really be in “a genuinely post-identity politics moment—unless ‘post’ can somehow signify the endless dispatches between past and present social and subjective formations” [p. 742].
**In what ways are medieval hagiographical narratives “drag” performances that “engage with prior time as genuinely elsewhere,” but at the same time, in what ways are these prior times also dragged forward [both within the time of the narratives themselves but also within the time(s) of their reception/reading as texts, both in the past and now]? I’m wondering how Freeman’s notions of temporal drag might engage with Cary Howie’s notion of “traherence”: “the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from” [Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, p. 6]. To think Freeman’s “temporal drag” alongside Howie’s “traherence” would give us, I believe, more ample room for considering the ways in which the past not only drags upon the present, but also gives itself to be dragged by the present while still remaining somewhat stuck to its contingent, past others. Howie also calls for purposeful practices of anachronistic reading that would speak directly to “the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another” [p. 151]. I actually think Freeman and Howie are companionable thinkers in the matter of anachronistic reading—it’s just that sometimes, they’re going in opposite directions (Freeman reading the queer modern through the past(s) that drag upon it and Howie reading the medieval past outside of patrilinear time and through the modern “enclosed” alongside that past which has given itself over to us, and we to it—forgive me, as I have oversimplified both of their positions a bit for the sake of brevity and I do not have Howie’s book in my traveling library at present).
“Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3-4 (Winter 2005): 57-68
*I have already quoted important portions of this above
“I . . . emphasize a Foucauldian notion of pleasure and bodily contact over a Freudian model of pain and ego formation in response to recent reevaluations of negative affect in queer theory. . . . melancholic queer theory may acquiesce to the idea that pain—either a pain we do feel or a pain we should feel but cannot, or a pain we must laboriously rework into pleasure if we are to have any pleasure at all—is the proper ticket into historical consciousness. Eroticism and materialist history, pleasure and the dialectic, are too often cast as theoretical foils: was it not the distinctly unqueer Frederic Jameson who wrote, albeit in a very different context, that history ‘is what hurts. It is what refuses desire’? Perhaps theorizing queerness on the basis of grief and loss acquiesces, however subtly, to a Protestant ethic in which pleasure cannot be the grounds of anything productive at all, let alone such a weighty matter as the genuinely historical” [p. 59].
Freeman’s essay advances, “against the chronopolitcs of development, and also extending postcolonial notions of temporal heterogeneity beyond queer melancholic historiography,” an erotohistoriography: “a politics of unpredictable, deeply embodied pleasures that counters the logic of development” [p. 59].
**Freeman spends some time with Hilary Brougher’s 1997 independent film The Sticky Fingers of Time, which is a kind of lesbian science-fiction time-traveling story that starts out in 1953 with a woman, Tucker Harding, writing a novel called The Sticky Fingers of Time and who asserts that time has five fingers: the past, present, future, what might have been, and what could still be. There are several other female characters who all cross back and forth between 1953 and 1997, with one caveat: no one can go to the same place-time twice, so you can never meet yourself and, technically, there are no “re-dos” (in a sense, then, although jumping between different temporal zones is possible, a kind of "straight" teleology still operates). Freeman hones in on one small moment in the film, when one of the characters recalls a favorite moment in a novel written by Tucker: “I love that part, when Frankenstein splits his stitches and he dies, fertilizing the earth where that little girl grows tomatoes.”
“In contrast to the original novel, here the monster secures his future, joining the human scheme of obligations and dependencies rather than escaping on an ice floe. Though he seems to inseminate the little girl (for his bodily fluids will indirectly enter the orifice of her mouth when she eats the tomatoes), he transcends both the supposedly natural pain of childbirth and the cyclical time of reproduction. Like Walt Whitman, he disseminates himself. Together, his body and the act he performs with it suggest a historiographical practice wherein the past takes the form of something already fragmented, ‘split,’ and decaying, and the present and future appear equally porous. Indeed, they seem to answer Roland Barthes’s call . . . for a model of dispersed but insistently carnal continuity, which I call binding. In this sense, the monster’s body is not a ‘body’ at all but a figure for relations between bodies past and present, for the insistent return of a corporealized historiography and future making of the sort to which queers might lay claim” [p. 60].
***Some questions: aren’t the tomato and monster-as-fertilizer still caught up, to a certain extent, in a cyclical reproductive (if vegetal) time? Is this necessarily a bad thing? Is cyclical reproduction the problem, or rather, is the problem how this reproduction is often structured along heteronormative lines that always aim at “the same” (in this sense, homosexuality, or queer sex, is never really about brushing up against and reproducing “the same”—homoness—as much as heterosexuality is)? It seems to me that we have to lay claim to new forms of reproduction (of critical thought, bodies, aesthetic objects, etc.) that might still be cyclical (repetitive), but “with a difference.” In her Introduction to GLQ’s special issue on “Theorizing Queer Temporalities [cited above], Freeman asks (partly in response to Lee Edelman’s No Future), “do all futurities entail heteronormative forms of continuity or extension?” She then states, “If I were committed to describing where queer theory is now, I might use this question as the X to mark the spot of our collective critical endeavor” [p. 166]. For me, this really is the penultimate question, and I find myself very much on the side of answering, “no, they do not,” but we have to articulate what that means, and that is partly what I think Freeman is doing in her work right now—articulating queer forms of reproduction across time, a kind of time-traveling, or jumping between bodies in time, bodies as time portals (and in a sense, too, our labors extended in critical writing are a sort of inscription of futurity, a bending of time in particular directions, or a bending of our attention in time).
“Binding, we might say, makes predicament into pleasure, fixity into a mode of travel across time as well as space. Like ‘dissemination,’ it counters the fantasy of castration that subtends melancholic historiography, for it foregrounds attachments rather than loss. Furthermore, the monster’s body and bodily act provide a queer alternative to the two most heterosexually gendered figures for ‘progress’: the fecund maternal body that supposedly engenders natural history and the heroic male body that supposedly engenders national history” [p. 61].
****Jeffrey’s chapter on Guthlac in Medieval Identity Machines, “The Solitude of Guthlac,” plays close attention to how Guthlac’s narratives encode a certain heroic masculinity that is part and parcel of an emergent Mercian political hegemony, but at the same time, they also undermine that supposedly solid and closed-unto-itself masculinity/patrinomy in many of the specific details of Guthlac’s flights with his demons, or as Jeffrey himself puts it, “Guthlac” [whatever “body”/country that name signifies] is literally “dissolved” in the demons’ “embrace.” The self (saintly, heroic, maternal, or otherwise) is always “multiple.” It seems to me that one of the tasks of queer theory today is not only to locate and articulate the “alternative” to what Freeman identifies as the two most heterosexually gendered figures for progress, but to also trace all of the ways in which so-called maternal and heroic/national bodies are themselves always already queer, disaggregated, multiply sexuated, etc.
“In The Sticky Fingers of Time, within a conversation between two women, the singular and irreplaceable event of a wounded male body installs the deep time of a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ marks the potential historicity of this time and facilitates human agency over it in the form of a narrative that our fictional writer hands over to her friend and she hands over to the filmic audience. Significantly, one speaker is murdered soon after the conversation, suggesting that two women cannot be the bearers of a future thought outside the context of reproduction. Or this is what you get when you look at the speakers and not at the little girl who does not actually materialize in this scene: as a figure for the queer undead, the monster is temporally linked—timebound—to the little girl who is not a child at all but a queer unborn, a future we cannot see but upon which we bet” [p. 62].
*****Here I find myself pausing over this “handing over” of a narrative both within the filmic narrative and across to the film’s audiences (who can also replay these narratives over and over again, with all sorts of theorizing variations), which calls me back again to Freeman’s Introduction in the special issue of GLQ where she writes, “One question that remains unanswered in the queer scholarly debate about futurity . . . is why write? . . . Writing is a toss of the dice not only into the future but also for the future” [p. 168]. In the roundtable itself on “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” Carla Freccero touches upon this when she says, “I often work on the dead, and as time goes by I have begun to think of myself as a future dead person writing myself out of time as time is running out.” The historiographical enterprise is essentially a writing enterprise, is it not? And therefore, it is one that scholars share with artists (especially artists who are attuned to history in their work, who directly engage with history)—one could even say that all we have of history is the continual writing and re-writing of history: this is how history travels.
“The great surprise of this scene [the monster fertilizing and becoming-tomato, which then, in the future, will enter the girl’s mouth] . . . lies in the missing feast as it suggests: a taste of the idea that pleasure may be as potentially generative of a future as pain, trauma, loss, or foreclosure. . . . the scene I have described offers neither mother nor father in its imagining of relations across time, no original womb, but only a scarred and striated body on the one side, an absent prepubescent body on the other, and a dumb, juicy, not-yet-born vegetable in between, with no portable text mediating the transfer. And, crucially, it offers the mouth as a tactile rather than just a verbal instrument for temporal transactions, for temporal binding. The question is how this might become historical” [p. 63].
Drawing upon Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s writings on the operations of incorporation and introjection in melancholia, Freeman writes, “both the process of incorporation and that of introjection suggest what might be called a ‘bottom’ historiography,” and what is received [think back to scene in film that points to the future girl eating the future Frankenstein-tomato] “is not a transmission of authority or custom but a transmission of receptivity itself, of a certain pleasurably porous relation to new configurations of the past and unpredictable futures” [p. 64].
******How might early medieval hagiography figure this “transmission of receptivity”? For myself, I want to think this question alongside Burrus’s invocation of this passage from Baudrillard’s Seduction (relative to Burrus’s analysis of the trope of seduction in the Lives of the Harlots, including one of our perennial favorites, Mary of Egypt): “The law of seduction takes the form of an uninterrupted ritual exchange where seducer and seduced constantly raise the stakes in a game that never ends. And cannot end since the dividing line that defines the victory of the one and the defeat of the other, is illegible. And because there is no limit to the challenge to love more than one is loved, or to be always more seduced—if not death.” And Burrus adds here, “If not death: if not even death sets a limit on love, the sacrament of seduction is infinitely suspended; it is, in every sense, nonteleological” [The Sex Lives of Saints, p. 158]. How might the nonteleology of seduction and Freeman’s “bottom historiography” help us to trace, in early English hagiographic narratives, a transmission of erotic receptivity from God to saint, from saint to saint, and from text to reader to scholar to reader and beyond? And how, then, would this tracing itself appear, in Freeman’s words, as a mode of historicity structured by “tactile feeling, a mode of touch, even a sexual practice” [“Time Binds,” p. 66]? Why write, indeed? Is there anything but writing? Or to put this another way: as scholars situated in universities, in dialogue with artists and writers in other times and places (even a contemporary film, once shot, is past to the time of our writing about it), what and where is the time of our writing? And how receptive is it/are we? Refer to the painting above.