Queer Time Makes Queer Bodies:
Elizabeth Freeman Historicizes Erotohistoriography
New York University, 28 October 2010
Admittedly, “history” has never been one of my favorite subjects. I’ve never found it particularly, well, sexy. But Elizabeth Freeman’s talk on “erotohistoriography,” a decidedly queer mode of historicizing that not only recognizes temporality’s non-linear and omni-directional character but also takes bodies and pleasures into account, had me all aflutter. Freeman, Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, described erotohistoriography as a manner by which the past is encountered through the carnal enjoyment of erotic practices and performances, an alternative way of “arranging and living the social” where time is experienced and practiced corporeally. While turning to loss and shame has been a common trend in queer studies, Freeman, reading selections from her forthcoming book, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, seeks a different, and might I add juicier, affective modality for queer temporality. While historical affect’s effect on subjectivity has been taken up by both psychoanalysis and Marxism, Freeman argues, it is erotohistoriography that attends to how pleasure, and not pain, shapes the way subjects come to understand themselves.
Explaining that historical consciousness and “queer self-fashioning” are not unique to modernity, Freeman organized her lecture around three moments or practices: relic worship in the Middle Ages, romantic sentimental historiography, and interpenetrative historiography. Freeman contextualized these moments with brief readings of three historical works: the story of Saint Erkenwald, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, respectively. In her reading of the alliterative poem of Saint Erkenwald, a story about Erkenwald’s unearthing of a sarcophagus in a former pagan temple, Freeman suggested that contact with a relic produces not just a resurrection, for the corpse is animated by its contact with the living, but a moment of historiography. Freeman asked, how must we understand the implications of an encounter where “earthly time [rubs] up against the eternal?” Freeman then turned to Mary Shelley’s novel to explore the sensate body of Frankenstein’s monster, striated, discontinuous, and “bound by chains of obligation to another past,” as a site of historical consciousness. Examining history’s ability to affect bodily constitution, she asked how the “past and present wears literally on the body.”
I found Freeman’s last example, her consideration of Woolf’s Orlando as a depiction of the “historian as pervert,” most intriguing (possibly because I’m a sucker for any discussion about the malleability of sex and gender). Freeman explains that the novel’s main character, who lived for 350 years but barely aged, loses his and her self through too much contact with the past. Orlando, obsessed with artifacts of the past, “is, temporally speaking, out of joint.” Participating in a queer mode of seeing and writing history, s/he undergoes a transformation from male to female in the course of the novel and claims h/er perverse status exuberantly. Accordingly, the novel, Freeman argues, is not simply about the construction of gender, but about how “the protagonist experiences historical change bodily and erotically” and “feels the centuries as reorganizations of the body.”
With its tantalizing case studies and stimulating modes of analysis, Freeman’s discussion of erotohistoriography, suggests a potentially wide breadth of the method’s applicability. As one who writes about theories of the body, Freeman’s discussion of erotohistoriography makes me question my own methodology and epistemological bag of tricks. She is pushing us to consider how the body is made and remade through historical encounters, not only regarding one’s own personal history, but in terms of the various temporalities one taps into by “rubbing up against” objects, sites, and other bodies that vibrate with unheard narratives. Wouldn’t a study of bodies without temporality be somewhat incomplete? I imagine so.
Krista Miranda is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at New York University and the Book Reviews Editor for Woman and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her prior graduate work includes an MA in Humanities and Social Thought with a concentration in Gender Politics and an MA in Writing and Publishing.