Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories by Elizabeth Freeman

Pablo Assumpçao | New York University

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010. 256 pages; $22.95 paperback.


Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories is a recent contribution to a thriving queer theory and politics that has until recently focused more on space than on time. The author introduces her project by saying that queer temporalities organized around non-sequential forms of time, and not just queer spaces such as the gay club, can fold subjects into structures of belonging that forge “history” differently.

If living out of synch with state-sponsored narratives of belonging and becoming (such as dominant forms of object-choice, coupledom, family, sociability, and self-presentation) is the queer way of being historical, then neither traditionalist concepts of history nor Marxist historical materialism are adequate ways to theorize queer histories. Throughout the four chapters of the book (plus a preface, an introduction, and a final coda) the author offers close readings of various aesthetic texts and suggests these texts realize a theoretical critique of historiography.

In the introduction and first chapter, Freeman organizes a general framework for a queer politics of time. The discussion is centered around industrial capitalism’s construction of domesticity and familial time as a matter of synchronic attunement to factory rhythms. Largely basing her argument on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus—a particular social group’s set of gestural and attitudinal dispositions—Freeman explains that proper subjectivity is a matter of timing, of coming to assimilate a culture’s expectations about how we distribute our time. Normative behavior then entails a mastering of cultural norms of allocating time between labor and leisure, for example, of inhabiting enforced rhythms or timings that shape flesh into legible, acceptable embodiment (4). Thus the binding of flesh into socially meaningful embodiment is accomplished through a process Freeman calls “chrononormativity:” the organization of individual human bodies toward maximum productivity.

Pointing out how habitus and chrononormativity, as well as Dana Luciano’s concept of chronobiopolitics, choreograph bodies and their sexual lives into the synchronized time of entire populations, the author then reads through different films and texts by queer artists that alternately figure the “household habitus” otherwise (40). In Cecilia Dougherty’s independent video Coal Miner’s Granddaughter (1991) and Bertha Harris’s novel Lover (1976), for example, Freeman identifies formal devices that demystify the mechanical distribution of labor time as well as track down the ways domestic life is produced both as a gender form and a modulator of class habitus. Following these texts’s queer and class accented “bad timing,” Freeman identifies how they formally elaborate not only choreographies of domestic time in critical ways but also offer alternative temporalities that bind the body to time, and therefore history, in new erotic ways.

In a direct dialogue with performance theory, chapter two considers the temporality of queer performativity and asks what are the potentialities and implications of Judith Butler’s take on “citationality” when the text being repeated is old style “lesbian feminism,” a discourse said to easily bring back ghosts of “essentialized bodies, normative visions of women’s sexuality, and single-issue identity politics” (62). Reading lesbian cultural works in film, performance and visual art, the author identifies what she terms “temporal drag.” An embodiment of anachronism, as the performance artist Sharon Hayes’s work and Elizabeth Subrins’s fictional remake of a long forgotten documentary on radical feminist Shulamith Firestone make clear, temporal drag displaces the centrality of gender-transitive drag in favor of a kind of temporal transitivity. This transitivity, as Freeman argues, reanimates in unprecedented ways lesbian feminism’s political history and the social coordinates attached to it. Recasting disavowed pasts as “differences in feeling” (89), temporal drag is “not simply performative or citational but physical and even erotic” (93). At this point of the book, it becomes clear that Freeman is not just advocating for a queer method for historiography, but pointing to a very mode of “feeling the historical” that in her view is indexical of queer subjectivity.

Thus, the concept of “erotohistoriography” emerges in chapter three. Erotohistoriography is described as a genre of historical analysis that admits that contact with historical materials “can be precipitated by particular bodily dispositions, and that these connections may elicit bodily responses,” like sexual pleasure, which would itself need to be understood as a form of cognition (95). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s temporal shifts and its formal modes of creating contact with the past through bodily sensation, for example, are presented as a staging of queer encounters with history through the body and with pleasurable effects. The monster’s very body is said to be an index of temporal heterogeneity, being as it is made up of dead bodies, and a figure of “nonreproductive yet still insistently corporeal kinship with the departed” (116).

Similarly, the language of the narrator in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is said to historicize a protagonist that, while living 300 years and going through a sex change midway, experiences historical change as a set of directly corporeal and often sexual sensations (107). Thus the importance of theorizing bodily pleasure’s historicisms as an alternative to Marxists that understand that “genuine historical consciousness is precipitated by oppression” alone (99). In fact, it is Freeman’s attempt to theorize such a mode of “historical materialism otherwise” (192) that leads her to the final chapter on interracial practices of sadomasochism as an erotohistoriographic instrument for encountering and working through the horrors of slave trade.

Isaac Julien’s short film The Attendant (1992) becomes the basis for an analysis of S&M as a physicalization of one’s encounter with history, an encounter potentially able to take up materials of a traumatic past and remix them “in the interests of new possibilities for being an knowing” (144). The argument goes more or less like this: insofar as S&M reanimates historically specific social roles—like the colonial master and slave, the Catholic inquisitor, and the German Nazi—refurbishes them in historically specific elements of its theatrical language, and uses the body (and sexual gratification) to rearrange time, it becomes a mode of aesthetically commenting upon a history of oppression. Julien’s filmic work is analyzed as inquiring how bodily knowledge of trauma, encoded in S&M sex and its sensory elements, can be released for new bodily experiences, redistributing the content attached to chattel slavery’s historical baggage differently, and with sexual aims in target.

Through Julien’s work, Freeman admits that the “somatized historical knowledge” (168) restored by S&M neither demands nor produces accurate information about some past original experience, but in turn “enacts the oscillation between historically specific forms of time (…) and illuminates some past consequences and futural possibilities of this movement” (ibid). Such positing of corporeal performance as a historicizing movement renders the body a “kinetic and rhythmic improvisations of the social” (172). By doing so, I believe Freeman’s thinking gives further consistency to queer theory’s conceptual shift from the question of queerness as a psychological drive or an identity to the concept of queer as performance. The main question this book poses is how erotic relations and bodily acts are able to unbind time and history from capitalism’s regulated tempos in creative ways, unbinding thus our bodies from regulating structures like gender, race, class, and sexual identity themselves as inevitable markers of historical determination.

Pablo Assumpçao teaches performance studies at the Universidade Federal do Ceará, in Brazil. He is working on his PhD in the Department of Performance Studies (NYU). His current work explores the erotics of history in Brazil, experimental ethnography, and the sensory politics of performance. His artistic work includes writing for theater and film, video and video installation, and performance art.