In the foreword of her 1993 collection of essays, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
makes the claim that “queer is a continuing moment”—that “something about queer
is inextinguishable” (p. xii). While Sedgwick
’s collection is not about time per se, its foreword, titled “T Times,” which begins with reference to the 1992 gay
pride parade in New York, reflects on the temporality of queerness at a moment defined both by gay and lesbian
rights beginning to gain political traction and by the “deathly silence” produced by the losses of the AIDS
, p. xii). While Sedgwick
was one of the few addressing issues of time in early queer theory
, her work might very well have ushered in a new generation of queer theorists particularly attuned to issues of temporality. Indeed, since the early 2000s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of queer theorists who have turned their attention to issues of time. Their work has shown the various ways in which sexuality
and temporality are enmeshed, from the life schedules deemed healthy for child rearing to the bildungsroman
structure that charts the passing of time as a progression from childhood through adolescence to mature adult heterosexuality
. Their writings have also pointed us toward a variety of queer temporalities that stand in clear opposition to these normative time
frames. As Jack Halberstam
has claimed, queer temporality
is about the future reimagined “according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage
, reproduction, and death” (2005
, p. 2). For a number of scholars of queer temporality
, the AIDS crisis stands as a pivotal moment, a protracted historical event that produced new relations to time. For those living through the epidemic, the future no longer stretched out like a limitless horizon. The AIDS crisis thus allowed for a “rethinking of the conventional emphasis on longevity and futurity
” (Halberstam 2005
, p. 2).
Though the AIDS
epidemic represents a clear example of a historical moment that facilitated a rethinking of time, I believe that we need to go back a bit further to uncover some of the foundations of what has come to be known as queer temporality
. In 1927
, Wyndham Lewis
wrote Time and Western Man
, a polemic that attempted “to contradict” the work of those writers he described as representing a “time-cult.” His text paints a picture of modern literature that is above all else obsessed with time. He takes on a number of prominent philosophers, novelists, and poets of his day, including Bergson, Proust, Joyce, Pound, and Stein
. These and other authors’ unconventional use of time is a generally accepted component of what defines modernist literature. What might be less recognized, however, is the role these temporalities, developed nearly a hundred years ago, have played in framing much of what has become central in our contemporary discussions of queer temporality
Literary Modernism, Queer Temporality: Eddies in Time is about the relation between modernist narrative and the more recent work on queer temporality . In this book, I argue that queer theory ’s work on time owes a debt to modernist literary experimentations. Many of the descriptions of queer temporalities published in the past fifteen years bear a striking resemblance to configurations of time that emerged as part of modernist critiques of conventional narrative. Part of my project is to examine modernist narrative in direct relation to queer temporality . The work in this field allows us to see how modernist experiments with narrative were perhaps always enmeshed with issues of sexuality.
This book approaches queer temporality from a few different angles. One of its central goals is to identify and examine modernist temporalities that can best be described as queer. Because much work has been done in examining the ways in which modernist temporalities break conventions, I will show why particular modernist temporalities are most fruitfully examined through the lens of queer theory . Many of the temporal configurations I examine here have been looked at previously through different critical frameworks. Therefore, my focus will be on the new insights that are gained from framing the issue as a queer one.
A second goal for this book centers on what we might call “the persistence of modernism.” Madelyn Detloff’s
book by this same name has shown the “persistence of modernism in contemporary responses to war, terror, and trauma” (2009
, p. 3). I am interested in the persistence of modernist time-senses in the realm of queer theory
. I seek to demonstrate how modernist experiments with temporality and narrative have been taken up by a number of authors writing several generations later. As many queer scholars have claimed, the AIDS
crisis has served as a flash point for the explosion of new ways of thinking about temporality. Novelists writing in the decades following the crisis thus had these new temporal configurations available to them. And yet, as these temporalities made their way into contemporary literature, they seemed to be deeply inflected with the marks of modernism. What I find notable about many of these texts is their reuse (whether directly or indirectly) of modernist temporalities as a response to contemporary issues or as a defining part of their own narrative projects.
The final, and perhaps most important, goal of this book is to analyze the narrative consequences of queer temporality . If part of what queer temporality does is to jam the mechanisms that produce conventional narratives that reinforce traditional social relations, then queer temporality has much to contribute to theories of narrative in general. There are a whole host of questions we might be able to ask about narrative once we’ve seen how queer temporality operates in conjunction with narrative structures. For example, nearly every definition of narrative includes the criteria that narrative constitutes a succession of events. But what happens when succession itself becomes a normative convention that is systematically dismantled? And what is the connection between succession and the institutions that regulate sexuality? If succession is at the very core of what narrative is, then queer temporality ’s interaction with it can help us begin to see the stakes involved here. In many ways, texts that dabble in queer temporality discard much of what, in the conventional sense, makes a narrative a narrative. Given this, the consequences for narrative in general stretch beyond even what I am able to describe within this book.
The Perverse Turn: Queering Coherence
In the spring of 2007, GLQ
released a special issue dedicated to Queer Temporality that included a roundtable discussion between some of its most prominent scholars. In the midst of the back and forth between these scholars, Halberstam
put forth a definition of queer time
that mirrored claims he had made a few years earlier in his book In a Queer Time and Place
. He writes: “Queer time for me is the dark nightclub, the perverse turn away from the narrative coherence of adolescence–early adulthood–marriage
–reproduction–child rearing–retirement– death, the embrace of late childhood in place of early adulthood or immaturity in place of responsibility” (Halberstam 2005
, p. 182). Halberstam
’s definition locates us in a bar, a queer space
seemingly outside the institutions of marriage and the family. He sees the bar as embodying a particular temporality, a space where time flows independently of those conventional milestones that make sense of a life. Halberstam
’s definition presents queer time
as an alternate timeframe for individuals, as the space occupied by those who eschew the idea that one must grow into a particular kind of mature adult.
But Halberstam’s imagining of queer time as “the perverse turn away” from particular types of “narrative coherence” also takes it beyond the realm of life stories and into the realm of narrative structures. If queer time can be defined as a turning away from narrative coherence, then we must begin to bring into the conversation those structures upon which narrative coherence relies. Halberstam points us to a few. For example, the movement through “adolescence–early adulthood–marriage–reproduction–child rearing–retirement–death,” a bildungsroman-like narrative, has often defined just want counts as a life, both within literature and outside of it. Beyond this, however, we might think of a number of other structures that make narrative cohere: the chronological movement of time, the sequencing of events, the progression through conventional narrative stages (exposition, rising action, falling action, climax, resolution) in which meaning comes into focus in a conclusion, the sense of closure produced by an ending, a consistent point of view, and character development, to name just a few.
If part of what defines queer temporality is a turning away from narrative coherence, then we must consider its specific indebtedness to modernist literature, literature known for its tendency to think against the grain of dominant narrative conventions. In Virginia Woolf’s well-known and often quoted essay “Modern Fiction,” for example, she imagines modernist literature as literature that turns away from much of what has de...