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Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories

Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories

by Elizabeth Freeman

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Time Binds is a powerful argument that temporal and sexual dissonance are intertwined, and that the writing of history can be both embodied and erotic. Challenging queer theory’s recent emphasis on loss and trauma, Elizabeth Freeman foregrounds bodily pleasure in the experience and representation of time as she interprets an eclectic archive of queer


Time Binds is a powerful argument that temporal and sexual dissonance are intertwined, and that the writing of history can be both embodied and erotic. Challenging queer theory’s recent emphasis on loss and trauma, Elizabeth Freeman foregrounds bodily pleasure in the experience and representation of time as she interprets an eclectic archive of queer literature, film, video, and art. She examines work by visual artists who emerged in a commodified, “postfeminist,” and “postgay” world. Yet they do not fully accept the dissipation of political and critical power implied by the idea that various political and social battles have been won and are now consigned to the past. By privileging temporal gaps and narrative detours in their work, these artists suggest ways of putting the past into meaningful, transformative relation with the present. Such “queer asynchronies” provide opportunities for rethinking historical consciousness in erotic terms, thereby countering the methods of traditional and Marxist historiography. Central to Freeman’s argument are the concepts of chrononormativity, the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity; temporal drag, the visceral pull of the past on the supposedly revolutionary present; and erotohistoriography, the conscious use of the body as a channel for and means of understanding the past. Time Binds emphasizes the critique of temporality and history as crucial to queer politics.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Time Binds is an elegant book bristling with intelligence and wit. A fascinating blend of the familiar and the new, it will have a major hand in opening up queer theory, to its own repressed, to its own dreams, to take its chances.”—Carolyn Dinshaw, author of Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern

“Blazing and brilliant. Elizabeth Freeman forges claims with texture, rigor, relevance, and grace, giving her masterful, original study a voice of unusual tenderness and depth. Clearly, Freeman stands at the forefront of where queer theory needs to go: into the strangeness, the utter queerness, lying inside the beats of time.”—Kathryn Bond Stockton, author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Evelyn Hartogh

Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories offers a valuable resource for students and teachers of philosophy, queer theory, feminism, art history, and gender studies. Freeman's critiques are well founded in relation to contemporary literary theory, and she applies these convincingly to her chosen texts. Freeman's book is timely in the context of an information age which privileges the moving visual image as indisputable evidence. The creative works she examines (especially the films and videos) offer an alternative viewpoint which suggests we need to distrust our eyes, re-examine what we consider natural and normal, and continue to rewrite and recreate our history.”
Anneli Strutt

“[A] fascinating experiment in time travel through non-normative temporalities.”
Lambda Book Report - Lizzy Shramko
“Despite the queer academy’s distance from corporeality and the promotion of more transcendental approaches to historiography, Freeman boldly outlines history as an erotic, embodied experience. . . . Without cleansing their hands of the complicatedness of history’s racial legacies, these theorists explore the messiness of queerness. Freeman’s book is centered on queer time and queer history’s exciting and, at times, (corporeally) violent moments. . . . Fierce indeed.”
Pablo Assumpçao

“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.”
Reviews in Cultural Theory - Amber Jamilla Musser
“In addition to elegant and radical close readings, Time Binds gives us a way to think about pleasure and temporality in combination. . . . Time Binds provides us with close readings of experimental works of film and literature while simultaneously exposing the political stakes of temporality by foregrounding pleasure and the body on both an individual and collective level.”
Textual Practice - Gino Conti
“In the end, Freeman offers us a queer future in which close reading remains both a practice and a pleasure we might repurpose for our own sexual–textual encounters, as well as a method of doing queer history through which we are able to feel in touch with, and touch, the social. For making pining for pleasurable encounters with the past, lingering over texts and bodies, and ‘lesbian’ sex hot again in a ‘new now’ kind of way, Freeman’s book rightly demands we take pause via the sensory, and the sensual, to feel the queerness in this.”
Australian Feminist Studies - Guy Davidson
“Positive but not celebratory, exploratory but rigorous, grounded in the messy referentiality of bodies and texts but compellingly speculative, Time Binds is a pathbreaking book that will have multifarious impacts upon queer and feminist studies.”
TOPIA - Craig Jennex
"Time Binds is perhaps the most compelling argument for the ways non-normative relationships with time and history can be particularly generative for queer politics." 

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Perverse modernities
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
4 MB

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Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4790-3

Chapter One

Junk Inheritances, Bad Timing

Familial Arrhythmia in Three Working-Class Dyke Narratives

We are verses out of rhythm, Couplets out of rhyme ... —Simon and Garfunkel, "The Dangling Conversation"

In K.I.P., the image of queer "ancestors" not only offers an alternative to reprofuturity by way of a blissful past but also gestures toward the history of visual technology's participation in the making of genealogies and intimacies. Even prior to modern nationalism, people have understood themselves as such and as part of a larger historical dynamic—usually an ascent based on rank, wealth, or other status—through imaging sequence and cumulation in familial terms. They have used narrative tools like pedigrees and legends of their forebears, and visual tools like painted portraits and heirlooms, to represent continuities with unseen others across temporal vistas. Ideas like a noble house, a chosen people, or a superior race, then, all connect microsocial forms like marriage and childbirth to grand narratives of continuity and change. In this production of a generational peoplehood, groups make legible not only themselves but also history thought of, in its simplest terms, as the passage of time beyond the span of a single life.

When visual technologies such as photography and film emerged, they certainly made time available to the senses in new ways: as Mary Ann Doane argues, they both participated in the newly rationalized time-sense of the industrial era and offered ways out of rationalized time by privileging the index, the archive, the gap between frames, and other devices that stopped or "lost" time. Yet as these technologies became available to middling folk, they were often harnessed to and furthered the representation of collective longitude. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, families increasingly "mattered" or both appeared before themselves and came to seem consequential in and of themselves through the visual technologies marketed at ordinary people—daguerreotypes, snapshots, and eventually home movies. Historically, the photographic media participated in the emergence of a highly heterogendered, middleclass discourse of family. The very earliest mass-marketed photographic technologies, as Shawn Michelle Smith demonstrates, turned away from the public iconicity associated with the painted portrait and toward depicting an elusive psychic interiority, coded as highly feminine. Generally portraying individual subjects and families posed in interior spaces surrounded by household items and furnishings, daguerreotypes celebrated privacy and yet teased the viewer with the voyeuristic pleasure of imagined access to both rooms and souls. They evoked the "timeless" spaces of heart and hearth, the stillness of a domestic life imagined as a haven from rather than a necessary correlate of industrial time.

The technologies that followed may have dimmed the daguerreotype's aura of singularity insofar as they allowed for multiple prints, but their domestic users drew from the conventions of daguerreotypy by privileging homes and family groupings. As Marianne Hirsch writes, after the invention of the Kodak camera "photography quickly became the family's primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation—the means by which family memory would be continued and perpetuated." Smith contends that by the end of the nineteenth century the photograph of the child, in particular, had become a means of visualizing not just time but the future, and not just any future but one congruent with middle-class aspirations illustrated by poses, settings, and props. Candid, infinitely reproducible pictures of live babies and children replaced the daguerreotype era's cult of dead children, figuring a new congruence between technological reproduction and the saving of the Anglo-American "race," now understood in terms of skin color as well as ancestry. In the hands of ordinary fathers and, increasingly, mothers, domestic photographs "trac[ed] the imaginative trajectory" of the family line toward continued racial purity, physical health, and prosperity. In this way, they inserted the family into, and made the family into an image of, the nationalist march of "progress." In other words, domestic photography helped merge the secularized, quasi-sacred time of nature and family with the homogenous, empty time across which national destiny moved: representations of family made simple reproductive sequences look like historical consequence. The spatial conventions that attended domestic uses of the visual media also contributed to this effect. For instance, the family portrait is often recognizable as such because the subjects are usually posed with the elders at the back (and sometimes even portraits of ancestors on the wall behind them), the children in the front, and an adult male-female couple at the center, flanked by their own siblings or eldest children. Individual portraits of different family members or the same person are often shot or displayed in sequences that emphasize physical likenesses across time, as in the living room display of family members organized top-to-bottom and/or oldest-to-youngest, or of the child posed in front of the same tree once a year.

But as I suggested earlier, queer time emerged from within, alongside, and beyond this heterosexually gendered double-time of stasis and progress, intimacy and genealogy. While the antebellum nineteenth century was marked by a dialectic between sacred, static "women's" time and a secularized, progressive, nominally male national-historical time, the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a dialectic between "primitive," slow, recalcitrant time and the time of speedy production, rapid distribution, and constant novelty. This ostensible division of mutually informing and co-constructed categories was not only gendered, as before, but now also explicitly racialized and sexualized. The discourses of racial degeneration in criminologists like Cesar Lombroso, and of neurotic repetition in Freud, made it possible to imagine and represent a certain stalling of any smooth movement from past to present, stillness to action, time to history. These discourses foregrounded compulsive returns, movements backward to reenter prior historical moments rather than inward or outward to circumvent historical time. As film technologies emerged in the late nineteenth century, they seemed to materialize the possibility of return that subtended modernity: as Mary Ann Doane demonstrates, the plots of early fictional films such as Life of an American Fireman (1903) contained scenes in which the same action was shown twice, shot from different vantage points, to emphasize spatial continuity. Some "actuality" films depicting real events were shown backward and forward, asking spectators to marvel in buildings that resurrected themselves, or glasses that knit their fragments back up. Some were shown in a continuous loop, encouraging viewers to notice different details in each showing. Some early directors enhanced the credibility of the historical reenactments they portrayed by beginning with establishing shots taken on the day of the historical event, returning spectators to the original time and place before launching a reconstruction of the events that took place there. Thus, though film seemed to highlight the irreversibility and linearity of time through the relentless forward motion of the apparatus, it also enabled a kind of mass repetition-compulsion, enabling spectators to stop time or see it run backward. Whether explicitly correlated with racial and sexual otherness or not, film's ability to manipulate time or to enable historical return resonated with the late nineteenth century's tendency to align blacks, homosexuals, and other deviants with threats to the forward movement of individual or civilizational development.

Cecilia Dougherty's independent video Coal Miner's Granddaughter (1991) queers family by bringing film's work on time to the level of acting and embodiment. At its outset, Coal Miner's Granddaughter promises a suture between family and collectivity, representation and reproduction, using the conventions of home video. At one point in this piece, a working-class family sits down to dinner at their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the week before an election. Among the family members is the protagonist, Jane Dobson (Leslie Singer), who has announced before the story begins, "My name is Jane Dobson and this is my damned story," and who will make her way up from the family dinner table and out of the closet by the narrative's end. But by invoking both the country singer Loretta Lynn's hit "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1970) and the film of the same name (1980), the title of Dougherty's video suggests Jane's complicated relationship to her family of origin. Ostensibly, it signals that her personal history includes a connection to not only extended family but also a collective form of labor and its representational history. In Popular Front, Depression-era portraits by Walker Evans, James Agee, and Dorothea Lange, for instance, coal miners' families have typically registered the progress or regress of an industry and the culture surrounding it; similarly, the lyrics to Lynn's song suggest that her memories of her home at Butcher Hollow preserve a lost way of life. Viewers of Coal Miner's Granddaughter, then, might expect something magisterial, a female "Up from Wage Slavery" that lends gravitas to an individual life by embedding it in a larger collective drama of gender, sexual, and/or class struggle.

But plain and lumpish Jane is a watered-down version of Lynn's earnestly gritty protagonist, half a century removed from the world of collective organizing that many now romanticize (see figure 2). Thus "granddaughter" ironically invokes a certain de-generation, of which homosexuality is only one aspect in the video. Jane's "damned story" involves not the rags-to-riches progress of a star but the movement from the Depression to just plain old depression, and the lesbian awakening of an ordinary young woman who ends up in San Francisco's early 1990s pro-sex queer subculture—neither of which, it might be noted, add up to something as grandiose as damnation in the religious sense of the word. There is no grandparent with whom we might expect Jane to somehow identify, perhaps even as a source informing her lesbian identity. In fact, the actors are of more or less the same age, with only minimal costuming —the mother's obvious wig and dark lipstick, the father's ill-fitting suit—separating the parents from the "children" (see figure 3). The latter, with the exception of the hippie sister Rene (Amanda Hendricks), wear ordinary late 1980s/early 1990s clothing and haircuts. Though the narrative begins when Jane is a child, she is not played by a child actor but by Singer speaking in a childlike voice, and nobody visibly ages within the story's roughly two decades. It is as if this family cannot go anywhere in time; indeed, much of the camerawork consists of disorienting and claustrophobic close-ups shot inside a small interior, rather than of the action shots and exterior scenes that traditionally align the passage of time with motion and changes in setting. There are no coal mines visible either; and though the election results in the father getting a job as the postmaster of Lancaster, he spends much of his time sitting around a kitchen table with his family members.

Leftist Democrats and Catholics, the Dobsons seem vaguely lower middle class, which is mostly indicated by the few props in the kitchen and by the father's job. But they are visibly untouched by any particular community or industry. These absences lend a certain pathos to the title insofar as they mark the kind of vacuum left behind when mining and other heavy industries are outsourced. Indeed, as if to mark the shift from a manufacturing to a temp economy, Francis, the father (Kevin Killian), says, "I'm the only man in town with two jobs." The other job apparently involves work with the Democratic Party on behalf of prisoners, ironically enough, for Francis imprisons his own family in stereotypically hetero-gendered expectations justified by his hatred of communism. Given the loss of pater familias here, we might expect the family's women, at least, to display enduring patterns of working-class sociability; we might even wish these patterns into resembling queer bonds in Jane's present or the future. But Coal Miner's Granddaughter refuses to excavate the kind of past that might situate Jane and her family in a larger narrative encompassing and correlating both working-class and lesbian identity. As a reviewer writes, "Jane as a subject never really comes through. Perhaps this is the point: she is the absent center of her own life." In this video, time stalls in the failure of a granddaughter to be either a grand representative of her class legacy or a proper daughter—or even, perhaps, a subject at all. Unmoored from the representational logic that sutures biological reproduction to social history through visual technologies, Jane's biography simply bobs along, inconsequentially.

In short, Coal Miner's Granddaughter presents a degenerated working-class solidarity, and this sense of loss and absence extends to the very materiality of the video. Repudiating both earnest documentary and Hollywood biopic, Dougherty shot her piece in PXL 2000, popularly known as PixelVision—an extremely cheap camera that records images onto audiotape, available primarily as a toy sold by Fisher-Price between 1987 and 1989. Coal Miner's Granddaughter also emerged within a fleeting moment of the late 1980s and 1990s, dubbed the New Queer Cinema, whose artists and critics were already self-consciously theorizing its own emergence and ephemerality. The term "New Queer Cinema," apparently coined by the film critic B. Ruby Rich, encompassed films that eschewed gay identity as a point of departure or return and instead represented same-sex relations in terms of acts, situations, aesthetics, and unpredictable historical or social collisions. To describe the New Queer Cinema somewhat overschematically, it generally avoided individual coming-out narratives, realistic depictions of urban gay social milieux, and other "expressive" narrative or filmic conventions that would stabilize or contain homoeroticism, correlate particular bodies to particular desires, or reduce erotic practice to sexual identity. And crucially, the New Queer Cinema engaged in what Rich called "a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind ... a new historiography," about which less has since been written than one might expect. In keeping with the New Queer Cinema's emphasis on the constructed nature of both identity and history, Jane's life is memorialized on the nearly obsolete medium of a cassette tape, the original of which cannot even be played except on a discontinued machine. Portraying a granddaughter who is a bad copy of Lynn's famous daughter, in a medium that is itself considered a bad copy of film, and indeed in a low-quality version of even that medium intended for children, Coal Miner's Granddaughter is less about descent or legacy than it is about inferior derivations and the inheritance of qualities with no value to middle-class culture. Even in its physical aspect, the video incarnates the clichis that a lesbian is a bad copy of a man, that a queer life leaves nothing enduring, that a working-class subject has, in Rita Felski's words, "nothing to declare."

Insofar as this video follows the generic conventions of a coming-out story, it certainly participates in an earlier identity politics on the level of content. But what is queer about it surfaces in the formal register: materially, a master tape that is destined to corrupt and fade, and structurally, a saga that fails to be anything but utterly ordinary. These elements clearly resonate with contemporary analyses of queerness as a force that distorts or undermines the logic of sequence—at one point in the film Jane says to her brother Jon (Glen Helfland), "I could just stay here, go to Temple, get married, get some kind of office job till I get pregnant ... why don't I just blow my head off right now?" But the video also refuses to disrupt narrative sequence per se and align dissident sexuality with a simple ateleological postmodernism: scene follows scene in relatively expected ways as Jane fights with her family, leaves home, arrives in a gay Mecca, comes back to visit Lancaster now and again. Here, queer does not merely oppose linearity. Dougherty herself has stated that she "wanted to make a narrative instead of an experimental piece ... I'm really sick of artsy videos ... It looked like film was going to be the vehicle for narrative and video was slated for documentary or experimental work. I thought video was underutilized."


Excerpted from TIME BINDS by ELIZABETH FREEMAN Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Freeman is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture, also published by Duke University Press.

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