I discovered close reading and queer theory at the same time, arriving to the university in the late 90s and shuttling between an English department and a cultural studies program. In fact, strange as this may seem from our present juncture, I don’t think I understood that they were different things: reading Eve Sedgwick, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, and Judith Butler I had a sense that lingering with details, and letting meanings bloom1 in unruly ways, was queer, and that queerness may be, above all, a kind of attention or attunement. In the years since, the disciplinary gravity of the field has drifted from literary studies to a more American Studies inflected fascination with archives; as much as I love this work, I can’t overstate the joy I felt when I read this in Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds (2010): “Thus what I’d like to identify as perhaps the queerest commitment of my own book is also close reading: the decision to unfold, slowly, a small number of imaginative texts rather than amass a weighty archive of or around texts, and to treat these texts and their formal work as theories of their own, interventions upon both critical theory and historiography” (xvii). Freeman’s work over the last decade and a half has put her at the very center of discussions of “queer temporalities,” and many readers of this symposium will know her through those conceptual and political debates.2 My primary attachment to her writing, though, hinges on the textures of her readings, her sensitivity to language.
Reading Freeman’s new book, Beside You in Time, I frequently experienced what Virginia Woolf calls “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (Woolf, 161) and I would have to pause, setting the book down and marveling at the way her readings disorient, enervate, and re-orient me. The most exciting moments, for me, are ones where the materialities of language flash into view: the homophonic play on “would” and “wood” in Melville’s “Bartleby, or the Scrivener” (128), or counting (literally) the proliferation of “now” through Stein’s “Melanctha” until the word “oddly enough…signals a point in past time rather than in the present” (145). Freeman’s readings, here of texts I know well from teaching them, deliver me from what I thought I knew about Melville and Stein’s language, and return me back to the text aslant. More than accumulating “readings” or “knowledge” (as data) about texts, Beside You in Time queers how I feel about texts, about the world, about how worlds hang together in time.
In Beside You in Time, Freeman offers up five chapters of meticulous, vertiginous close reading. In important ways, the book feels continuous not only with Time Binds but with The Wedding Complex (which, re-read now, already points toward some of Beside You in Time’s interrogations of how national belonging and sacramentality (or ritual) bind and unbind selves and relations), even as it offers surprising new ways of reading. The chapters track a series of temporal practices (although many of them can’t be referred to agential subjects so much as complex intra-personal and material millieux) such as “chronothanatopolitics” (playing dead in African American literature and performance), and “chronocatechrisis” in Melville and Stein (“stretching out…time beyond its instrumental uses” ). In some ways, Freeman’s choices of texts here are less obviously “queer” than in Time Binds, at least if you understand that word as referring primarily to the “sexual.” While the field of queer studiess has, since its inception, worked with senses of queerness that range far beyond anything that might be meant by words like “lesbian” or “gay,” Freeman’s readings of “Bartleby,” Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Shaker dance, or Henry “Box” Brown’s performance re-enacting his shipment (literally in a box) as flight from slavery are persistently focused on the erotic, but—drawing on Audre Lorde and Peter Coviello—they track “more diffuse” pleasures, connections, and haptics, ones that are “asexually generative” (as with the Shakers, 57) or that pivot on “decalcifiy[ing] and disaggregat[ing] ‘sexuality’ thought in terms of object choice” (24). Ultimately, Freeman’s interest is in “the temporalized invention of the subject, which is simultaneously the dissolution of the subject, [which] should be of interest to any scholar of sexuality” (6). The scholar of sexuality, then, has to feel out a whole range of erotic encounters, relations, and possibilities that take place, to summon Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, “beyond, beneath, and beside” what we usually think of as “sexuality” (8-9).
Freeman’s book is organized around what she calls “sense methods:” temporal encounters where “time itself [i]s a visceral, haptic, proprioceptic mode of apprehension—a way of feeling and organizing the world through and with the individual body, often in concert with other bodies” (8). That is, beside each other in time, we are (dis)organized as subjects in complex ways through our suspension in the biopolitics of affect3 We learn—through attention, repetition, dancing, refusing, playing dead, becoming erotically attached to (amateur) historiography—how to feel our bodies’ immersion in power. These methods move toward critique in some ways: toward accounts of how biopolitical control operates, for instance. But they also open toward unexpected means of (collective) experimentation and maneuver.
If I put collective in parentheses just now, it’s not to suggest that sometimes our revolt is individual and sometimes shared, but instead to mark how the book’s title points toward what has come to feel, thanks to the coronavirus 19 pandemic, like the most important concept we have for thinking socio-politico-sexual relationality: “queer hypersociability.” Against (in the double sense of intimate touching and opposing) the antisocial thesis in queer theory (associated with Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman), Freeman conjures an altogether different concept of the social: “The hypersocial . . . is not just excess sociability but sociability felt and manifested along axes and wavelengths beyond the discursive and the visual—and even beyond the haptic, for the synchronization of bodies does not require their physical touch, but rather a simultaneity of movement in which the several become one” (14). This sentence reminds us that the neologism “social distancing” is less distancing from the social than distancing as collective care for the social. As so much energy on the left, at least since Occupy, was driven by what Judith Butler called “bodies in streets,” Freeman’s “hypersociability” offers us new ways for thinking what it means to be “beside” each other, to feel each other, and to let that affective connection propel us toward queer worldmaking.
The papers in this symposium take up these ideas in rich, careful ways, often helping us sense what Beside You In Time offers us that we didn’t yet find in Freeman’s earlier books (the engagement with Afropessimism, for instance, in chapter two; or the more sustained attention to religion and ritual in chapters one and five). But I also want to suggest that the symposium form itself may be a kind of queer hypersociality. Before beginning this work, I didn’t personally know Freeman and I only knew one of the contributors (Christian Haines, a close friend from graduate school); the others I knew only through their work. What binds us turns out to be what we do alone together: we have all been reading Freeman, and are reading her now, beside each other. As our texts come together, our thoughts and ideas mingle, ooze, and pool. Everyone writing here comes at Freeman’s book from a different angle (partly, this is about discipline, but approach is always more queer than disciplinarity can capture), and everyone’s attention unfolds differently in their close attention to Freeman’s language. In the course of editing, I have had so many occasions for feeling joyful sparks of connection with the contributors. And as the pandemic has hypersaturated the present with anxiety and dread, those sparks have let me feel that other worlds are possible, are already gathering. And when I feel that, I always recall the final sentences of Beside You In Time: “My hope is that this book also matters for the present, insofar as it allows us to conceptualize social formation beyond and beside the linguistic, as an embodied and affective process. Sense-methods are not just for the past. They are for now, for being around otherwise: perceived, felt, heard” (190). Consider this symposium, then, an attempt to amplify Freeman’s hope. Here we are, now, together beside each other.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 1999. The Wedding Complex. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Freeman, Elizabeth, ed. 2007. “Queer Temporalities.” GLQ 13.2-3.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2019a. Beside You in Time: Sense Methods & Queer Sociabilities in the American 19th Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Freeman, Elizabeth. 2019b. “The Queer Temporalities of Queer Temporalities.” GLQ 25.1: 91-95.
Luciano, Dana. 2007. Arranging Grief. New York: New York University Press.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Schuller, Kyla. 2017. The Biopolitics of Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Woolf, Virginia. 1981 . To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
My use of “bloom” here is inspired by contributor Ashon Crawley’s frequent meditations on this word in his social media posts during the pandemic quarantine ↩
Beyond Freeman’s books, the 2007 special issue of GLQ, 13.20-3, on “Queer Temporalities” has been enormously influential, gathering as it does many of the key figures in these discussions. In “The Queer Temporalities of Queer Temporalities,” an essay in the recent 25th anniversary issue of GLQ, 25.21, Freeman writes about that issue in a way that resonates with Beside You in Time: “[Editing the issue] also allowed me to think about how collective thought might be made across the distances that separate us academics who often work along, launching our ideas into a void and waiting for responses in the form of reviews that can take years, and otherwise limited to whatever time we can cobble together from within our departments or at annual conferences. Editing is one way that thought becomes collaborative, if not quite collective, the rhythm of draft-response-revision being quicker than that of the academic review system. So when I agreed to edit a special issue, it was partly out of the purely selfish motive of wanting to be in conversation with people while I was, in real life, mostly trapped at home with a newborn” (93).↩
The introduction situates the arguments in relation to crucial work by Dana Luciano and Kyla Schuller on affective biopolitics, largely as a way to leave Foucault’s account of discipline in Discipline and Punishment, only to return with a reconfigured sensitivity to how time structures biopolitics.↩