Symposium Introduction

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” [128]). 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.

 

Bibliography

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 [1927]. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


  1. 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

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

Response

Queer Time without Queer Promises?

First with Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, and now with Beside You in Time, Elizabeth Freeman has opened time itself to queer and to queer historical inquiry. A characteristic of Freeman’s approach is the joyful and often erotic exuberance with which she approaches twists, folds, and nonchronological jumps in time. To read these two books is to acquire a sixth sense, one which unfolds the manifold possibilities and erotic potentials of temporality, affective relations to history, and ruptures of chronology. As a result, the world becomes richer, literary and queer criticism more nuanced, and the erotic more multidimensional. This is Freeman’s substantial gift to her readers.

My metaphor of a “sixth sense” cleaves quite literally to Beside You in Time’s stated aims. The book focuses on “sense-methods” of the very long nineteenth century. Sense-methods are forms of embodied knowledge, with a nod to Audre Lorde’s celebrated notion of the erotic, through which bodies deviate from normative timings to engroup themselves otherwise. The opening chapter on Shaker dance offers the book’s paradigmatic example of a sense-method. Music and dance rely on rhythm, a form of timing felt in the body through which a set of bodies become attuned to one another. We might think, here, of a study showing that choral singing helps sync singers’ heartrates,1 or queer scholarship on nightlife that conveys how the pounding bass of the queer club takes individual dancers ecstatically out of themselves while moving their bodies to a beat at once carnal and collective. Such forms of sensory engroupment created through rhythm, dance, and song are politically inflected in their relation to dominant timings. Shakers, Freeman demonstrates, were racialized, first as Indians, then as African Americans, for a style of movement worship that was plainly seen as deviant—too embodied, dissonant, and improvisational for emerging Anglo-Protestant norms. Shaker dance, moreover, was queered in its connection to the Shaker’s religious demand for celibacy—Shakers “shook off” their carnal desires through dance, dancing in the place of heterosexually reproducing. Shaker dance displays the lineaments of sense-methods—modes of retiming bodies in sensuous relation to one another though out of step with dominant timings.

Underlying Freeman’s rich and varied set of examples of sense-methods—including Shaker dance, African Americans “playing dead,” animal magnetism, and amateur history—is a retooled Foucauldian theory of discipline and biopower. Freeman notes that Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish gives us detailed accounts of how, in schools, army barracks, prisons, and factories, new forms of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bodily discipline penetrated the body, activating certain carnal potentialities, then retrospectively naturalizing them as innate. This description parallels Foucault’s now canonical (for queer and sexuality studies) account of how sex came to be implanted as the truth of personhood in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. However, Freeman remarks, The History of Sexuality drops Foucault’s earlier focus on timing as a crucial technique of bodily discipline. Moreover, Foucault’s key example of the “reverse discourse” of the homosexual emancipation movement—which redeployed the sexological diagnosis of homosexuality for emancipatory and identitarian aims—threatens to circumscribe resistance to tactics within a linguistic field. Freeman’s exciting bid is to make resistance less discursive and more carnal, tracing emerging forms of bodily discipline through timing during the nineteenth century and identifying, in counterpoint to them, sense-methods that, while they may be formed in and through biopower, have effects not intended by biopower. These sense-methods are of bodies—they rely neither on language nor on the interiorized subjectivity of the individual for their purchase.

There is much to be excited about in this reframing of Foucauldian resistance from the linguistic to the temporal, sensory, erotic, and relational. Stepping outside of the linguistic (the medium of the sexological creation of diagnoses that were rapidly taken up as categories of sexual identity) and before the twentieth century (the period when homosexual identity became the recognizable prototype of the thesis that sexuality = personhood) also takes Freeman out of sexuality proper—that “fictitious unity” of gender, desire, anatomy, sex act, and personhood2—and into more diffuse and less “gay” modes of erotic deviance and temporal engroupment. Moreover, two chapters of Beside You in Time focus intensively on nineteenth-century African American sense-methods and two chapters consider the sense-methods of Christian religiosity. Beside You in Time’s shift away from purely gay and lesbian objects, serious attention to Blackness and the sacred, and expansive understanding of the erotic are among its strengths. But they do raise, for me, questions about the torque, on queer analytics, of objects outside of queer’s usual frame of reference. For, both Time Binds and Beside You in Time are recognizably queer in their analytics as well as their political promise. Contemporary queer studies acknowledges that queer is not a synonym for LGBT; rather, queer is a relational term whose meaning shifts in tandem with the gambits of power. Hence, Foucault, that theorist of historically shifting strategies of discipline, control, and biopower, has become one touchstone for identifying that in relation to which the queer might be defined. By identifying temporality as a key medium of nineteenth- and twentieth-century biopower, Freeman fruitfully extends queer analysis to nondominant modes of timing, nonchronological time, and improper modes of history (such as historical fiction and historical reenactment). In the process, however, a great deal of promise is attached to alternate timings and temporalities. In the introduction, Freeman binds temporal dissonance to both the erotic and to alternate engroupments, or, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “Queer Sociabilities.” Moreover, as modes of sensory knowledge and resistance, sense-methods have a political edge. As Freeman puts it, “subjugated knowledge is often lodged in the flesh itself” (8). In sum, the introduction seems to promise that the alternative timings of sense-methods will birth a series of politically resistant erotic collectivities. And no wonder. After all, this is the promise of queer activism itself.

In my book, Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History, I argue that queer sensibilities—and thus the legitimated moves and proper objects of queer scholarship—have been shaped by the relatively short and geographically circumscribed history of queer’s course in the United States. The dream of queer was that a term of insult, threatened violence, and sexual shame could be hoisted as the banner of a politically resistant, erotically pleasurable collectivity. From shame to pleasure, deviance to resistance, insult to pride, and solitude to collectivity—these were the alchemies that queer’s magic wand, in the spirit of idealized versions of both gay liberationist and 1990s queer activist politics, promised to work.3 At present, neither gay liberation nor 1990s’ queer activism is the focus of the vast majority of queer scholarship. However, the affectively dense promise that was encoded within queer during the 1990s has been institutionalized in some of the signature moves of queer scholarship, regardless of its object, time period, or geographical area. This is why Freeman’s book, on timing and sense-methods in the nineteenth-century US, nevertheless offers up a recognizable queer promise—deviant timings (as opposed to deviant sexualities) birthing politically resistant erotic collectivities. Now, field recognizability is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of my point was that, rather than being a rogue theory, queer studies is, in some ways, a field like others. Only, rather than institutionalizing itself according to its objects and methods, queer studies has institutionalized an affective history. My concern, in Disturbing Attachments, was that this affective history and its signature field expectations could encode an imperialist demand—to find, in a now diversified field of objects, time periods, geographic areas, and racial formations, the same triumphalist and idealized narrative.

Happily, Freeman’s commitments to careful historicization and close reading and serious engagement with scholarly debates in related fields allow the torque of her objects to pull each chapter away from the signature queer narrative gestured at in its introduction. This is particularly striking in the book’s engagement with Blackness. In Disturbing Attachments, I noted that “work on queer time has tended to be attuned to capricious mobility and alternative futures, in contrast to scholarship on racialized or postcolonial time, which has sought to tend to the still open, still damaging wounds of the historical past” (Amin 107). Scholarship on queer temporality has gravitated toward the connection between nonchronological time, erotic pleasure, and a politically resistant dissent from normative timings. It has fallen to work on Black or postcolonial time to contend with the dilemma “of the stuck past, of historical change that fails to be completely revolutionary, and of identities and communities built out the emotional detritus of history” (108). This replicates a familiar theoretical division of labor in which (racially unmarked) queer is the site of untrammeled mobility and a radical resistance to normativity, whereas race marks a certain stuckness—in racist histories that cannot be shed by nonchronological leaps in time, in biological reproduction as the source of racial inheritance, in identity as a mode of solidarity with communities of color, etc. For, race pulls the present backward into predictably rather than capriciously nonchronological pasts—of racial science, slavery, and colonialism, for instance, as historical horrors at the gravitational center of the present. This means that the affective histories of queer threaten to pull scholarship on queer temporality out of meaningful alignment with racialized time.

Fortunately, all that is needed to recalibrate queer theoretical ambitions is a scholarly attentiveness to the priorities generated by new kinds of queer objects. In chapter 2, Freeman focuses closely on nineteenth-century African American literature and performance, allowing these objects of study to revise the book’s core narrative. This chapter proposes chronothanatopolitics as “a kind of horizontal and repetitive movement between states of being” (67). Freeman finds chronothanatopolitics actualized in literature, folk tales, and performances in which African American figures repetitively “play dead”—returning, again and again, to social death in the midst of a fugitive freedom. Schooled by the lessons of contemporary Afro-Pessimism, Freeman carefully circumscribes the agency readers might wish to attribute to playing dead. In a long list of negatives, she insists that playing dead does not require an intentional subject and does not allegorize a release from social death. “Playing dead also does not turn back upon death, or the system that produces social death, to destroy them in the name of life or even of continuation in a radically new mode” (56). Instead, playing dead responds to historical conditions in which any release from social death into fugitivity or life, for African Americans, could only be temporary and incomplete. Freeman finds an illuminating example in the performances of Henry “Box” Brown, which, in the guise of depicting his triumphant escape from slavery into freedom, end up repetitively putting him back into the box through which he enacted his escape. Such rhythmic returns to captivity in African American performances of social death give shape to the endlessness of the conditions of anti-Blackness rather than breaking with those conditions.

The readings in chapter 2 contend with the stuck temporality of anti-Blackness and African American social death in the nineteenth century. Instead of attempting to jostle the duration and endlessness of anti-Blackness into an improbably anti-chrononormative mobility, Freeman attends to playing dead as a horizontal shuttling across the ontological conditions of life and death that cannot yield a full release from social death. The somber tone of this chapter contrasts with Freeman’s usual queer exuberance. And indeed, this chapter offers something quite different from the queer sociabilities the introduction promises. Playing dead is not particularly erotic, is not best described as “resistance,” and does not appear to bind any collectivity. As Freeman admits, “it is difficult to conceptualize Brown’s stage work in terms of engroupment: perhaps he catalyzed some forms of community, perhaps not” (77). Instead, she proposes that “Brown’s performances mark a relationality with his box, and thus with death itself” (77).

Is Blackness an exception, then—that which is counterposed to Beside You in Time’s queer proposition without invalidating that proposition? In my reading, this is not the case. Indeed, insofar as they focus on a range of objects outside of literalistic definitions of queer—nineteenth-century literature by presumably straight authors, non-homosexual and even nonsexual erotic deviance, African American cultural production, and Christian religiosity—all of the chapters, to a greater or lesser extent, pull against the narrative thread that binds erotic pleasure, queer sociability, and temporal-political resistance. In some chapters, for instance, the erotic is not primarily pleasurable. For example, chapter 3 turns to the first African American time-travel novel, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkin’s Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self, in which the enslaved character Mira’s ability to travel across space and time is associated with both sexual violation and mesmerism—traumatic sense-methods that index forms of gendered and anti-Black terror. Most of the chapters focus on nineteenth-century modes of temporal dissidence that, while they do lead to a queer as in “odd” politics, do not lead to the kind of political dissidence contemporary queer sensibilities might desire. Hank Morgan, the hero of Mark Twain’s time-travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court and Freeman’s model for the kind of faulty relation to history that “queer historians might want to claim” (119), is also a financier and exemplary capitalist who seeks, in a quasi-imperialist gesture, to accelerate stadial history from feudalism to industrial capitalism, committing mass murder when his efforts meet with rebellion.

This is a surprising model for queer historians indeed! Even nondominant modes of timing prove less exuberantly, queerly resistant than readers may, at first, expect. Chapter 4 examines “chronicity,” a “sense of unending” (124) that frustrates demands for capitalist productivity in Herman Melville’s “Bartelby, the Scrivener,” but in the service of nothing—of no counternormative ideal—whatsoever. As with chapter 2’s attention to the horizontal shuttling between fugitive freedom and social death, chronicity in “Bartelby” is a nondominant timing that ultimately goes nowhere, binds no collectivity, and is not (in any obvious way) erotic.

I highlight these examples neither to question their belonging in this book nor to cast doubt on Freeman’s politics, but rather, in admiration. As in chapter 2, attending to the priorities of queer objects of study that do not conform to the blueprints of idealized gay liberation and queer activist narratives means being willing to disaggregate (temporal) deviance, erotic pleasure, queer collectivities, and progressive politics. Beside You in Time is admirable in its willingness to follow the nondominant timings of the very long nineteenth century wherever they may lead. This is the result of Freeman’s core Foucualdianism. For Foucault, ruptures of discipline and control and resistances to normalization, though they may not serve hegemonic power, do not, for that matter, necessarily embody desirable modes of governance and collectivity. Beside You in Time therefore leaves me with the following question: What would happen if queer scholarship were able to devote serious study to the nondominant, the deviant, and the alternative without having to promise the reader (and the publisher) a given payoff—such as queer collectivities, erotic pleasure, or a resistant politics—to legitimate itself?


  1. Björn Vickhoff et al., “Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability of Singers,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334.

  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990).

  3. I take this understanding of the alchemy of queer history from Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 18–19.

Response

Response to Freeman

“Of course, the world continues to end,” laments Sylvia, a character in Jenny Offill’s Weather. Offill’s novel is a middling thing. Not in terms of quality, but in its sense of time: it throws readers into the middle of middle-aged lives, into the middle of an ongoing disaster (climate change and, yes, the election of Trump), into the middle of a day fading too quickly to night. When I started the novel, I found myself waiting for something to happen, some catastrophe to snap Offill’s prose into a narrative with a conflict and maybe even a resolution. The novel disappointed, which is to say it wisely avoided making an action movie out of the collapsing of time—deep time—into the fragile vessel of the present (if this were the ’90s, Bruce Willis would fend off climate disaster by redirecting an asteroid). The novel doesn’t so much punctuate time as inflect it, the way a broken tree branch shapes the flow of a river into eddies. It’s like the weather. The weather has a history—it’s a system that changes from one epoch to another—but this history often passes as subtle modulations or minute disturbances. It can be easy to miss, or ignore, even as fires multiply in Australia and islands lose their coastlines. “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” Offill’s librarian protagonist, Lizzie, feels time’s loss, the slipping away of moments when something might be done, when planetary life might be repaired, when the earth (to loosely paraphrase Marx) might be stood back on its feet. Lizzie has a gig answering emails for a podcast (“The Center Will Not Hold”) about climate change, and much of the novel consists of her cataloging the feelings swirling around in people made anxious by twilight capitalism, autocracy, and the Anthropocene. A “young techo-optimist guy” advises her to look on the bright side: “Eventually all those who are unnerved by what is falling away will be gone, and after that, there won’t be any more talk of what has been lost, only of what has been gained.” Lizzie wonders: “But wait, that sounds bad to me. Doesn’t that mean if we end up somewhere we don’t want to be, we can’t retrace our steps?”

Elizabeth Freeman’s Beside You in Time: Sense Methods & Queer Sociabilities in the American 19th Century is a middling thing, too. Not in terms of quality but in its willingness to feel out the textures of daily life that too often go unnoticed—the in-between moments, the hiccups, the tiny swerves.1 It’s a book of biopolitical investigations, its chapters so many forays into the politics, literature, and culture of bodies and of biological life. However, what distinguishes it from most scholarship on biopolitics is that it manages to sidestep any simple dichotomy between emancipation (the fabulous tune of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s multitude) and doom (the ominous rumbling of Giorgio Agamben’s sovereign apocalypse). Freeman listens to the quieter rhythms organizing life and death. Like Lauren Berlant and Jasbir Puar in their respective analyses of slow death and prognosis time, she weaves a tissue in which time fluctuates between life and death, a fabric whose warp and woof includes not just debility, deterioration, and despair but also ecstasy, escape, rebirth, and community.2 In Freeman’s words, implicit in Michel Foucault’s canonical formulation of biopolitics is a “temporalizing address”—“the individualizing work of anatamo(chrono)biopolitics that depends on timing specific bodies” (i.e., discipline) and the “massifying work of biopolitics whose temporal aspects seem limited to rearranging life events or periodizing populations” (i.e., biopower)—but missing from Foucault are those more “ephemeral relationalities organizing and expressing themselves through time” (7). These are relations less centered around the state’s triumphal march than around the ebb and flow of daily social traffic; they’re caught up in stranger, subtler rhythms than the drama of sovereignty. They would surely escape the radar of Offill’s “techno-optimist guy,” but they might allay Lizzie’s worry that we’re forgetting how to “retrace our steps,” because the relations Freeman describes are historical in the richest sense: they don’t just record the past, they give flesh to the discrepant social possibilities, the multiple political melodies, reverberating across generations. Freeman reminds readers that “timing allows bodies to find one another in ways that have the capacity to reformulate social life as we know it” (26).

Freeman offers utopianism in a minor key. She proposes a utopianism that is less the imagination of the good place than the shiver that runs through bodies as they struggle to turn hope into reality. More specifically, Freeman shows how utopia might be something like a queering of ritual, an erotically charged revision of habit. Her work shares a special affinity with José Esteban Muñoz’s writings on queer and racialized utopianism, though it’s worth noting that Freeman’s been thinking through queer utopianism at least since her 2002 book, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture, not to mention her more recent Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010).3 Beside You In Time extends the project of Freeman’s earlier work by pushing it backward in time, but only insofar as “backward” means something complex—not so much behind us as with us, the material presupposition through which the present and the future take shape. Witness, for instance, Freeman’s wonderful chapter on Shaker dances. That chapter argues that early Shaker dances produce Shaker sociality as a singularly bent rhythm, one departing from the heteroreproductive tune of white nationalism. The way Shaker dances eschewed the harmonies of European musical traditions in favor of looser, often dissonant bodily movements made the group appear as perverse to outsiders, especially to those invested in the status quo of early America. This was so much the case that Shakers were frequently conflated with indigenous or black subjects, cast out of the category of whiteness in the name of a “pure” American harmony. What’s so striking in Freeman’s account of the Shakers, however, is that her critical analysis is inextricable from the positive articulation of an asexual, yet intensely erotic, social ecstasy: “Shaker celibates had sex without having sex, engendering new kinds of subjects, bodies, and families. They put into stark relief the way that rhythmic dance, like rhythm in general, is asexually generative” (36–37). Moreover: “Avoiding the rules that governed secular dance, which usually focused on partnering men and women, Shaker dance could serve to critique gender inequality and what might be called not just compulsory heterosexuality but compulsory sexuality. Shaker dance was not a lead-in to romantic love or sexual intercourse but, in its conglomeration of singularities, a mode of collective expression and, itself, an expression of collectivity” (39). In a moment when scholarship has only begun to address asexuality as a set of practices, identifications, and orientations, Freeman’s vision of Shaker life does the valuable work of showing how asexuality is more than the absence of sexuality, how it has its own creative energies, its own forms of relation, and its own genres of libidinal attachment. Asexuality might be something like a lived alternative, or counterhistory, to Foucault’s history of sexuality.

“Rhythm does not kill, but queers,” Freeman writes near the end of her chapter on the Shakers. The proximity, here, between killing and queerness speaks not only to biopolitics as a temporal problem—the problem of timing life and death, health and illness, ability and debility—but also to the intimacy between the death drive and utopianism, or, in less technical terms, to the fact that changing our bodies for a new kind of life might only be possible through the death of old ways. Freeman’s fourth chapter, “The Sense of Unending Defective Chronicity in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ and ‘Melanctha,’” speaks to this reinvention of what it means to live not by offering some glowing gospel of a life to come but by examining the limbo in which capacity and incapacity blur. As she argues, Melville’s “Bartleby” and Stein’s “Melanctha” are debility, if not disability, narratives, telling the stories of lives out of synch with national standards of wellness. Melanctha and Bartleby are stuck insofar as they suspend the course of normal business, but this stuckness is more than a terminus. It’s a kind of protraction, the “stretching out of time beyond its instrumental uses” (128). Chronic time is ongoing, unending; it’s the pain that sticks with you, the song that won’t get out of your head—it insists beyond any right it has to do so. It’s not exactly utopian, because it’s as likely to involve death—see Bartleby’s endless sleep in the Tombs—as it is to bring pleasure, contentment, or goodness. At the same time, it also spreads out a horizon irreducible to the instrumental reason of capitalism (epitomized, for Freeman, by the invention in the early twentieth century of human resources, with its capacity to quantify and track the biological stock of workers). Which is to say that if chronicity is utopian, it’s utopian through failure, not realizing the good place but elaborating a constructive negativity, or “countertemporality”: “The chronic deregulates chrononormativity to introuce a gap that is not necessarily a life-changing event—but is not entirely meaningless either. . . . Perhaps the chronic isn’t even as tuned to the future as Berlant and Puar might have it. Perhaps, in its defective chronicity, the chronic is as much a ‘would not’ as a ‘would’” (148).4 Freeman dances into a space between positivity and negativity, a space an earlier moment of critical theory called the neutral, but which Freeman revises as “chronocatachresis.”5 A “‘perverse’ deregulation of time,” a tweaking or twerking of normative social rhythms until they give way not to cozy pleasure but to a dizzying gap in the mesh of discipline and biopower. It’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and orgies on the hypersocial queer dance floor. Sometimes there’s vertigo, sometimes there’s panic and pain.

Perhaps this is what I find most alluring in Beside You in Time, not the obviously utopian thrills but the moments when the distinction between pain and pleasure comes undone. Freeman revises Frederic Jameson’s mantra that “history is what hurts” to something more ambiguous: history hurts, yes, but history hurts not just because it names the limit to human praxis but because it marks the transitional zone between one libidinal economy and another.6 In other words, history’s what happens when you no longer even know what you enjoy, because you’ve encountered something so intense, so unsettling, that it exposes how fragile your way of life really is. This reshaping of libidinal economy occurs in the chapter on the trope of playing dead in nineteenth-century African American literature, as Freeman explains how the “chronothanatopolitics” of racism involves not only the consignment of black life to death but also the reconstruction of sociality through forms of relation that sidestep the parameters of the human. In distinction to Afropessimism, Freeman sees the social death of slavery and its afterlife not as a void (the foreclosure of blackness from being, to paraphrase Frank Wilderson III) but as something like a condition through which society itself comes to be reworked on terms other than the cloying promises of liberal humanism.7 Although its subject is very different, Freeman’s final chapter, on Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, also considers the kinds of social rhythms that open up in the blur between pleasure and pain. Freeman reads the spirituality of Nightwood—its troping on the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism—as “an erotics of counterhistory,” one which moves beyond the antisocial thesis in queer theory to formulate a “radically corporealized relationality, an inhabitation by and of the other rather than a self-shattering” (168). From this perspective, the self’s dispersion negates neither futurity nor sociality but instead imagines a self whose borders are porous, meaning that the self composes itself out of the other’s touch. This picture isn’t necessarily a rosy one. Getting intimately involved in another’s life is just as likely to leave a bruise as to result in harmony. The chapter finds the perfect metaphor for this warning in Rosa and Nora’s “shared susceptibility to being eaten by the same creature [a dog]”: the queering of rhythm might imply a togetherness that bursts open the individualism of the regime of sexuality, but it might also imply the future eating you up—the extinction of the self, the arrival of some untested relation (185).

“Of course, the world continues to end.” Offill represents the apocalypse in chronic terms, imagining it not as an event but as a rolling condition. I began writing this essay when my anxiety antennae were more attuned to climate change than COVID-19. I’m finishing it under lockdown conditions, when (at least for me) sociality has become contracted to Zoom sessions and immediate family. The one situation hasn’t eclipsed the other, but it has made it more difficult to envision alternatives to the status quo. Isn’t it hard enough to shore up the system we’ve got, as it buckles under the pressure of a global emergency? Shouldn’t we just focus on saving society from total collapse? On the other hand, Offill and Freeman suggest that in the midst of pain and suffering, we might still be able to imagine different rhythms for life. In fact, we might have to. Collapse isn’t an opportunity—unless your Offill’s “young-techno optimist guy”—but it is a condition that tests the limits of our taken-for-granted modes of existence. The otherness that’s infected this moment has already reshaped society and it will continue to do so, meaning that the question that faces us is not whether things will change but how they will. I wonder if we might begin to shape the direction of this change by gathering up queer rhythms and off-kilter social beats, by turning the world into a more complicated kind of dance floor, in which heretic histories and perverse futures bump and grind in unexpected ways.


  1. Elizabeth Freeman, Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). All further citations are parenthetical in body of essay.

  2. See, respectively, Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33.4 [2007] 754–80); and Jasbir Puar, “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility and Capacity,” Women and Performance 19.2 (2009) 161–72.

  3. See especially José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009) but also, more recently, Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

  4. In this respect, Freeman echoes the ethos of Jack Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

  5. See especially Maurice Blanchot, Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), and Roland Barthes, The Neutral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

  6. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 102.

  7. Frank Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

Response

Methods of Feeling

Pope.L is best known for performance art like The Great White Way: 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–2009), in which he crawled up Broadway in a Superman cape, retracing indigenous paths through Manahatta. In Whispering Campaign, for the exhibition Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel (2017), he used whispers in place of crawls to haunt public space. As visitors like myself roamed Kassel’s public square, various myths, proverbs, and songs spoken in English, German, and Greek buzzed through the air, catching us off guard. Near the courthouse was a rolling cart and atop it a megaphone that amplified the prerecorded whispers; a sheet of office paper taped to the cart served as museum label, listing artist, title, and materials: “nation, people, sentiment, language, time.” A private genre and breathy style of speech, in which the confidential shades into the conspiratorial, whispers typically gesture toward the cloak-and-dagger wing of political theater. But given its conceptual materials, Whispering Campaign is more of a meditation on today’s redistribution of the sensible; the political statements once unheard (of) are now audible to all, as dog whistles have been dropped in favor if bullhorns. Such was the disquietude generated by Whispering Campaign’s soundscape of open secrecy—a disquietude attributable to the whispers and, more so, to their duration or seriality. The acoustic playback loop of whispered myth and song doubled as a time loop, tuning visitors to the violences of political belonging (nation, people, language, sentiment) by timing them to the recursive rhythms of history itself. Whispering Campaign was an act of temporal dislocation at the individually variable yet collectively shared level of affect and perception.

Whispering Campaign proleptically responds to a key question posed by Elizabeth Freeman’s dazzling new book Beside You in Time: With our internal clocks set to liberal fantasies of progressive futures, how does it feel to be beside rather than beyond the past? Answering this question means exploring the phenomenology of historical time, the embodied experience of extending into time “from out of a particular past” (15). Building on Time Binds (2010), Beside You in Time engages queer asynchrony—a dissidence aslant chrononormativity, the process of disposing bodies toward a linear straight temporality—at the nexus of biopolitics and aesthetics. Hailed by the playful accretion of adjectives in Freeman’s phrase the “very long nineteenth century,” it tells a story about sex that unfolds between the sheets of Foucauldian discipline: the eighteenth-century consolidation of the body into a site of knowledge and the early twentieth-century sexual typologies anchored by the figure of the homosexual. Here, chrononormativity imposes bodily constraints but occasions fleshy, if fleeting, freedoms. Handling varyingly queer subjects that refuse or are placed outside of normative kinship, the market, and/or biological reproduction, Freeman tarries with a set of flights from temporal regimes: the Shakers turn celibacy into a dance, a rhythmnanalysis that contests the forward pull of heterosexual coupling; ex-slaves like Harriet Jacobs practice thanatomimesis (playing dead) to reorient fugitivity not around futurity but the “coiling” of life and death; the autoerotic and mediumistic pleasures of Pauline Hopkins’s and Mark Twain’s speculative histories wield erotohistoriography to resist the teleological tug of historical time; the directionless characters of Melville’s Bartleby and Stein’s Melanctha enact chronocatachresis, as their “chronic” refusals and repetitions misuse capitalist time; and the queer ecstasies of Catholic ritual in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood point us toward sacra/mentality, a radically corporeal relation to otherness that unspools secular time and disorders the self. Between early US anatamopolitics and modern biopower, not even the discourses that sexualized and racialized time could foreclose the queer syncopations of uncoupled, unproductive, and nonreproductive bodies.

This brief sketch hopefully captures the exciting aesthetic and conceptual juxtapositions at the heart of Beside You in Time. What I would like to tease out here are the broad implications of the heuristic powering these juxtapositions: sense-methods, defined by Freeman as a “visceral, haptic, proprioceptic mode of apprehension” (8). Consisting of “bodywork, of inarticulated or unspoken, carnal forms of knowledge, intervention, and affiliation inhabited and performed either in groups or on behalf of them,” sense-methods are ways of knowing that, contra Locke, begin and end with the body (10). In an era preoccupied with the question of sexual knowledge, sense-methods register an epistemology of intimacy rather than secrecy (to riff: an epistemology of the close). The historical emergence of sense as method is a revelation in and of itself, and my interest duly lies in the object of these sense-methods: narratives of performance. It is important that the performances Freeman excavates are not theatrical performances, like the exhibitions that Daphne Brooks and Britt Rusert have shown were central arenas of black freedom work. In complementary fashion, Freeman limns different challenges to temporal discipline by pivoting from the spectacular to the quotidian—a Goffmanian ilk of performance that includes habit, ritual, touch, gesture, and kinesis. And further, she turns to those everyday embodied performances documented or fictionalized in prose, from slave narratives and the journalistic Shaker archive to the modernist novel. I would love to hear more from the author about the relationship between queer quotidian performance and prose forms. Might the temporality of sense-methods be described as, well, prosaic? Can we attribute to these performances a temporality distinct from the lyric or epic time of poetry? Does performance internally torque the prose (which typically adopts a temporality linear in shape and chrononormative in effect) mediating it? How do the entangled temporalities of genre and performance in American letters volley, to varying degrees, between the phenomenological and the biopolitical registers of lived embodiment?

With embodied performance a key site of “carnal knowledge,” sense-methods powerfully reshuffles our stories about feeling in the (very long) nineteenth century. Beside You in Time recognizes that sentiment is the starting point for any discussion about the feeling body, but it fruitfully redirects that critical trajectory. To be sure, Americanists are not wanting for robust accounts of feeling’s entanglement with discipline; Laura Wexler, Dana Luciano, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Kyla Schuller, and many others have persuasively argued that sentimental discourse, epistemology, and biopower uphold taxonomies of gender, race, and class. Freeman detaches feeling from sentiment, which in turn makes space for the “small-scale techniques” that may discipline bodies but that nonetheless comprise phenomenologies of time (18). Sense-methods as much as sympathy are a connective tissue, for as Freeman explains they “may be aimed at subjectification but may produce a small-scale collective consciousness instead of an individual, interiorized subjectivity” (8). Aslant the “formal” feelings of sentiment, “informal sense-methods can effect any number of social possibilities” that “do not always refer to or result in a stable social form but instead move, with and against, dominant timings and times” (12). Those unstable, untimely social forms constitute hypersociability, Freeman’s term for a queer relationality driven “toward connectivity, conjugations, and coalescence” across (discarded) pasts, (impossible) presents, and (speculative) futures. Hypersociability brings into view collectivities that are as magnetic as they are minor. And so where sentiment situates people either “in” or “out” of identitarian social formations (ex: America, women), sense-methods work on the model of the assemblage, offering a sphere of multiplicity. Based in sensation, queer hyperosciability reorganizes the social field into a set of profound but itinerant connections, like the squeeze of a hand. What holds people together can be a political goal, but it can also be the holding itself.

Sense-methods, in other words, tell a story of queer asynchrony that is less about subjectivity, via the internalized disciplining of feeling, and instead about subjective experiences (feelings) of historical time. But what I find so compelling about Beside You in Time is that it practices the sense-methods it preaches. Social horizontality or hypersociability is not simply a historical object but, as the book’s title hints, a methodology too. Academic book titles typically feature gerunds, verbs that act like nouns, because they transpose action (suspended in an ongoing present) into an object of inquiry. Freeman instead announces her project with a preposition, a noun that expresses relations, and further, one that registers a horizontal relation: beside. This besideness is both a historical practice and an organizing logic. The gains are significant, for theorizing sense-methods illuminates social practices that we might not have seen. In Nightwood’s velvety story of sexual outcasts, for instance, ecstatic rapture is a scene of temporal rupture, connecting varyingly “inhuman” bodies past and present. Indeed, Freeman’s book helps me understand anew Emily Dickinson’s poetic practices as a form of queer hypersociability (she knew that cosmic connections flourish in nooks and crannies). But more than mine the hypersociability of specific performances, Freeman makes hypersociability available between specific performances. In Pauline Hopkins’s novel Of One Blood, the black “body’s sensorium [is] a way of transmitting and receiving history,” of bringing Afro-diasporic people into temporal collocation (116). Who joins Hopkins in eroticizing time travel? Mark Twain. Sense-methods produce their own queer couplings. Erotohistoriography is how A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Of One Blood converge—Hank Morgan desires to be touched by the past, while Dianthe Lusk’s magnetic energy sutures slavery’s severed kinship ties—even as they diverge in obvious ways. That these time-travelers manage to become travel companions shows how “small-scale temporal coincidences between bodies” operate within and between literary objects, and how sense-methods as such hold people, no matter how strange bedfellows they may be, together (161).

But there’s more. In addition to unlocking hypersociability in the past, Freeman takes up besideness as its own hypersocial critical method. Beside You in Time keeps company with Erin Manning, Jose Muñoz, and Lindsay Reckson, among other scholars, who explore the aesthetics and politics of being beside, being alongside, and being with, but who also ask us to consider besideness as what Reckson calls a “critical comportment” attuned to the ethics of encounter (Realist Ecstasy, 18). In her chapter on slave narratives and thanatomimesis, for instance, Freeman turns questions about the duration of “life” and “death” into a point of contact between two bodies of critical thought. Placing debates within queer theory (anti-social theory and hyper-social theory) and debates within black studies (Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism) beside each other, putting the two in touch without reducing one to the other, reproduces the hypersociability enacted by the literature itself, and it exquisitely lays out a flexible framework for understanding the historical and ontological itinerancies of race and sex. By placing not simply authors and actors but fields beside each other, Freeman’s book develops a critical body that adopts intimacy, rather than disinterest, as an epistemological vehicle; all thinking is a thinking with, a form of fellowship.

And here I happily find myself beside Freeman. Sense-methods attune us to an alternate model of feeling—not emotion to be regulated but raw sensation that has value in and of itself—that emerged in the nineteenth century, and they consequently dovetail with a story about feeling not directly told in Beside You in Time. That adjacent story (in my forthcoming book Sensory Experiments) is about the re-enlivening of bodily sensation as the material of knowledge-making, elemental to experience and existence. This development was sparked by a short-lived experimental science called psychophysics, the immediate precursor to experimental psychology and foundational to James’s radical empiricism. Bridging science and philosophy, psychophysics sought to solve the evergreen mind/body problem by quantifying gradations of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Advancing the materiality and subjective reality of sense experience, it had a profound impact on how we grasp “minor” feelings: it shifted feeling from moral philosophy to an early phenomenology; it reorganized aesthetics around sensory experience (rather than ideals like “the good”), which Gustav Fechner called aesthetics from below; and it yielded a “grassroots” epistemology that deemed bodily sensation no mere springboard for lofty abstraction but the locus of immanent cognition, which Hermann von Helmholtz called aesthetic induction. Psychophysics thus goes some way in explaining the transformation of sense into a method, a way of knowing and acting in the world. When Freeman eloquently states that “sense-methods do not necessarily operate from the top down,” she is elaborating a version of “aesthetic induction” and “aesthetics from below” (12). Carnal knowledge is also a style of feeling! The science behind these sense-methods point us to an embodied epistemology and aesthetics (aesthesis, we might say), as well as to the rhizomatic social configurations that move athwart chrononormative orders.

Beside You in Time does nothing short of helping us think the history of feeling anew. It is a history that leads from psychophysics while usefully leaving behind the Aristotelian five-sense canon that psychophysics had reinforced; Freeman considers instead alternate sensations of being in and out of time, like proprioception (a sense “discovered” in the late-nineteenth century). Beside You in Time has certainly helped me rethink the status of time in my own project. In thinking with Freeman, it seems that sense methods are ways for minoritized subjects to hold space for “fugitive intervals,” defined by William Connolly as the pause between a sense perception and its cultural organization. Take, for instance, Freeman’s stunning analysis of Harriet Jacobs’s Narrative in the Life of a Slave Girl, namely Linda Brent’s efforts to elude her owner by “playing dead” for seven torturous years in a garret. These efforts serve to “interlace” the “social and social death,” as Brent’s “willingness to mime [death] and then to escape it” constitutes a “critical chronothanatopolitics—a kind of horizontal and repetitive moment between states of being rather than, as with haunting and melancholia, a vertical movement back in time” (67). By temporally suspending family through thanatomimesis, Brent rejects the permanence of social death as well as future-facing, humanist definitions of “life.” In the ungovernable break or fugitive interval when subjectification is a probable but not a predetermined outcome of sensation, those whose futurity and existence have been deemed impossible creatively use their bodies to turn that impossibility into alternate (hypersocial) forms of timekeeping. This is just one of many examples of how Freeman’s book motivates me to rethink psychophysical feelings “from below” as a way of making time, for oneself and for one other.

Scaling down subjective experience to the micro-level of perception, Beside You in Time bespeaks a psychophysics of feeling that neither subordinates the body-subject’s phenomenological complexity to biopolitics nor downplays the impact of biopolitics on lived embodiment. For me, what thrills most of all is Freeman’s insistence on lingering in the fitful intimacy of the phenomenological and the disciplinary—that insuperable tension between the practices that inscribe power into sensory experiences and the sensory experiences that generate embodied contestations of such practices. Body techniques that glancingly appear as minute have powerful social implications that cannot be reduced to biopolitics. The Shakers used rhythm as a method, though they did not use the rhythm method (sorry, irresistible joke), for queering sex. Their regularized dance steps were one of many performances that “may be produced within by, and even for, a biopolitical project but . . . do not necessarily serve it at all times” (8). Performance, then, is the hinge upon which phenomenological body-subjects and discursive power/knowledge swing into and away from each other, as sense-methods are the valve that somewhat release the body from chrononormative pressure. The beauty of Beside You in Time is that it registers governmentality’s relentless drive inward and forward while retaining focus on the sense-methods developed to feel time, with others, otherwise—such was the case when Pope.L’s whispers drew me back into Western history. And now as we try to endure the plotless temporality of the Covid-19 pandemic, the gift of Beside You in Time is that it equips us with a vocabulary to articulate what it feels like to be out of sync as we grope for new “conjugations and coalescences” beyond the confines of past/present/future. Discipline may be the dance partner we can’t refuse, but in the common time of that two-step we find sense-methods that will help us, as Freeman (with Taylor Swift) says, “shake it off.”

Response

And Renunciation

And what if we have it all wrong? What if the content and direction of our collective desire needs to be interrogated, choreosonically recalibrated?

I have been thinking about the ways renunciation is a project, perhaps the project, of Western thought, renouncing relation in the service of the normative. And reading Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American 19th Century by Elizabeth Freeman gave me a way to really think about whiteness as the renunciation of the social, about the normative in its now white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal mouthful of words and meaning as the relinquishing of plural temporalities and directionalities. Movement and sound together. It is important, I think, to get this precise, what whiteness—which is an articulation of normativity and its attendant violence—is.

This book claims that the sense of time is instrumental to becoming social in an expansive mode I call a queer hypersociability, and that time is itself a mode of engroupment for both dominant and subordinated human energies. (17)

The sense of time. Time, then, in Freeman’s work is not a thing that precedes our social world but, and rather, time is articulation of the flesh—its motor behaviors and responses, its sinews and musculature, its blood and guts and the processes that allow for its movement—and the thought practices and narrativity about the flesh and its movement and rhythm. I note this because what is expanded upon, without direct remark, is how the time of Western thought and its practices are produced through the renunciation of multidirectional temporalities.

The time of Western thought is a kind of “creation” of disorder, but such disorder is merely the time that does not function in the service of the political economy of racial capitalism and its structure. The political economy of racial capitalism and its order emerges from genocide, colonial expansion, the erasure of indigeneity and the establishment of antiblack racism as ongoing engines that produce the time of this moment. And after the creation of the concept of a disordered time, the racialization of it. So, for example, “the African polyrhythms incorporated into slave music—surely in this new context even more connected to life and survival than they might have been before—modulated the work rhythms of slavery, texturing and giving form to, rather than rupturing, the extended duration of the workday” (77) could simultaneously be purported evidence of the lack of order while also ostensibly being evidence of happiness and contentment with the conditions of violence under which forced labor occurred. All this, however, rather than considering polyrhythms to be the practice of order as variance, order as plentitude, order as irreducibly changing. Such that the violence of Western thought is in how the very disorder it “creates” by racializing polyrhythmic practice is also then incorporated into the epistemology to extend the reach of its violence.

Let’s think with Freeman about the Shaker communities. I was part of a working group that discussed the Shaker community, particularly in New Lebanon, New York, from fall 2018 until spring 2019. I was fascinated by the idea of renunciation, too, with them, of the purported pleasures of the flesh in terms of explicit modalities for sex and sexuality, production and reproduction, in the service of a different kind of living in community with others. I was moved by the idea that they might give up, abstain from, sex with hopes of a world to come being performed by their nonperformance. And if a world to come, through the renouncing of sexual pleasure, they then brought that world to their here, their now moment.

The Shakers made furniture and the furniture—the chairs and desks and dressers and baskets—is considered to be Americana. They wrote songs that I sang in elementary school, like “Simple Gifts,” without even knowing it.

And they danced. It’s their choreography that Freeman thinks with, and here too, I will attempt a reply.

They danced their way out of genital sex and into embodied, holy communion with one another and with God. Originally, this involved erratic and spontaneous movements and dissonant singing: the earliest Shakers danced, sang, and chanted in groups, but each dancer moved according to individual whims, creating what looked to outsiders like chaos. (29)

Chaos is the condition of our inheritance, the condition of our enfleshed, creaturely reality. It is the desire to not live with but to renounce chaos, like a timed practice of order, that is the occasion for harm and violence. Because what is done is the racialization, the gendering, the sexing of chaos as incoherence and, in such a grouping of categorical distinctions as identity markers for ways to be excluded from the concept of the human, then the renouncing of chaos and the people that have come to mark the chaotic. It’s not that we aren’t all a small bit of chaos and the chaotic—the vulnerability and fragility of our creaturely existence in an equally vulnerable and fragile ecology of earthen things—but that some come to disclaim it. And this is produced in and through, and propagated by, the juridical, the theological, the philosophical.

The timing of the choreosonic Shaker bodies was off, but this offness would only be ascribed to it by a world, a political economy, of settler colonialism and antiblack racism, that renounced the possibility of movement neither being on or off the beat. Definite articles in language are important here. Because to talk about the beat against polyrhythmic intention and possibility is to renounce relation to multiplicity in the service of the one, the only one. So when I say they were off rhythm it is only naming a kind of epistemological horizon that is itself the problem of our thinking, a problem against the flourishing of our imaginative capacities.

Freeman quotes V. Rathbun’s description of the Shakers’ out-of-time, asynchronous—or their temporality otherwise—dancing and singing. He was disturbed by their practice and, as such, described it with precision:

They begin by sitting down, and shaking their heads, in a violent manner, turning their heads half round, so that their face looks over each shoulder, their eyes being shut; while they are thus shaking, one will begin to sing some odd tune, without words or rule; after a while another will strike in; then another; and after a while they all fall in, and make a strange charm: —some singing without words, and some with an unknown tongue or mutter; some in a mixture of English: the mother, so called, minds to strike such notes as make a concord, and so form the charm. When they leave off singing, they drop off, one by one, as oddly as they come on; in the best part of their worship, everyone acts for himself, and almost everyone different from the other. (32)

Freeman describes this as their “(mis)timing that fails to produce proper adhesion between people, multiplying difference rather than consolidating sameness” (32). But I am interested in how the Shakers did not long remain with (mis)timing and I think renunciation has a lot to offer. “The Shakers responded to the accusations that they were oversexed, disorderly savages who threatened the nation by introducing rhythmic regularity for which they are now best known” (39).

It is not, in and of itself, the rhythmic or the regularity that is the practice of renunciation but the way it is produced as a means to be incorporable into the body politic. The racialization of the Shakers as difference because of their refused regularity became an occasion to think with and against the constrictions that produce whiteness, a constriction produced by the renunciation of regularity and rhythm. What if they’d remained with everyone different from the other as Rathbun offered while also making space for rhythm and regularity being another occasion for, rather than the replacement of, difference?

The rhythmic regularity for the Shakers is the renunciation of what precedes with hopes of being incorporable into the structures of whiteness; it is a process of relinquishment with the hopes of being deemed normal and somehow normative. We must remember, really, that the practice of racialization was and is a practice, it is ongoing and changing and constantly emerging. Whiteness was not in the time of the Shaker dance movements constituted but was always on the way to being constructed. Targeting the flesh and its dance was another way to articulate what was not yet settled. And still remains unsettled. Such that their renunciation and relinquishment never gave the promise of being included but widened the capacity for what counted as that which can be targeted for exclusion from the body politic, its political economy. The same happened with the polyrhythmic drive of enslaved Africans, those multimodal rhythms being incorporated into work time. But can this incorporability be refused?

In Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, I talk about a concept I call the choreosonic, the idea that choreography does not happen without sound and that sonicity does not happen without movement. I attempted, there, to discuss the ways choreography as categorically distinct from and the pure difference of sonicity itself emerges from the settler colonial antiblack racist epistemological horizon of Western thought. The choreosonic is not produced by or the result of racialization as a biogenic fact but is a practice that emerges from refusing to sever sound from movement.

Such that what I sense with the Shakers, in the way Freeman discusses them, is that they were given to choreosonic possibility but relinquished and gave up the choreosonic for the presumed division and categorical distinction to be incorporable into the in-processual whiteness even when it failed at its aims. What Freeman’s text allows me to state, with more emphasis, is that whiteness is aim, aspiration, not a fixed thing one can claim. To claim whiteness, then, is to claim the practice of renunciation of the social. And to claim whiteness as property, as legal theorist Cheryl Harris elaborated for us, whiteness as property, too, demonstrates how land is taken and excavated for possessive individualism, for the creation of the private sphere. This is a renunciation of care for the earth as communal practice and process. Shaker dancing, even if occurring in public, became private property through regulation and timeliness and the practice of order against the flourishing of multiple difference.

But like a dance, let’s pivot. “Like slaves, Shakers were socially dead insofar as their kinship forms were legally meaningless, though Shakers as a whole did not suffer the destruction of these forms in the way that slaves did” (48). Perhaps social death—in the way Orlando Patterson discusses it in his Slavery and Social Death—is also a problem of directional desire, a thinking of whiteness not as relinquishment and, thus, as aim and aspiration, but as achievement. Yet I wonder: Is there the possibility to resist social death as an ideology? And what if, if possible, we resisted the ideology as an organizing principle? Can a rethinking of the direction of our desire help us understand what social death gets imprecise because it is a directional problem? This, too, is what Freeman’s text allows me think about with more focus.

When discussing folktales of black social life, the concept of “playing dead” that Freeman finds in African American literature, she states that she does not “accept[s] neither the permanence of social death nor the consolations of white humanism and the latter’s commitment to what it designates as a life” (54). It is this refusal to accept the permanace of the concept that I find generative for my own thinking about relinquishment of dissidence in the service of the normative, generative for my own thinking about renunciation of the social in the service of becoming a possessive individual. The refusal of the permanence of a concept, like the choreosonic plie, a move and move away, a spin and thrust and kick, when I dip, you dip, we dip. Or shouting like a good Blackpentecostal, dancing and shaking off to get happy.

Orlando Patterson’s elaboration of the slave position posits natal alienation and general dishonor as two important rubrics by which social death obtains. One is dead to the social precisely because one cannot be included in it. Patterson understands the interruption of kinship through the law as the interruption for slave personhood. Freeman expands upon this by stating, “slaves’ family ties were used by owners to enmesh them further into captivity rather than to bestow liveliness and humanity on them” (62). But I wonder, and have hinted in Blackpentecostal Breath about this wondering, what if the juridical is not the only way, or even the most urgent even if certainly violent and in need of remediation way, to understand relation? On the one hand, the peculiar institution had to recognize a mode of relationality that the juridical could neither give nor withhold in order for the ongoing separation of kith and kin to be the violation and violence that it certainly was. The juridical had to have a sense for the very thing it would refuse to recognize as legally binding, as contractual, as life. But this is the problem of renunciation, not the problem of a general absence of the concept. The gift of constant escape is also the escape of the epistemology that overrepresents itself, to riff on both Fred Moten and Sylvia Wynter. What is escaped is the juridical overrepresenting itself as the only means by which kith and kin could be understood.

“Cast out of humanity by European Americans, enslaved African Americans were also cast out of what counted as history” (87). I think here, too, recalibrating to think the distinction between being cast out of and being in renounced relation to can be instructive. Was there a coherent concept of the European America from which those that would eventually be called black could be cast out? If we rethink direction, the serration of the choreographic from the sonic, perhaps we can ask instead how is the process of the cohering of European American identity grounded in renouncing relation to those that would eventually be called black? The structural position in Afropessimism that casts the slave-as-black outside humanity would have needed to be a coherent idea before the possibility of casting out.

The structural position is a useful metaphor but does not account for the process of the emergence of the idea of an America, of an American. Rethinking directionality of our desire would allow for what Freeman considers to be necessary, to refuse to submit or “cede to liberal humanism.” And with the juridical, and a rethinking of the direction of our desire, it is for me more sensed in the ways that the black and the slave, in Afropessimist parlance, is not the unthought but is the presence that makes the epistemology possible. This is not unthought but a very meticulous elaboration attempting to name and, after naming renouncing, and after renouncing, dispensing with difference.

But to return to the beginning, to the plot and scene of the crime, Freeman wants to think about queerness as hypersociability happening in time, in the striving for normative temporalities. This hypersociability occurs, it seems to me, because of the relinquishment and renunciation of the social. It is not, in other words, that queerness is a biological fact or a social purity. It is that the practice of queerness is targeted as queerness precisely because some of us refuse to renounce and relinquish relations that would come to be considered off time, nonproductive, a kind of passivity that might disallow incorporation into the American grammar. In a modulation, I’d say it is that the practice of blackness is targeted as blackness precisely because some of us refuse to renounce and relinquish relations that would come to be considered off the beat, polyrhythmic intention, as choreosonic verve and force and drive that might disallow incorporation into the grammar of Man.

So the question that remains to be elaborated, to be thought, is this: is there a method by which we can refuse to renounce relation collectively in our global age that presumes identity as biogenic, epigenetic fact? What will we become if we attempt such a refusal? Can we allow blackness, queerness, blackqueerness, to gift us the occasion for such thought?

Response

Responses

Let me begin by saying I’m grateful to have had four such thoughtful scholars engage with Beside You in Time at a historical moment when getting anything done feels well-nigh impossible. A thousand thank yous for these generous responses, to Kadji Amin, Ashon Crawley, Erica Fretwell, and Christian Haines, and thanks also to Nathan Snaza for such good editorial work.

When I started thinking seriously about the project that became Beside You in Time, I had no idea that the question of “synchrony” versus “asynchrony,” and the political and social possibilities each might foster or thwart, would end up as the pedagogical one it has become in 2020. Overwhelmingly, I hear that students with the means to participate in synchronous classroom sessions—students with stable wifi, their own hardware, and some privacy—wish to do so. Synchrony produces the sensation of engroupment, belonging, and connectivity: this is why it feels good, and why moving and acting in concert has been useful for both liberatory and reactionary projects, as both recent Black Lives Matter protests and Trump rallies have shown. Pedagogically, asynchronous learning appeals to students who prefer to learn at their own pace or need to do so because of disabilities, or who have limited access to wifi, hardware, and/or a dedicated learning space. But asynchrony, which I have certainly privileged in my own work, also produces the sensation of freedom and improvisation; it can free a learner from the chrononormative expectations of showing up on time, speaking immediately when called upon, and taking tests in lockstep with others. At the same time, asynchrony can also be lonely and demotivating, which is suggested by the extremely low completion rate for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that rely on asynchronous instruction and automatic grading (Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente 2019). Many of us wonder: is asynchronous learning a “renunciation of the social,” in Ashon Crawley’s memorable phrase about whiteness? Or does it open up plural temporalities, making classes more heterogeneous because more accessible, less predictable, more of a choose-your-own-adventure, more polyrhythmic? But a more important question might be this: must the question of synchrony vs. asynchrony be parsed in terms of a liberatory payoff, as Kadji Amin’s pointed critique of my introduction asks?

I think it is worth considering Amin’s point that temporal deviance, being neither consistently “on” nor “off” the beats imposed by biopolitics, by the dictates of capitalist productivity, and/or by institutions, does not automatically produce “erotic pleasure, queer collectivities, and progressive politics,” in Amin’s words. Temporal deviance is indeed also potentially as lonely and disconnecting as Melville’s Bartleby (1856 [1979]) curled up against a prison wall, or Henry Bibb (1850 [2001]) ultimately renouncing his family for the sake of a more abstract freedom. We could go the Lee Edelman (2004) route and say that the anti-sociability produced by some forms of asynchrony is, itself, the only proper (non)politics, a “constructive negativity,” in Christian Haines’s phrase about countertemporality as always engaged with failure. But I think I am most interested in how people negotiate the movement between the social and the anti- or asocial, in their production of what Haines calls “the transitional zone between one libidinal economy and another.” For bodies, aggregated and disaggregated as they move in time and move time in new directions, produce new libidinal economies whose direction, import, and spread are uninevitable and undetermined. For example, one has to spend only fifteen minutes on TikTok to witness how these moving memes, brief and often frenetic videos circulating unpredictably and accruing layers of inside jokes, have given rise to both hard-right and hard-left youth communities (Epp 2020; Lorenz 2020). What do multiply-viewed TikTok videos forwarded and modified make? We’re not sure yet, but it’s not nothing.

As these responses clarify, Beside You in Time does not focus on technologically-mediated communities, but, especially given its nineteenth-century context, on embodied performances, albeit performances mediated or “told” by narrative literature. As Erica Fretwell’s response helps me understand, there is a “besideness” to this prosaic mediation as well, a proximity of teller to told that nonetheless neither merges the two, as lyric time conventionally strives to do with its speakers and objects of address, nor separates them into a present and a time beyond living memory, as with epic time. Performance—its witness and telling—and the tendency of the narrator to want to join the performance, can produce interesting experiments in prose: the clearest example of this in Beside You in Time is probably Stein’s story “Melanctha,” whose narrator moves in and out of Melanctha’s consciousness, reiterating her stylistic tics and then distancing her by producing her speech as dialect while the narrator’s own remains unmarked. A “besideness” in the time of the narrator and Melanctha, one might say, produces a besideness in both embodiment and aesthetics. But the more privileged subject in an encounter can, in Crawley’s central term, always renounce this proximity—as Crawley recognizes, the Shakers did indeed buy whiteness with a renunciation of both the polyrhythmic and the polymorphously social aspects of their liturgy.

As I hope Beside You in Time and these remarks have shown, I’m committed to the social, but these responses are a salutary reminder that the social can be violent, renunciatory, disaffiliating, and “stuck,” and not just a scene of connectivity and merger. It is the intensities of encounter that compel me, perhaps, more than their outcomes. And as I hope Beside You in Time’s historical frame-breaking coda on Amiri Baraka’s “Rhythm Travel” suggests, I would not divide temporal eccentricity into the recalcitrant time of race and the productive time of queerness: Baraka’s story is precisely one of being “beside rather than beyond the past,” in Fretwell’s words, of refusing to renounce proximity to the history that both hurts and quickens the senses. Invoking Afropessimism, Afro-optimism, and Afro-Futurism, Fretwell writes that “in the ungovernable break or fugitive interval when subjectification is a probable but not a predetermined outcome of sensation, those whose futurity and existence have been deemed impossible creatively use their bodies to turn that impossibility into alternate (hypersocial) forms of timekeeping.” It’s the creativity that compels me. Crawley’s reminder that we must not renounce the relationality of being in multiple temporalities together; Haines’s invocation of “the shiver that runs through bodies as they struggle to turn hope into reality”; Amin’s helpful warning against the lure of forward-moving payoff; Fretwell’s reminder that the act of holding people together can be a political goal in and of itself: these are beautiful formulations of what I had in mind when I wrote Beside You in Time. Neither entirely stuck nor entirely free, sensing bodies and the subjects and collectivities that may or may not emerge from them are perpetually on the verge. I hope that our classrooms, our students, our improvisations with Zoom and Slack and whatever else we are using to foster togetherness and apartness, are on the verge as well.

 

Works Cited

Bibb, Henry. (1850) 2001. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb. New York: Published by the Author. Reprinted in 2001 as The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Epp, Julian. 2020. “#SocialismSucks: Trump’s TikTok Teens.” Dissent. Online: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/socialismsucks-trumps-tiktok-teens.

Lorenz, Taylor. 2020. “The Political Pundits of the Future Are on Tiktok.” New York Times. February 27. Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/style/tiktok-politics-bernie-trump.html.

Melville, Herman. (1853) 1979. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” In Billy Budd and Other Tales, 103–40. New York: Penguin.

Reich, Justin, and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente. 2019. “The MOOC Pivot: What Happened to Disruptive Transformation of Education?” Science 363 (6423): 130–31.

Stein, Gertrude. (1909) 2000. “Melanctha: Each One as She May.” In Three Lives, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, 87–187. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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