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  • "What Time We Kiss":Michael Field's Queer Temporalities
  • Kate Thomas (bio)

Love, shall we triumph that our lips will touch
            When there are no more years,
Or rather that we press Soul's heart to heart
            What time we kiss?

—Michael Field, "The Blesse of Immortalitie"

I begin with a retro gesture. Over ten years ago, considerations of the critical category of queer theorized it as a moment and complicated the business of retrospection itself. In 1993 Judith Butler outlined her vision for queer as a "point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings," and she emphasized the "temporality of the term."1 She was invoking "queer" as a temporary critical category, useful in the now, and in its relationship to past and future, but by no means a stable, eternally durable term. It is a term that may be, she warned, transient—and it is certainly transitive: part of the creativity of queer lies in its ability to imagine seemingly impossible futures and tangle seemingly fixed time lines. If it is queer to cross ages, it is also peculiarly queer, perhaps, to get lost in the process of crossing. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, writing in the same year, called queer "an immemorial current . . . relational and strange."2 To be immemorial is to be so old as to be immortal; it is also to be beyond memory, beyond origin, or "out of time."

These decade-old reflections on queer time are revisited in our present through a flurry of interest among Anglo-American queer theorists in temporality. This revival may be prompted by the tempo of tabloidesque inquiries about whether queer theory is over, past, post. It may be prompted by good old-fashioned fin de siècle epistemic reflection. It is certainly inflected by the contradictions of a time of "progress" for queer politics, about whose progressiveness many are [End Page 327] dubious, a time accompanied by rollbacks and regressions in the form of renewed homophobias. This scholarship is marked by a drive to detail cross-temporalities and to explain why we should not be taken in by the easy temporality on which ideas like progress (and regress) rely. If there has been a shift in queer scholarship, it is a shift in which work on queer history has been joined by work on queer historiography. And from this pairing history emerges as a supple, slippery, and infinitely changeable relational set of interactions. Carolyn Dinshaw, whose 1999 book Getting Medieval is one of the earlier and most ample and generative examples of this work, describes her project as "about making relations with the past."3 Along with other scholars like Christopher Nealon, Heather Love, and Jonathan Goldberg, she writes to make apparent "affective communities . . . across time" (GM, 12). This work turns gracefully from attempts to make history explain lesbian and gay lives and bodies to what Nealon calls the "other project," the project of "making lesbian and gay bodies illuminate history."4 What catches my eye—or, as I explore later, my ear—most particularly is the emergent notion that as we were historicizing sexuality, we realized the sexualizing power of history and feeling historical.

This essay draws together inaugural and contemporary queer theoretical preoccupations with temporality by focusing on two late-nineteenth-century lesbian poets whose writing is structured by complex adjudications of time and era. Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913) wrote together under the name of Michael Field. They regarded their life and their poetry as an immortal art and the age in which they wrote and loved as conversely prosaic and artless. Their collaboration throws light on current debates about queer temporalities for several reasons. First, their work emerges from—and creates—interstices of time; obsessed with queer pasts, they turn equally vigorously to decidedly queer futures. They believe that they will inherit the world, and they are anything but meek about it. Furthermore, the temporal disordering involved in imagining this future forms a wellspring for their erotics. Although futurity has recently come in for some flak as an antisex, pro-procreative diversion tactic, in the hands of Michael Field, the future appears downright kinky.5 They regarded...


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