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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 727-744
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Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations
Elizabeth Freeman *
"Do you identify up, or down?"
Anonymous, in personal conversation, circa 1992
As a graduate student teaching my first solo course in Lesbian and Gay Studies in 1993, at a moment when "identity" was rapidly morphing into cross-gender identification, I told an anecdote I thought would illustrate this crossing: "I wear this T-shirt that says 'Big Fag' sometimes, because lesbians give potlucks and dykes fix cars. I've never done well at either, so 'Big Fag' feels more appropriate." A student came to see me in office hours, quite upset. She was in her early twenties, a few years younger than I, but she dressed like my feminist teachers had in college. She stood before me in Birkenstocks, wool socks, jeans, and a women's music T-shirt, and declared that she felt dismissed and marginalized by my comment, that lesbians-who-give-potlucks described her exactly, and that I had clearly fashioned a more interesting identity with her own as a foil. I had thought I was telling a story about being inadequate to prevailing lesbian identity-forms, or about allying with gay men, or perhaps even about the lack of representational choices for signaling femme. But it turned out that I was telling a story about anachronism, with "lesbian" as the sign of times gone by and her body as an implicit teaching text.
Momentarily displaced into my own history of feeling chastised by feminisms that preceded me, yet aware that this student had felt disciplined by my joke in much the same way, I apologized, and a long conversation about identification between students and teachers followed. But what interests me now is the way that student's self-presentation [End Page 727] ruptured any easy assumptions about lesbian generations and registered the failure of the "generational" model to capture political differences between two women who had race, class, nationality, and sexual preference in common. The temporal incongruity of her body suggested that she simply did not identify with what I would have taken to be her own emergent peer culture of neopunk polymorphs, Queer Nationals, Riot Grrrls, and so on--nor with my culture of neo-butch/femme, consumerist sex radicalism. Her body's "crossing," then, was different than the gender crossings that queer studies was just beginning to privilege. It was a crossing of time, less in the mode of postmodern pastiche than in the mode of stubborn identification with a set of social coordinates that exceeded her own historical moment.
Let us call this "temporal drag," with all of the associations that the word "drag" has with retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present. This kind of drag, as opposed to the queenier kind celebrated in queer cultural studies, suggests the gravitational pull that "lesbian" sometimes seems to exert upon "queer." In many discussions of the relationship between the two, it often seems as if the lesbian feminist is cast as the big drag, drawing politics inexorably back to essentialized bodies, normative visions of women's sexuality, and single-issue identity politics. Yet for those of us for whom queer politics and theory involve not disavowing our relationship to particular (feminist) histories even as we move away from identity politics, thinking of "drag" as a temporal phenomenon also raises a crucial question: what is the time of queer performativity?
In formulating her landmark theory of queer performativity, Judith Butler's answer to this question seems to be that its time is basically progressive, insofar as it depends upon repetitions with a difference--iterations that are transformative and future-oriented. In Gender Trouble, an identity-sign such as "lesbian" is most promising for the unpredictable ways it may be taken up later. Repetitions with any backwards-looking force, on the other hand, are merely "citational," and can only thereby consolidate the authority of a fantasized original. The time of ordinary masculine and feminine performativity is even more retroactive: the "original" sexed body that seems to guarantee the...