Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 185-194
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Touching the Past; or, Hanging Chad
Introduction: Getting Precedential
Carolyn Dinshaw, in Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, 1 develops and follows what she calls a "queer historical touch," risking partial connections between and across a heterogeneous array of historical agents, cultural artifacts, and epochs: from Margery Kempe to Lynn Cheney, Canterbury Tales to Pulp Fiction, Foucault in the archives to barbarians (well, queer medievalists) at the gates. She engages documents of historical fact and fictional texts. From this queer mix of genres and subjects, she derives a queer historical method whose founding assumption is contingency and driving metaphor, "touch." But Dinshaw does not rest on metaphor. Her metaphorics of touch itself displaces metaphor in favor of metonymy. This is not an idle move; the play of metonymy is a warrant against mimetic approaches to history, in which the past is mirror or it is nothing at all.
Dinshaw's touch, the queer historical method she proposes, pressed on me as I was racing to complete the first version of this paper in November 2000 for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I was doing so against the endless droning of MSNBC's endless analysis of what, at the time, felt like an endless presidential campaign. While the vote counting continued, halted, continued again, until the Supreme Court's votes were counted once and for all, cable TV was my constant companion; like me, it was up at all hours with not much new to report. How many times did pundits--those "mediatized" historians of the sixty-minute hour (less time for commercials)--tell us, variously, that "we were 'witnessing history,'" "this election is one for the history books," or (and track the heteronormative claims of reproducing the nation) "we will be telling our grandkids about this one"? [End Page 185]
I remain especially struck by this third variant, with its imperative to reproduce the self, the nation, history itself. "We will be telling our grandkids about this one" invokes a future to come in which I regale my as-yet-nonexistent grandkids (grandkids who will, presumably, be issued to me along with my social security check) with tales of the wild, year 2000 presidential election. The forecast anchors that future and this present in a certain past. Indeed, at the same time that some media millennialists worried that the tumult and rancor of this, as they said (over and over again), "first election of the new millennium" betokens ill for the nation's health, other commentators reassured by taking us back to the future--to the presidential past and the elections of 1960, 1876, and 1824.
This "other" history might guide us, help us make sense of "the now." The stakes of this glance backward were nothing less than the orderly transition of the presidency, of history itself. Looking back anchors the present and certifies the future.
Here is how historian Richard Norton Smith frames the matter in a New York Times op-ed. The title of the editorial, published on November 13, 2000, is, "A Sure Hand Can Save the New President." As he brings history to the nation, Smith leaves little doubt that the sure hand belongs not to the new president (whoever he might turn out to be), but to the historian. "Whoever is left standing," Smith advises, "will need to establish his political legitimacy. For guidance, he can choose from two very different historical models," 2 the one-term presidency of John Quincy Adams (who succeeded to the presidency in 1824, despite having failed to garner the majority of either the popular vote or electoral college) or that of Rutherford B. Hayes (who lost the popular vote in 1876 but prevailed over Samuel Tilden after a disputed electoral college count).
The disputed presidential election of 1876 featured in numerous print and television analyses of the 2000 debacle. Just a day earlier (November 12, 2000), the Hayes-Tilden mess (and Florida's role in...