- How to Do History with Pleasure
In the final paragraphs of The History of Sexuality Vol.1, Michel Foucault imagines a future society looking back on ours with bewilderment. This society, organized by a "different economy of bodies and pleasures," will be perplexed at our infatuation with confessing the "truth" of sexuality and at the ways our devotion to this illusion subjects us to the ruses of power (159). Foucault conjures this future in order to encourage his readers to reflect on the present. But if we were to take Foucault's narrative more seriously, how exactly would this society relate to its sexual past? How might sexuality mediate, even instigate, its historical imagination? Could a critical reanimation of a society's erotic past inspire resistance to the ruses of power that dominate its present? These are the kinds of questions encouraged by Elizabeth Freeman's provocative contribution to recent debates in queer temporality, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Freeman outlines an affectively-based relation to history that encounters the past in the present and registers this encounter through the sensations of the body, particularly through pleasure. Time Binds elaborates this affective historiography ("erotohistoriography") through a vast archive, but it primarily focuses on experimental films from the era of New Queer Cinema (predominately in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s) that denaturalize and formally reconstruct queer relations to time. Freeman's analysis provides a welcome counterpoint to queer, psychoanalytic, and Marxist historicisms based in melancholia and trauma. Her greater insight, however, is to reveal how erotic historicisms can "jam whatever looks like the inevitable" by maintaining a "commitment to bodily potentiality that neither capitalism nor heterosexuality can fully contain" (173, 19). Even as Time Binds gives us hope that today's radical energies will lie dormant for future generations, it makes a compelling argument that queers might turn to the recent and long past to challenge the strictures of this present, now.
Why has queer theory turned to "time" as a primary category for analysis, and why is queer theory in general in a "retrospective mood," as Michael Warner recently put it ("Queer") ? The answer to both questions lies in the paradoxical mainstreaming of queer theory within the humanities, which has occurred in the shadow of a pervasive neoliberalization of sexual politics. On the one hand, queer theory now has an institutional past. A radical discourse that emerged out of a direct-action movement fighting for AIDS awareness, queer theory now has journals, anthologies, and introductory courses for undergraduates. On the other hand, its (highly uneven) assimilation within the humanities has taken place alongside a mainstreaming of the LGBT movement itself. The latter receives unequivocal scorn from queer theorists precisely because it has, for the moment, supplanted the radical activism of the AIDS era. The mainstream LGBT movement exemplifies, according to José Esteban Muñoz, the "erosion of the gay and lesbian political imagination" in favor of a pragmatic assimilation into heteronormativity (21). Indeed, we can glimpse the willful jettisoning of queerer politics in the privatization of a public sex culture, the commodification of queerness into a market niche, and the drive for LGBT inclusion within nationalist citizenship, symbolized by efforts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and legalizing gay marriage. In short, "homonormative" polices—to use Lisa Duggan's term—have become the endgame of sexual politics. Consequently, it has fallen to queer theory and, as Freeman demonstrates, queer artists to foster an historical relation to a non-normative past, to spit on the scrubbed visions of middle-class "respectability" espoused by the mainstream, and to imagine alternative forms of belonging beyond those sanctioned by heteronormativity.
Queer theories of time are thus split between a collective challenge to sexual politics that would wave a "mission accomplished" banner and an internal discussion about how to best mount this challenge.1 For example, Lee Edelman's polemic No Future (2004) famously refuses any attachment to homonormative discourses of futurity, particularly those crystallized through the reproductive figure of the Child. But he also urges queer theory to embrace negation—the...