- American Literary History and Queer Temporalities
Queer theory is particularly well positioned at the present time to lead a field-wide reconsideration of what we mean when we talk about literary history. Over the last two decades, queer theory has gained considerable legitimacy as a critical endeavor, and in that same time its foci have evolved from examinations of queer sex, sexuality, and politics, to even more ambitious inquiries concerning the nature of affect and of temporality.1 In not-fully-acknowledged ways, these more ambitious developments run parallel to a renewed scholarly interest in literary history and historiography, at the same time that these developments have already addressed some of the methodological questions that a new generation of literary historians is beginning to ask. The objective of this short paper is to demonstrate that the writing of literary history, as it is currently practiced, is structured by assumptions about history that queer theory at the present time has productively challenged and revised. This paper aims to unite these two fields—or, more precisely, to show how they may already be united in purpose if not in practice. American literary history in its current postexceptionalist moment is an ineluctably queer project.
Despite an upswing of interest in literary history in the last decade, it remains the case that, as a term of art, history has received far less of a high-profile reexamination than either of this journal’s other two titular terms, American or literary, over the past quarter century. Methodological reframings across the discipline of English have encouraged approaches that are trans- or postnational, cis- or [End Page 855] circum-Atlantic, transpacific or hemispheric, while canonical remappings and archival expeditions have brought many different kinds of cultural texts to the fore. But considering that 1989—the date of ALH’s first issue—was said to mark the end of history, the subsequent years have instead largely demonstrated that rumors of this particular death were greatly exaggerated.
Among the most recurrent hideouts for history in literary studies is curriculum. In 2013, English majors are still typically required to take survey courses, which still typically proceed chronologically, as do the anthologies that structure them; meanwhile, the colleagues who teach these courses were typically hired in-field, and the slip between “field” and “period” is easily made. Of course, what is true of curriculum is not always true of other scholarly activities—and, indeed, curricular structures and decisions tend to be conservative, while innovation is more often praised as a feature of research or scholarship. At the same time, the conservative quality of curriculum focuses attention on the likelihood that the most fundamental (or, perhaps, the least disputed) conception of literary history in our profession at the present time is chronology. When we teach literary history, our most common point of departure tends to be the idea that the year 1989 was followed by the year 1990.
The predominance of chronology presents a problem for the ways that scholars and departments organize the study of literary history, for to conceive of literary history as fundamentally chronological is to equivocate between two concepts that are in fact quite distinct: history and time. Generally speaking, time is the phenomenal ordering of events, usually from past to future (although multiple religious, scientific, and philosophical understandings of time also account for relative or recursive temporalities, as well as the possibility that time has a beginning or an end). Time is difficult to define conclusively, because the passage of time is also the exclusive measure of time, making this concept circular, at least in logical terms. Despite the fact that human experience is saturated by time, at a theoretical level, time’s chief properties (its sequential movement, its ability to order event perception) are more like postulates than proofs.
History, on the other hand, is less a modality of sequential time than a modality of sequential narrative. “In its earliest uses,” writes Raymond Williams, “history was a narrative account of events” (146; emphasis original). Like time, history does order the way humans perceive occurrences. But unlike time, history has measures besides itself. Indeed, history cannot be considered subject to any single...