- This Field That Is Not One
Queer method, Historicist method, Feminism, Heterosexuality, Periodization
As Ari Friedlander shrewdly remarks in the introductory essay of this volume, “Just as there is no outside-text, there is no outside-time.” Yet (as Friedlander also notes) what it means to be “inside” time is far from settled or clear. Indeed, many recent debates about the relation between queer theory and historicist method might be said to emerge from precisely the uncertainty about the impact of time—with all of its associations: artificiality and flux, on the one hand, specificity and materiality, on the other—on scholarly work. Friedlander summarizes the arguments of several queer, psychoanalytic, and deconstructive critics who have pointed out that diachronic attention to change and difference over time can push us to stabilize the meaning of both past and present (if only strategically), thereby overlooking the multiple temporalities of any single moment. Equally, however, Friedlander observes, synchronic history can lead us to designate particular objects of study as though they exist beyond time (again, if only strategically) and therefore beyond the nitty-gritty particularities of political and material history. It can also lead us to neglect, as Will Stockton’s attention to the institutional dimension of intellectual work in this issue’s forum reminds us, our own situation in time and subjection to the embodied, material, political, and professional investments and ambitions of our current moment.
This special issue of JEMCS is devoted to questions that have long occupied literary and cultural scholars of many stripes—formalist, historicist, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer, feminist, posthuman (the list could go on)—and whose formulations, along with responses, have varied intellectual values, methods, and sensibilities at the individual as well as the institutional levels. What is the relationship of a given text to its moments of [End Page 131] composition, circulation, and reception? How does when a text is read shape what it means?
The essays in this volume assume that any single text includes multiple temporalities through its influences, allusions, fears and fantasies, material conditions of production and circulation, engagement and experimentation with form and genre, and considerations of reception (censorship, marketing, patronage, posthumous reputation)—not to mention the residual, dominant, and emergent cultural norms and contexts that coexist at a given moment. To complicate matters further, texts speak to and act on us as readers differently at different moments in our reading history, so to speak of either text or reader as a single entity is to flatten not just history or identity, but also the relationships among readers, texts, institutions, and interpretive communities, none of which are monolithic, self-identical, or inside or outside time. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the vastness and complexity of all there is to contemplate.
If, as Wai Chee Dimock has argued, a text is a “time-traveler” that both changes and is changed by the readers it touches, then “form,” “context,” “evidence,” and “desire” are fluctuating, because temporally-bound, concepts (1067). In the pages below, I discuss some contributions that this special issue of JEMCS makes to ongoing conversations about how and why we read. Rather than summarize the issue as a whole, seek clear consensus, or infer a manifesto for a way forward, I highlight several topics of analysis that the work collected in this issue opens up for me, topics that I, personally, hope will continue to command scholarly attention for years to come. These topics are the definition and uses of historical and empirical evidence, the gendered implications of scholarly desire and study, and the implications as well as limitations of associations between cross-sex desire and normative culture.
But Can You Prove It?
One pressing issue in studies of early modern eroticism, as Friedlander notes, is the value and uses of empirical evidence. Through what methods, vocabularies, and conceptual frameworks can modern scholars discover and discuss past desire or sexuality? New Critical as well as New Historicist and Cultural Materialist debates about literature and history have centered on the relationship between aesthetics, materiality, and ideology. Is a text distinct from or embedded in its cultural, political, and material contexts? Does literature (and the...