Teleology and Unhistoricism

Valerie Traub’s article in the most recent PMLA, “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies” helpfully questions the unquestioned assumption that all teleologies, all linear sequences implicitly lead to straight, heteronormative historical time.  Surveying the field, she shows the value of thinking in terms of queer temporalities and queer histories but ultimately questions the assumption that queer theory challenges categories because she desires instead to historicize how categories, however incoherent and incomplete, came to be.

It’s always good to put pressure on the assumptions of field (especially after there’s consensus) and show the slippage between the historicizing and reading, chronology and normativity, sequence and sex (etc, etc.)  And I totally appreciate her sense that historical time is always plural not simply because of a heterogeneous present, but because historical time is always synchronic and diachronic.

But I think Traub’s account of difference and similarity is not quite right.  Arguing that traditional history privileges difference, she suggests that queer unhistoricism looks for similarity rather than alterity (connections across time, versions of the past that denaturalize the present, etc).  But, I’d argue that anachronism in its queer and postcolonial iterations is hardly so simple as creating connections grounded in similitude, even if Chakrabarty argues for “lived relationships.” For me the power of anachronism can’t be reduced to endurance or duration beyond a seemingly bounded historical period, it’s a force of difference within a space that longs for consensus, generalization, and shared time, showing the diverse genealogies that must be employed to explain the present.  If anachronism enables lived relationships, it also destablizes our sense of similitude with our contemporaries, putting pressure not only on how we narrate our histories but also how much we assume we know our own present.


In honor of Mary Layoun’s lecture today, a bit from her recent article “Endings and Beginnings: Reimagining the Tasks and Spaces of Comparison” (hint -the passage is an ending rather than a beginning, i.e. the end):

“Whether the juxtapositions of difference and which comparison is based are of historical necessity or of our own interested making, the comparative effort, predicated on an always partial and relational literacy, might offer an understanding otherwise–might offer possibilities of relations with and among differences otherwise. It is a comparison committed to the effort to cohabit with, listen to, and consider alternate stories of those who are different–often precisely across the corpse of what the refusal to so engage has wrought” (602).

I like the idea of an “always partial and relational literacy” and think that perhaps this is what anachronism does.  Because anachronism is a form but it always suggests a relationship – – to time, history, and chronology – – and thus requires a relational literacy. Anachronism gets its political force through relations (because, as Foucault suggests, power is relations).  Because it’s partial, it shows the problematic strivings for totality (in realism, in world lit, in nationalist and imperialist ideology), but because it’s relational it imagines connections and constructions of the social with and among differences.