Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review of Elizabeth Freeman by Anneli Strutt

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Anneli Strutt
The University of Western Australia

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Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories 

Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010; pp. 224; RRP US $22.95 paperback; ISBN 978082234047.

Elizabeth Freeman’s second book, Time Binds, published as part of the Perverse Modernities series edited by Judith Halberstam and Lisa Lowe, is a fascinating experiment in time travel through non-normative temporalities. In her preface Freeman adopts Robert Graves’ 1915 poem, “It’s A Queer Time,” as a template for her enquiry, locating queerness in the numerous temporal disruptions—moments of  ‘arrhythmia’ and ‘asynchrony’—present in the texts she examines.

Freeman’s approach stands somewhat in opposition to current trends in the field. Openly denouncing avant-gardism in favour of ‘looking back,’ Freeman structures her book around “a series of failed revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s” (p.xiv), as she explores how the various artists forage cultural leftovers in order to bring these into a relationship with the present. Further, while attracted to the anti-essentialism inherent in ‘queer,’ Freeman refuses to conceive of queerness as “a purely deconstructive move or position of pure negativity” (p.xxi). Instead, she views it as highly physical, involving bodies engaging with other bodies, and this corporeality is central to her analysis of tactile time travel.

Following a thoroughly referenced introduction discussing the relationship between history and time, and its relevance to queer theory, the four main chapters examine lesser-known artists working in marginal genres, such as film, video, installation, and performance art. In Chapter One, Freeman employs her notion of chrononormativity, or “the interlocking temporal schemes necessary for genealogies of descent and for the mundane workings of domestic life” (p.xxii). Freeman presents three lesbian texts, which engage with the temporal logic of the family, where the (queer female) body functions as a site of ‘bad timing’ in resisting the “enforced synchronicity” (p.39) of patriarchal, hetero- and chrononormative structures. This resistance in turn manifests itself as various bodily “microtemporalities,” configured through chronic pain, violent wounding, or addiction (p.59).

Chapter Two introduces the term ‘temporal drag.’ Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, Freeman re-imagines ‘drag’ as a temporal crossing rather than one of gender, involving an “excess . . . of the signifier ‘history’ rather than of ‘woman’ or ‘man’” (p.62). Crucial to Freeman’s concept is the notion of allegory, or the telling of an old story through a new one while leaving both times visible, as is evidenced in Elisabeth Subrin’s 1997 short video Shulie, a structurally identical remake of the 1967 unreleased documentary of the same name. The queer drag of the past, not only on the present but also on the future, is further apparent in Freeman’s analyses of performance and installation art, in which either dated subject matter or discarded junk materials are used. For Freeman, the power of performing anachronisms lies in dislocating the viewer from the current moment, and in bringing to light alternative futures that never took place, but were hoped for from the perspective of the past.

The last two chapters explore through film what Freeman terms ‘erotohistoriography’; a pleasurable rather than simply painful use of the body as a vehicle for engaging with the past. Here Freeman employs Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando as examples of her self-proclaimed queer reversal of offering canonical texts as ways into reading marginal ones. Crucial to erotohistoriographical encounters is their reparative function, whereby enjoyable queer physical practices may lead to forms of temporal or historical consciousness, which can alleviate previously inflicted bodily damage. Freeman’s book culminates in a complex theorising of sadomasochism as “a kind of erotic time machine” (p.138), where traumatic experiences from a personal or collective past may be reorganised through the dynamics of S/M, thereby acting out alternative futures.

That most of the works Freeman discusses are relatively obscure might slightly detract from the pleasure of reading, as a reader presumably cannot identify or engage with an unfamiliar work to the same extent as a familiar one. Freeman’s own concepts, on the other hand, form productive analytical tools for others to adapt and build upon, and the book will appeal to anyone interested in queer enquiry. Freeman writes in a frank, personal voice with sharp insight, but the sport she excels at is Extreme Close Reading. Choosing fewer works allows for greater depth and detail of analysis, and leaves her room to both fully develop her central ideas, and to elaborate on the various ‘binds’ in the texts, so that anything from a hand, to the hilt of a whip, or even a single breath, is transformed into a site in which various temporalities may converge, and open up. Happy cruising.

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Updated 29 May 2013

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Tuesday, 24 September, 2013 6:07 PM