Getting to the Party in Time

The best parties, L. O. Aranye Fradenburg Joy claims in her epilogue to Jonathan Goldberg’s Sappho: ]fragments, are the after-parties: the parties that happen ...

The best parties, L. O. Aranye Fradenburg Joy claims in her epilogue to Jonathan Goldberg’s Sappho: ]fragments, are the after-parties: the parties that happen when people “feel the drive, can’t bear to give each other up, want more intimacy, want more fluidity, want to meet new people.”1 Of course, if we’re sitting with a book, we’re probably not at that kind of party. But maybe the fact that we’re reading a certain kind of book—one on queer theory, for instance—means that, if we’re not at the party yet, perhaps we can still get there in time.

Now, in my experience, academics are a pretty hardworking, early-to-bed bunch. Even so, the idea of a certain kind of life—one in which we congregate better, dance well, and stay up late—has entered academic discourses, particularly those of queer theory. Jack Halberstam has claimed, for instance, that queer time is best felt in a nightclub, and many seem to agree. This focus on parties shows up in two recent works focused on 19th- and early 20th-century American literature: Goldberg’s Sappho: ]fragments and Elizabeth Freeman’s Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American 19th Century.

Even though parties have become popular topics of discussion, writing about them remains tricky. First, there’s the question of tense—of when they happened. As actual spaces of liberation, parties, when written about, often seem to belong to the past. But writing about them correctly promises to mimic, in some fashion, their liberating history. That is: thinking, writing, and reading about what makes parties special—what makes bodies act differently, what makes people more free—can feel like a celebratory event in itself. By this logic, some parties of the past, even those of the 19th century, can be recouped as things that are still happening as we speak or write about them.

But parties described in writing also introduce other questions of time. For instance, there’s the question of modality: of whether parties need to happen at all or are best kept in the realm of potentiality. And there’s the question of aspect: the how of a party’s happening, its beat and rhythm. In Beside You in Time, Freeman describes tense, mode, and aspect as the three angles that pertain to all events in time. But these categories are also particularly useful in distinguishing between the different ways she and Goldberg approach their subject matter.

For while Freeman writes of actual parties, Goldberg writes mostly of parties held in and through texts. Freeman describes a 19th-century America populated by people dancing persistently to repetitive tunes (Shakers, slaves, and more), one in which people made the constraints of society into tools for different forms of bodily liberation. But Goldberg describes the 19th and 20th centuries as a period in which sapphic love gathered momentum not in physical bodies, but, rather, as a capacious literary effect.

In some ways, Goldberg seems to describe the better gathering. His invitees include an all-star lesbian line-up: from the enigmatic Sappho herself to Willa Cather, Patricia Highsmith, Alison Bechdel, and the guest of honor, Eve Sedgwick. The men invited—Swinburne, Solomon, Derrida—become an important part of this generous dynamic. But it’s Freeman’s parties that have real coordinates beyond the page, both because they actually happened and because they promise us a political frequency we might still tune in to.

Taken together, these books also speak to scholarship as something that has its own when, if, and how. How is our quest for historical precedents related to the desire to resist the present moment? How does our attention to and engagement with texts relate to the kinds of resistance we describe, anticipate, or perform? When is the party? Are we too late? Or is this it?

Goldberg’s status as one of the best poststructuralist critics around makes it predictable that Sappho: ]fragments emphasizes writing as the main event. What is surprising is the way that this critical approach allows him to read the lesbian canon as refreshingly inclusive of men.

His argument opens, for example, with a reading of Sappho’s poetry as a story about abstract structures of desire (as opposed to, say, physical moments of desire). Goldberg follows Anne Carson’s reading of Sappho’s poem, in which a man flirts under the gaze of the (female) poet with another woman, the addressee of the poem:

He is a god in my eyes—

The man who is allowed

to sit beside you2

The desire expressed here (of one woman for another) takes the form not of identification, but of difference and failure. According to Goldberg, this makes the poet’s distance from the woman she so fervently desires (with a longing that disqualifies her from the more casual role of the male lover) a measure of exclusion that anyone might feel.

There are more upbeat, and certainly more intuitive, ways to read these lines. We might focus, for instance, on the poet’s past, in which she acquired the experience of loving women. Or we might take the long perspective, in which Sappho’s scene becomes just one moment in a longer story that works out differently both for the lovers in her poems and for lesbians in history. But for Goldberg, it’s the permanent “as if” of Sapphic love—the unrealized modality—that gives the language its primary significance: a structure of deferral that defines the bittersweet flavor of the poem.

While these other readings might anchor Sappho and her work in the history of real bodies and, for that matter, real parties, Goldberg’s emphasis on the textual power of the poems means the positions he locates in language have little to do with anatomy or sex. Men can be in the position of exclusion when it comes to desire between women, but the geometries of lesbian desire can also inform relationships between men.

Despite an emphasis on the importance of language that might seem a bit 20th century, Goldberg seems to be doing new work. But surely, these days, it matters that lesbians also do real things that make bodies and their legibility important?

Freeman’s party is all about these actual bodies. A carefully theorized study of recalcitrant practices that show up in literature, Beside You in Time describes the things Shakers, slaves, and queer people did in 19th-century America. While her focus is on novels, Freeman leaves no doubt that the sacramental touching, dancing, and playing dead that her selection of black and queer literature represents really happened. These activities might not sound like much fun, but then, on several counts, Freeman’s is a protest party.

This party, in the tradition of queer theorists, rejects what Freeman has previously called “chrononormativity”: the organization of bodies toward maximum productivity, as well as the teleological drives of straight history.3 With Beside You in Time, Freeman continues to document time as a radical element of queer life and art.

For her, time is the only axis along which certain kinds of politically productive and queer sociality show up, as well as the only way to move beyond categories of identity. She describes how “discipline’s temporalized body met other bodies in modern social formations reducible neither to institution nor population, neither to identities nor genital sex—but in ephemeral relationalities organizing and expressing themselves through time.”

More precisely, it’s the way these bodies are timed that prevents them from conforming to the temporal trajectories most commonly associated with modernity: they do not couple, they do not move forward, they do not produce. Freeman reads Melville’s Bartleby as refusing rhythms of work and leisure by insisting that he “would prefer not to.” Also important to Freeman is the onanistic sexuality of Hank, a character in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, whose reveries about the past put him out of step with “market time.”

How to square these seemingly distant texts and techniques with the crises of today? How shall we all keep dancing? And with whom?

These readings add an important temporal dimension to arguments that see fields of resistance in terms of geographies or population categories. One lesson of Freeman’s project, for instance, is that once we think of bodies in time, we must also see that people move in and out of whatever formations (prisons, universities, parties) that connect and separate them at any one given moment.

While some of these examples are linguistic (the kind Goldberg might be interested in), the best cases in Freeman’s Beside You in Time are explicitly not linguistic. The book opens with a spirited account of real-life Shaker dances and ends with a discussion of Nightwood’s “sense-methods,” in which Freeman claims that Djuna Barnes’s version of lesbianism is body-based (and aligns with the hypersocial and historically rich kind of embodiment celebrated in the Catholic sacraments of baptism and Eucharist). In both cases, Freeman is tuning in to a frequency at which language (such as the extraordinary language of Nightwood) can be heard in the mind but is better felt in the body.

If the party that happens at this frequency is also a queer one, it’s not really about sex. The bodies Freeman focuses on do not need to be temporally coincident (that is, in the same room at the same time). The sociability she celebrates is “felt and manifested along axes and wavelengths beyond the discursive and the visual—and even beyond the haptic, for the synchronization of bodies does not require their physical touch, but rather a simultaneity of movement in which the several become one.”

Nor is this a party thrown by or for special kinds of individuals: the collective at stake here, one imaginable through timing, is ongoing. Her emphasis on aspect (the how of an event) means that she suggests a kind of movement that is still happening. Shaker dancers may move in gender-segregated formations, but they dance in time with each other. Separated by time, space, society, and more, their movement goes on.

How to square these seemingly distant texts and techniques with the crises of today? How shall we all keep dancing? And with whom?

If such questions arise practically in Sappho: ]fragments, they relate to the time of scholarship. Goldberg’s readings make desire’s realization seem mythical and out of reach. But his best chapters—on Willa Cather’s reworking of one story over time and on Sarah Orne Jewett’s Maine landscapes as invocations of ancient Greek shores—showcase the importance and power of scholarship accreting, growing, and interconnecting over time. For example: Cather and Jewett are presented as careful readers of the past and of each other; meanwhile, Goldberg comes through as an impressive critic whose time spent alone with his material (that is: not only with his friends) is what allows him to successfully distill his insights.

After reading Freeman, we might want to ask what kind of time scholarship keeps and on what frequency it plays. For example: Kathryn Bond Stockton is thinking about rhythm when she issues this provocation to the scholars most invested in queering time: “Sure you read Bataille, teach Bersani, and luxuriate in Lee Edelman. But I think, like me, you’re likely to be über-Protestant-work-ethic-hounds at your labors six days a week, with one day—one blessed day—for queer hedonism lived to the hilt.”4


Queers Growing Old and Young

By Robert Reid-Pharr

The management of desire hinges here on a Protestant tradition governing the production of academic work. Consequently, parties may hover as things to think with, but life’s actual beat, and the course it takes, is syncopated by the demands of reading and writing. There are no Bartelbys here, few forms of sacramental ritual, and very few opportunities to refuse identity in favor of collective life.

Freeman understands this distinction; scholarship, which she does so well, is nevertheless never equated with the actual kinds of practices she highlights. If Beside You in Time points to a world beyond the text, one that professionally productive reading or writing might help attune us to, Freeman remains clear that getting our bodies into that groove requires putting our lives and work on the line.

In this light, Goldberg may be the bearer of a message easier for academics to hear: whatever skin you’re in, the party, the sapphic festivities, are happening on the page you’re at. But, in a world where there is so much to be done, so many protests to be had, and so many better forms of life to be explored, it may be Freeman’s party that we need to get to.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. A full-text PDF of Sappho: ]fragments is available for free download from the punctum books website, here.
  2. Sappho: A New Translation, translated from the ancient Greek by Mary Barnard (University of California Press, 1958), p. 39.
  3. In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke University Press, 2010), Freeman enters into more critical dialogue with those within the field, most notably Lee Edelman, for whom the queer refusal of futurity has led, in Freeman’s account, to an anti-sociality, and with Leo Bersani, whose utopian solutions to this problem are imagined in keenly spatial terms.
  4. Kathryn Bond Stockton, “Rhythm: Secular Feelings, Religious Feelings,” in Queer Times, Queer Becomings, edited by E. L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen (SUNY Press, 2011), p. 345.
Featured image: Photograph by Sarthak Navjivan / Unsplash