Against Queer Presentism—How Literary Studies Neglects the ArchiveRoundup
tags: literature, LGBTQ history, Cultural Studies
Colton Valentine is a PhD candidate in English at Yale.
History is a nightmare from which the queers have awoken. Or so it would seem in Elif Batuman’s Either/Or (2022).
It’s sophomore year at Harvard, and protagonist Selin is debating the merits of living either aesthetically or ethically. As in The Idiot (2017), she takes classes and reads; unlike in The Idiot, she drinks and has sex. Everywhere, queerness simmers. Selin’s university syllabi are populated by fictional male seducers, her parties by their fleshly equivalents, and both variants make her wonder: might there be other options? What if there were novels plotted without Casanovas, life-paths besides betrothal, or nights spent kissing her female best friend?
Such things do not come to fruition, and at the novel’s end, its “Notes on Sources” suggest one explanation. After a series of standard bibliographic entries on the many texts that Selin has encountered throughout the book, Batuman adds:
Although it isn’t directly quoted, I would also like to cite Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which I first read in 2017, and which enabled me to reconstruct some of the heteronormative forces that operated on me in the 1990s (preventing me from being attracted, at that time, to texts with titles like “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”). One goal of this book was to dramatize those forces.
The 1990s, we intuit, were not a good time to be queer: a moment when syllabi and parties were compulsorily heterosexual, leaving sapphic sex and sapphic essays with little allure. 2017, by contrast, stands for a rainbow triumph, at least in Batuman’s life. Over time, the “heteronormative forces” constraining her seem to have eased, leaving her more receptive to feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich, and newly capable of writing novels dramatizing the queer-normie agon.
This implicit chronology — and Either/Or’s conceit of self-revision — is one example of a broader trend in queer literature that we might call queer presentism: a Whig history of sexuality that positions today’s LGBTQ+ writers as liberators of the closeted past. Queer presentism canonizes contemporary texts, but elides or delegitimizes older queer lives and artworks, specifically those predating the twentieth century. It’s been almost 50 years since Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality dispelled the “repressive hypothesis”: the theory holding that the rise of bourgeois capitalism suppressed discussion of sexual acts and deviant sexuality. Yet, we don’t seem to have internalized this lesson. In fact, our continued belief in the “repressive hypothesis” itself ends up repressing a great deal of queer history. This collective amnesia impoverishes our vision of the past, but it also stalks the contemporary book world, depriving today’s queer writers and readers of their rich literary heritage.
Once you start looking, you see queer presentism everywhere. It pops up when politicians espouse our “unprecedented” ability to love who we love, and when recent book bans are said to “roll back the clock” on LGBTQ+ rights, implying that clocks tick continually toward progress. It manifests in Oscar Wilde hagiography, which elevates him to the status of singular queer martyr and extrapolates an epochal paradigm from his 1895 trials. It seeps into our everyday speech, in our references to “forbidden love” and our use of the term “Victorian” to imply prudish homophobia. It both stems from and structures the editorial projects that publishers pursue, giving rise to catalogues like the NYRB Classics, where the oldest work tagged LGBTQ+ is Colette’s The Pure and the Impure (1932) — as if nothing queer was written before. But it’s perhaps most blatant in contemporary literature and the way critics talk about new works. And since it’s been a good year for queer fiction, it’s been a great year for queer presentism.