“Queer Time Machines: Hauntologies of Literature” by Ben Berman Ghan

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Elizabeth Freeman opens Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories introduction with a description of the 2002 experimental film K.I.P by Nguyen Tan Hoang – a hybrid of queer art and gay porn – a project of “time art” (Freeman 1) that fights against the constraints of what Freeman calls chrononormativity, “the use of time to organize individual human bodies to maximum productivity” (2). Chrononormativity, a subset of chronobiopolitics, is not an argument that linear time is a construct, but that how we choose to value, organize, and segment time is. Western Chrononormativity conditions our collective subjectivity to accept “institutionally and culturally enforced” (4) timelines of sequences and cycles that draw a roadmap to human life and human worth that favours capitalism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy above all else. However, if Normative institutions can set temporal subjectivity, then it can be deconstructed by the subject matter, bodies, and cultures that do not abide by those chronogeopolitical rules. Art and literature matters of emotion and imagination that exist outside the timelines of chrononormative production, all work to alter our subjective experience of time. These are often imperfect alterations, as the production of art often follows capitalist chrononormative sequences. A more powerful break from the constraints of chrononormativity is the embrace a queering of culture, theory, erotic life, and art. Queerness in its resistance to chronogeopolitics, is more than a revolution or a resistance; but a time machine.

Freeman argues that chrononormativity is “a mode of implantation” (3) through which our subjective view of time is arranged to seem objective and immutable. “Schedules, calendars, time zones” (3) are examples of implantations. Freeman notes capitalism as a prime mover of implantation, as evidenced by how the advent of industrialization changed our concept of work habits from the “seasonal rhythms of agricultural labour” (3) to the endlessly repeating cycle of the forty-hour workweek. Going further, one might point to indigenous cultures in North America, who had no concept of a Monday or Sunday until such calenders were culturally enforced by settler-colonial culture. 

The enforcing of these arbitrary rhythms is more insidious than just the twelve-month calendar. A person’s belonging and acceptance in society can come to depend on how productive they are within a capitalist and heteronormative timeline. The timing for “marriage, accumulation of health and wealth for the future, reproduction, childbearing, and death” (4) are all judged and politicized. Chrononormativity is a tool of the state, organizing how we value life through the timeline of socioeconomic benefit.

Chrononormativity also affects gender, making the heteronormative conceptions of how gender should develop and present into concrete certainties. The body and identity of the woman become trapped in these cycles, chrononormativity insisting that women should be defined by a linear progression from a child to adult, to wife, to mother, to grandmother, to dead. These identities are considered as both sequential and inevitable and are deeply harmful to any experience of gender identity that does not strictly adhere to this timeline.

When I talk about time travel as a weapon of queer culture and against chrononormativity, I am speaking conceptually not of a linear time machine that can travel up and down a time stream a la Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) where the past, present, and future become wholly separated countries that can be visited, left, and returned to, but of a time travel that is an unmooring. Part of a rebellion against chrononormativity is, to borrow a term from Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, to become “unstuck in time.” (Vonnegut 24). 

A good breakdown of the static and cyclical nature of womanhood under chrononormativism appears in author Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life (2000). In Chiang’s work, it takes an encounter with an inhuman subjectivity, through the extra-terrestrial language of the Heptapods that the narrator Louise’s perception of self becomes unstuck. Through her experience of past and future as present Louise’s experience of time becomes a “simultaneous mode of awareness” (Chiang 31), making her experience the chrononormative stages of womanhood both out of order and all at once. Through this experience, her sense of self is redrawn from static, sequential and separate identities of different productive moments into an identity of many simultaneous selves, structured around the life and death of her daughter, forcing her to reconsider the artificial barriers between the different stages of her life: childless, a new mother, and a mother who has lost their child. 

Louise must experience the loss of her daughter before her birth, going against the schedule of chronobiopolitics. Freeman notes that “mourning, romance, empathy, and affection” (Freeman 6) are all imperfect acts of resisting the imposed system, as these feelings cannot be “segmented into clock time” (6) even if public artifices such as funerals or weddings and other events meant to symbolize such feelings do. I would argue that Chiang’s story is an exercise in becoming aware of chronogeopolitics but does not radically reject it, Louise ultimately choosing to still embrace acting out the timeline set for her, even though she is aware of its artifice.

Nevertheless, when the project of unmooring oneself from chronogeopolitics ties itself to a queer culture as opposed to the dominant straight one which chrononormativity promotes, then becoming unstuck in time can become a far more radical act. Queer time machines are built out of community, and out of the legacy that communities leave for each other across time, regardless of the limitations that timelines of the state would attempt to impose

Queer time travel is an act not of productivity and forward momentum, but of connection with a past and future that are still, in many ways, present. Here I return to K.I.P, Freeman’s primary example of queer art as a rejection of our chronogeopolitical landscape. Freeman describes K.I.P. as a “Queer hauntology exercise” (13). Hauntology was a term coined in Jacques Derrida’s work Specters of Marx, an extrapolation of the idea that Karl Marx’s theories argue for “an ethics of responsibility towards the other across time” (9). Hauntology exists in a space where history continues to interact with the present, the figure of the ghost or the dead are not removed from us, but still present in our social and cultural consciousness, even though we cannot reach through time to act on this responsibility. The dead call for a “different future” (9) than the one we can deliver to them, for possibilities now lost.

K.I.P. exposes a queerness to viewers that “jam[s] historical sequence” (13). We see the artist Nguyen pasting their own image onto a historical moment that they “never experienced but nevertheless clearly mourns for” (13). In this film, we are watching many historical moments blend and interact in a “community of past and present viewers” (13). There is the actual pornography, its male performers unknowingly documenting the freeness of queer identity as it existed before the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Then are the original viewers of the erotica, both pre- and post- aids, then there is Nguyen, reaching across decades to touch a moment of queer identity in the 1970s with a queer identity of the 21st century. There is Freeman, present by analysis, and there is us, the spectators watching from the ever-retreating goalpost of modernity. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five, time for Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim is once again experienced out of sequence in a chaotic restructuring of subjectivity, where Billy can go “to sleep a senile widower and awaken on his wedding day” (23), forcing another disintegration of the walls between the productive identities of chronogeopolitics. Billy must reconcile identities like widower and bachelor, soldier and veteran, child and elder, not as separate sequential identities, but as a single simultaneous form. Here, like in K.I.P., time is structured not by signification but trauma. Time for Billy splintered into a similar before and after of trauma centred on the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden, an event experienced by Billy and Vonnegut himself as prisoners of war. 

Vonnegut creates another performance of hauntology, forcing Billy Pilgrim to watch a documentary on the firebombing “backwards then forwards” (75) so that he can see bomber planes suck “bullets and shell fragments” (75) back into their machine guns and the fires back into their bombs, until “the American fliers turned in their uniforms and became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby” (75), and then is forced to watch history and its trauma and violence play out again. It is also worth noting that, like in Arrival, the subjectivity of Vonnegut’s human character is changed, in part, by interaction with aliens.

Hauntology takes a “collective past” (Freeman 14) and brings it into both the collective and personal present. When we experience hauntology, we are not trying to “write a lost object into the present” (14) but experiencing the past as something still directly happening and affecting us. Through hauntology, we experience “the present itself as a hybrid” (14) of collective pasts and futures. While in Vonnegut’s case, the hauntology creates a hybrid from the experiences of war, queer hauntology is a broader experiment, a haunting of the past that is intergenerational and ever-evolving.

This experiment in queer hauntology presents what Freeman describes as a “queer becoming-collective across-time” (11). In K.I.P., we can separate past from present only by noting how the different moments of queerness are “split by prior violence and future possibility” (9) and not merely the chrononormative classifications of time separated by the signification of sequences and cycles that the chrononormative cycle demands. We, through Nguyen and Freeman, are subjected to a description of queer culture that belongs simultaneously to many different moments of queer history, and all of them, pre and post aids crisis. For the queer observer, K.I.P’s haunting might not present itself as only a historical note, but as an ever-present encounter, the power of the erotic and the power of longing not at all being a separate country but a present happening.

In drawing her literary examples of queer hauntology and chrononormativity, Freeman turns to Shakespeare, and particularly to Hamlet – a story that resists chrononormativity and invites hauntings through both the structure of the play and its content in equal measure. Hamlet is a play of overlapping bodies. There are the bodies of the dead, the living, the legislative body of the court of Denmark, the body of the prince himself, the body of players within the play, the non-corporeal body of the dead returned, and the play itself existing as its kind of stationary body. In Hamlet, like perhaps in K.I.P, the body becomes a metaphor for “the means for and effect of convoluting time” (Freeman 14), and in turn the narrative timelines that are present in the two primary forms of most of Shakespeare’s own other narratives – namely the marriage plot of the comedy, and the revenge plot of the tragedy. 

Hamlet both stops and confuses these narratives, the wedding being the beginning of the play instead of the end, the prince unable to ever truly enact his revenge. When Freeman suggests that Hamlet is a story yearning for a “lost Eden [from an] era prior to the establishment of the catholic church” (Freeman 16), this presents itself both through Hamlet’s seeming homoeroticism, and also the very fact that the timeline of the church constrains the play. Unlike many other Shakespearean revenges, Hamlet is frozen by the timeline of a Christian universe, literally unable to kill his uncle while in prayer without also giving his uncle the implicit victory that a Christian timeline demands “A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do send this same villain to heaven” (Hamlet III.3 76-77). Hamlet stands in stark contrast to, for example, Titus Andronicus, where the timeline of the state declares death to be an absolute end. In Freeman’s queer reading of Hamlet, this frozen nature of the narrative and its prince also spill out in his inability to pursue Laertes instead of Ophelia, trapped in a world and a time where “love between men is, indeed, out of joint” (Freeman 16), present but unreachable. If anything the “fantasia of corporeal disfigurement and fragmentation” (15) of Hamlet is only heightened in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), itself a 20th century hauntology experiment within the Hamlet Narrative, cyclically taking place before, during, and after the events of the original play, always experiencing the present as that aforementioned hybrid. 

Here Stoppard’s two protagonists only amplify those themes of homo-erotic desire, becoming both inseparable and intermingled in their identities, as well as carrying the fragmentation of timeline to its extreme, living a life-after-death that refuses to fade, experiencing “death, and then eternity (Stoppard 2.228). I reference Stoppard not to pull away from Freeman’s analysis of Shakespeare, but to illustrate how ripe Shakespeare’s body of work is for such queer readings and instances of hauntology, and how older works can become queered and unstuck from a time when a modern setting applies pressure. Stoppard’s play is a hybrid of his work and Shakespeare, of timelines and the sensibilities of modernity and antiquity.

As Freeman applies her queer reading to the appearance of The Ghost in Hamlet, I could also argue for a queering of the haunting that occurs near the end of Richard the Third, where the ghosts of the tyrants victims return as the “thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain.” (Richard III V.3.194-195), each body of the dead returning to press themselves onto Richard in the present, to declare “despair and die” (V.3.125) to their murderer. Though Richard III is actually guilty of his crimes, I think a queer reading can link this experience of haunting to the sense of guilt and grief mapped onto queer hauntology’s such as K.I.P. as a result of the split between pre and post aids crisis. It is hard not to read the title K.I.P. as Freeman does, with K.I.P. laced with the suggestion of “rest in peace,’ indicating both the desire to enliven the dead and the understanding that this is never wholly possible.” (Freeman 13)

Freeman spills out from Hamlet into Midsummer Night’s Dream as a better erotic companion for K.I.P. than the bard’s other works, mapping how the sexual timelines of both the mortal and fairy world “move in tandem with one another” (Freeman 17), and with the character of Puck (who is notably undefined by normative gender throughout the history of the character and their performances) acting as the agent of unmooring for the normative sexual timeline of the other characters, both altering the Fairy Queens plans for love, and overriding the sexual agency and timelines of the four human characters that wander into the fairy domain. 

Freeman also touches on the queerness of the Rude Mechanicals of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Hamlet, the players within the play exist as a performance of hauntology. The present is a hybrid, players performing histories as tangible and still happening through the device of the story within the story– with the narrative of Hamlet echoed and repeated by both the players in Hamlet and Stoppard’s addition, and the Mechanicals imprinting and queering the story of Romeo and Juliet through the farce of Pyramus and Thisbe (where the two heteronormative lovers are both played by male actors) The players in all these cases, which exist so utterly outside the capitalist and heteronormative timelines of productivity, Freeman argues, represent a “queerness [that] consists of a bodily difference” (18). In that way, I can return to my earlier examples, and point to a similar queerness in the aliens that cause the unmooring of time in the science fiction stories of Vonnegut and Chiang, and the queerness of bodily and sexual difference that is the queerness found in K.I.P., a queerness that has been forever altered through time and trauma, and can never be fully regained.

Watching the players, or aliens, bring a performance of queerness, and queer longing exposes us to subjectivities that have found space outside of chrononormativity, outside of the rigorous heteronormativity that is demanded by the productivity of capitalism. Freeman describes queerness as a culture and community where its members are “of times out of joint […] a subjugated class” (Freeman 18). If queerness is forever at odds with a chrononormative timelines because queerness and queer culture do not abide by those timelines, then Queerness comes into being as a rejection of the state’s timelines, as a rejection of the call for reproductive and monetary productivity that those timelines demand. When faced queer performances, such as K.I.P., we face a sense of lust and longing and desire, for emotion and connection that is unstuck and unmoored from how we have come to read and signify time. We become Nguyen, and Hamlet, and the players, and Stoppard, and Billy Pilgrim, and Louise, the face pressed on top of a scene and a moment that never included us, but always includes us, our bodies separated by chronology but joined by longing. Through its performance, its hauntology, its existence, and its art, queerness becomes a rebellious time machine.


Work Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. “Introduction: Queer and Not Now,” Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press. 2010. Pdf.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. NY: Dell Pub., 1991. Print

Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and others. Kamila.net., 2016. Pdf

Shakespeare, William, W. and Orgel, S. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 2002. Print

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. London UK, Faber Paperbacks.1967. Print.



Ben Berman Ghan is the prose editor for TERSE. and the author of What We See in the Smoke (2019).

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