Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 May 2011

Reflecting (?) on History

One of the things I committed to doing last semester, in addition to my teaching responsibilities and studying for my comprehensive exams, was taking part in a one-credit seminar on historiography (a/k/a the writing of history) with a professor who is leaving FSU shortly. The professor really wanted me to participate in the seminar, and because there are not a lot of PhD students currently taking courses, my presence was expected to fill out the seminar a little more fully. Anyway, I was excited to do it once I got the reading list, as I hadn't read any of the texts she had assigned.

Since then, I have been thinking more consistently about writing histories, and about histories in general. The theme for the one-day LGBTQ conference I'm working on organizing is subtitled "Memory, Archives, Testimony, History," and, well, queer histories have seemed a more pressing question to me of late.

This is, of course, preface to me telling you that I've been reading a new book. This one is called Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Heather Love's book is about feelings as much as it is about history – and it is about negative feelings at that: shame, loss, melancholy, refusal, desperation. It's fascinating, actually, in its insistence that we pay attention to our feelings of sadness and pain, and that we work (toward whatever queer futurity we're working toward) from those feelings instead of a constant insistence on disavowing those feelings.

Heather Love reminded me of many things with this book. Some cool ideas about queer history I wanted to share:

The effort to recapture the past is doomed from the start. To reconstruct the past, we build on ruins; to bring it to life, we chase after the fugitive dead. Bad enough if you want to tell the story of a conquering race, but to remember history's losers is worse, for the loss that swallows the dead absorbs these others into an even more obscurity.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the persistent sadness of the above passage reads to me more like a challenge than an admission of failure. How about this:

The turn from a focus on "effective history" [history intended to function as a call to activism] to a focus on "affective history" [history as it might have been experienced] has meant that critics have stopped asking, "Were there gay people in the past?" but rather have focused on questions such as: "Why do we care so much if there were gay people in the past?" or even, perhaps, "What relation with these figures do we hope to cultivate?"

Boy, do I love that: the idea of writing history as a way of cultivating a relationship with the past and with figures from the past. This is always how I think of Alfred Jarry and the Dadas, although I would never have described it this way until now. Okay, one more:

What is at stake in [Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel Summer Will Show] is a rethinking of history as itself bound up with fantasy. History in the novel is not simply a neutral chronicle of events; nor is it a ground for the working out of the dynamics of class conflict. Rather, history—like the future—is a medium for dreaming about the transformation of social life.

It has been said before, of course, that history and the writing of history are more about our lives in the present than they are about the past. We write about what has past in order to find places and people with which we can identify, which can define our present selves for us. What Love reminds us of, though, is that writing about the past is always a gesture of relationality, and we ought, perhaps to think more about what we desire from the past – and from those in the past – as we write their stories. For writing about the past is a way of fantasizing about the present: what was, what failed to be, what might have been, what we still have the ability to achieve.