Elizabeth Freeman

Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century

Duke University Press, 2019

240 pages


Reviewed by Sarah Schuster

In Elizabeth Freeman’s Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century, time organizes individuals into selves and bodies into workforces. Temporalities discipline bodies and constitute subjectivity, or so Freeman argues—to construct the modern self, individuals need organizing principles such as timetables and temporalities of control, but also rhythm and turn-taking in concert with other bodies in space and time. This work’s theoretically dense but surprisingly simple premise elegantly frames work from Twain, Hopkins, Melville, Stein, and others as in-roads to considering the biopolitics of time not as a method of control, but as a basis for collectivity and queer relationality. Time, in other words, becomes a lens through which Freeman can examine bodies coterminous with each other, forming queer collectivity and resistance.

Freeman’s analysis of what she calls the “very long nineteenth century,” a period roughly spanning 1780 to 1936, places texts in conversation based on Foucault’s history of sexuality, bookended, in Freeman’s words “by the consolidation of discipline in Europe and its colonies in the late eighteenth century…on the other, the somewhat belated consolidation of sexual identity in the United States.” Her book addresses an area of biopolitics mostly unexcavated by other critics in affect studies, as her primary objects of scrutiny are the various temporalities by which bodies are organized and configured in opposition to mainstream temporalities. The primary pillar of her theoretical approach comes through Foucault’s theorization of time and temporality in Discipline & Punish (1975), though her approach additionally builds on more recent works on biopolitics and structures of feeling, most particularly Dana Luciano’s Arranging Grief (2007) and Kyla Schuller’s Biopolitics of Feeling (2017). Although her book gestures at the work of scholars examining affect and sentimental culture specifically, her critical eye rests slightly beyond this field, towards a perspective she comes to call ‘sense-methods.’

Freeman coins the term “sense-methods” as a flexible definition for her overall theoretical framework, which she defines astemporal encounters that place “time itself as a visceral, haptic, proprioceptic mode of apprehension—a way of feeling and organizing the world through and with the individual body, often in concert with other bodies.” These sense-methods, notably, are not necessarily correspondents to the five senses, in Freeman’s account. Rather, sense-methods encompass the “sixth sense” of synchronization and time, a “site where the biological and cultural meet one another.” This meeting ground of the biological and cultural in literature and documentary accounts is precisely where Freeman directs her analytic gaze. Performance is key to this idea, as her objects of studies primarily involve both the spontaneous and carefully choreographed ‘bodywork’ of various communities and individuals. Race and racialization are themselves sense-methods of a kind in Freeman’s work, stigmatizing and racializing the Shakers of her first chapter through their dance practices, and making them illegible to mainstream white bourgeois culture.

Although Freeman’s prose is relatively straightforward, (save the occasional theoretical portmanteau, such as chronothanatopolitics in Chapter Two), her text spins a complex web of ideas in deceptively simple terms. Her chapters elegantly build on each other, creating momentum and an increasingly complex net of interconnections between ideas and texts through the (roughly) nineteenth century. By examining bodies in time as well as in motion, Freeman opens her analysis up to examinations of the body both alive and dead, interweaving, for instance, the verve and “violence” of the Shakers’ worship practices in Chapter One with the performance of death in African American narratives in Chapter Two. The Shakers’ use of dance and song as a means of “shaking off” carnality, simultaneously recalls social dance and divorces it from heteronormativity and courtship rituals. Even after Shaker dance becomes “orderly” in response to charges that their asynchronic and “wild” dancing threatened the US itself, Shakers’ repetitive and rhythmic dancing still positioned itself as renewing, though it was anti-reproductive, and to critics as monotonous and deathly.

Freeman builds on deathliness, and specifically social death into Chapter Three, critiquing the ‘antisocial thesis’ of queerness laid out by Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman through her analysis of Afropessimist theorists Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson. In performing death, imitating death, and imitating social death even as characters make strides toward sociality and escape, characters in African American narratives like Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb enact a performance of death that expresses the ‘life’ and ‘afterlife’ (or we might say ‘afterdeath’) of slavery itself. The death drive, here, is not a queer formulation of resistance, but the antiblack sociopolitics of white supremacy. Death, in Freeman’s formulation, does not pose as the endpoint for theorization, but a further extension, and a possible “social rerouting.”

Indeed, arguably her most vital contribution is her rejection of Bersani and Edelman’s antisocial model of queer temporality. Instead of reading queerness as the ironic inversion of reproduction, a queer antisociality representative of the Freudian death drive, Freeman conceives of queer “hypersociality,” a model that is “not just excess sociability but sociability felt and manifested along axes and wavelengths beyond the discursive and the visual—and even beyond the haptic.” She more thoroughly expands on this hypersocial departure from Bersani and Edelman’s antisocial thesis in Chapter Four, renegotiating “felt” history through reenactment via Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Pauline Hopkins’s serial novel Of One Blood (1903), wherein the libinal historiography of Twain’s and Hopkins’s characters has the potential to alter the future. Her final turn to Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Stein’s “Melanctha” looks to “chronic-ness” as a concept linking each protagonist; whether through Bartleby’s refusal of chronicity through inertia or Melanctha’s “chronic desiring condition,” each exemplify a “method of knowing and inhabiting” a world that increasingly demands “temporal obeisance.”

In our current era, when sociotemporal frameworks such as the workday have reconfigured around the COVID-19 pandemic—and when sociality more generally has been profoundly distorted by it—Freeman’s analysis proves timely. Freeman’s interest in previously unexplored forms of temporality and connection seems particularly consequential to a time that has simultaneously included state enforced social distancing, virtuality, and protests against racist state violence. 2021 and 2022 have increasingly been defined by the peaks and valleys of spread and containment, activity and retreat. A theorization of time—its expansion and retraction, and the socialities and subjectivities it constitutes—seems an appropriate topic for our current moment.