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This editorial appeared in Volume 5 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Queer Time

by Robert Philen

I begin with the following conclusion, for we always begin with conclusions. Our initial conditions and assumptions entail endings. Time, the world, and the self are all constructions. These constructions are interrelated and interactive. There is a dialectic of sorts here. The way in which any one of these is constructed has an influence on the ways in which the others are constructed. The experience of queer time is an experience in which the relationship of the self to time and the world is freely constructed, freed from the necessary imposition of normative models, structures, and constructions.

In the essay "The Temporality of World-Views and Self-Images" from the collection Looking Back on the End of the World, Christopher Wulf discusses the interaction of constructions of time, the world, and the self. As an example, Wulf discusses the changes wrought in these constructions by the Copernican revolution and change from the Ptolemaic view of an earth centred universe to the modern scientific view of the world. Wulf says, "Dimensions of time that had, until then, been barely imaginable, suddenly began to reveal themselves; light years; celestial bodies whose height we can still see but which have probably long been extinguished" (Wulf 1989:52). Thus, with telescopes and other aids to perception, we have seen celestial objects millions and millions of light years away and have constructed a universe whose temporal dimensions likewise border on the unimaginable. "Time's new dimensions have thrust individual lives with their limited timespans into meaninglessness. On the one hand, a cosmos extended to incomprehensible limits with its corresponding time dimensions; on the other, a life stretching over a mere seventy to eighty years" (Wulf 1989: 52).

It is important to note that Wulf does point out that the world view and construction of time which most people hold in day to day consciousness is still the Ptolemaic view, precisely because the changes brought about are of such a drastic nature and not exactly amenable to the practicality of everyday life. Given the discrepancy of the insignificance of the self, and the nearly incomprehensible scope of space and time, it is no wonder that most of us have not fully internalized the modern scientific constructions of the world and time. While I feel that Wulf's example is illustrative of the interconnections between constructions of time, the world, and the self, I am ultimately heading toward queer experience and queer constructions. But first, some consideration of a non-queer construction, that is, normative heterosexual construction.

Normative heterosexuality is oriented toward reproduction. With normative heterosexuality, there is continuity from generation to generation, with each individual being a link in a great chain of heterosexual continuance. So, while a given individual might be so ephemeral in comparison to cosmic time as to be virtually nonexistent, with normative construction, the individual self is part of something larger, something with roots burrowing back into the past, something which, at least according to the construction, will continue on into the future even once the individual is gone.

The power of this construction is not to be underestimated. Emphasis on reproduction, continuity, sustainability pervades our culture. A quick glance at academia provides ample illustrations. One case can be found in Joel Feinberg's discussion of the right of unborn generations. Feinberg offers a hypothetical situation in which all humans agree to stop producing children, thus, of course, agreeing to the extinction of the human species. While Feinberg is ultimately forced to conclude that this would be in violation of no one's rights, he would consider the situation "deplorable, lamentable, and a deeply moving tragedy" (Feinberg 1974: 148).

Another example can be found in the Oedipal system, which has been so influential in this century. If all goes "correctly" in negotiating the Oedipus complex, children end up with their "proper" heterosexual identities. Sons become fathers, daughters become mothers, and the chain of normative heterosexually is perpetuated. Those who fail to fall into these roles have failed to completely or correctly negotiate the Oedipus complex.

The pervasion of continuity and reproduction is also clear in many of the natural sciences, as well as such natural science/social science hybrids as sociobiology or ecological anthropology. For example, in biological terms, "fitness" is basically the ability to survive and reproduce as a species through time. Perhaps the most glaring example of this pervasion of perpetuity is to be found in the concept of the "selfish gene."

According to this concept introduced by Richard Dawkins, the individual is merely a carrier for genes which persist through time, irrespective of the individual carriers, provided of course that the carriers engage in reproduction (Dawkins 1976; Gould 1980 for a critique of Dawkins' selfish gene concept which is not particularly relevant here).

But enough for now of normative heterosexual constructions and the relation of the individual normative heterosexual to constructions of time. How does the queer fit in? Can the queer fit in?

Guy Hocquenghem addresses this issue in Homosexual Desire, saying (Hocquenghem 1972: 107):

Homosexual desire is the ungenerating-ungenerated terror of the family, because it produces itself without reproducing. Every homosexual must thus see himself as the end of the species, the termination of a process for which he is not responsible and which must stop at himself... he is the by-product of a line which is finished and which turns his guilt as existing only in relation to the past into the very meaning of his perversion. The homosexual can only be degenerate, for he does not generate - he is only the artistic end to a species.
The queer, it appears, is the end of the line. Of course, this is not necessarily the case, for there certainly are lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who have children, and thus, do not fit into the model laid out by Hocquenghem. These queers cannot simply be ignored. But for the most part, the queer is ungenerating, and, it appears, must be unfulfilled in terms of normative heterosexual constructions.

But why should we look at the queer as "only the artistic end to a species" (Hocquenghem 1972: 107)? The artistic end, as opposed to what? The mediocre perpetuation of a species? Following Luce Irigaray, who contrasts the "masculine feminine," or woman as seen and constructed by man, to the "feminine," woman as constructed by herself (Irigaray 1977; Tong 1989), what has been presented here is the "heterosexual homosexual," the homosexual or queer as seen and constructed through normative heterosexual channels. (I would like to note that Hocquenghem's work has been extremely important in that it was one of the first to critique institutionalized homophobia.)

I am more interested in the queer as constructed by the queer. Hocquenghem is correct in describing the homosexual as "ungenerating ungenerated," "producing itself" and yet not reproductive. The queer must produce itself, for normative heterosexuality won't produce the queer, but would instead impose its norms and constructions. The queer, if fulfilled, must be creative and productive, for there are no ready-made models or constructions for the queer to follow which might offer personal fulfilment.

Adrienne Rich's essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (Rich 1980) is instructive at this point. Rich points out that heterosexuality has been imposed upon everyone, although obviously resisted by some, or we could not even talk about queers, lesbians, gays, or bisexuals. I have used the term "normative heterosexuality" throughout, by which I have not meant sexual relations between females and males per se, but those normal values, institutions, and constructions which have been imposed on all and associated with compulsory heterosexuality. I am not claiming that there is anything wrong with heterosexuality, in and of itself. Rather, the imposition of heterosexuality as an institution is shifting to the self development of all, including heterosexuals, perhaps most so to heterosexuals, for unlike the queer, heterosexuals are provided with no impetus to resist the status quo. What Rich advocates instead is choice, that is choice for people to develop their sexuality, and their selves generally, as they will.

Going back to the normative heterosexual construction of the relation of the self to time, it is important to note that it is just that - a construction. As a construction, there is nothing inherently correct about it. For that matter, it is not even inherently obvious although it might appear that way when internalized. If the assumption that the self is linked in a continuously reproducing chain through time is taken as a given, the fate of the queer as the end of the line is undesirable - at best. However, if this construction is questioned and not taken as a given, the position of the queer must be re-examined and the productive, non-reproductive situation need not be undesirable or threatening at all. Here I ask, why should I want to experience through the constructions of normative heterosexuality? Why shouldn't I be and in fact, desire and want to be "the artistic end to a species"? I see no intuitively obvious reason why either position, the position of normative heterosexuality or that of the productive, non-reproductive queer, is better or necessarily more desirable than the other. I can only see that one has historically been, and still is, dominant and imposed.

Freud surprisingly provides a note of support here. Although his Oedipal writings perpetuate the constructions of normative heterosexuality in that his discovery of the Oedipus complex led to an assumption of natural heterosexuality (Mitchell 1982), something very different and contradictory can be found in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, a work which contains no reference to the Oedipus complex nor the positions it entails (Mitchell 1982). In the opening essay on sexual "aberrations," Freud examines homosexuality to show that there is no natural and fixed object for the sexual drive. The perversions are then analyzed to show that the sexual drive has no inherent, fixed aim (Freud 1905). If members of the opposite biological sex are not natural sexual object choices, and if procreation, and thus perpetuation of the species, is not a natural, inherent, fixed aim of the sexual drive, then the question becomes, "What is it that is natural or normal about heterosexuality"? Normative heterosexuality is a construction, no more inherent than any other. It only appears "natural" or "normal" when it is contrasted with that which has been constructed as "unnatural" or "abnormal" (Dollimore 1991), that is, the heterosexual homosexual.

I recently had a discussion with several ecological anthropologists. During the course of the conversation, we touched on "adaptive fitness" and "adaptation," "sustainability," "carrying capacity," and various other buzz words which serve as theoretical concepts. The deficiencies of the concepts were bandied about, but, throughout the conversation, there was an unquestioned premise. I spoke up at some point "You know, there's a basic assumption at the bottom of all of these concepts." They all looked at me, blankly, waiting, for they had no idea what I was talking about. I continued. "They all assume that ultimately, survivability and continuation of the species through time is the goal and a good thing." Still blank stares. I proposed a hypothetical situation, and here I had in mind Feinberg's hypothetical situation and Hocquenghem's work, both of which I had recently read, but with the connotation flipped on its head. I said, "Suppose the entire human species got together and decided not to reproduce, but instead to go out in some sort of gigantic artistic flourish. What would be wrong with that, and why would that be any less valuable than the continued perpetuation of the species?" They of course had no answer ready for me, but were instead quite shocked to have a basic assumption, which they had apparently never questioned, questioned as just that - an assumption.

Before I get carried away, I am not advocating some theatre of nihilism with cast of six billion, though I don't necessarily oppose such an endeavour either. I am not holding that heterosexual relations per se are wrong, bad, oppressive, or anything of the like. Far from it.

Queer experience, in my understanding, seeks self-fulfilment, that is fulfilment of the self through self-construction, construction unfettered by the imposition of compulsory norms, values, categories, assumptions, constructions. After all, if there is nothing that is natural and inherent about normative heterosexuality, why should it simply be accepted as a given? This process of self-construction, that is self becoming, calls into question all of the assumptions and constructions which have been imposed.

Given the constructive nature of queer experience and queer time, I reject any kind of biological determinism. Just as Julia Kristeva rejects that there is any inherent tie between the "feminine" and the biological female, between "masculine" and the biological male (Tong 1989), there is no inherent tie to bind normative heterosexual construction to heterosexuals, nor queer construction to queers. Among my own acquaintances, there are those, queer or otherwise, who accept the imposed constructions. There are others who question and sometimes reject these same constructions, and who can thus only be described as "queer" in the sense that they potentially threaten and undermine what has been given as "natural" or"normal". To experience queer time then, to construct queer time, is to self-construct the relation of the becoming-self to the constructed world and constructed time, rather than merely accept what is expected and imposed.

At the outset I said that our initial conditions and assumptions entail endings. This may appear to be a contradiction to what I have called for in terms of free construction. However, even though our initial conditions may entail endings, the possible endings are not singular and unitary, but multiple. Our assumptions might entail certain conclusions, but this does not mean we cannot question our assumptions and reject or retain them.


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press. 1976.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. New York: Clarendon. 1991.

Feinberg, Joel. "The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations" in William Blackstone, ed. Philosophy and Environmental Crisis. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. 1974.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company. (1905) 1930.

Gould, Stephen Jay. "Caring Groups and Selfish Genes" in The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1980.

Hocquenghem, Guy. Homosexual Desire. (1972) Daniella Dangoor, trans. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One, (1977) Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985.

Mitchell, Juliet. "Introduction 1" (1982) in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose eds. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980) in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson, eds. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New York: Monthly Review Press. 1983.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press. 1989.

Wulf, Christoph. "The Temporality of WorldViews and Self-Images" in Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf, eds., David Antal, trans. Looking Back on the End of the World. New York: Semiotext(e). 1989.

Robert C. Philen teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, Athens.

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