Touching Temporality

 Science Fiction and Erotohistoriography


In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman argues for an account of queer history that resists what she calls “chrononormativity” or that which is normative temporal regulation. (Freeman 3) She claims that this can be achieved through textual strategies and implementation of devices such as “asynchrony, anachronism, anastrophe, belatedness, compression, delay, ellipsis, flashback, hysteron-proteron, pause, prolepsis, repetition, reversal, [and] surprise.” (Freeman xxii) One of the strategies she introduces is a method called “erotohistoriography.” This is defined as a counterhistory of history, “treating the present itself as a hybrid” in which the body becomes as a tool to perform contact with the past. (Freeman 95) These embodied encounters with history are “precipitated by particular bodily dispositions, and that these connections may elicit bodily responses, even pleasurable ones, that are themselves a form of understanding.” (96) 

In a chapter dedicated to erotohistoriography, Freeman analyzes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, and Hilary Brougher film The Sticky Fingers of Time for evidence of this method of approaching queer temporality. Through her choice of cultural examples it is obvious that the genre of science fiction offers a rich platform for the erotohistoriography. The following text will likewise, investigate the existence of erotohistoriography in the genre of science fiction, through an analysis of Maureen F. McHugh’s Frankenstein’s Daughter, and Steven Millhauser’s The Wizard of West Orange

As suggested by it’s title, Frankenstein’s Daughter is a homage to Shelley’s work. Many of the erotohistoriographic elements of Frankenstein remain intact in Frankenstein’s Daughter. McHugh reinterprets the original novel as a short story, featuring a family fractured by the consequences of cloning a late daughter. The character Jenna mirrors Victor as the creator of a “monster;” She had her daughter Kelsey cloned when she died tragically at age thirteen. The result is Cara: a developmentally slow, unusually large, asthmatic, incontinent six-year-old. 

Freeman’s analysis of Frankenstein is illuminating of Shelley’s usage of a profoundly queer temporal structure, including the antigenealogical undertones of the story. There are many ways this commentary can be extended to Frankenstein’s Daughter. The structure of the Frankenstein family is a blend of related and adopted members, which parallels the separation of Jan, Robert, and Cara from Allan and his new girlfriend. These non-nuclear, fractured family units illustrate a deep fissure between the characters of the story and the normative domestic temporal order, which is “correlated with the endless returns of a cyclical time.” (Freeman 5) 

In Frankenstein, Victor fails to achieve synchronicity with his family when he leaves Geneva for university in Ingolstadt and develops an obsession with antiquated knowledges in the shadow of his mother’s death. During this six year absence, his contact with family was limited to letters, a form of communication that produces a lag between the writing of and receiving of the letter. This epistolary form thus leads to dramatic irony, making Frankenstein “nothing if not a novel of the après-coup.”(97) Similarly, Jenna’s attribution to the reason why she chose to clone Kelsey is a belated understanding of her own motivations. She suffered a morbid fixation with the past while suffering the grief of the loss of her daughter. Of this Jenna says, “when Cara was conceived, I wasn’t sane [...] Nothing prepares you for the death of a child. Nothing teaches you how to live with it.” (McHugh 345) In this statement of afterwardness, Jenna attempts to attribute meaning to earlier events, in which her actions were, as she described, insane.
Jenna and Victor’s “improper” relationship with temporality and death led them toward realizing their compulsions of bodying-forth history through their botched creations. The technology that brought Cara to life was not yet socially accepted or scientifically perfected and so, like Frankenstein’s creature, she became a symbol of that which is just beyond moral intelligibility and comprehension. This is illustrated when Jenna feels the weight of judgement of the doctor who cares for Cara while she’s suffering an asthma attack, as well as when Jenna says of her ex-husband, “he went through the whole cloning thing for me. I don’t exactly have the moral high ground.” (347) Creation of life outside of the confines of heterosexual biological reproduction is profoundly queer. Although Cara isn’t a literal hybrid of bodies and identities, she is (like the monster,)  a symbol of multiplicity as the product of the “unnatural” reproduction of cloning and surrogacy. This non-normative reproduction, in part, accounts for Victor and Jenna’s moralities being out of synch with that of their times. 

Cara herself is incapable of syncing with the normative temporal order. Her physical and mental limitations guarantee she is eternally lagging and infantile, but not only developmentally; Cara is conceptually out of synch with chrononormativity. She was brought to life as a replacement for the dead. She exists as an incarnation of the lost object of Jenna’s desire, and thus cannot achieve self-actualization. Additionally, Cara is fated to become an anachronism. She will become a representation of a historical moment when scientific ability had yet to perfect cloning technology.
Frankenstein’s Daughter is an erotohistoriographic story. As Freeman explains, the monster of Frankenstein is monstrous because Victor “lets history in too far, going so far as to embody it instead of merely feeling it.” (Freeman 104) This directly parallels the creation of Cara, who is brought into the world through her mother’s desire to make manifest the past. 

Steven Millhauser’s short story The Wizard of West Orange seamlessly blends historical nonfiction with fiction in an Edisonade. The narrator is a librarian who works in an institution run by a characterization of Thomas Edison, called The Wizard. The story is composed of diary-entries, in which our narrator reveals his involvement as a subject in early experiments of a new invention. The machine in question is called a haptograph and it produces physical sensations, some banal and some pleasurable beyond the bounds of normal experience. Both the non-fictional elements of the story and the narrator witnessing knowledge transform into a bodily experience follow Freeman’s theory of erotohistoriography. 

A non-normative temporality is constructed by Millhauser as he blends contemporary knowledges with historical understandings of science and technology, in order to expand his historical accounts to accommodate his story. Reference of various texts throughout the narration reveal historical inconsistencies in temporal order. Some books mentioned were not written at the time the story is set, whereas some have an author that was contemporary to the time, but the subject matter would have been futuristic to the characters. This sets the stage for a story in which knowledge and understanding are refracted through a lense of historical temporality.

Mirroring the character of Victor Frankenstein, the narrator has a bibliophilic relationship to knowledge and archival materials. In Time Binds, Freeman describes how “the discipline of history arose in conjunction with, and partook in a crisis about masculinity. Pamphlets and published cartoons from the 1790s figure antiquarian’ obsessive interest in the archives as a sort of sexual perversion.” (Freeman 100) In such a case, the bibliophile might derive such immense intellectual pleasure from historical materials that it causes them to fetishize knowledge. Although not directly related to homosexuality, such a relationship to archives might lead scholars to an abnormal disinterest in the opposite sex and the cyclical temporality of domesticity.

The Wizard and the narrator act as foils to each other. Although they both have an obsessive relationship to knowledge, The Wizard properly sublimates his sexual drive into the linear temporality of modernism through science, while the narrator’s contact with knowledge as pleasure-principle is morally improper. Though the Wizard’s engagement with knowledge as an inventor is socially valued as an achievement, the narrator’s relationship to the haptograph is considered contentious. Pertaining to the beliefs that others hold of the machine, the narrator says, “haptograph as devil’s work. The secret room, naked skin: sin of touch.” (377) These moral beliefs eventually lead to the destruction of the machine and abandonment of the project. 

The haptograph experiements are errotic and sensually described. Before entering the machine, the narrator strips down to a scanty loincloth for maximum skin contact with the interior of the device. The haptograph allows the narrator to achieve a such a state of pleasure that he describes it as being “enveloped in that gentle pressure, that soft caress, I felt soothed, [...] I felt exhilarated, it left an odd and unaccountable joy - a jolt of well-being - a stream of bliss - which fills me to such bursting that tears of pleasure burn my eyes.” (Millhauser 369) This encounter with scientific knowledge leds him to a bodily jouissance and ecstasy, an experience of temporal unity which challenges the chrononormativity of modern science as linear progress.  Yet, he attempts to defend the haptograph as valuable, when he says, “our vision is sharpened by microscopes. Haptograph is the microscope of touch.” (373) He claims the machine leaves a lasting impact as his ability to perceive touch has been expanded by the haptograph. This visceral subjective experience does not further the objective ends of progress and therefore is readily dismissed. 

Freeman’s theory of erotohistoriography is present in the short stories analyzed in this text, Maureen F. McHugh’s Frankenstein’s Daughter, and Steven Millhauser’s The Wizard of West Orange. These two stories are affiliated with the genre of science fiction, which in this case acts as a conduit for non-normative explorations of temporality, including bodily encounters with the past. Distinct from a fully present past and the restoration of a bygone era, erotohistoriography ruptures chrononormativity with a temporal order that allows one to experience the embodied pleasures of realized human knowledge, like in the case of The Wizard of West Orange or the potential mis-steps in bodying-forth history through cloning in Frankenstein’s Daughter

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.
McHugh, Maureen F. "Frankenstein’s Daughter." The Secret History of Science Fiction. Ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2009. Print. p.p. 338-351.
Millhauser, Steven. "The Wizard of West Orange." The Secret History of Science Fiction. Ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2009. Print. p.p. 353-380.

Works Consulted

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2007. Print.