Working

The “How Does a Queer Theorist Work?” Transcript

Read what English professor Elizabeth Freeman had to say about her academic work.

LGBQT holding hands.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This is a transcript of the Dec. 3 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

The following podcast contains explicit language.

Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’re talking to individuals whose jobs touch on aspects of LGBTQ life. Not long ago, the philosopher Judith Butler—who’s famous for books like Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, the books that maybe frustrated you in a gender studies class in college—was burned in effigy in Brazil. It’s a horrifying story, but it’s also one that speaks to the powerful and ongoing reach of an academic field that Butler helped create: one typically known as queer theory. We wanted to understand what it means to work on this thing called “queer theory” more fully so we chatted with Elizabeth Freeman, a professor of English at the University of California–Davis.

In this episode, Freeman shares some thoughts about what it means to think and teach queerly. She also discusses her time editing the journal GLQ, which is the leading academic venue for queer theory. And she explores the connection between this philosophically informed field and real-world activism.

What is your name and what do you do?

Elizabeth Freeman: My name is Elizabeth Freeman and I am a professor of English at the University of California–Davis. Also specializing in gender sexuality studies.

Brogan: What does that mean, gender and sexuality studies in this case, especially in an academic field like English?

Freeman: On some levels, sometimes it’s the study of simply literature of women and sexual minorities, including lesbians and gays, but also transsexual people and intersex people and so on and so forth. It can also mean a kind of critical heterosexuality studies, so that sometimes I have my students reading things about the marriage plot and sort of taking that apart and thinking about how it is that heterosexuality is not so natural after all.

Brogan: Right, the constructiveness of all our sexual norms.

Freeman: Exactly, exactly. I was just going to say, you know, sometimes it involves teaching them the history of the concepts we use to study gender and sexuality. So from something as simple as the nature/nurture debates, or essentialism, gender essentialism. The idea that you’re born with it versus social constructionism and the idea that we’ve made up some of these categories. All the way through to concepts like performativity, Judith Butler’s idea that gender is something we do rather than gender being what we are. So it’s a very wide-ranging field.

Brogan: Yeah, another way to put this or describe this collection of areas of inquiry is this label of “queer theory” that often gets used to describe this kind of academic work. Is that a term you’re comfortable with in regard to your own work. Would you think of yourself as a queer theorist?

Freeman: Yeah, it’s funny, sometimes queer theory doesn’t count as critical theory in the academy. There are not enough dead white men. But I absolutely identify as a queer theorist. And the reason I say gender sexuality studies has more to do with the configuration of the way things are laid out at UC Davis. But I came into queer theory in the early 1990s when what that meant was in part responding to the AIDS epidemic and doing activism around that. It meant reading French feminism and thinking about lesbian aesthetics. It meant trying to understand how the theory of deconstruction could apply to gender. So the term “queer” really, in the ’90s, became a way to both have a critical relationship to some older formations of lesbian/gay studies and as an umbrella term to draw together various sexual minorities. So I’m really of that era, and so I do very much identify with the idea of queer theory even as I recognize some of its limitations.

Brogan: You brought up a moment ago a kind of complex distinction that might be difficult to unpack fully in the context of this conversation but I think is still important, which is this distinction that some stress between critical theory—this form of academic, philosophical inquiry roughly associated with the group of European and American scholars known as the Frankfurt School—and their intellectual descendants and queer theory. But I think it’s interesting that you brought that up in part because it speaks to the way some denigrate queer theory, dismissed it as a field of academic inquiry. Do you feel that the kind of work you do, the kind of questions you’re tackling, some of the issues you brought up a moment ago, is taken seriously within academia?

Freeman: I suppose it depends on where you go in academia. I think there are people who dismiss it as very much sort of a niche specialty and something that was trendy a while ago and is connected to a particular era and doesn’t have any relevance beyond that. But I think that’s absolutely wrong. And dialing back just a little bit, you asked me about my teaching and maybe kind of clarifying something about the way I teach queer theory might be helpful. Which is that I tend to teach it according to three critical genealogies. And the first one is women of color feminism from the 1980s and ’90s, where people like Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde were first theorizing what it meant to be a sexual dissident, somebody who did not align themselves with either normative heterosexuality or normative whiteness and who understood how those two things inflected one another. So when I begin with my students with those genealogies they’re often very surprised, because they believe that queer theory began with Judith Butler or Eve Sedgwick.

And then my second strand that I weave in is age theory. People like Douglas Crimp, who were doing ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, they were doing that kind of activism. Trying to get drugs into bodies, trying to fight the government neglect of the AIDS epidemic. And I have my students read those theoretical materials but also the activist materials that came about during that part of the AIDS epidemic.

And the third is a kind of high-critical theory, you know, is Derrida, is understanding deconstruction and how that modulated and how important it was to queer theorists and activists and people like Foucault, who was another sort of European theorist. So when I teach it that way, part of what I’m trying to get my students to understand is that there isn’t only one queer theory, and its critical genealogies are both high and low. They involve art and activism and high European theory. So in that way, I feel like I want to teach it in such a way that I’m not limiting the kinds of questions they can ask or the kinds of materials they can use. So it does feel very wide-ranging even as, of course, there are always people who will dismiss almost any field of intellectual inquiry. It’s easier than if you understand it.

Brogan: Yeah, of course. Seems like part of what’s complicated here is that “queer” itself is a complicated term. We’re doing this series of the show around what we’re calling LGBTQ jobs. And that Q there, which we typically understand to mean queer, some people use it to mean questioning. But if we understand that to mean queer, it becomes this baggy catchall itself for any form of sexual dissidence or difference or specificity that’s not caught up in any of those more recognizable terms, however complicated they may be on closer inquiry. When you think about doing a kind of work that we call “queer theory,” do you feel obliged to define “queer” itself? This term?

Freeman: I hear what you’re saying that it can mean anything dissident or anything deconstructive and sort of stop meaning anything at all. And so for instance in my second book, Time Binds, I adhere pretty closely to the idea that queer ought to have something to do with sex. That we can expand our definition of sex, we can find things that are unrecognizable as sex in queer theory. But it has to have something to do with bodies and their contact and the imagination about what we can do with bodies. I think there’s another version of queer that means a kind of relentless questioning of heteronormativity, the idea that heterosexuality is natural and inevitable. That may not always mean sex. I like to hold that intellectual space open as well. But I think what’s always been the trick is to have the definition of queer that is kind of capacious enough to unpredictable kinds of work. But not so capacious that it could mean everything.

Brogan: So in that book—if we can talk about practicalities for a minute—in that book, Time Binds, that you alluded to, your second book, you’re talking in part about notions of time, notions of chronology, to some extent your argument there is a critique of what you call “chrononormativity”? I think that’s the term that you’re using. This notion that the ways we construct the schedules according to which we’re supposed to live our lives, from birth through maturation to marriage and so on, have something to do with the construction of maybe sexuality itself. But let me ask a maybe flippant question about that. Do you queer your own schedule? Or do you have a kind of chrononormativity to your own academic working life?

Freeman: That’s a really great question. Because as you know when you first contacted me about this and talking about a day in the life of a queer theorist, I thought, “Boy, my days are so boring.” A lot of them are spent in front of a computer, just writing. And then there’s commuting back and forth to my job, and there’s teaching, and there’s editing a scholarly journal, and that’s just about it.

Brogan: Is there a usual day there? Is there a schedule to those things?

Freeman: Yeah, I can tell you about my usual day. What I was going to say is the funny part about your question is the thing that throws my time and makes it queer is actually probably having a child, which is supposedly heternormative, or at least repronormative, right? But that’s the thing that will sort of foil all my carefully laid plans.

So a typical day can be very scheduled. Because classes happen when they happen and you have to be there and you have to teach them and then you might have to go to two or three committee meetings, which also meet when they meet and you better be there more or less on time. And the more loosey-goosey and unpredictable days are the days I don’t have classes, which will be anywhere from one to three days a week depending on my schedule. And if I’m lucky, one or two of those days I’ll be at home writing, and I might start writing at 7:00 a.m. and I’ll look around and it’s 2:00 p.m. and I’m starving and my bladder’s full and I don’t really know what happened to me. That’s probably the queerest time of all, that undifferentiated flow time of writing.

Brogan: That’s suddenly disrupted by this return to the body, no?

Freeman: Exactly. When you’re like, “Oh, I do have a body I’m not just a brain in a jar.” That’s hard to come by. And the thing about getting older and having more sort of duties and also being a parent is that I’ve learned how to write in little—“Oh, I have half an hour, I’m going to sit down and try to write a paragraph.” And that’s a funny kind of time, too, I think. Sometimes I think the queerest time is the time that you steal from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. And on the one hand, I’m supposed to be writing. But on the other hand, writing is this act of tremendous selfishness. Nobody cares about my writing but me. So stealing it from something like doing the dishes can feel minorly seditious.

The other thing I mentioned that I spent the last six years doing, I’ve just kind of peeled away from it is editing the flagship scholarly journal in lesbian case studies. It’s called GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. It’s expanded out beyond the kind of traditional LGB designation. And that is another sort of sitting-in-front-of-the-computer job, but it has deadlines attached to it. And sometimes I’m sort of working at breakneck speed to get an article edited in time to get it into the next issue. Sometimes I’m moving incredibly slowly, painstakingly line editing something. So that has its own production schedule that doesn’t care about the academic schedule or my body schedule or anything. And for a while, for six years, the writing, the teaching, and the editing were really just constantly juggling those three balls up in the air.

Brogan: Did you have a way of trying to balance them? Or do you say to yourself, “Now I’m going to spend this amount of the day writing because I know I have this amount of time I have to commit to teaching and preparing for my classes and grading papers and all of that other stuff, and then I’m going to have this much time left for the journal and the editing work and other academic endeavors”?

Freeman: Yeah, that’s why your question was super-hilarious to me because I’m very regimented. I try to write every day. I give myself breaks sometimes, but if I have half an hour to write, I’m going to write. Because that’s the part that’s mostly for me and my relatively small audience. And then the rest gets stacked up according to urgency of deadline. Teaching is another thing, you can’t dial it in. You have to prepare those classes, you have to get those papers graded. I’ll often arrange my papers in little stacks of five. And every five papers I’ll get up and reward myself with a walk around the block or a snack or a TV show. Whatever it takes to get through it. So there’s a lot of chopping time up into these little bits. That’s really antithetical to some of the kinds of time I’m trying to get at in Time Binds, thinking about queer temporality. And a lot of my life is more chrononormative than I’d wish.

Brogan: When I was teaching, the part of my own schedule that I dreaded most, that I was worst at scheduling, was time spent grading papers. Everything else I could find time for. But grading papers …

Freeman: Isn’t it sad?

Brogan: It’s really sad. And you know, you want to give the students the best. But sometimes for me, I’m sure not for you, sometimes it would happen in a rush, smoking sad cigarettes on a balcony.

Freeman: I eat sad sugar. But yes.

Brogan: We all have our vices.

Freeman: We all think of this in academe. Students don’t like writing those papers and we don’t like reading them. And I have a couple of creative assignments that I’ve developed over the years to mitigate that pain. One thing is, when I’m teaching a lesbian gay studies class, I’ll have them take a mainstream text and I’ll have them change somebody’s gender or sexuality in the text and then have them rewrite it, physical re-present it. And they can do it any way they want. They can do it as a play script or a podcast or a video. And then they have to write a little analytic piece about what happens when you change this one factor. What else do you have to change? And those are a lot of fun to read. So I try to slot in one creative assignment per class so that I don’t die from reading awkward academic prose.

Brogan: Or the approximation thereof, certainly. Well I want to talk more about each of these branches in your work in a second. But one thing I wonder, and for a lot of academics that I’ve known over the years, this is a difficult issue to grapple with. But it’s not a conventional nine-to-five job for most people. Do you ever get to shut off or are you always on email, thinking, paging through new scholarship, and all these other kind of secondary, tertiary, and somehow also primary responsibilities that are part of the job?

Freeman: Well I think that the older I got, the more I learned how to turn it off, punch the clock. It isn’t anything like nine-to-five, it’s more like nine-to-eight in terms of the amount of hours I might be working. I learned somewhere after tenure, after my first book, take Sundays off. It’s really important. Just take one day a week where you’re not doing this. And then having a kid, they don’t care, they’re not interested in your latest theory about time. So, that’s another thing that forces me to put it all away.

But it’s an odd job because you’re never done. There’s never a moment where you’re like, “Oh, I’ve completed my projects. I can just lay back and take a vacation.” It’s more, “OK, I’m going to put this aside for a while.” And then usually it’s, “I’ll put this aside for a while, I won’t work on the journal today because I have to finish an article,” or, “I won’t finish this article today because I have to devote half the day to grading papers.” So it’s always putting one thing aside and turning to another.

I think overwork and burnout are pretty common in my profession. I think students, and parents of students, and people who aren’t in academe, only see the very tip of the iceberg and they wonder, “Well what kind of job is it when you only have to show up for six hours worth of classes a week?” And they have no idea what the other parts of the job are. And because there isn’t a boss standing over you or anybody managing your time, you really do have to develop strategies to give yourself downtime and give yourself other parts to your life. I think people who don’t, end up quite distorted. It’s really important.

Brogan: Let’s talk a little about your teaching, that element of your work. First of all, how many classes do you teach at any given time?

Freeman: So my teaching load is two classes a quarter. I teach at a research 1 university, as they call it, which is a PhD-granting institution, which means at least a third of my job should be research and publishing. And at least a third of it should be teaching. And at least a third of it should be service to the institution and to the profession. So, that’s at least three-thirds. Sometimes it feels like four- or five-thirds. And at any given time, I’m usually teaching at least one large lecture-style class with anywhere from 75 to 120 students. And then I might be teaching either a graduate seminar, which has 12 to 15 PhD students in it, or I might be teaching a lower division class that has 30 or maybe a kind of another upper-division class that’s a little smaller, maybe 50. And we’re on the quarter system so that’s 10 weeks of the very pounding sort of rhythm of preparing classes and grading papers and whatnot.

And so again it’s the tip of the iceberg. Those six hours a week, that’s what my classroom time is, and then two office hours a week so that’s eight hours a week seems like nothing. Until you remember the prep time for a lecture class is about 10 hours of work for one hour of lecture. Maybe sometimes I can do six or seven hours of prep for a one-hour lecture. When you add in also reading the material in addition to preparing the lecture it really is about 10 hours. So reading through the material I’ve assigned and then constructing some combination of lecture and activities for the students and discussion questions and whatnot. So, that keeps me pretty busy during my teaching quarters. I probably spend 35 hours a week on teaching, total.

Brogan: So we’re already at almost a full-time job, whatever it may look like in the public-facing side.

Freeman: That’s what the funny part is, academe is really several full-time jobs combined into one. When I was editing the GLQ journal, which I did for six years, that was about five or six hours a week. Teaching, like I said, 30 to 35. Research is as many hours as you can cram in. And then there’re things like I’m required to be on two committees within my department and those committees might meet, let’s say, a total of three hours a month each, so let’s say six more hours on committee work. Then there’s things like graduate exams, which might be another five hours a month. There’re graduate students and their dissertation chapters, each of which takes maybe three hours to read. And I might have three of those a month. And so on and so on and so on and so on.

Brogan: It adds up.

Freeman: It does add up. What I say about this job is very little of it is alienated labor. Very little of it is something you don’t want to be doing where you’re not using your brain. Maybe grading sometimes is that. The rest of it is really very immersive and interesting. Sometimes committee meetings are not that exciting. But a lot of it really does allow you to use your creativity and you get a lot of autonomy over when you do a lot of your tasks. But there are a lot of them. There is a kind of sense that you could be doing more on every front.

Brogan: You’ve just used this term coming out of Marxist theory, alienated labor. And that work that we do that we don’t really get to own. It also seems like the kind of thinking that you do as part of your job permeates your experience of it. Is that fair to say?

Freeman: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think, to go back to teaching, I’m always wondering how to make the kind of transformative material that I’m teaching, these concepts, how can I not just be telling my students about them but figure out how to enact them in the classroom? So teaching is really a wonderful area where if you’re teaching about activism and strategies of empowerment for the marginalized, well, then you have a bunch of students sitting in front of you who may have gotten tuition hikes they can’t afford. Or they may be students who are terrified about what’s going to happen with the DREAM Act. So even if they’re not students for whom queer activism is the most immediate place they’re going to take their political energy, they’re taking the concepts you’re teaching them and then moving them into the places they care most about.

And if you’re lucky, they’ll challenge you right in the classroom. They’ll flip around the power relations in the classroom or transform the classroom. That’s kind of magical. I’m always really thrilled when that happens, even when it’s kind of awkward in the moment.

Brogan: There’s a kind of strong current of contrarianism that runs through a lot of queer theoretical work. I imagine that some of that can be upsetting even for people who think of themselves as aligned with queer-positive politics. More generally, do you ever encounter resistance from students when you’re teaching this material, these complex and difficult traditions?

Freeman: Oh yeah, of course. Two things come to mind immediately. My first book, The Wedding Complex, is really about the nonrelationship between the wedding as a performance and marriage law. The way that marriage law diminishes the possibilities for kinship, even as it’s creating these official lines of inheritance and property relations. My students for a long time were very upset by the idea that I didn’t think gay marriage was liberating. That had been a really important source of sustenance and activism for them. So they really didn’t want to hear about it. So, that was one.

The other is I have this class called Literature, Gender, and Sexuality that I teach around race. And I really ask them to think about how the concepts we have to think about sexuality with are kind of white-inflected concepts. So I get them first to understand that under slavery, gender, masculinity, and femininity were prohibited. They had the normative ways we live, masculinity and femininity, even in the 18th century did, were not available to slaves. And that kind of breakdown of what they thought they signed up for can be really upsetting to students. And sometimes that’s not what they want, and they’re upset.

Brogan: What happens when students get upset? How do you engage with them in those moments? Do they speak up? Do they come to your office hours?

Freeman: A lot of different things. If I’m lucky, they speak up, they come to my office hours, or they even act out in the classroom. That’s OK. As long as they’re not actively impeding the education of other students, I’m OK with an explosion in the classroom. That’s a chance to help them break through to another conceptual universe. And I think college should be a place where what you think you knew gets shattered and rebuilt. And you are the person who has to rebuild it and build it differently. So I appreciate those moments. It’s hard when they’re directed at me as a human being. But what I have to say to myself is I’m the one who’s standing here half a century old with tenure. It’s OK. This student really can’t hurt me.

And that’s very different than a student who walks into your classroom with a kind of reactionary “I’m going to troll you.” I really don’t get that very often. And even those students, who start very much with their heels dug in, sometimes little by little, something gets them. They start to question one of their deepest beliefs and they come to a place where you didn’t imagine they could come.

I had this wonderful moment. This was years ago but I taught this lesbian lit seminar and I had this student do his final presentation on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in full navy dress. He had come in wanting to learn more about his gay friend. He didn’t really know why he was there. And he got to a place where he could really critique the military while being in it. That was really beautiful to me to see. We always talk about teachable moments, and it’s sort of a cliché phrase, but it’s true. The moments they feel the most disoriented and the least affirmed can be the moments where they really learn something.

Brogan: Those are the ones that probably linger for a lot of them as well.

Freeman: I think so. That was my experience of college. The things that made me tear my hair out and cry and feel ashamed of myself sort of became the tools that I had, new tools, to think with if I could get over myself. And I think we all eventually do. And I think the thing about teaching that’s so interesting to me is that there’s a lot of right-wing blah blah about measuring outcomes and making sure teachers are performing and students are learning. You often can’t tell what a student has learned until a decade later. They haven’t processed it, they haven’t figured out where it fits into who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do until much, much later. And there’s no way of measuring that. But that’s one of the delights of teaching.

Brogan: Yeah. So there’s another element in play here, which is that much of what we call queer theory is famously, maybe notoriously difficult by the standards of so-called critical theory more generally, within academic scholarship. Part of that is because many of the thinkers who helped shape the field are challenging writers. Part of that is because there are a lot of really complicated ideas in play. Judith Butler, who you’ve mentioned a few times, draws variously on Kant and Hegel and Derrida and Foucault and all of these big uppercase mononymic figures of philosophical history. And that’s true for many other scholars, as well. I assume that students who come to your classes haven’t always read extensively from the philosophical traditions of Judith Butler and others, including you, are drawing on, but do you find ways to make that difficult, complex thinking accessible to them? Or do they just have to struggle through?

Freeman: Both. I think you can put it in a beautiful little package and tie it with a bow and drop it in their laps but that doesn’t mean it’s theirs. They have to do the work too and prose that makes them do the work is part of the learning process. Even as I think part of my job is to stand back and help them synthesize what they’ve already said and connect it to what they may not be able to say yet and pull up the little nuggets of gold that come up in conversation. I always joke about teaching, you give them back to themselves twice as large as they thought they were. Sort of help them put things together. I think it’s the kind of prejudice against queer theory being abstruse doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me when nobody’s bothering the cancer researchers about their jargon. Fields have their shorthand, they have critical vocabulary. And part of my job is to help them use that critical vocabulary, and also eventually to create a critical vocabulary of their own. And it doesn’t have to take the form of four-syllable words.

Another really wonderful thing about teaching queer theory is a lot of the theory doesn’t look like theory, it looks like poetry. If you look at that seminal collection, This Bridge Called My Back, which was a collection of writings by women of color published in the ’80s. There are personal essays, there’s poetry, there are short stories. And that’s a form of knowledge-making too. So the other challenge is to take your super-sophisticated student who speaks Judith Butler–ese and help them see that Audre Lorde’s poetry is also theoretically complex and rich. So we don’t have one body of scholarship that’s just telling us the truth and can get to it immediately, and another body of scholarship that’s abstruse and complicated and we have to work hard at. They both take different kinds of work. And I think with graduate students, I really want them to learn not just to apply a theory to something new, but to take what they’re working on and have it talk back to the theory in theoretical terms they haven’t found yet. That’s kind of my ideal.

And I think an example of that is right there in Time Binds. In one chapter of that book, I have this thing I call “the theory of temporal drag.” And the theory of temporal drag is in part just the past goals and the present, but it’s also a theory of drag performance. And I was interested in looking at drag performances where people used archaic or obsolete fashions and styles of being gendered, forms of womanhood that we don’t live anymore in male to female drag.
And I didn’t think Butler had really theorized that. And I thought that was really fascinating. And the more I thought about those kinds of performances, the more I was able to think about temporal drag as its own theoretical object. To think differently about drag but also to think differently about time.

So it was really looking at some of Butler’s material and looking at some other kinds of material that featured that weird play with anachronism that allowed me to write theory that was in conversation with Butler’s work. It’s great if undergrads can do that but I really want graduate students to do that.

Brogan: Miz Cracker, a drag queen we had on the show a few episodes ago, described her ideal look to us as whatever people in the ’30s and ’40s thought the future was going to look like. So she’s creating these looks that are inspired by Flash Gordon comics and things of that nature from this earlier moment that I think speak to what you’re talking about. Ways that past and present get entangled in our relationship to something we call the body or our relationship to someone else’s body, our understanding of our sexualities and ourselves. But maybe that also gets at something else that you said that there are ways in which maybe even a drag performance, like Miz Cracker’s intentionally are not, kind of theorize as fully or as powerfully as a familiar quantity like Judith Butler.

Freeman: I think they do. And that’s partly why I don’t feel like a theorist. I don’t just write philosophy. I’m interested in objects and literary texts and stuff that I want to spend time with and unfold and see what kinds of theory it makes. And for me drag was the best way to learn about what I think of as lost alternative futures, which it sounds like Miz Cracker is doing.

Brogan: I think you two would get along.

Freeman: The futures that did not come to be that were imagined at a certain moment and didn’t really unfold quite the way they were imagined to unfold and there they are just kind of lying around like thrown-away objects. There’s something quite beautiful about that and quite poignant and they tap into what I think is a very queer longing for things to be otherwise than they are. And to look at moments where other people were imagining things otherwise. It’s very powerful.

Brogan: It is. And it also gets at something that comes up in your own writing. A few minutes ago, you described writing as an act of selfishness because you’re taking this time to yourself and pulling something out of your head and hoping that the world will read it. But in Time Binds, you also talk about writing as an act that is oriented to the future, that anticipates a reader. A world that will still exist to read and hopefully accept the thing that you’ve written. When you’re writing, who do you see yourself writing for? Who’s your audience for your scholarship?

Freeman: There’re a few different answers to that. One, if I’m going to quote Gertrude Stein, the lesbian writer of the Left Bank, Paris, turn of the century, who said, “I write for myself and strangers.” That’s true. I write for publics that don’t exist yet, that maybe aren’t born yet. The other is I write for my friend Pete. Or my friend Dana. I write for people whose work I admire and I’m thinking with and I kind of want to be in constant conversation with but they’re in another state teaching at another institution. And I write for work that doesn’t exist yet in the hope that somebody can pick up something I’ve thought and they can run with it and they can think thoughts that I haven’t myself reached.

I really think it’s wonderful to see my work used for different kinds of projects. And I’ve been really lucky with Time Binds, that people have picked up my work. I’ve had artists and performers read it and think with it and then create objects that I myself don’t have the talent or imagination to create. And I’ve had other theorists work with it. And I don’t mind if that includes pretty serious critique. I think it’s just wonderful to be in the conversation at all. So I’m partly writing for what doesn’t exist yet and what I myself can’t create, in the hopes that if I put something out there that somebody else can pick it up and run with it. And that’s a really privileged job.

Brogan: All writing in some sense is an act of world-making. Especially when you’re dealing with issues of the body and of society. You’re presumably trying to create something not just trying to describe or diagnose it.

Freeman: I think that’s right, and I think that’s true of teaching, too, that the best way to think about teaching is you’re creating possibilities in the future. Things your students can think and do and do and think together that will make you obsolete. I mean ideally I’d like to just fade away and radiate and let my students take over the world and do a better job of it. There’s something to me very utopian about writing and teaching, which are the majority of my job. The other thing I was thinking about when I was thinking about talking with you, is the way that so many queer academics have other projects they’re involved in that are outside of the academy. And that are part of that queer world-making. So for example, my friend Kate Drabinski, who teaches at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, runs a lesbian popcorn cart and hands out bags of popcorn that are printed with LGBTQ history. It’s a kind of wonderful project, just putting popcorn in the hands of people.

Brogan: We actually did a series of this show in Baltimore and I wish that we had done an episode with her about that.

Freeman: Isn’t that an awesome little project? And then my friend Jess, who’s at Rutgers, who does all this work for Palestine solidarity. Or my friend Jennifer Doyle, at UC Riverside, who deejays at a queer club night. My friend Ann Bailey, at Haverford, who works with queer truckers and spends a lot of time fighting regulations that make truckers lives and their labor harder. So these are ways that that world-making impulse that is queer theory, is not just world-making within the academy but kind of leaks out. And then that leakage, I’m acting like it’s a one-way transmission, but it’s not. Because what comes back from those other places makes the academic work more beautiful and complicated and smarter than it could ever be. And that’s why for me the ’90s were so important because activism and art and academe were very much intertwined in the project of making queer theory. Now I’m a little older and I can’t do all the things I want to do. But my friends are doing amazing things.

Brogan: Sure. You touch on something important here, too, which is queer theory, whatever it is, is rarely just about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans issues. To use a term of our moment, it tends to be a deeply intersectional field or inquiry and action and sometimes even direct activism. And that, I think, is true in your work as well even if you’re not out doing AIDS activism now as it sounds like you once were. You are grappling with a range of issues that encompasses several post-Colonial studies. You tackled a lot about the way racial history plays into your scholarship and teaching. How do you find your own way in your writing and your scholarship, how do you find your own way through this array of possible issues and concerns that seem to pull you toward them?

Freeman: That’s a great question. You know, sometimes it just feels like my eyes are closed and I’m following a rope bridge from knot to knot and I don’t exactly know how. Some of it is very personal. My first book, The Wedding Complex, certainly came from some sense of everybody’s getting married, what’s going to be left for people like me who are not marriageable? You know? And I had to read a lot of history of marriage, I had to read a lot of law, had to read a lot of anthropology. I just had to read around in very different disciplines to even know how to think about marriage. And Time Binds was sort of the same way. I started writing the first chapters around the turn of the millennium and I kept thinking, “I’m watching the ACT UP and AIDS activism become museum exhibits and AIDS is normalizing and I’m getting older and I don’t know how to think about what time means anymore.” If I’m not going to follow the life path that was laid out for me as a young, straight girl in 1974—and again, I had to read high philosophy, I had to look at lots of videos, I had to look at performances. So I think it partly just comes from the question of “What do I need to bring to bear on this question or problem?” It can come from anywhere.

Most recently, for instance, the book I’m working on now is about what I’m calling “sense methods” and it’s in the 19th century. So I’ve kind of situated myself in an earlier century. Ways of doing things and knowing things with the body that are both nonlinguistic and where they may or may not be about sex or what bodies are doing that’s not recognizably sexual. And it’s a little bit of a spinoff from Time Binds but I have a chapter on chronic time and what it means to live the chronic. And that has everything to do with having been with somebody for a decade who’s chronically ill and watching her live time really differently than me. In ways that sometimes really frustrated me or a source of contention between us but also that I learned enormously from.

And that meant to try to think about chronic time, that meant reading disability studies, reading work by my colleague Ellen Samuels at U Wisconsin, Madison, who’s written on what she calls “crypt time.” And she does a lot of her work corresponding with disabled and chronically ill people across the country. That’s part of how her knowledge base works. And then I got to borrow from that. It meant reading things about health and conservation movement of the early 20th century and suddenly reading weird policy documents that have to do with the conservation of human energy. So I think interdisciplinarity often comes from asking a question first, and then finding what you need to answer it as you go. And that’s why it feels oddly groping.

Brogan: That must be a humbling experience a lot of the time, though.

Freeman: I think it is, but I think it’s also great that I don’t know in advance what I think, and I often have to write it down to know. So there’s a constant questing that’s part of my job that I would really like to think everybody could have in their job. I would really hope that for everybody—speaking of unalienated labor—I would hope that everybody has some part of their life, it doesn’t actually have to be their paid job, but some part of their life that’s really kind of a quest, where what they need to answer their questions is a surprise every time.

Brogan: Yeah, I mentioned earlier that some people take that Q in LGBTQ and make it questioning and maybe queer can be about those questions. Queer theorists aren’t, of course, the only people who should be asking questions in academia or any other field.

Freeman: No.

Brogan: But there is something to be said for what you’re describing in terms of the ways it butts up against a stereotypical understanding of what a humanities academic college professor is or really what any kind of college professor is. We’re often led to expect that a professor is going to a fount of expertise. That they’re going to have all of the answers from the start, but I imagine it sounds like, clearly, in the research you do for your own work, but I would imagine also for your teaching, that sometimes you have to start from a position of not knowing, and acknowledge ignorance.

Freeman: Yeah, and to really understand not knowing is not a crisis. It’s this incredibly great place to be to not already know. And that’s a funny thing in working with graduate students. They want to already know. They want to be ahead of the knowledge looking backward at it in their rearview mirror because that feels safe and that feels like mastery. And some of that training is helping them develop a radical openness and an unknowingness and to ask questions that feel rear guard or obvious or stupid and those are often the questions that can change the whole conversation.

So, sure, there are times to pull back and lecture. I haven’t been doing this for 25 years for nothing. I have things to say. I love looking at students, undergraduates, even, and saying, “I have no idea. I’ve been looking at this passage for 25 years and I don’t understand it. What do you think?” And they often come up with really stunning interpretations. And I can say to them, with real honesty, that with humanities work, you can do it at a beginner level and come up with something amazing. There’s no kind of prerequisite for having an insight into a literary text. That doesn’t mean every single thing you do is going to be at the same level of expertise. But new knowledge can come from anywhere.

Brogan: Speaking of new knowledge, at least in Time Binds, many of the cultural artifacts, the objects, the texts, to use these academic terms, that you’re writing about, are things that have been largely overlooked by other scholars. Talking about experimental films that may not even be easy to see or to find. And things of that nature. Do you consciously seek out, I don’t want to say, obscure texts, but less familiar things in your work or is that just material that you happen across as you’re conducting your own research and thinking about what you might write?

Freeman: I think a little bit of both. That book, also, I’m like, “Oh, by the way, Frankenstein.” There’s some canonical stuff in there too. But I think part of when I wrote that book, I was really interested in independent film and video. And I felt like the smartest thoughts about time and the relationship between time and sexuality, that’s where they were coming from. Rather than from scholarly works or already canonized texts.

And I also take a little bit of a cue—and not all of my work is like this but that book is like this—from my colleague the late Jose Munoz, who really saw part of what queer theory was about as gathering together publics and archiving what was ephemeral about queer culture. So really writing the history of the present. So with that book I really did want to do some work describing and thinking about works by artists who were not going to be making blockbuster Hollywood movies—some of them might someday, I don’t know—but who were really working independently and not making a lot of profit and they were kind of thinker artists. And I knew that if the book did well, that libraries would buy some of those films. And people would teach some of those films. That was really important to me to pay homage to the people who had always fed me. I’ve always had artists for friends and filmmakers and photographers and they’ve always been people with whom I’ve shared ideas and from whom I’ve drawn intellectual sustenance. So it was important for me to do a kind of payback.

You could also say it was really parasitic, I don’t want to be too utopian. But the artists were very generous with me and they allowed me to use their work and they were generous about my thinking about their work. So that was kind of a wonderful way to be with them.

Brogan: Yeah, but you also edited this journal, you mentioned that, the GLQ, you—as I understand it—sent out your last issue of it from your six-year tenure as editor of this long-lived publication.

Freeman: Yes, I did.

Brogan: Congratulations.

Freeman: Thank you.

Brogan: I don’t know a huge amount, despite my own time in academia, I don’t know a huge amount about journal-editing works. But I’m going to guess at some level this is an act of generosity to the field as well? Because you were not paid for that, were you?

Freeman: No, sadly, I wasn’t paid either in money or in course release time. It was utterly a labor of love.

Brogan: How did that even come about? If one of my friends said, “Hey, I’m thinking about editing this publication and I’m not going to get paid for it,” I would say, “Don’t do that.” But in academia it’s a little more normal than it would be in, say, journalism.

Freeman: Yeah, I think it’s important to remember that I do draw salary. And the salary really covers my teaching, my research, and my service to the profession. And this is service to the profession. So I’m not starving on the street.

Brogan: Of course not.

Freeman: But it is a labor of love. I came up in queer theory and one of the wonderful things about queer theory in the ’90s was that some of the best work was coming from graduate students and people who didn’t have academic jobs at all. People who had been kind of marginalized by the academy, activists who weren’t involved in the academy. So it felt important to me when I got old enough and, whatever you want to call it, powerful enough? Interesting enough? To help new work. To help find people out there who may or may not have fancy jobs or may not have jobs at all. But who are writing wonderful essays and to give those essays a venue. So, that was very much a labor of love. And there are a couple authors who I plucked out of my submissions pile way back in 2011, when I first started, who have published their first books and gotten tenure. And I know I was part of helping their careers and that was really important to me.

I also just happen to love writing and I love the English language and I love sentences. And so even though editing can be very painstaking and make you want to tear your hair out and make you grumpy. There’s also something wonderful about figuring out, “Oh this is how this sentence should work or if this paragraph were up here, this argument would be much stronger.” It’s a kind of architectural work that I got a lot of pleasure out of. Young academics don’t often realize their work is being peer reviewed and read and evaluated by people who aren’t being paid, and it’s being edited and published by people who aren’t being paid. That’s why it’s so slow.

Brogan: I tried to remember that when I was in the field. But did editing the journal, editing GLQ, give you a new perspective on this area of inquiry, gender and sexuality studies, queer theory, whatever you want to call it, more generally?

Freeman: Mmm hmm.

Brogan: You love this work. Did you love it differently afterward?

Freeman: Yeah, I did. I did it for a selfish reason, edited the journal. Once you get older and you’re doing all these committee meetings, and teaching, and dissertation chapters, and your job just gets bigger and bigger, it’s hard to keep reading in the field, it’s hard to keep reading emerging work, and I really wanted to. And I learned so much from doing it. I learned about pink washing. I learned about the relationship between bestiality and the meat industry. I learned amazing …

Brogan: Oh boy.

Freeman: Yeah, that’s in my last issue. It’s this really wonderful article. Well, he’s really interested in this whole industry where it actually requires the insemination of animals by humans. So what I saw about the field was, one, it’s very much still alive. There’s just so much going on. So much good work. And it’s also changing shape. Whereas in the ’90s, people were sort of interested in sex as genital sex. Now, there’s a whole field called “affect studies,” which is really about sensations and vibrations and frequencies and …

Brogan: States of feeling.

Freeman: States of feeling, exactly. That has overlapped and intersected with queer studies in really interesting ways and really changed the shape of what it can do. Disability studies as such didn’t exist. It existed but it didn’t have the pressure on queer theory in the early ’90s that it now does. The whole question of what counts as a natural body is a question that clearly straddles those two fields.

One of my goals with the journal was to really expand the terrain of queer of color critique. A work by scholars of color who had been not necessarily identifying as queer theorists or even felt identified with the project, but who were taking up questions of bodies and sensations and kinship and things like that. So it really did give me a kind of panoramic view of a lot of the field and made me feel like I could still be in the conversations. Because that’s, at the end of the day, what it is. That’s why people become academics. It’s not that they want to keep talking, themselves, on a podium but they want to keep being in conversation with people.

Brogan: Right. So you’ve been in this conversation for 25 years now, it sounds like, maybe more. Since the early ’90s. You’ve seen through this era of AIDS activism, watched the marriage debate transform and evolve, written on those issues. This may be an unanswerable question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, what for you is the value of queer theory today? What can it teach us, or what has it taught you, about living in the world?

Freeman: Oh, gosh, there’s a famous article by Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant called “What Can Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” And I want to sort of say I reject the idea that it has to have some kind of quantifiable value that has to be an object lesson. But I think that it’s taught me and continues to teach me enormous humility in the face of how creative human beings are with their relationships to one another. That in some ways, queerness is always about relationality. About how people are socially and how are they connected to one another.

There’s a great moment in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding where the main character Frankie Adams says, “But what joins them to each other?” What joins them together? And I think that to me is kind of the great question. I think Whitman asked it too in a different key. And I think that queer theory teaches me that it’s always worth asking that and seeing how that works, and that might not be everybody’s queer theory, either. I think that’s really important. I think for instance, trans studies has really risen up in an angle to queer theory, and isn’t always asking the same questions in the same way as developing in directions that queer theory couldn’t have predicted. So I think it’s really the kind of humility that I would like to both teach and carry forward, if that makes any sense.

Brogan: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Freeman: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for indulging me.