Valerie Traub on History and Early Modern Queer Studies

Demeaning the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity and change does not advance the cause of queerness; nor does the charge of normalization. For those of us committed to nonnormative  modes of being and thought, the derision implicit in this accusation can only be construed as an attempt to foreclose any possibility of resistance. While proclaiming a uniquely queer openness to experimentation and indeterminacy, the unhistoricists disqualify others’ ways of engaging with the past, seeing in the effort to account for similarities and change over time only a hegemonic, if defunct, disciplinarity. Paradoxically, unhistoricism arrogates to itself the only appropriate model of queer history even as its practitioners imply that history is not something they are interested in making. The categorical quality of their polemic, which implicitly installs queer as a doctrinal foundation and ideological litmus test, goes to the heart of historiographic and queer ethics. It goes to the heart of academic and queer politics. It goes to the heart of interdisciplinarity and its future.

Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” (Menon, “Period Cramps” 233), there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the difficult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.

from The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies