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Queering Queer Time with Ecological Queries

marian.bechtel's picture

In Judith Halberstam’s book In a Queer Time and Place, she makes the “perhaps overly ambitious claim that there is such a thing as ‘queer time’” (1). If that claim is ambitious, then I make here a claim far beyond ambition that we can further expand or “queer” this notion of “queer time” by placing it in the context of deep time. However, before I begin twisting and flipping all normative notions of time and Earth history, I will decipher some of these key terms so we may start this journey on the same page.

First of all, I am using the word “queer” here to mean fluidity, or refusal of boundaries and distinction. Edelman says of the term, “queerness as name may well reinforce the Symbolic order of naming, but it names what resists, as signifier, absorption into the Imaginary identity of the name” (27). In other words, this definition of “queer” as a refusal of distinction, in and of itself makes it a difficult term to define because its very nature is to refuse definition. “Queer time” then “exploits the potential of what Charles-Pierre Baudelaire called in relation to modernism ‘The transient, the fleeting, the contingent’” (Halberstam 2). If “queer” cannot be completely pinned down, then neither can queer time. Normative society today is obsessively focused on reproduction and longevity, both of the individual and of the human race. Any person who defies that in some way, whether it is with queer sex or drug use or anything else, is considered (or more accurately, looked down upon as) a queer subject. Thus, in its simplest form, queer time is a refusal to follow the logics of normative or reproductive time that is focused solely on longevity. It is to experience and imagine alternative temporalities that lie outside of the marked normative progression of time – e.g. birth, marriage, reproduction, death (Halberstam 2). Queer time is a fluid experience within individuals, who may find meaning in different temporalities, such as living only in and for the present, but may take other forms as well.

So how can we make this already very queer notion of time even queerer? I will argue that we can do this by making queer time more ecological and talking of it in relation to deep time, geologic time, and evolutionary time. The issue with our earlier definition of queer time is that it is still a human-centric perception of time – it claims that time is a fluid, ever-changing matter that exists within the framework of human history and a static Earth. However, if we expand our perception of time (including queer time) to think about how it fits into deep time or geologic time, we see that the Earth itself is a fluid and ever-changing matter – tectonic plates are always moving, the surface of the Earth always changing, and the mantle inside always convecting. In reality, the Earth is very dynamic. In the introduction to the Natural Academy of Sciences’ exhibit Imagining Deep Time, Talasek notes that, “From a human perspective, mountain ranges seem unchanging and permanent, but in the context of geologic time, such landscapes are fleeting” (1). His use of the word “fleeting” here is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s description of queer time as “fleeting.” Thus, we can begin to see how deep time could reflect a further queering of queer time. Halberstam gives us the first clue to this kind of queering when she says, “A ‘queer’ adjustment in the way in which we think about time, in fact, requires and produces new conceptions of space” (6). Though she may have not been thinking so broadly at the time, I will take that idea and say that to make a queer adjustment to our perception of “queer time,” we must expand the space we are looking at not just amongst humans, but also amongst all creatures, the Earth, and perhaps even the universe.

Timothy Morton encourages us in The Ecological Thought, that in order to think ecologically we must engage in endless querying, to keep backing up and looking bigger and bigger at the interconnectedness of nature. We can follow this same path then with queer time by looking at it in infinitely larger contexts and drawing connections across time. So let us start by taking one large step back and looking at queer time in the context of evolutionary time. Queer time is rooted in the idea that humans are the peak of evolution, that we can experience queer temporality in a single lifetime or even across generations and centuries. However, in the context of evolutionary time, humans are not necessarily the peak – we are one little strand on a tangled web of life that has been around far longer than we can imagine, and is perpetually changing. Humans are not stable or static beings, but evolved on Earth in the blink of an eye, and will be gone again in a second blink. The concept of the human itself is a fluid subject (and thus a queer subject?), as is all life.

Harraway draws us into thinking about how Christian religion and its story of the creation of the Earth is not queer as we have shown the evolutionary process of life to be. She says, “God is definitely not queer. The sixth day of creation in Genesis 1:24-31 is when God, helpfully speaking English, said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds.’…A little overfocused on keeping kinds distinct, God then got to making man (male and female) in his own image…” (245). Using my earlier definition of queerness and queer time, this story appears to be the ultimate reflection of human-centric normative time, as God supposedly followed a very rigid, specific order and created everything in distinct binaries – light/dark, earth/sky, male/female. It is as far from fluid (queer) as a creation story can get. It also perpetuates what Azzarello calls an “illusion of permanence” with regard to human essence and evolution (30). Darwin, however, “trusted the theory of evolutionary impermanence so much that he was prepared to suspend his disbelief in continental permanence, although in his day there was no tectonic plate theory” (Morton 2). Thus, even Darwin recognized the fluidity (and queerness) in evolutionary time and human existence, and was able to take one more step back (queer it further) to think about the Earth itself as a potentially fluid and non-static subject.

Returning again to the earlier discussion of queer time as a refusal of society’s obsession with longevity and futurity, I want to discuss how we can take Edelman’s “death drive” as it relates to queer time and put it in the context of deep time. One of the reasons the heteropatriarchy is afraid of queerness and queer time is because of this death drive. Edelman defines the death drive as naming “what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” (9). In simpler terms, it is the complete opposition to society’s obsession with longevity, and in my terms, it is an embracing of the fluid and fleeting nature of our existence and thus a celebration of the present. In No Future, Edelman talks of the “Child,” the idealized future of human civilization, the point of marriage, reproduction, and life itself. The death drive opposes this by claiming that not all life experiences and choices must necessarily be geared towards longevity (for example, queer relationships). We can expand this whole notion to include all life on Earth and the Earth itself by asking: Is the purpose of all life and evolution longevity? Is the purpose of the Earth longevity? Considering these things in the context of evolutionary and geologic time, I would say no. Life is always evolving, which means species dying out while new ones arise, only to die out again later – it is a fluid ebb and flow motion in time. The Earth also does not exist as something to continue forever. Indeed it is going to be destroyed eventually one way or another – whether the sun actually supernovas or simply collapses into a white dwarf, something will cause the end of Earth. The entire universe, in fact, is moving, expanding, changing, and like evolution on Earth, planets and celestial bodies will keep being destroyed to make way for new bodies to form. Thus, in a way, the Earth itself has a death drive – and if the death drive is a queer concept, then the Earth itself is a queer body existing in a sort of “queer geologic time. 

This exploration of an ecological queer time is exciting and philosophically nourishing, but the important question to ask now is, what can we actually do with this paradigm shift in thinking about queer time? One thing I have struggled with as a geologist is finding the balance between acceptance of human insignificance and recognition of individual significance – it is a constant battle between apathy and activism within myself, as I wrestle with these intertwined thoughts of deep time and queer time. However Halberstam seems to get at finding this balance when she says, “The constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment and…squeezes new possibilities out of the time at hand” (2). Queer time both allows us to live in and appreciate the moment and our significance, but at the very same time reminds us of our insignificance in the scale of things. In some ways, recognizing our insignificance in the vastness of deep time allows us more freedom in exploring queer temporalities and lifestyles, because when placed in the context of deep time, the way we as individuals experience life – how fast we move, what we find important, who we like to have sex with, what drugs we use – is incredibly unimportant to the lifetime of the Earth. Further, the fact that humans are a mere speck of dust in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history and will probably die out quickly does not necessarily make the future meaningless, but instead places more importance on the present and creates a sense of awe and appreciation for the fluidity and interconnectedness of life and earth. Thus we can learn to find hope in the idea that time and identity’s borders are never fully fixed (Edelman 14). Each of us as individuals is a part of a very fluid, interwoven, and queer history, present, and future. We must learn to recognize our fleeting appearance on this queer Earth in this queer geologic time, and use that humbling knowledge to respect and love all life and the Earth itself.






Azzarello, Robert. "Thoreau's Queer Environmentailty." Queer Environmentality: Ecology, Evolution, and Sexuality in American Literature. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. 29-56. Print. 

Edelman, Lee. "The Future Is Kid Stuff." No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 1-31. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. "Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies." In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. 1-21. Print.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. "Training in the Contact Zone: Power, Play, and Invention in the Sport of Agility." When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2008. 205-246. Print.

Morton, Timothy. "Introduction." The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2010. 1-19. Print.

Talasek, JD. "Imagining Deep Time." Imagining Deep Time. 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.



Anne Dalke's picture

Last month, you designed an after-school project that expanded students’ views of what identity means and where it comes from, as a way of inviting them to think ecologically. This month, you most decidedly up the ante on that project, by using “deep time” to expand the notion, in queer studies, of just what is “transient, fleeting, contingent.”

I take real delight in your willingness to rub these two arenas—queer and geologic studies--up against one another, to see what emerges, and I like the way in which your “queering” queer time makes it less humancentric, expands Halberstam’s sense of “new conceptions of space” to include that “queer body,” the Earth. Annemarie Jagose describes queerness as a “refusal to crystallize,” and you are using queerness that way, too, as a form of endless querying of what it means to be queer. What you haven’t done as much of, though, is really work the connection in the other direction, asking how “queering” deep time might also call into question its deep presumptions about “longevity.”

Also striking here is your use of Halberstam’s observation that awareness of our “constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the present”; this reminds me again (as did your hopeful gestures, last month) of the “messianic time” that Elizabeth Callaway evoked in her presentation on A Space for Justice.

Something that’s missing from this project, though, is the sort of striking imagery you used to kick off your last web-event; I’m thinking of W. J. Thomas Mitchell’s piece on "The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction," Modernism/Modernity (10, 3: September 2003),  481-500, which argues that "we need a 'paleontology of the present,' a rethinking of our condition from the perspective of deep time, in order to produce a synthesis of the arts and sciences adequate to the challenges we face.... perhaps…artists can … unleash the images, in order to see where they lead us, how they go before us. A certain tactical irresponsibility with images might be just the right sort of homeopathic medicine for what plagues us.”

“Unleash” a few more images the next time ‘round, okay?

Marian and Ariel—give a look @ (and comment on?!) the very different ways in which you each wove together matters of science and culture