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"Anachronistic Encounters": Cross-Temporal Touch and the Expansive Present in Beloved

smalina's picture

“Anachronistic Encounters”:

Cross-Temporal Touch and the Expansive Present in Beloved



Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a story of a family reunited under extraordinary circumstances: through a haunting. When Sethe’s daughter, whom she killed in an attempt to prevent her enslavement, returns in spectral form, Sethe is overwhelmed by her opportunity to mother her at long last. At the same time, Sethe is in the process of reconstructing her own identity in the wake of the violence of slavery. Driven by a need to nurture that becomes all-consuming, Sethe sees her own life slipping away at the hands of her ghostly daughter. Avery Gordon offers a reading of Beloved as impetus to move forward toward a better future, encouraging Sethe to make crucial changes to her life. However, Gordon’s analysis omits acknowledgement of the uniquely tactile nature of the ghost. Just as Sethe is metaphorically touched by the trauma of slavery, she is physically touched by Beloved’s corporal form. In employing this cross-temporal touch on a literal level, the narrative accesses a queer temporality—one characterized by an expansive present. Sethe is offered a critical choice: to remain in this present and sacrifice a future for her own body (as she begins to physically deteriorate from the task of caring for Beloved), or refuse the opportunity, working toward a future for herself and her living daughter, Denver.


Jack Halberstam on Queer Temporality 

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam defines “queer time” as “a term for those specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernism once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (Halberstam 7). Despite its connections to deviant sexual identities, “queer” in this context is much broader than a set of sexual practices; rather “‘queer’ refers to non normative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in time and space” (6).

Normative, Western temporality, on the other hand, emphasizes a life lived for the betterment of the future (in what queer theorists term “reproductive futurity,” or a future focused around reproductive timelines and ensured for the sake of The Child). Individuals feel both personally and morally driven to extend themselves (and their nation’s values) through their children, for causes greater than themselves. As Halberstam explains: “It also connects the family to the historical past of the nation, and glances ahead to connect the family to the future of both familial and national stability” (5). But what if the life of the child—and the child’s future—is deemed disposable in the context of national identity? Moral rules which “create longevity as the most desirable future” apply only to those deemed valuable (4). When Sethe makes the decision to murder her child, she does so as a measure of protection from a fate worse than death. As Paul D muses, “this here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw” (Morrison 193). The oppression Sethe and other former slaves faced has put her in a distinctly horrifying circumstance--one in which to act for the “good” of The Child is to kill her. Sethe sees no future for her child.

Though queer theorists emphasis the place for pleasure in a rejection of the future, Halberstam acknowledges the necessity to celebrate the present when there is no hope for the future at all. As he writes, referencing the temporal possibilities opened up by the AIDS crisis:

“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).

Here, the immense potential of the present moment is made possible by a lack of future—in this case due to illness.

To apply this queer theory to a post-slavery narrative is to look not at the lack of potential for black lives not valued by a nation to thrive into the future, but instead at the immense value of the present moment for community, empowerment, and pleasure. It is interesting to consider the resonance of this notion with the time and place of Beloved. Although Gordon acknowledges Morrison’s move to “skip” the step so common to historically popular slave narratives of “proving” the individual’s humanity before telling their story, Sethe is still very much tasked with proving her personhood to herself after the deep violence of slavery. As Morrison writes: “Bit by bit, at 124 and in the Clearing, along with the others, she had claimed herself. Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (Morrison 111-12).

Facing the continued danger of enslavement or lynching in the years following abolition, Sethe and her family must reconstruct their own identities, families, and larger communities before they can make progress in building a life in the United States.


Carolyn Dinshaw on Cross-Temporal Touch

The notion of cross-temporal touch was first introduced by queer theorist and medieval historian Carolyn Dinshaw in her book, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Dinshaw explores what she terms a “queer historical impulse,” by which the modern queer subject is driven to connect with counterparts across time in a manner which, in its inherent non-linearity, refuses a “progress” or cause-and-effect narrative (Dinshaw 1). This process, she argues, “extends the resources for self- and community-building into even the distant past” (1). Those who are not blood relatives but who once grappled with their own queerness can thus become queer kin and “relations that form parts of our subjectivities and communities” (11-12). In essence, this reach for community across time allows the queer subject to gain a more complete and historical understanding of their identity and subjectivity. As Jill Stevenson adds, these connections across time are introduced as conceptual, but there are also ways in which “these practices are archived in bodies—[which] may suggest that certain instances of cross-temporal touch also have a material dimension” (Stevenson 20). Thus, Stevenson accounts for the moments in which this reaching across time is physicalized through literal human contact.

Sethe’s connection to Beloved is certainly a tactile one—and one of deep, maternal love, fueled by her desire to care and nurture. Beloved quickly becomes heavily dependent on this care, and the two frequently demonstrate their attachment and desire through touch.

“The heat of the stove made her drowsy and she was sliding into sleep when she felt Beloved touch her. A touch no heavier than a feather but loaded, nevertheless, with desire. Sethe stirred and looked around. First at Beloved’s soft new hand on her shoulder, then into her eyes. The longing she saw there was bottomless” (Morrison 69).

Beloved’s touch is almost seductive, and when they are physicalized, her desires cannot be refused by Sethe. It is these “anachronistic encounters” (Stevenson 20), moments of nurturing by Sethe and Denver, that bring Beloved back to health when she is ill (from the moment they meet), but the work of love takes a toll on Sethe. Her body begins to deteriorate. In one jarring scene, she is reminded of the power of the spirit over her body and future. Sethe visits the clearing, hoping to reconnect with and receive guidance from the spirit of Baby Suggs. She begins to feel fingers touching her neck (assuming them to be Baby Suggs’), tender at first, but quickly transitioning toward violence:

“Just the fingers, she thought. Just let me feel your fingers again on the back of my neck and I will lay it all down, make a way out of no way. Sethe bowed her head and sure enough—they were there. Lighter now, no more than the strokes of bird feather, but unmistakably caressing fingers. She had to relax a bit to let them do their work, so light was the touch, childlike almost, more finger kiss than kneading” (Morrison 112).

“The fingers touching the back of her neck were stronger now—the strokes bolder as though Baby Suggs were gathering strength. Putting the thumbs at the nap, while the fingers pressed the sides. Harder, harder, the fingers moved slowly around her windpipe, making little circles. Sethe was actually more surprised than frightened to find that she was being strangled. Or so it seemed. In any case, Baby Suggs’ fingers had a grip on her that would not let her breathe” (113).

“Beloved was leaning in, her two hands stroking the damp skin that felt like chamois and looked like taffeta [. . .] Beloved’s fingers were heavenly. Under them and breathing evenly again, the anguish rolled down. The peace Sethe had come there to find crept into her” (114). 

In quick succession, Sethe is comforted, tormented, and comforted again by the touch of her daughter’s spirit. Her life is threatened when she removes herself, seeks connection elsewhere—and perhaps a connection that would propel her forward, even further away from Beloved. It is ultimately Denver who reacts, asserting that something must change. In her analysis of the narrative Avery Gordon affirms this decision, claiming that “Denver is [. . .] the first to see the mortal conflict with the living that will never end if something isn’t done [. . .] The ghost will have to be dispatched” (Gordon 181).

However, as queer temporality calls us to acknowledge the unique value of living in an expansive present, not dictated by a panic about the future, we may reconsider Sethe’s failure to act herself to be not a failure at all. The ghost is perhaps more accurately an interruption and interrogation of a progress narrative, an opportunity to abandon Sethe’s own future to revel in the pleasure of the present moment. In caring for her daughter, Sethe is no doubt continuing to act in favor of her child—however, Sethe’s Child is not her future, but her past. To engage in this relationship is to willingly step outside of normative temporality, meeting her daughter in the temporal space they can share, thanks to her ghostly form: the present.



Caught up in what feels like a never-ending present, Sethe is physically restrained from moving forward by the spirit of the daughter she never got to keep. There is little doubt that this spirit is dangerous—before inhabiting the body of Beloved, its presence at 124 was disturbing and negative. But it is not until the ghost takes physical form in the body of a young woman that its touch is able to suspend Sethe, allowing her at last to indulge in familial love if at the same time risking her own life—risking the abandonment of her future.

There is little question that Sethe cannot sustain this relationship if she wishes to live. Reasonably, she chooses to abandon the non-normative (rather queer) cross-temporal relationship with Beloved, in favor of the home she can make with Denver and Paul D. Morrison ends the story on a haunting note, speaking to the timelessness of the ghost’s existence, the ever-presence of this ghostly trauma—and warning against the seductive power of touch: 

“Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative—looked at too long—shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but don’t, because they know things will never be the same if they do” (Morrison 324).


Works Cited

Dinshaw, Carolyn. “Introduction: Touching on the Past.” Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 1-54. Print. 

Gordon, Avery. “not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there.” Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 137-90. 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.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf Doubleday Group, 2007. Print.

Stevenson, Jill. “Introduction: Evangelical Performative Culture.” Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2013. 1-23. Print. 


Anne Dalke's picture

So satisfying to see this paper on “cross-temporal touch” arising out of your earlier one on crip futurity!

Am noting, first, that the structure of your paper seems, in part, to interrupt (=queer) the academic (disciplinary?) conventions of sequentiality, with its two central sections simply lying alongside one another, describing the work of Halberstam and Dinshaw. If you were to push the absence of a “progress narrative” further in your own work, perhaps “introduction” and “conclusion” need to go as well? Replaced with….?

There are a number of striking points for me here: I’m noticing for the first time, for instance, that Halberstam’s description of “queer time” involves leaving the frame of bourgeois reproduction. How might this analysis translate across the deep divides of class and status, across the experiences of freed and enslaved people who aren’t/weren’t ever “bourgeois”? Did it arise as a theory for those born bourgeois, now seeking alternatives to that narrative of longevity, safety, inheritance? If so, can it have applicability for those who have only ever been objects?

Your celebration of the pleasure possible in the present, if there is no future, made me think of Baby Suggs’ grand party, which led to jealousy, which allowed for the admission of the slavecatchers into the Black community. Not too much space for pleasure in that scenario.

And your description of Halberstam’s emphasis on/rejection of “a life lived for the betterment of the future,” your follow-up question about the applicability of the concept of “betterment” for “the life of the child—and the child’s future—deemed disposable in the context of national identity,” made me think suddenly of the concept of Afro-pessimism, which Amaka has several times mentioned in class, but which we never have found time (or a shared interest?) in exploring together as a group.

What I am understanding about this theory I’ve gleaned almost entirely (so far) from Amaka, and some explanations @ To draw you into reading more @ this link, I’ll hazard the summary that Afro-Pessimism sees Black captivity as central to the stability and coherence of civil society, and as a result, understands relationality (between Blacks and Humanity) as an illusion, impossible to work towards. Afro-Pessimism doesn’t celebrate Blackness as a cultural identity, but rather thinks about it as a condition of ontological death, and so sees the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity not as a reconcilable conflict (as gender and sexual differences may be understood), but rather as an irreconcilable antagonism. Afro-Pessimists are looking for understanding, but not for liberation, and so refuse to posit solutions to the problems they raise.

It’s the claim that the “Afro-Pessimist relational-schema is the only true antagonism (while other repressive relations like class and gender take place on the level of conflict, and can be resolved)” that makes think that you and Amaka might provocatively/productively explore together how the theory you draw from Dinshaw about literal “cross-temporal touch,” the “place for pleasure,” and the “immense potential” in the now, might intersect (or emphatically not?) with the work of Afro-pessimists like Fanon, who imagine no possible future outside the destruction of civil society. Does that go further, or move differently, than Dinsahw’s refusal of a “progress” or cause-and-effect narrative? Which theory might be more helpful in our understanding the ghost’s “interruption and interrogation of a progress narrative,” and the concomitant abandonment of a future?

Thanks, as always, for giving me so much to think-with,