Queering These Bones
At the Genealogies of Modernity Summer Seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, graduate student participants were asked to give a short presentation on the final day that connected their own research to the themes of the week. This post is a revised version of Maggie Slaughter’s presentation. She is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Indiana University studying Jewish and Christian histories. Material culture, mortuary practices, and devotional art-making generate and complicate her thinking on religion.
Much ink has been spilled in the last few decades theorizing queer temporalities. Some have explored a theory of queerness as a way of being in the world that subverts normativity. Others have queered historiography in an effort to apprehend a multiplicity of temporal experiences and so make heterogeneity analytically powerful. Others still dream of forging feminist and transnational queer genealogies. What, then, is a queer desire for history? Is it the refusal of linear historicism? Or is it the desire to construct queer and genderqueer subjects in linear time? Temporal and sexual dissonance create mutual reverberations which call us to think on chrononormativity and the impulse of anachronic gaydar.
Carolyn Dinshaw writes of her own practice as attending to “the possibility of touching across time, collapsing time through affective contact between marginalized people now and then, and I suggested that with such queer historical touches we could form communities across time.” Perhaps it is in the languages of tactility and interpretive facility that we can refuse a historicism restricted to origins and ordered ends and attune to the queer collectivities which participate in history.
St. Severina resides at the Norbertine Abbey in Roggenburg, Germany. She is one of many Katakombenheiligen (catacomb saints) who were taken from Roman catacombs in the 1500s and sent over the alps and into German, Swiss, Bavarian, and Austrian churches that had been ransacked in the heat of idolatrous condemnation. When Catholic authorities plucked her from a burial niche and baptized her bones as a martyr slain in the early centuries of Christianity, they had scant evidence of who she may have been.
Neither, of course, did the nuns responsible for performing Klosterarbeit, or devotional ornamentation, on her body when she arrived in Germany. As they twined filigree and gemstones onto her bones to express her status as martyr, they touched her across time, collapsing centuries through affective contact between marginalized people now and then (martyrs, women, persecuted Christians). Adornment is love-making as much as it is world-making. Dinshaw argues that it is with such queer historical touches that we could form communities across time. In the queer desire for history, the living desire the dead and the devoted desire the holy.
In these distinct (yet related) moments, St. Severina is the vehicle of her own queer genealogy. Although her body is subject to the collector, the queer asynchronies of her existence in temporal gaps and narrative detours allow meaningful, transformative relation with the manifold present. She is martyr, Roman citizen, a particle in the Counter-Reformation. And she is also an object of desire, meditation, devotion, desire. Her skeleton has become a connective archive of collected ideas about collectivity and collection as a stratagem for meaning making about the world’s present and past.
When the collector detaches an object from its functional relations to disengage it, reassign it, and make it anew—are they telling truth in fiction? Queer time, Jack Halberstam tells us, shifts our attention away from discrete bodies performing their desires and offers an alternative framework for the theorization of disqualified and anticanonical knowledges of queer practices. We ought to carefully consider our practices of collection as persons whose work, though it may seem only to pertain to a conception of the past, deeply implicates our present.