On Erica Hunt’s 'Arcade': control / temporality / the past in the present
In Arcade, poet Erica Hunt’s 1996 collection and collaboration with the artist Alison Saar, the speaker describes herself as moving, through her stuckness and frustration, “against bureaucratic seizures of the possible.” The collection articulates a poetics of refusal, sometimes from a woman-identified subject position, sometimes as a woman of color, or as a mother of color. In other moments, as in the book’s title poem, the speaker’s identity is undisclosed. Hunt’s engagement with identity-based forms of oppression but also their edges recalls performance studies and queer theory scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s formulation of queer futurity, which builds on ways of thinking about time and space that use what is visible from a queer subject position to neither focus solely on queer experience nor ever fully disconnect from it.
Hunt’s rallying against seizures of the possible pushes against control as the foreclosure of futurity, a temporal oppression that Muñoz also refuses in his turn toward a queer utopianism that he describes as “the future in the present.” Muñoz, borrowing the phrase from C.L.R. James, identifies the future in the present as a mode of resisting heterosexuality’s monopoly on the future. He pushes against the “rigid binary” of present and future and asks, “[c]an the future stop being a fantasy of heterosexual reproduction?” Within this question is the expectation that the future is, or can accommodate, a form of fantasy. Normative heterosexual ideologies of the future use the figure of the child to imagine a continuation of the present. The present, in these formulations, is worth keeping. Its mode of reproduction works just fine for a narrow band of heterosexualities. Hunt’s refusal resists complicity with an oppressive present and seeks another way to make a nonrepressive future from a place of constraint. To project a resistant future from the present is to imagine another way of being that changes what the present is.
The dominant oppressive temporality in Arcade is what I refer to, in dialogue with Muñoz and James, as “the past in the present.” “The past in the present” confines its subjects by demonstrating to them that their present is obsolete. In the poems, Hunt says “no” many times, in many ways, to complicity with an oppressive and teleological future, or to a present that associates the speaker or others most firmly with the past. In “Coronary Artist (1)” Hunt writes, “Custom has it that a woman gets up first to solve the dilemma of the / burning moment.” The phrase “Custom has” and the general figure of “a woman” establish Hunt’s investment in addressing socialized understandings of gendered behavior. The present is pressurized here as the “burning moment.” It’s a problem to be solved, and you get up to do it. Perhaps getting up is waking up first in the morning, where domestic labor solves the immediate challenges of other people’s quotidian needs. Perhaps it’s a political getting up, a “standing up” to increase visibility. Enforced responsibility to a pressurized present is a mode of control in the poem. In contrast, earlier in “Coronary Artist (1)” Hunt writes, “All the great heroes slept late.” Greatness, itself an aberration, is bound up in a refusal of (or a recusal from) a normative temporality. Forcing “a woman” to account for the “burning present” impedes her ability to form a nonnormative orientation to the quotidian. She cannot sleep late. Responsibility to a constant, pressing present is a mode of controlling her, as she cannot move beyond the time to which she is always adhered. In his discussion of “the future in the present,” Muñoz describes several queer clubs, on either side of the enforcement of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign which, among other modes of regulation, prevented the clubs from being open all night. These clubs, spaces Muñoz positions as offering glimpses of the future in the present, are crucially outside of the chrononormative, or the time and patterns of life focused on a normative workday bookended by family time. If the utopian future more viably fits into a present separated from the chrononormative, then it follows that the chrononormative, including the forms that Hunt identifies as the domain of “a woman,” is itself a means of control.
Later in “Coronary Artist (1),” Hunt joins temporal control to a sexual control that appears within a social system confined to the past within the present. She writes,
Already this is an extinct culture, a culture of giants prone to the vertigo
of silent agreements and unenforceable contracts. The rocks in our beds
belong to them. Their sexual politics get the better of us sometimes
and we are left with dream transcriptions and delinquencies instead of pas-
sion outside the parentheses.
I read Hunt as identifying a collective sexuality that is queered by how it is policed. It is unclear who is part of the collective in whose beds the rocks are located. It is unclear who is in the beds or what sorts of activities happen there. The sexuality of the collective is made queer by its refusal, set against a normative sexual politics as it finds itself the target of a restriction that reshapes domestic space. This section of the poem begins by establishing a present-tense experience of extinction, a continuous experience of the past in the present. The correlation Hunt draws between a culture of spatial control and a collectively posthumous present asks space and time, as modes of formal queering, to be read together. The strangeness of a present that unfolds within its own extinction, and therefore disturbs linear time, finds its companion in vertigo, the destabilization of spatial continuity. Living through extinction feels like falling — strange time functioning for the body as strange space.
A further estrangement of space, rocks in the bed, disrupt a bed’s continuous surface. The rocks turn sexual activities that occur in bed into avoidance procedures. Those activities take a negative form — working around the rocks, rather than determining a spatial configuration of their own. The rocks make the bed’s ability to be a place for sex or refuge physically untenable. The physical adaptation they require articulates the enforcement of a restrictive sexual politics. The rocks suggest that the target of public surveillance is sexual activity in the private home. That surveillance, in the poem, is indicative of cultural extinction, and it touches language as well as the material quotidian. In the final sentence, one feature of what the enforced sexual politics seek to prevent is “passion outside the parentheses.” The parentheses, like the rock, do the giants’ moralizing work. The outside of the parentheses is tense space. Nonsanctioned expressions (of language as well as sexuality) become forms of refusal, as the poem sets itself outside the parentheses.
In the poem “the voice of no,” Hunt is likewise focused on the past in the present as a mode of enforcement. The poem’s first stanza includes the lines, “No need to read, 24 hours of the shopping channel. / No fire, we have the illusion of doing what we want.” In these periphrastic sentences, Hunt offers in their first half the activities that do not occur because of the content of their second half. The poem’s second sentence suggests that rioting (figured by the fire) does not occur because of the illusion of self-direction, which directs primarily to the home shopping channel. The failure to riot, and to read, encourages temporal comparison. The twenty-four-hour shopping channel implies that there is no need to read anymore. Whereas the past appears in the present of “Coronary Artist (1)” as a mode of surveillance, the past appears here as a specter of comparative engagement. All of the hours in which you might have read are hours in which you now could shop and produce for yourself the illusion of choice. Hunt’s is also a scalar critique. Where reading and the fires of rioting are outward-looking gestures, shopping and its illusion are individuated. We have the illusion, in the second line, of doing what we each want, splintering collective action into an individuated participation in commercial systems.
As the poem continues, Hunt’s collective speaker becomes more anxious about their depoliticized participation. Hunt writes,
We rummage among the many
looking for that darn
fraction of a percent of the landscape
you say it is possible to live in
The rummaging and the search for landscape together make the unplugged connections physical rather than solely metaphoric. Interpersonal connections become a nest of unplugged material — cables, presumably — that cover or otherwise obscure the landscape. What separates the place where it is possible to live from everywhere else? Environmental disaster? (The poem closes with a flood that displaces its speaker who watches bodies float by.) Lack of corruption by the networks that make possible the expectation of a television in every home? And what becomes of the rest of it? Most people must live, in Hunt’s poem, where living is impossible. The temporal distortion of an activated past appears in the present to trap the speaker in a suburban-feeling context where individuation becomes conformity.
Hunt’s engagement with “the past in the present” as it is tied to individuated consumer practice suggests suburbanization as another form of spatializing repressive temporalities. In her study of the twentieth-century planning and commercial (re)development of American Main Streets, historian Alison Isenberg argues that the decline of downtowns resulted, in part, from planners’ efforts to make urban spaces primarily appealing to suburban female shoppers. Isenberg goes on to explain that urban commercial development had, in the first half of the century, courted the white, middle-class shopper, and that it continued to do so as those shoppers moved to the suburbs, synchronous with or in the wake of urban renewal. In so doing, she argues, planners ignored the needs of urban residents of color, who were the most proximate audience for Main Street department stores. Isenberg depicts planners and commercial developers as enforcing spatialized normativity. As she notes later, a dominant rationale for that enforcement was obsolescence. Isenberg describes obsolescence — a form of the past in the present — as a means of indirectly justifying planning decisions that improved a few white lives while deeply compromising the lives of many urban residents of color. It was the concept of obsolescence that redevelopers used as a weapon to remake downtowns. Obsolescence rendered certain districts powerless and eligible for destruction.
Isenberg suggests that a desire to have the present feel new and individuated has often justified the devaluation of a current set of political beliefs or spatial uses in order to relegate them to the past. That feeling marketed as “newness” is itself an effort to neutralize what Isenberg identifies as racial and socioeconomic discrimination, and to promote redevelopment that economically benefits a small group of owners and stakeholders.
If the future in the present might offer glimpses of a life world that has refused the teleology of straight time, the past in the present works to deprive those within its temporal hold of the potential to imagine other ways of being. Urban renewal, as Isenberg describes it, condemns much of the city’s present to the past, in the name of a restrictive future that edits everyone to whom the figure of the white suburban housewife is not immediately relevant out of what the present can hold. As it imagines a restrictive present as the seed of the city’s future, it forecloses all others. (On the scale of the family, the figure of the future is the child. On the scale of the city, perhaps it is the office tower or shopping mall.) To this end, it is not the fact of the future in the present, but the refusal of the automatic continuation of a repressive present within that future that is particularly important to Muñoz’s use of the term.
The hinge between the future and the present is the ability to take up space. The present exists in material space in a way that the future — as fantasy or possibility — does not. To establish a queer futurity, Muñoz registers the future in the present. If the present takes up physical space and the future is inside of it, then it assumes the present’s materiality. This is different from the spatiality of imagining what will happen in the future, which projects the spatial form of the present into another time. The spatiality of the future is imagined, while the spatiality of the present is material. The gesture of putting the future in the present implicitly argues that temporal frames outside the present — the past and the future — can have purchase on the present by imagining spatial, material forms for themselves and by using the present to realize those forms. Muñoz says of the phrase “the future in the present” and its advocacy, “To call for this notion of the future in the present is to summon a refunctioned notion of utopia in the service of a subaltern politics.” Utopia spatializes the future in the present, taking aspects of queer life worlds and extrapolating from them a future life that would allow the present forms to expand, to take up more room. The act of utopian imagining establishes the present’s current, oppressive material form as an objectionable possibility rather than as a given.
For Muñoz, seeing the future in the present requires seeking the whole of queer life. The future in the present is a refusal of an unchallenged hegemonic present in the future, a continuation of compulsory heterosexuality and its atmospheric privatization of the public sphere. Alongside his call for the future in the present, Muñoz urges, “we crucially need to map our repression, our fragmentation, and our alienation — the ways in which the state does not permit us to see ‘the whole’ of our masses.” As Isenberg and Hunt both demonstrate, a key feature of mapping the oppression of minoritized groups (whom Muñoz notes make up the majority of the US context about which he writes) is reading that oppression as part of a spatiotemporal system. If the future in the present requires comprehensive seeing, then the past in the present actively restricts it. Reading for the past in the present is central to the act of mapping that Muñoz identifies. That act becomes not only a mapping of fragmentation, but of the production of fragmentation, and of the modes of control and their refusal that are embedded in the competition of past and future to inhere in the present of bodies and lives.
1. Erica Hunt, Arcade (Berkeley, CA: 1996), 27. (emphasis in original)
2. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 49.
5. Elizabeth Freeman describes the chrononormative as “the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity.” Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3. Later, as she describes queers as figures for disjunctive time, she notes of a queer orientation toward pastness, “This stubborn lingering of pastness (whether it appears as anachronistic style, as the reappearance of bygone events in the symptom, or as arrested development), is a hallmark of queer affect: a ‘revolution’ in the old sense of the word, as a turning back” (8). In my reading of the application of pastness as a repressive mechanism, I am interested in setting a turn toward the past as a revolutionary gesture in conversation with the restrictive pastness of forced obsolescence.
9. Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 167.
Queer Urban Poetics