Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Noémie Ndiaye reviews Queer Velocities

Jennifer Eun-Jung Row. Queer Velocities: Time, Sex, and Biopower on the Early Modern Stage. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2022. 224 pages.

Review by Noémie Ndiaye

Queer Velocities, Jennifer Eun-Jung Row’s powerful first monograph, argues that neoclassical French theatre, because of its unique set of aesthetic rules and constraints, is a particularly good archive to observe the proliferation of what she calls queer velocities (“a tempo with a directional component”), that is, a series of slowing downs, hastenings, and “‘chrono-mashups’” generating erotic affects that temporarily disrupt the heteroreproductive futurity of Foucauldian biopower in moments of Muñozian utopia (pp. 167, 6). Her queer reading of neoclassical French tragedy thus moves “beyond an identity-driven approach to premodern sexualities” to highlight queer ways of experiencing and fashioning temporality “that did not necessarily lead to the establishment of fixedly transgressive forms of subjectivity” (pp. 7, 8). Row laudably aims “to use seventeenth-century French literature to impact queer theory, instead of merely being satisfied with queering French literature,” and her main intervention into queer theory’s debates on temporality consists in placing a novel focus on tempo and its affordances for disrupting straight time, or chrononormativity, in a manner that eschews both “an Edelmanian queer anti-relationality—an antisociality that rejects futurity and its norms outright—and . . . the settledness of the present” (pp. x, 167). Although Row repeatedly rejects any framing of her project as resistance reading and refuses to examine “the outright expression of resistance or dissent on the macrolevel,” it is fair to say that the book pays more attention to the moments when “velocities offer a way for characters to make their worlds livable” in queer ways than to the devastating strategies deployed in each play to reroute those velocities along normative axes (pp. 169, 182).

Theoretically dense, well-paced, and elegantly written, the book’s four chapters instantiate what Jeff Masten calls queer philology (a comparatist at heart, Row engages extensively with the queer scholarship produced in early modern English studies) by focusing on specific rhetorical figures that signal queer velocities just as effectively as diegetic markers. Chapter 1 reads zeugma as a “figure of speed” and “temporal collapse” (pp. 52, 53) marking improper affective temporalities in Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (1636); Chapter 2 reads Andromaque’s queer object attachment to her husband’s ashes in the light of catachresis’s strange animacy in Jean Racine’s Andromaque (1667); Chapter 3 unpacks the subversive potential of paronomasia and metalepsis to convey same-sex intimacy in Corneille’s martyr tragedy Polyeucte (1643); and Chapter 4 reads the deployment of copia or chreia as a technology of dilation keeping alive the possibility of romantic threesome in Racine’s Bérénice (1670). The sharp technicity of those close readings is reinforced by Row’s drawing on physics, mathematics, and music theory, among others, to model a different type of queer velocity in each chapter. Consistently rejecting top-down and hegemonic ways of sketching the ideological operations of chronobiopower, Row understands the early modern theatre as a space that enabled the individual internalization of coalescing “new onto-epistemolog[ies] of temporality” on a capillary level in a historical moment when chronometric innovations were changing people’s relation to time (p. 21). That exciting engagement with the cultural work of “the early modern stage” (per the book’s title) would have been more compelling, however, if the book had provided a fuller picture of theatrical culture and forms in early modern France. Indeed, the introduction does not explain the selection process behind the exclusive focus on four hypercanonical tragedies, which made me wonder: how did queer velocities fare in the extremely popular neoclassical forms of comedy (a genre structurally invested in sexual and social reproduction), or in French baroque tragicomedies, pastorals, and court ballets? In that respect, the book’s aspiration to provide a clear literary case study supporting transhistorical queer theoretical insights seems to outweigh its aspiration to investigate early modern theatrical culture’s full impact on the development of chronobiopower.

A little surprising, given the book’s theoretical sophistication and ambition, is its timidity with regards to intersectionality. Indeed, despite a promising allusion in the introduction to the connection between temporal normativity and racial norms, Queer Velocities avoids the question of race, systematically relegating it to the margins. Row mentions that mobilizing a racial analytic risks “taking the focus away from the ‘microdisciplinary’ nature of affects, sensations, and temporal intensities” (p. 10). She returns to this perceived risk of invisibilization in Chapter 4, when she notes that scholarly accounts of Racine’s racialization of Bérénice as an “obvious Other” are “overdetermined” and distract “us from paying attention to subtler, less obvious sexualities or gender positions, other queer velocities at play” (p. 130). To this reader, it seems that queer velocities are a powerful enough analytic to remain visible at their conceptual intersections with the field of early modern critical race studies. The theorization of queer velocities could only be strengthened by a sustained reckoning with their participation in the emergence of the notion of “whiteness” across early modern Europe. Indeed, not only are Bérénice and Andromaque interracial romance plots, Polyeucte is—as Row notes—a colonial tale, and in Le Cid, the king’s normative rerouting of the lovers’ queer velocities notoriously involves sending Rodrigue to fight against the Moors in the name of Castilian whiteness. I would have loved to see the engagement with the racialization of temporality currently reserved for the Enlightenment-focused conclusion of the book spill over the entire project. This would have made Row’s substantive intervention into queer theory an impressively intersectional one. That this monograph should face such high expectations, however, bespeaks its high caliber—Row’s Queer Velocities is indeed a must-read bound to profoundly transform the way we think about and teach both queer temporalities and neoclassical French tragedy.