Out of time: “chronoheteronormativity” and waiting-as-discipline in contemporary end-of-life writing

Why are some end-of-life narratives, specifically cancer narratives, so emotionally compelling? What is at stake in attempting to thoroughly understand their cultural power? Such accounts are embedded in cultural beliefs that health crises, illness and death are universal experiences that should and do have a democratising impact, beyond the ordinary, ongoing experiences of socio-economic struggle.

Out of time examines experiences of the end-of-life in the contemporary period, and does so through narrative, specifically the genres of life writing and memoir. It is attentive to how the durational temporalities that unfold as part of the dying process are supported by ever-shifting offers and practices of care. The project attempts to theorise the “chronobiopolitics” of death outside of normative temporality, meaning the proper “healthy” linear procession from birth, through education, work, marriage and old age, to death. The embeddedness of questions of time within queer theory renders it a useful critical tool in beginning to explore dying that is conscious of a fraught relation to this linear organisation of the life course.

This project considers how queer women’s cancer narratives might have a relation to the generational progression of feminism, while claiming a kind of kinship with gay men suffering with AIDS related illness and living in heightened disapprobation and stigmas. Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love are among the texts discussed within this argument.

The project also considers both sudden deaths and the slow attrition of living while black under the conditions of late capitalism, through readings of a wide range of work including some by Edwidge Dandicat and Hilton Als. Such dying seems to branch off away from dominant narratives of heroism and meaning because of certain stigmas and a proximity to abjection. Deathly waiting under these conditions is often experienced as a type of discipline.

In a time conceptualised as a crisis in healthcare, where discourse of resource scarcity abound, it seems particularly important to attend to enclaves in which scarcity and lack have been routinely encountered and yet in which people find different ways to go on living and dying. In the face of unthinkable futures, it is fitting pay attention to those who have been living in a time of no future, or in a future endlessly deferred. This project recognises that those living lives we currently conceptualise as unthinkable have always been among us, concealed by and yet supporting dominant narratives of dying.

Waiting, then, is one of healthcare’s central experiences – being held up describes the experience of involuntary delay that is asymmetrically distributed among those outside of the dominant culture. In its close attention to marginal experiences of time, a key outcome of this project will be to demonstrate that care in these spaces refers not only to medical treatment or some idealised, positive affect. Instead it aims, though an understanding of untimeliness, to reveal the ways in which care is inventive, improvised and endlessly challenging, taking place in excess of sanctioned clinical and social pathways.  In the narratives examined, certain strategies emerge for resisting and negotiating these structures of, and pathways through, medical institutions; alternative kinship structures are made, ancestors are invoked. All serve as disindentificatory practices that enable mainstream health care services, for better and for worse, to continue to function as they do.


Chronoheteronormativity: this term originates in the work of queer theorist and literary scholar Elizabeth Freeman, who develops an argument about the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward heterosexuality and maximum productivity in her influential book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Perverse Modernities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

Chronobiopolitics: this term was popularised by literary scholar Dana Luciano. In Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-Century America, Sexual Cultures (New York: New York University Press, 2007), Luciano extends the notion of biopolitics which Michel Foucault articulates in The History of Sexuality, emphasising its temporal dimensions: chronobiopolitics refers to ‘the sexual arrangement of the time of life’.

Contemporary narratives: defined here as works published from 1990s up to the present day; a slightly longer period than in ordinary usage within Literary Studies, in which the ‘contemporary’ would strictly refer to work emerging within the last 10 years or so.

Late capitalism: this project engages with usage of the term with the work of contemporary queer theorist Lauren Berlant, who has worked on the temporality of work as it relates to health in the late twentieth century in her book Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), while acknowledging its origins in the canon of western political philosophy in Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Disidentification: in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), José Muñoz outlines the way in which individuals designated as part of minority culture, particularly from the LGBT community, might identify both with and against dominant cultural forms, building on earlier thought by Michel Pêcheux. This a strategy Muñoz calls disidentification.

Project Lead: Kelechi Anucha, Doctoral Candidate, University of Exeter