Anorexia in temporal drag

by on Aug.20, 2010

So I’ve been thinking more about temporal drag (an idea borrowed from Elizabeth Freeman – see my earlier post), this time in relation to narrative — how narrative crosses time, performing the pull of the past upon the present. Temporal drag in narrative can solder wormholes between eras, producing a vertical layering of temporalities that, in being made to run parallel, refuse anachronism, refuse progress. An example would be Octavia Butler’s Kindred which through a time travel portal forges links and adjacencies between slavery-era U.S. and the present, two seemingly discrete periods that in the narrative are simultaneous; in this approach to time Butler exposes ways in which the present is continuously affected by, suffocated or haunted by, a past that is not past because the present continues to revive it — rejecting the master narrative of progress. Science fiction often does this explicitly through mechanisms like Butler’s portal. Then there’s temporal drag produced via appropriation, via rewriting, revising. These strategies work in different specific ways to produce complex ties across time, bending time, if you will — but that image already presumes linearity.

Susan Terris’s Nell’s Quilt, published in 1987, is a young adult novel set in 1899 that charts the rise and rise and approaching fall of protagonist Nell’s anorexia. This book may seem like a random choice until I tell you I’ve been studying eating disorder narratives. This particular ED narrative is of interest to me because it uses temporal drag to connect different periods through recognizable pathology. (I use the word ‘pathology’ uneasily, am still figuring out how to discuss pathology, or perceived pathology, or ‘pathology,’ with a critical view of the idea itself — open to suggestions for how to do so more elegantly.)

In 1899, when the novel is set, there was no such thing as anorexia as we know it, or as readers in 1987 would have known it: a distinct and recognizable set of behaviors with a complicated etiology and serious bodily consequences first officialized by the DSM in 1980. Eating disorders did not spontaneously emerge in the 70s and 80s, of course, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg has shown in Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa — they’ve been around, first (to my knowledge) documented in the 13th-16th centuries connected with women fasting fastidiously out of religious devotion. Eating disorders, and anorexia has received the most attention probably because it’s the most visible, have come and gone in waves, with one such wave occurring in the late 19th century in the US, England, and France. In the time of Nell’s Quilt, laypeople (and most physicians) knew nothing of eating disorders as eating disorders: Nell’s symptoms are incomprehensible, in fact she’s diagnosed as neurasthenic, and her family rejects what they see as her selfishness, weakness, and stupidity. (Hmm, these attitudes sound familiar — are we sure we’ve moved past them?)

Nell is a young woman stuck in time, living with her family who are struggling to make ends meet on a farm in New England. She can see a future on the horizon: she is both proud and deeply envious of her grandmother, who lived an independent life in Boston, where she was active in advancing women’s rights; and Nell dreams of joining the feminist struggle herself. But she can’t get out of her situation, which seems regressive even to her: she’s faced with an unwanted marriage proposal she feels pressured to accept because her marriage would alleviate her family of much of its debt. Nell’s feminist consciousness develops throughout the novel — she understands that her father is treating her as property because of her gender (“I was the collateral for Papa’s loan”); she resents the unfairness of her best friend Rob being able to go off and explore the world while her own future is limited to either staying on her farm, or marrying and going to live on her husband’s farm, where she’ll be expected to mother his daughter from a previous marriage. Rather than step into either of these futures, Nell stops eating.

Nell’s anorexia is a protest, and the novel treats it as such, is sympathetic to Nell’s situation and the unfair economic and social hierarchies that determine her life. In 1987, the time when Terris was writing the novel, anorexia/EDs were all over the media after Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983, and psychologists and the general population were only just beginning to understand the epidemic, often playing blame-the-anorexic, or sensationalizing them when they weren’t being stigmatized. By moving to the past — to an era where the future of women’s rights was on the horizon, where progress seemed inevitable — within a ‘post-feminist’ context in which so many of these women were giving their power over to eating disorders, Terris implicitly connects the two eras. Her insertion of contemporary, ‘post-feminist’ pathology into a past of emergent feminist potentiality produces a dissonance that suggests that the past is not quite past — sure, “progress,” but not clear or simply progress, the work is not, will never be done — and that makes a case for anorexic behaviors as a reaction, and a legitimate one at that, to sexism both in Nell’s time and in Terris’s.

Pulling from Freeman again, this time her essay on erotohistoriography, I’ll revise her question, which is concerned with queer practices of pleasure, to suit my own interrogation: “how might [dangerous or ‘pathological’ body management practices], be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” (59) What does it mean to link historically specific pathologies via narratological temporal drag? What does it mean to recuperate Freud’s case study of Dora, for instance, as Gina Frangello does in My Sister’s Continent, reviving and revising Dora’s pathology, refusing to see it as over, as historic, as no-longer-conscious? And how might these issues relate to Johannes’ notion of atrocity kitsch? I’m thinking of the sensationalism of a lot of eating disorder narratives, especially the early ones which tend to both exploit and condescend to eating disordered individuals.

I know I said I’d further discuss Muñoz, how his critique of queer utopia relates the past to the future but I’ll save that for a next time, dot dot dot. Meanwhile, from Todd Haynes’ Superstar (full movie available here):

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25 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I immediately think of the movie “Hunger” from a couple of years ago as a point where atrocity kitsch and anorexia come together. Well it’s a hunger strike as part of Irish resistance in Northern Ireland.


  2. megan milks

    oh yeah, totally. great connection.

    in that film, and in kafka’s ‘a hunger artist’ and in that christian bale-as-anorexic film — it’s frustrating to me that male starvation is accrued a certain validation, nobility, and importance that female starvation rarely receives (bc female starvation is shallow and dumb, obvs). it’s represented as more legitimate as a form of protest. thinking about it as atrocity kitsch of course complicates things in really interesting ways – i’m looking forward to reading more on the concept, and will be thinking about it more.

  3. John Beer

    At the risk of being facile, it’s interesting to think about minimalism as an anorectic gesture; especially in the work of Agnes Martin or Beckett, it becomes a positive refusal–gripped no doubt by the kind of compulsive force Joyelle diagnoses, but in the service of a metaphysical resistance, communicating not inability but the wish not to communicate in light of the world’s wrongness.

  4. adam strauss

    Interesting comment regarding male anorexia and legitimacy. But isn’t male anorexia also of a minorness? I’m guessing many people would automatically gender anorexia female, and that seems problematic too. “Starvation” seems like a tricky synonym. Too, starvation starts to make me think of the fact that anorexic has become a colloquialism, and I think that’s where the dismissive view may be stemming from. I’m guessing that honest-to-god diagnosed anorexia is not something most will laugh-off.

  5. adam strauss

    Regarding the word diagnosed: I’d not be surprised if it’s un-diagnosed much of the time. Still tho, I think it’s the use of a clinical term for a much more general concept/state–skinny-ness–which may produce the dismissive attitude.

  6. Johannes

    THe male anorexia I think has a connection to hagiography, Jesus in Mary’s arms etc. That’s certainly what Hunger plays with. But then so does female martyrs.

  7. megan milks

    adam – yep, i should have written ‘self-starvation’ instead of naked ‘starvation’; those are two very different things. your point about anorexia/anorexic as colloquialism is right on, though i think the stigmatization of EDed individuals (esp women) is more complicated than only that.
    john – are you familiar with kate zambreno’s ideas on anorexic writing?
    johannes – you might also be interested in looking at the book The Great Starvation Experiment, which is about a US medical experiment during WWII in which healthy young men were gradually starved – for the purposes of understanding the bodily effects of starvation and learning how to recuperate holocaust survivors. the men exhibited many of the same psychological/behavioral symptoms of anorexia: hording, intense paranoia, self-hatred, guilt, etc. the subtitle of this book is “The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live”. yeah.

  8. John Beer

    Megan, good call. I should have thought of Kate! I’ve been liking her blog from the inception.

  9. Johannes Göransson

    Wow. I will have to read that.

  10. adam strauss

    What’s EDed? Another thing that may relate to the stigmatization is–at times–the anorexic can be aesthetically wildly appealing (not sure if she was diagnosed, but an example cld be Edie Sedgwick: tho it appears likely she was a drug addict/speed-freak, and that may or may not intertwine) and appeal is not something many may connect to disease, so some might therefore conclude that anorexia nervosa is therefore not a state of being entrenched in actual illness, but rather register as an aesthetic program, and that might look selfish/shallow.

    On a different note: it freaks me out when I sometimes hear Simone Weil deemed a protestor, not someone with an eating disorder, as if the two can’t coincide. And this may relate to the “shallowness” factor too: surely a philospher would be up to something more “noble.”

    On another different note: Anorexia as a metaphor for writing seems very tricky/misleading; perhaps i think this because aesthetics to a great degree can be predicated on choice, whereas choosing not to eat or to excercize off a meal yes does entail a decision, but I’d say the staus of the decision is rather different. Most importantly, a spare text can be healthy–rich, fabulous; whereas a bone-body (true, not all anorexics are thin) is generally not.

    I’d be fascinated to learn of how many contemporary poets are or were in its throws. I am one, for sure (aside the fact that I refuse the identity poet).

  11. megan milks

    hi adam,
    EDed is shorthand for eating disordered.
    yes, to your points about the stig of anorexia, and would add to them that anorexic bodies in particular are viewed as threatening (not to mention terrifying) esp to women whose bodies are persistently objectified and scrutinized but really to most people – bc of the assumption that because anorexics and other superthin people must be self-righteous and judgmental about their own bodies, they are necessarily self-righteous/judgmental about other people’s bodies – attributing societal values of thinness to the hyperthin person when that person may not ascribe to those values at all (or maybe they do, possibly in extreme ways, depending on the person).
    on simone weil – yeah, i agree, the two can coincide and often do. but then, i mean, kurt godel also died of self-starvation but that later mental instability doesn’t overwhelm his ideas or people’s valuation of them in the way that it seems to have done for weil – obv their circumstances and trajectories are much, much different but i think there’s definitely a pull to view female anorexia as naive and shallow, dumb (weil is only recently getting her due as an interesting and powerful thinker) when plenty of female anorexics are quite aware of what they are doing and why (not that there’s ever one reason). have you read chris kraus’s aliens & anorexia?
    on anorexic writing : yes, i see your points and actually i’m working on essay engaging with dodie bellamy’s and kate zambreno’s notions of bulimic writing, troubling the appropriation of bulimia as an aesthetic mode – using sontag, & critiques of sontag – but in the end i guess i see these modes as potentially working against oversimplistic understandings of the disorders they’re based on, recuperating and rewriting them in vital and complex ways. haven’t thought a whole lot about the metaphorization of anorexia though – been focusing on bulimia.

  12. adam strauss

    For reasons I don’t quite understand–probably because I relate sooooooooooooooooo much less to Bulimia–Bulimia as writing metaphor makes much more sense to me; tho I still read it as a very overdetermined concept because writing of course is not bulimic: paragraphs don’t puke, tho there may be puke in the paragraph. Why not just describe a writing’s syntax, rather than trying to do so in a very figurative way. I likely ought to include that I am very suspicious of metaphor–period.

    Are there any must read poems on anorexia? The only one that comes to mind is by L Gluck and I remember it being rather banal. For reasons I don’t quite get I have not found a way to write about when I was (was maybe the wrong tense as isn’t a common thesis that it’s to some degree chronic?)

  13. adam strauss

    Is the male anorexic feminized when he is mentioned–if he is at all? I’m asking, not being rhetorical. Has anyone done studies seeing if anorexia is more common among gay men than heterosexual ones?

    In some ways I wonder if anorexia isn’t stuck in the reception-rut that mental-health period often is.

  14. Johannes


    Yes, everyone is suspicious of metaphors. They are sneaky. They must be controlled. Must be “earned.” Otherwise they might lead us all astray.

    Lets all be led astray.

    Why not just describe the syntax? Because it’s really reductive. The problem with this is the problem of all formalism – it’s not very interesting, and it creates the idea that the words exist in a vacuum, that art isn’t involved in for example the body etc.


  15. Johannes

    Also I love the connection called “Todd Haynes” between Karen Carpenter, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan. These are all stories about bodies. Splitting anoriexia into male and female anorexia, one true and one false, seems reductive to me. Both are interesting. In “I’m Not There” Bob Dylan goes from an anorexic pill-popper exploring a kind of androgenous (but sexually charged) madness and played by a female actor to an all-american male played by a quite large (compared to Dylan) heart-throbb involved in marriage and infidelity. The androgenous, gothic Dylan is so often erased from talk about the Classic Rock Dylan, the All-American Dylan. Of course the androgenous gothic Dylan of 1964-66 is by far more interesting. Though maybe the Dylan of Renaldo and Clara (who ends in Christianity, ugh) might be almost as interesting.


  16. Joyelle McSweeney

    On the topic of temporal drag, this is something I’ve been really interested in, I just didn’t know there was a term for it! So thank you, Megan! I wrote this novella called _Charisma_ which puts two periods in contact– our current period and the Occupation of France. Partly I wanted to investigate issues of catastrophe and mobility. Partly I wanted to create a kind of mashed up temporal space infiltrated by media. Partly I wanted to investigate the performance/costume practices of both artists and the prostitute heroine of my piece, and maybe press a little bit on the zone that includes both moral and artistic and sexual posturing/posing. You can read some of it here (sorry for the ugly link)

  17. adam strauss

    Close-reading, looking at syntax etc, is not reductive, and it totally relates to the body: it can embody positions, movements within a text; furthermore, it is the body–the body emerging from words and their arrangement. I said nothing about “earned,” I’m just wondering about accuracy–and I am for sure in favor of wild texts. You, JG, seem to suggest that I advocate a sanitized text and that seems like a willful misreading to me. If anything, I think a case can be made for metaphor being dull and reductive–a way of sanitizing what might be uncomfortable. Would you consider Donne’s “Flea” metaphoric? I would not: it’s a wild image-complex, but it seems to me to be real (textual) blood, real bites etc.

    Some poets I’d deem formalists: Lara Glenum, Leslie Scalapino, Nathaniel Mackey, your own poems–all of these examples exemplify carefully composed work, and that strikes me as a kind of formalism. Formalism is not a narrow category: it can be very various and very-very exciting. I suspect I’m writing the obvious but you seem to deem formalism everything which I see no inherent reason to.

    I hope all’s well!

  18. Johannes


    I can’t seem to find your response I was responding to, I’m all high from some kind of shot I got today, but I seemed to have read you write that you were in favor of describing syntax. From this I might have deduced something you didn’t mean at all. If you recognize that language is very much involved in the body etc, it might be what we mean by metaphor vs “image complex.”

    Thanks, I totally consider myself a formalist, which is why I’m so surprised when people refer to me as some kind of wild child – or “terrorist” as Steve Burt did. But that’s a different kind of formalism – I got the impression that you were calling for all critical discussion to be descriptive of syntax; that’s a kind of formalist analysis.


  19. adam strauss


    Nope, syntax wouldn’t work for all critical discussion: lexicon analysis is a lens I think can be useful/interesting, and looking at intertextuality, and links between various theories and a given piece of writing, and reader-response work etc. I “argued” for a syntax-lens for the writing as eating-disorder metaphor because it seems to me that a bullimic text could make sense in terms of syntax: run-ons, lack of punctuation or jarring punctuation might relate to expulsion or the convulsive moment of purge (tho I’ve read novels which suggest that one can become quite practiced in purging); and at the more macro-level I could imagine a bullimic text as one which goes from big to littler, expelling words/images as the text goes along, and then ammasing lots of new images and then again writing with a smaller word/image vocabulary; too, I could imagine a bullimic text as working with/through lipograms.

    Thank you for your response!

    Additional: Sandra Simmonds Warsaw Bikini strikes me as a great example of poems which include image-complexes which are not metaphors because they don’t create a substitution for Simmonds “speaker,” but instead she is all these fabulous things/states; and I love the way the images are so un-static, un-objecty, but instead activated into mobility because image and syntax meld–the images are intrinsic to the movement of the poems, so that the flow (sorry for the cliche descriptor) and the things are one.

    As always I hope all’s well!

  20. Johannes

    OK, I totally see what you’re saying now. And yes also to your analysis of Sandra; she uses linebreaks with great effect. I’ve been meeaning to write about that book for a long time. Perhaps we can write a collaborative piece.


  21. adam strauss

    Oh yesyesyes–I’d be very interested in a collaborative piece: I too have been meaning to write about that book for a while now! It’s so short and simultaneously full–or maybe crammed is an apter word: more fun at any rate (?)!

  22. megan m.

    joyelle, thanks for sharing this excerpt – sounds fascinating. i’m excited to take a look.
    w/r/t anorexic writing – i guess i’m most interested in its effects as a narrative mode. um. i think i’m out of the conversation at this point – which is fine. doesn’t anyone want to talk about the wonderfully heavy-handed 1987 young adult novel Nell’s Quilt? i think it won some award…

  23. Aaron Apps

    I just thought I’d chime in quick to point out a good place to start looking for a way to describe pathologies:

    This book is probably the best deconstruction/phenomenology of modern medicine I have come across:

    I guess it is pretty set on escaping the mess, but it also talks about the technocratic shapes our worldview of both medicine and the female body. While it isn’t mind blowing, it does get along side it pretty well. Worth reading.

  24. megan m.

    this book looks great, aaron – thanks for the tip.

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