115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Contingencies:  Reproduction, Queerness, and the Politics of Representation in the York Cycle's “Abraham and Isaac”

Derrick E Higginbotham, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

This paper argues that the York cycle’s “Abraham and Isaac” queers Isaac through his resistance to reproduction via marriage and thus to the future.  Focusing on the politics of representation, I demonstrate that this play requires an historicism of the evanescent embedded in the phenomenology of theatrical performance.


            In my paper, I show that the York cycle’s dramatization of Isaac’s potential sacrifice expresses a distinctive investment in reproductive sexuality within marriage and its implied connection to the future.  The socio-symbolic power that Lee Edelman identifies with the figure of ‘the Child’ in his book No Future echoes this link between reproduction and the future that the York cycles dramatizes.  Nevertheless, given that child sacrifice is an essential element of Christian theology, it and the York plays, I contend, turn Edelman’s theory on its head:  God and Abraham both act in the name of the future but at the expense of the child, a loss that the cycle insists must not be forgotten. 

            By combining a philological approach with queer theory, I argue that the York cycle queers Isaac through his resistance to both reproduction and the future; moreover, via typological association, it also queers Christ, which reveals how this foundational narrative is already marked by a constitutive queerness.  In other words, I propose that the religious instantiation of reproductive futurity against which Edelman’s notion of queerness emerges, paradoxically, is itself queer, which troubles the sense of rebelliousness that inheres in Edelman’s theory and its subsequent uptake by theorists, especially those focused on queer temporality.  At the end of my paper, I turn to another dimension of Isaac’s portrayal, focusing on the way that its queerness only threatens to appear openly, yet it never actually does overtly manifest.  To put it differently, it never achieves unequivocal visibility, so that queerness remains a shadow hovering at the edges of Isaac’s representation.  Rather than read such queerness as inchoate or as emergent, and thus as needing an implied future as a remedy since only in the implied future could such queerness be visible and viable, I argue that the play requires a historicism invested in the ephemeral, in the transitory, given the phenomenology of theatricality itself, which emphasizes the contingencies of audiences and circumstances to lend performance its impact.  It is this form of historicism—one robust enough to rely on the connotation of evidence as much as denotation as evidence—that possesses the liability to capture the fleeting quality of queerness in history.