Trans-Tonalities: Sensation and Gender Transformation in 18th-Century Atlantic Revivals

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:50 PM
Regent Room (New York Hilton)
Scott Larson, University of Michigan
This paper will reflect on the ways that tone – particularly sonic and affective tone in public performances – can offer new modes of engaging queer and trans pasts, particularly in early American frameworks outside of modern identity formations. As a case, study, this paper will look to archives of eighteenth-century evangelical Christian Atlantic revivals that aimed to engage the feelings and sensations of mass audiences. Accounts of both revivalists and anti-revivalists record, in diaries, letters, newspapers, and satirical artworks, the power of revival’s performative tones, or what Phillis Wheatley would eulogize in her 1773 elegy to George Whitefield as “the wonted auditories” and “music of thy tongue.” In nineteenth-century America, this heart-centered preaching became a mainstream form of American Christianity, but in its first hundred years, it was widely regarded by religious elites and Enlightenment thinkers as perverse, effeminate, and depraved. Early Evangelical Christianity threatened to destabilize social and political orders, to drive the masses “out of their senses,” and to throw gender norms into chaos, leading to what Ann Taves has characterized as Fits, Trances, and Visions.

This paper particularly draws on Don James McLaughlin’s concept of trans-tonality – an investigation of trans at the level of tone, expression, and sensation – to articulate a means of engaging trans and disability history of early Atlantic cultures, and to rethink early Atlantic archives rich with accounts of gender and sensory variance. From this specific case study, this presentation aims to open up conversation about the ways that historians might use a range of sources including visual cultural objects (both satirical and non-satirical), and accounts of public performance, as well as letters and journals to think about the ways that scholars might account for tone, sensation, and expression to engage queer pasts in new ways.