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Arguing that the historical present is perceived affectively before it is understood in any other way, Berlant traces affective and aesthetic responses to the dramas of adjustment that unfold amid talk of precarity, contingency, and crisis. She suggests that our stretched-out present is characterized by new modes of temporality, and she explains why trauma theory—with its focus on reactions to the exceptional event that shatters the ordinary—is not useful for understanding the ways that people adjust over time, once crisis itself has become ordinary. Cruel Optimism is a remarkable affective history of the present.
Pairing literary criticism and historical analysis, Berlant explores the territory of this intimate public sphere through close readings of U.S. women’s literary works and their stage and film adaptations. Her interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its literary descendants reaches from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, touching on Shirley Temple, James Baldwin, and The Bridges of Madison County along the way. Berlant illuminates different permutations of the women’s intimate public through her readings of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat; Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life; Olive Higgins Prouty’s feminist melodrama Now, Voyager; Dorothy Parker’s poetry, prose, and Academy Award–winning screenplay for A Star Is Born; the Fay Weldon novel and Roseanne Barr film The Life and Loves of a She-Devil; and the queer, avant-garde film Showboat 1988–The Remake. The Female Complaint is a major contribution from a leading Americanist.
In this small theoretical novella-cum-dictionary entry, Lauren Berlant engages love and desire in separate entries. In the first entry, Desire mainly describes the feeling one person has for something else: it is organized by psychoanalytic accounts of attachment, and tells briefly the history of their importance in critical theory and practice. The second entry, on Love, begins with an excursion into fantasy, moving away from the parent-child structure so central to psychoanalysis and looking instead at the centrality of context, environment, and history. The entry on Love describes some workings of romance across personal life and commodity culture, the place where subjects start to think about fantasy on behalf of their actual lives.
Whether viewed psychoanalytically, institutionally, or ideologically, love is deemed always an outcome of fantasy. Without fantasy, there would be no love. Desire/Love takes us on a tour of all of the things that sentence might mean.
As Berlant traces the guiding images of U.S. citizenship through the process of privatization, she discusses the ideas of intimacy that have come to define national culture. From the fantasy of the American dream to the lessons of Forrest Gump, Lisa Simpson to Queer Nation, the reactionary culture of imperilled privilege to the testimony of Anita Hill, Berlant charts the landscape of American politics and culture. She examines the consequences of a shrinking and privatized concept of citizenship on increasing class, racial, sexual, and gender animosity and explores the contradictions of a conservative politics that maintains the sacredness of privacy, the virtue of the free market, and the immorality of state overregulation—except when it comes to issues of intimacy.
Drawing on literature, the law, and popular media, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City is a stunning and major statement about the nation and its citizens in an age of mass mediation. As it opens a critical space for new theory of agency, its narratives and gallery of images will challenge readers to rethink what it means to be American and to seek salvation in its promise.
Contributors. Lauren Berlant, Kathryn Bond Stockton, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Jason Edwards, Ramzi Fawaz, Denis Flannery, Jane Gallop, Jonathan Goldberg, Meridith Kruse, Michael Moon, José Esteban Muñoz, Chris Nealon, Andrew Parker, H. A. Sedgwick, Karin Sellberg, Michael D. Snediker, Melissa Solomon, Robyn Wiegman
Through virtuoso interpretations of works of cinema, photography, critical theory, and literature, including Lydia Davis's story "Break It Down" (reprinted in full here), Berlant and Edelman explore what it means to live with negativity, with those divisions that may be irreparable. Together, they consider how such negativity affects politics, theory, and intimately felt encounters. But where their critical approaches differ, neither hesitates to voice disagreement. Their very discussion—punctuated with moments of frustration, misconstruction, anxiety, aggression, recognition, exhilaration, and inspiration—enacts both the difficulty and the potential of encounter, the subject of this unusual exchange between two eminent critics and close friends.