Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Lauren Berlant's The Female Complaint: Genre, Transgression, and Late Capitalism

       I've been reading Lauren Berlant's The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture to think through some ideas about domestic melodrama in my chapter on the American science fiction author and editor, Judith Merril.  Berlant is interested in reading the conventions of feminity generically, linking it to a number of other conventionally feminine genres, most notably the domestic melodrama (linking it in with Merril's work, which draws on domestic melodramatic conventions in her work, most notably her novel, Shadow on the Hearth.)  However, Berlant's interest in a generic reading also offer an interesting critique of a set of traditional engagements in cultural studies, a set of engagements that might be called neo-Gramscian.  This set of traditions emphasizes the spaces of failure and lack in conventional structures as cites of resistance, and potential sites for a transformative politics.  Berlant captures this desire in the following manner, "Even the world of post-subculture studies, largely back-room, dance-floor, and flash mob based, has wanted to make transgression and resistance the values against which the data were measured.  In this book the work of critical distance in the context of the reproduction of life focuses on scenes of ordinary survival, not transgression, on disappointment, not refusal, to derive a critique." (Berlant 24-25)

      The concept of genre becomes crucial within this new mode of analysis.  Studies of genre from the late-1960's onwards have emphasized an evolutionary analysis of the subject.  Genre is not defined by a static set of rules, but instead by evolving and mutating sets of conventions that are drawn upon by writers to respond to and create new expectations amongst readers.  Conventions are developed to respond to reader's expectations and are abandoned as those conventions become irrelevant to the ideological horizons of the reader or as those expectations become stale or predictable.  Berlant brings this fluid structure into her analysis of conventions of the genre of feminity.  She notes, "Even the prospects of failure that haunt the performance of identity and genre are conventional: the power of a generic performance always involves moments of potential collapse that threaten the contract that genre makes with the viewer to fulfill experimental expectations.  But those blockages or surprises are usually part of the convention and not a transgression of it, or anything radical.  They make its conventionality interesting and rich, even."  ( Berlant 4)  By placing this emphasis on an evolutionary concept of genre, we no longer operate within the fantasy of a static sense of convention that is crucial to the valorization of transgression as a liberatory tool.

      This approach is particularly relevant to the increasingly flexible structures of late capitalism, which operates within the logic of the network, depending on opportunism, cynicism and fear.  To draw on the increasingly maligned work of Negri and Hardt in regards to a variety of writers valorizing difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge modernist sovereignty, "The new enemy not only is resistant to the old weapons but actually thrives on them, and thus joins its would-be antagonists in applying them to the fullest.  Long live difference!  Down with essentialist binaries!"  (Empire 138)  These modes of thinking can be read as traces of the new political formation that the pair call Empire.  At the same time, the pair fall into this same trap with their occasional valorization of the network, missing out on the fact that fluidity and creativity of those structures is precisely part of the richness and depth of the conventions of late capitalism, or perhaps to use the Deleuzian terms they are so enamored with, the pair often forget that the contemporary situation is created by the apparatuses of capture of the capitalist world system.  Or perhaps more succinctly, they are the products of a defeated revolution.

      To turn briefly back to the concept of transgression, Michel Foucault made the argument that the concept of transgression would be central to the understanding of the 20th century.  By in large, I think Foucault is right, but transgression is crucial because it structures late capitalist life rather than opposing it.  To think otherwise is to remain in the fallacy of the repressive hypothesis.  The question becomes what does it mean to think of resistance within this system which is so creative and successful at capturing and co-opting our various lines of flight.  To be honest, I'm not sure.  But it seems crucial to recognize that a set of approaches that were perhaps productive towards resistance are no longer productive towards those ends.  To the extent that I see a new approach, I think that Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar provide a productive venue of thinking about our contemporary situation.  (However, I will leave my comments about the relationship between Foucault and the relationship of Isaac and Lin for another time.)

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