Berlant: The Female Complaint

Image courtesy of Open Library“Introduction: Intimacy, Publicity, and Femininity.” The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Lauren Berlant

Connects well with Sara Ahmed, Wendy Hesford, Leslie Bow

“Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking” (1).

This introduction is really beautifully written. But it’s really dense.

Berlant opens by looking over the titles of popular women’s literature (The Bitch in the House, Are Men Neccessary?, etc) that “market what is sensational about the complaint” (1). She writes that, “Fusing feminine rage and feminist rage, each has its own style of hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little” (1). These works explain women’s disappointment in the “tenuous relation of romantic fantasy to lived intimacy” (2) while also being sentimental and therefore ambivalent. And, because in popular culture ambivalence is “seen as the failure of a relation, the opposite of happiness,” these works “tend to foreground a view of power that blames flawed men and bad ideologies for women’s intimate suffering, all while maintaining some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place” (2).

Thesis: According to Berlant, public-sphere femininity in the U.S. has been a love affair with conventionality. Further, she posits that sentimentality’s focus on the possibility of the good life collaborates with a sentimental account of the world in which people should be legitimated because they have feelings and their feelings contain wisdom about the world that could make it better. Berlant writes, “This very general sense of confidence in the critical intelligence of affect, emotion, and good intention produces an orientation toward agency that is focused on ongoing adaptation, adjustment, improvisation, and developing wiles for surviving, thriving, and transcending the world as it presents itself.” (2)

In her book, she examines different texts for ways that the “space of permission to thrive” is borne out–the intimate public legitimates qualities, ways of being, and entire lives that have otherwise been deemed puny or discarded. It create situations where those qualities can appear as luminous” (3).

“Thus to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world. To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them.” (3)

What’s important, and I think a bit tricky, is how Berlant conceives of sentimentality and its relationship to women’s culture in intimate publics.

“We will see women generate an affective and intimate public sphere that seeks to harness the power of emotion to change what is structural in the world. We will see a culture of ‘true feeling’ emerge that sanctifies suffering as a relay to universality in a way that includes women in the universal while attaching the universal more fully to a generally lived experience; we will see commodities help to distribute and to enable the building of this intimate public of femininity, whose core is to witness women’s lives in a conflation of extremity and ordinariness that constitutes the struggle to master a social situation rife with contradictions about desire, suffering, and fantasies of amelioration; and we will ask how transformed subjectivity can make and change worlds” (12).

“the turn to sentimental rhetoric at moments of social anxiety constitutes a generic wish for an unconflicted world, one wherein structural inequities, not emotions and intimacies, are epiphenomenal. In this imaginary world the sentimental subject is connected to others who share the same sense that the world is out of joint, without necessarily having the same view of the reasons or solutions: historically, the sentimental intervention has tended to involve mobilizing a fantasy scene of collective desire, instruction, and identification that endures within the contingencies of the everyday” (21).

Femininity as a Genre

“To call an identity like a sexual identity a genre is to think about it as something repeated, detailed, and stretched while retaining its intelligibility, its capacity to remain readable or audible across the field of all its variations. For femininity to be a genre like an aesthetic one means that it is a structure of conventional expectation that people rely on to provide certain kinds of affective intensities and assurances” (4).

Berlant further argues that failure to perform the genre correctly becomes part of the genre as a way of marking the conventions and making them more interesting, so that even transgressions are not really that transgressive. Think of the romantic comedies in which the woman has to be taught how to be a datable or marriageable woman. She’s not really transgressing so much as her failure to perform the part is part of the conventions of the genre. The makeover gets folded into the conventions of femininity.

Intimate Publics

“A public is intimate when it foregrounds affective and emotional attachments located in fantasies of the common, the everyday, and a sense of ordinariness, a space where the social world is rich with anonymity and local recognitions, and where challenging and banal conditions of life take place in proximity to the attentions of power but also squarely in the radar of recognition that can be provided by other humans. It is textually mediated” (10).

“…in mass society, what counts as collectivity has been a loosely organized, market- structured, juxtapolitical sphere of people attached to each other by a sense that there is a  common emotional world available to those individuals who have been marked by the historical burden of being harshly treated in a generic way and who have more than survived social negativity by making an aesthetic and spiritual scene that generates relief from the political.” (10)

“What makes a public sphere intimate is an expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience…” (viii)

So what makes that a vehicle of conformity?

“…A certain circularity structures an intimate public, therefore: its consumer participants are perceived to be marked by a commonly lived history; its narratives and things are deemed expressive of that history while also shaping its conventions of belonging; and, expressing the sensational, embodied experience of living as a certain kind of being in the world, it promises also to provide a better experience of social belonging…So, from a theoretical standpoint, an intimate public is a space of mediation in which the personal is refracted through the general, what’s salient for its consumers is that it is a place of recognition and reflection. In an intimate public sphere emotional contact, of a sort, is made” (viii, emphasis mine).

“…But from what I can tell, the feminine literary figures whom these scholars describe are defined so much by their desires for there to be a ground to stand on in the world as it exists that they remain, on the whole, committed to the normative permission of feminine fantasy as a ground–despite everything. The ground of mass normative fantasy is wobbly, a scene of bargaining for survival and jockeying for supremacy: but the cohabitation of critique, conventionality, and the commodity produces more movement within a space than toward being or wanting to be beyond it” (12).

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