Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Theory Review: Warren's What was African American Literature? (2011)

Warren, Kenneth W. What was African American Literature? Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2011.

In What Was African American Literature? Kenneth Warren provides a concise historical context for defining and understanding African American literary production and, moreover, provocatively announces its death. For him, African American literature was specifically “a postemancipation phenomenon that gained its coherence as an undertaking in the social world defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation, which ensued after the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction” (1). While acknowledging that his contention that African American literature has eroded since the “legal demise of Jim Crow” goes against much of the scholarship in African American and transatlantic studies, which “has sought to justify taking a longer historical view of African American literary practice,” Warren nevertheless asserts that “[t]o insist that African American literature ‘was’ is [also] to raise the question of what all of this ongoing production ‘is’” (3, 4). His research is animated by the belief that there have been fundamental sociopolitical and cultural changes that contest claims that “Jim Crow has not ended” and by extension “equally pernicious manifestations of racism” exist today; Warren argues that even though racism has not disappeared, pointing out its endurance “is not to make a particularly profound social observation or to engage in trenchant political analysis” (5). For him, historical periodization of African American literature functions as a valuable interpretive tool that allows us not only to recognize “some of the factors that almost unavoidably oriented African American literary practice during the Jim Crow era,” but also enables us to examine the critical possibilities that open up if we recognize that African American literature “was” (9-10).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Theory Review: Lee's Semblance of Identity (2012)

Lee, Christopher. The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012.

In The Semblance of Identity Christopher Lee examines the ongoing debate in Asian American studies over identity politics and its political efficacy; he claims that rather than presenting “an argument for or against identity and identity politics,” his “aim is to explore the consequences of the ‘post-identity’ turn” (3). Lee approaches the issue of identity (and post-identity) in Asian American studies by tracing what he describes as “the ‘idealized critical subject,’” a figure that “operates throughout Asian American literary culture and cultural criticism as a means of providing coherence to oppositional knowledge projects and political practices” (4). By working through Theodor Adorno’s conception of “aesthetic semblance” as “the kinds of knowledge that artworks offer by virtue of their appearance and illusory coherence,” Lee establishes a parallel between aesthetics and identity (17). He tracks the idealized critical subject as an aesthetic figure that manifests in Asian American literary productions and demonstrates in the unraveling of the form and content of these texts the “theoretical structures of race and identity” (17). Ultimately, while Lee’s work does demonstrate how representations of Asian American identity have always been unstable, his focus on the idealized critical subject reveals how despite its flaws, identitarian thinking continues to persist even amidst the proliferation of anti- and post-identity discourses.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Theory Review: Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness (2010)

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

In The Promise of Happiness Sara Ahmed examines the connection between our conception of happiness and what constitutes the “good life.” She argues that certain ideas and objects, for instance, marriage, family, and heterosexual intimacy, are perceived as “happy objects” that contain the promise of future happiness. These objects, Ahmed reveals, exist even in “the absence of happiness by filling a certain gap; we anticipate that the object will cause happiness, such that it becomes a prop that sustains the fantasy that happiness is what would follow if only we could have ‘it’” (32). For her, these happy objects embody the good life; they demarcate the kind of life we should strive for, such that happiness becomes tied to acquiring the right or proper objects and unhappiness to anything that deviates from this norm. Ahmed’s research deals precisely with those individuals and groups that are figured as deviant because they are already perceived as unhappy and/or attempt to seek happiness in unexpected objects; by concentrating her study around figures such as the “feminist killjoy, unhappy queer, and melancholic migrant,” she conveys the necessity of dissociating our conception of happiness from what is unquestionably “good” and examines the “‘unhappy archives’” each figure embodies as a way of illuminating alternative modes of living (17).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Theory Review: Berlant's Cruel Optimism (2011)

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.

In Cruel Optimism Lauren Berlant reveals that despite deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions, people still remain attached to fantasies of the "good life"; her research examines how such fantasies have survived even when conditions for survival are increasingly compromised under postwar neoliberal restructuring. She posits “cruel optimism” as a relational dynamic whereby individuals remain attached to “compromised conditions of possibility” or “clusters of promises” embedded in desired object-ideas even when they inhibit the conditions for flourishing and fulfilling such promises (24, 23). For Berlant, optimism is a formal or structural feeling, such that an “optimistic attachment is invested in one’s own or the world’s continuity, but might feel any number of ways,” including not optimistic at all (13). In other words, maintaining attachments that sustain the good life fantasy, no matter how injurious or cruel these attachments may be, allows people to make it through day-to-day life when the day-to-day has become unlivable. Berlant is essentially concerned with conditions of living or the state of the “present,” which she describes as structured through “crisis ordinariness,” and turns to affect and aesthetics as a way of apprehending these crises; by tracking the various impasses we face today, she suggests that it becomes possible to recognize that certain “genres” are no longer sustainable in the present and that new emergent aesthetic forms are taking hold, alternative genres that allow us to recognize modes of living not rooted in normative good life fantasies.