bookmark_borderPeople confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards.

People confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards. Right-wing “alt facts” insists reality is legitimately determined by the powerful, that if someone simply posits a fiction with enough conviction then it becomes true, or at least “alternatively true.” This is wrong.

Standpoint theory is very different. It says that knowledge is shaped by social position and therefore that we can’t just ignore the knowledge-positions of indigenous people, women, minorities, and the working class, who have historically been cast out of eligibility for scientific expertise (so that e.g. the knowledge of European noblemen is “science,” but indigenous knowledge is historically framed as “superstition”—we even have a special term for discrediting women’s knowledge: “old wives’ tales”). Sandra Harding calls this “science from below” (to parallel “history from below”). The “below” part is important.

Standpoint theory says (and really, how controversial is this?) that we must acknowledge positionality in order to correct for the limitations of what we know, and social positionality can have this limiting effect just as much as the position of your telescope. This doesn’t mean facts are arbitrary or that you can just make some up, Sean-Spicer-style. On the contrary, it means extending your rigor and considering context.

I know there’s a little complexity here and that is difficult for the “Fuck Yeah Science!!” (…”where by Science I mean Neil de Grasse Tyson memes and punching hippies!”) crowd to accept. It’s not very Facebookable. But we will get nowhere by insisting that facts (Lt. factus, made) are immutable things, or by yelping that we must simply trust the (authoritative white first-world male) scientists.

What is truly pernicious in the “alt-facts” ideology is the claim of epistemic marginalization embedded in the term “alternative,” as John Pat Leary has recently pointed out, and the suggestion that that marginalization (due to lack of correspondence to reality) is equivalent to, or even of a kind with, the epistemic marginalization experienced by (e.g.) the woman at your company whose good ideas always mysteriously go unheard until a man says them. You see the difference, right? She doesn’t have “alt ideas”—and she doesn’t have a press secretary, either.

To claim that pomo feminists somehow empowered “alt-facts” or made them possible is to accept the dangerously false reversal of power relations to which the Tr*mp administration has laid claim, in which well-off white Americans with disproportionate influence in policy and media (and, at this point, control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, despite not actually winning the popular vote) somehow become the “unheard.”

The kind of epistemic conservatism that retrenches in the authority of established experts is no answer to this problem, because it denies that thinking and evaluating knowledge is something for all of us, not just for a few. If the Tr*mp administration is backing its “alternative facts” with naked power, the answer is not to reply with more power, just from different institutions. Access to, and understanding of, the production of knowledge—how we get from “here’s a phenomenon I observed” to “here’s a generalization I can make about the world”—should be general and widespread.[1]Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is … Continue reading

Standpoint theory doesn’t say we can just make shit up; it says we need a clear-eyed understanding of power relations in order to understand and evaluate knowledge-claims. In other words, pomo feminists didn’t create “alt facts”; it’s pomo feminists who have given us the tools to oppose them.


1 Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is precisely questions of positioning, literal positions in space in this case, that need to be better understood. See Animate Planet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

bookmark_borderTheme and variations

I focus here on The Female Complaint not because it is Berlant’s most recent book (it is not) or her best book (though it may be) but because in it she has so much to say about what makes women such agile practitioners of criticism at the present time.[1]Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). The book maps the intimate twists and turns by means of which genre as a mode of cultural creation and interpretation becomes indistinguishable from genre as a shaping force in lived experience. Since “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity,” it makes sense that for Berlant women would be skilled in the genres (both literary and lived) of romance and (particularly heteronormative) sentiment — writing them, reading them, and living them. But it turns out that even though The Female Complaint is mostly about those especially feminine genres, women have a knack for genre theory as well — for what Arnold would have called criticism — because genre is the stuff of which women, like criticism, are made.

Virginia Jackson on Lauren Berlant at LARB

Virginia Jackson’s recent piece on Berlant’s criticism beautifully draws out some of the things that were striking me about Lili Loofbourow’s tv and film criticism, which, too, is so often about genre and women’s relation to it. The premise of The Mindy Project, one of the first shows Lili wrote about for Dear Television, is that Mindy Kaling’s character is a woman raised on women’s genres, who interprets the world through them and who constantly performs them. Her writing on The Mindy Project is one of the first places I saw Lili describe the collocation of gender and genre:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.

Mindy is one such expert. For Emma Bovary, connoisseurship of female genres is a source of disappointment and ultimately misguidedly melodramatic suicide (Andreas Huyssen’s gloss on this move in “Mass Culture as Woman,” which I felt compelled to teach this term in my Novel seminar, is pretty undeniable), but for Mindy, it’s a disappointment-management system in the way that melodrama is a disappoint-management system in The Female Complaint.[2]Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62. The disappointments of genre create space for making the disappointments of gender livable. Even for Emma, female genres are an attempt to manage the disappointments of gender: a stupid husband, a tedious town, an unwanted child, and no escape. As Jackson glosses the situation:

The thing is, genre is a heartbreaker. The plaintiveness of The Female Complaint and the cruelty of Cruel Optimism (2011) both turn on the turn that genre takes when its utopian promise breaks down, when our experiments in living can’t remain or become experiments in genre, since, as Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” If that generic expectation is too starry-eyed, genre will fold up its fragile tents: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”; “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”[3]Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).


1 Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
2 Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62.
3 Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

bookmark_borderAnd now for something very slightly different

Reading Lili Loofbourow’s new profile of Tatiana Maslany, I’m struck again by Lili’s consistent attention to the relationship between female reading and genre:

In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.

By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones ­— it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.) Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts. In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be.

Here I was reminded of Lili’s 2012 review of Pixar’s Brave for The New Inquiry, a meditation on the detection of small differences when every female character is a stereotype.

Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative. Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations.

In the land of small differences, she points out, a princess movie in which the mother is actually alive constitutes a major departure. Stereotype and repetition, the constitution of the feminine as generic, means an attention to the kinds of “slight variations” that we might recognize elsewhere as “gender parody.”

Naomi Schor asks, “Is the detail feminine?” and Lili’s criticism gives an alternate, mass-cultural account of why it might be.1 I hope to see this strain of thinking elaborated further in her future work.


     1 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (1987; New York: Routledge, 2007): 4.

Quick observation, with the caveat that IANAL (I am not a linguist): I’ve noticed that people in the UK (by which I mean Brighton) say “America” to mean “the United States” much more frequently than I’m used to hearing. This happens sometimes in the US, but usually we just say “the US” and reserve “America” for songs that start out with “I like to be in.” Here I’ve heard the United States referred to as “America” approximately one thousand times, as in “Fulbright workshop for people thinking about doing a PhD in America” or “I’m applying to do a year abroad in America.” (Unsubstantiated) conclusion: “America” is a Britishism.

And I have to say, I hear Anita in my head every time.


[Related: my colleague Lynne Murphy on “the States” and objections to the adjective “American.”]


2014 is the name of this WordPress theme,* because it was in this year that I put up the site.

In 2014 I taught at Yale, I stopped teaching at Yale, and I gave talks or did seminars at MLA, C19, ACLA, MSA, Stanford, Penn, Bates, and a few places that will remain nameless as convention requires. I spent a week in Delaware and a week at Penn State. I got a job. I moved to England. I made many lovely new friends, and lost one very dear one. I taught Middlemarch. I taught Tender Buttons. I learned a new meaning for the word “bureaucracy.” I learned that, like the honey badger, the Brighton and Hove buses don’t care (that there is a pedestrian crossing). I came to owe my colleague Sam the internal organ of his choice or black market value thereof after he helped me put together a horrible Ikea bed that cost us a solid four hours and perhaps a few tears. I became incredibly wistful for broccoli raab.** I visited Dresden and Prague. The vast majority of what happened in 2014, I did not see coming in the slightest.***

Hello, 2015.

*Of course, I could change it.
**If you are tempted to weigh in with some bullshit about purple broccolini, let me stop you right there. No.
***Again: Brighton and Hove buses.

The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance of its own.

     —Virginia Woolf, “How it Strikes a Contemporary”