The Function of Criticism at the Present Time


Virginia Jackson in the LA Review of Books:

LAUREN BERLANT is a critic’s critic, a feminist’s feminist, and a thinker’s friend. This is most simply true because of the number, depth, and influence of her abundant authored and co-authored and edited and co-edited books, her ever more numerous articles, essays, interviews, dialogues and monologues, and especially her proliferating collaborations; she always seems to be writing yet another book with yet another interesting someone else. Lots of people think with and because of Lauren Berlant. But academic “productivity” (that ubiquitous and ugly word, itself a symptom of the corporate manufacture of a crisis in the humanities) isn’t the most important reason that my first proposition — that Berlant is a critic’s critic — is just true. The reason that Lauren Berlant occupies this moment in critical theory so capaciously is that what she really always thinks about is genre.

Once upon a time, or so the story goes, the genre system was hierarchical and taxonomic (though not so fixed that at least as early as Aristotle’s Poeticsit wasn’t open to debate), with “tragedies” clearly separated from “comedies,” for example. Later, in modernity (the novel is usually considered both the origin and result of this shift), genres became modes of recognition — complex forms instantiated in popular discourse, relying on what we could or would recognize collectively, in common — and so subject to historical change and cultural negotiation. Once genres became historical, the story continues, it then became the critic’s job to manage and translate those emerging forms of recognition for the benefit of readers who experienced them without knowing exactly what it was they were seeing and feeling.

Genre seems like an old-fashioned, belletristic frame to impose on Berlant’s political, cultural, and affective range. I may be wrong, but I’m betting that if I asked you to think of a queer theorist, Berlant is one of the first critics you would name, and if I asked you to think of a theorist of public culture or affect or performativity or media publics or marginal aesthetics or crisis, Berlant would be one of the first critics you would name, but if I asked you to think of a genre theorist, Berlant would not be the first critic to come to mind. No one would accuse Lauren Berlant of being a purely literary critic.

More here.