The Female Complaint

There is this book by Lauren Berlant that I want to read, to teach, to absorb really, but it overwhelms me each time I open it. It’s like one of those sketches on Sesame Street or some similar show where the character opens a book and all of this sound, a cacophony, bursts forth. And then when the character quickly closes the book, it is silent. I have gone through this open-close sequence several times now, circling, and I figure it is time for me to assess what keeps drawing me in and then causing me to stop. In what I have read of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture — the first two pages of the Preface…I wasn’t kidding — Berlant discusses the idea of an intimate public. She begins with a narrative about her process of Prefacing this piece and the different iterations the opening had taken. Upon reading one of these versions a friend asked her “Why are you airing your personal business here? Isn’t your knowledge the point?” To which Berlant responded, “Well, in the humanities we try to foreground what motivates and shapes our knowledge, and a personal story can telegraph a perspective efficiently and humanly.” She continues:

I wasn’t happy with this somewhat canned response, although I also believe it. Yet the autobiographical isn’t the personal. This nonintuitive phrase is a major presupposition of The Female Complaint. In the contemporary consumer public, and in the longue duree that I’m tracking, all sorts of narratives are read as autobiographies of collective experience. The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy. (vii)

And so she shifted her approach from a narrative about the interlacing experiences of the generations of women in her family to a meta-narrative about the nature of intimacy and the idea of collective consciousness.

But how can I call “intimate” a public constituted by strangers who consume common texts and things? By “intimate public” I do not mean a public sphere organized by autobiographical confession and chest-baring, although there is often a significant amount of the first-person narrative in an intimate public. 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. A certain circularity structures an intimate public, therefore: its consumer participants are perceived to be marked by a commonly lived history; shaping its conventions of belonging; and, expressing the sensati0nal, embodied experience of living as a certain kind of being in the world, it promises also to provide a better experience of social belonging–partly through participation in the relevant commodity culture, and partly because of its revelations about how people can live. So if, 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.

In other words, an intimate public is an achievement. (viii)

She later observes that, “Just as people are politically incoherent, so too are intimate publics and bodies politic: remember, national sentimentality is not about being right or logical but about maintaining an affective transaction with a world whose terms of recognition and reciprocity are being constantly struggled over and fine-tuned” (xi). What does it mean to write, to conceptualize an audience in a context where there is no coherent or cohesive community? “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

In a conversation that easily correlates with the heart of Aptheker’s discussion of everyday resistance and women warriors in Tapestries of Life or the commonalities of women’s lived experience in Rich’s Of Woman Berlant explores this conception of the intimate public in the emergence of “women’s culture” in the US. “The Female Complaint focuses on what has evolved and shifted around but not changed profoundly in the history of public-sphere femininity in the United States–a love affair with conventionality” (2 — I’m in!). She continues, “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 the transcending the world as it preserves itself” (2). It is this combination of wiliness and convention that really interests me, because it seems to accept as normative the struggle, perhaps for the academic in particular–my elitism peeking through–between what we understand as socially constructed, thus arbitrary and confining, and our need to be at peace in the world that made us: “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” (3).

Are you – Nobody – to?

What would happen?

I taught and read Bettina Aptheker’s Tapestries of Life for the first time this semester and found parts of it difficult because they spoke so closely to my heart and experience. The steadiness of her voice, like that of Adrienne Rich, models a kind of bravery in writing, and I feel as if some of my tension can rest as I read and consider her words. Generous, courageous, intelligent, forthright, Aptheker gathers the narratives and reflections, the artistic works of a diverse group of women and brings them into conversation with one another in a way that demonstrates the commonalities of women’s experience. In an early discussion of the way in which poetry serves to name and define experiences, she mentions a phrase, a question, from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser that I can’t stop thinking about:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?

The world would split open.

These words frustrate me because they seem to represent great freedom. They engage my sense of hopefulness, and yet I hesitate and I ask — what truth? and to whom? Also, whose world? How could someone, a human being fluctuating among so many intersections, tell the truth, really? Truth bears consequences. Of course the world would split open and it would conceivably be too much to sustain. Right? Speaking the truth of one’s interior life is a risky endeavor and I have yet to resolve the question of value for myself. I continually return to Emily Dickinson’s admonition to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” which suggests caution and cleverness. Perhaps with public truth it is more realistic to talk in terms of representation.

My belief that all things — the political, the academic, the social — are bound to the personal, and that therefore the reverberations of our words and actions continually extend, serves to bind my thoughts within my mind, to check the locks on the doors rather than throwing them open. These mechanisms of closure and suppression reflect my early experiences, which consisted of dogmatic religious instruction concerning what is good and right and pure. How can one write in the context of those standards, those voices? What is required? These questions become increasingly important for me now that I am a mother. It is no longer simply, what do I have to offer the world? But, what world do I offer to my children if I do not model bravery for them?

One Thing

Tired of being inspired by others, she sits to write and wonders what happened to the words. The words have been accumulating, hovering, waiting the for the space and time, patiently growing, anticipating the moment when she would decide that they and she are enough and right and ready.

The process suggests that the moment is long overdue and that still she writes preemptively, presumptuously, that all has been said, and that in the end she should be doing something else altogether. Evil voices. Yet she knows by now that the process is a deceiver and that the voices echo from the towers and chambers that she no longer reveres.

If she were instead to speak to herself and listen to herself as a separate being, someone she encountered and with whom she immediately found a sense of home and relief, comforted by the familiarity of experiences and understandings, the ability to be heard without effort or tedium, she would straightaway say to herself, Write! Write your story to the world. Explain what it is to be  between all things, to live your days. Begin and do not stop yourself. And herself would respond that this call represented her greatest fear and her greatest desire. This one thing.