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?