The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.


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 Poetics it 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.

Yet like Eve Sedgwick or Paul de Man or Edward Said — the game-changing critical theorists of the end of the last century, to which Berlant’s work bears comparison — Berlant is a laureate of genre, which is to say that Berlant pays attention to what critical theory is made of. If modern literary criticism invented the concept of genre in order to invent itself (and I think it did), then Berlant thinks about genre in order to think about the function of criticism at the present time.

My allusion to Matthew Arnold is not as funny as it may seem, despite the fact that Arnold is usually considered the standard bearer of a 19th-century Victorian cultural conservatism completely antithetical to Berlant’s 21st-century queer radicalism. Arnold cultivated a disinterested position of refined critical appreciation and characterized middlebrow taste as “Philistine”; Berlant delights in mass culture and in its passionately interested investments. Yet if the function of criticism for Arnold was normative, it was also utopian, since “the true life of literature” was for him “the promised land, towards which criticism can only beckon.” Arnold’s critic is also always an outsider: “That promised land it will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness: but to have desired to enter it, to have saluted it from afar, is already, perhaps, the best distinction among contemporaries.”

For Berlant, too, the function of criticism is to invite us into the fiction of a promised land, but unlike Arnold, she does not foreclose entrance to that promise by insisting on its fictitiousness. After all, what forms of desire are not fictive? How could we get out of bed in the morning without taking our fictions with us? If genre is normative in the sense that it invites you into a fantasy that (once you realize that it is a fantasy) returns you to or keeps you in your place (pathetically happy in your disappointment), then the thing that makes Berlant our Arnold in drag, the current diva performer of the function of criticism at the present time, is that she keeps trying to think past the contemporary consensus that genres themselves are normative because they are communally held forms of recognition.

Berlant wants that recognition to mean that genres can become the vehicles of social change, or at least of degrees of adjustment. She can skate the outlines of received genres with more precision than any of us, but she also wants to make those boundaries turn out toward a utopian horizon where the barriers between us may not exactly fall but will be illuminated as shared in what Berlant likes to call “the history of the present.” As she said recently in an interview on the “Society and Space” blog (as an old friend of mine once said, Berlant “has a lot of language,” so the interview is a good genre for her, and the blogosphere a good generic medium, since so much of the language she has so much of can overflow and circulate there), “it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects. It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.” If for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment and classed distinction in the experience and expression of that disappointment, but are instead signs and figures for shared world making.

“Successfully accomplished genre is a utopian performance, a scene of mastery in contrast to disappointing life, with its rhythm of failed experiments,” Berlant writes in The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008). The trick that Berlant recommends is to move through life as if it were the utopian performance of genre. We’re not to buy the promised land fantasy, but we’re not to give up on it either, not to mistake the sign of belonging that is not world making for the sign that might be. The recognition of that sign is not a mark of distinction or taste, as Arnold would have had it, but itself constitutes what Berlant calls “an intimate public sphere.”

The contradiction inherent in the space between those two adjectives is not ironic, unless irony is a word for the way we live our lives (and I don’t think that Berlant thinks that it is or can be, which is what separates her from the critics of the end of the last century and is another way Berlant opens a new direction for the function of criticism at the present time). What “intimate public” holds in phrase is the way in which genres address us, hail us, and then (and this is the important turn) the way in which we enter that scene of address, the ways in which we live there, so that the given little by little becomes what is made. The personal is the generic, but the generic is also personal. The sympathetic embrace and the unrelenting analysis of the genericization of the personal is Berlant’s signature double move, capacities that Arnold granted to criticism but that his criticism could not compass, perhaps because they turn out to be the special talents of critics who think and feel — intimately, publicly — as women.

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. 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.

The preface to The Female Complaint is a bravura performance of that knack. Here are its first two paragraphs:

Previous versions of this preface narrated how emotionally thorny it was to write this book. I wrote of myself and of women in my particular family — from Lena and Sadie to Mara and Cindy — who entered femaleness at different historical moments and yet whose styles of being in femininity have contained uncanny similarities. As you can imagine, such resonances raised intensities of attachment, love, protectiveness, gratitude, disappointment, despair, anger, and resentment that created obstacles to lithesome storytelling.

Then a friend not from the humanities asked me, “Why are you airing your personal business here? Isn’t your knowledge the point?” Right, I 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. 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 durée that I’m tracking, all sorts of narratives are read as autobiographies of collective experience. The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy.

Within these sentences, Berlant moves from personal professional embarrassment (with its designer handbag full of unprofessional affective attachments and detachments) to a concise definition of the episteme of current work in the humanities to the limits of that episteme to the “major presupposition” of her book, which turns out to push those limits back in the direction of the personal confession she only seems to have sidelined, since “the personal is the general.” The personal is not autobiographical. The personal is generic.

I’m reminded here of what Michael Warner said about Judith Butler’s early work, that

Where most accounts of norms imagine an agent who acts on the basis of beliefs or desires and reflects on what ought to be done, Butler called attention to the ways we find ourselves already normatively organized as certain kinds of agents, for example by having gender in ways that must be intelligible to others.

In Berlant’s work, and especially in The Female Complaint, we find ourselves organized as certain kinds of agents because we are organized by genre in ways that are already intelligible to others because genres are sites of mutual collective recognition.

These sites of recognition are what make up the genders we seem to be and have: “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity.” Berlant’s working premise is more radical than Butler’s. Yes, gender is performative for Berlant, but the critic’s task is not to analyze that performativity itself but instead to trace the kooky outlines of the genres that make it possible.

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.”

So the trick is to adjust or loosen expectations to make and consume aesthetic frames for experience that don’t set one up for such letdowns, or, in one of Berlant’s apparently infinite ways of phrasing the feminized version of this trick, “women’s disappointing experiences of the normal forms of personhood and intimacy do not induce rejection of them, but improvisations on the fear of the loss of the melancholic position that arises from stark consciousness of normalcy’s apparitional solidity.” (I told you, lots of language — Berlant must get tired of how often her Word program turns her writing choices red and green — but it’s a good thing that she has learned to ignore even the generic censors in her software.)

One way to improvise, of course, is to give up one’s dreams of freedom from constraint, including generic constraint. In Cruel Optimism and her recent collaborative, interactive, blogging, and essayistic work, Berlant has become increasingly interested in what she describes as “the becoming historical of the affective event and the improvisation of genre amid pervasive uncertainty. […] The waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates.” One might work around the cruelty of optimism or the setup for complaint by scaling back the intensity of one’s investments in genre, especially in the genres of the happy ending or the good life.

As those genres come to seem more fictitious and less attainable, the culture of crisis and precarity of most contemporary lives might have alternative possibilities. The waning of genre means that contemporary forms of recognition are up for grabs, and so the communal investments in those forms of recognition (what Berlant likes to call “fantasies of the good life”) might also change. (If the mortgage for the house with the picket fence is unattainable, maybe that genre will give way to more sustainable housing; if weddings are too expensive, maybe there will be fewer disappointed and mistreated brides; queer and trans modes of adaptation in these as in other respects become models for our common survival.) Because women are made of such investments, they have a lot of practice in adjustments of scale, and in this way as well women are calibrated to the critical history of the present. We have serious skills in managing the treachery of genre.

Some of us more than others. The chapter on Dorothy Parker in The Female Complaint seems to me exemplary of everything I have been saying about Berlant. What Berlant writes about Parker in this chapter goes double for Berlant herself:

Parker’s [read: Berlant’s] work focuses on the centrality of genre to the elusive experience of being held by the promise of the normal as ideal. Genre is her scene of whateverness, Giorgio Agamben’s term for the condition of an ethical belonging to the social as a matter of its being such, regardless of program or content. Parker’s [read: Berlant’s] fidelity to the social is expressed in her commitment to genre.

I want to linger on Berlant’s virtuoso reading of Parker, but first it is worth noticing that what Berlant admires in Parker and I admire in Berlant is a relation of criticism in Arnold’s sense, of “the effort,” as Arnold put it, “for now many years […] to see the object as in itself it really is.” What I’m arguing here is this: Berlant is really a genre theorist as Berlant argued in The Female Complaint that Parker was really a genre theorist as Parker argued that genres are what really make sociality possible, though that possibility will kill you if you don’t make yourself a theorist and tell genre like it is.

This is to say that for Parker genres were always already normatively organizing, while Berlant and I hope in different ways that this might not always or necessarily be so, at least not if we are good enough critics to imagine an alternative. If genre is Parker’s scene of whateverness, it is not Berlant’s, at least not in our contemporary affective sense of the whatever, since Berlant is much more of a utopian thinker than Parker was, and certainly more of a utopian thinker than I am. For Berlant, “a genre is a loose affectively-invested zone of expectations about the narrative shape a situation will take,” and the effort of the critic is always to imagine a better or more interesting or more malleable or generous story: the goal of criticism is to make the stories that surround us, whether their fictions are literary or lived, more interesting.

But what about when the genre at stake is not narrative; what about when it is a poem that does not tell an unfolding story but that instead formalizes and enacts the intractable work of genre?

Berlant is fascinated by Parker’s poetry, partially because it does not quite participate in Berlant’s otherwise very narrative and therefore ongoing and unfolding understanding of how genres work. In her reading of the great “Sonnet for the End of a Sequence,” Berlant points out that Parker “does not even bother to tell the story that propels us to the predictable end”:

So take my vows and scatter them to sea;
Who swears the sweetest is no more than human.
And say no kinder words than these of me:
“Ever she longed for peace, but was a woman!
And thus they are, whose silly female dust
Needs little enough to clutter it and bind it,
Who meet a slanted gaze, and ever must
Go build themselves a soul to dwell behind it.”

 For now I am my own again, my friend!
This scar but points the whiteness of my breast;
This frenzy, like its betters, spins an end,
And now I am my own. And that is best.
Therefore, I am immeasurably grateful
To you, for proving shallow, false, and hateful.

“If the details did matter to the story of a woman,” Berlant somewhat wistfully begins after citing the sonnet,

one might talk about the poet’s irony, detailing her measured assertion of immeasurable gratitude at being so beautifully and confirmingly disappointed and abandoned, and showing how intricately the sounds of the double lettered words — silly, little, cluttered, betters — resonate with the other couplings expressed in the end rhymes, distressed in the enjambments, and inverted in the end, where the poet belies her earlier demonstration of virtuosic femininity in love and in the genres of love that she can write, with emotion, and shape, into beauty, and imitate, as from an elevated tradition of witnessing, what is finally identical to her own soul’s desires. It is as though Parker wants to show that she has mastered (poetic) convention rather than being mastered by it (emotionally). But the process of the poetry is to master the compliant reader until that compliance hits the female complaint. […] What Parker works here is the revelation of the process of holding on to the form and staying thereby in proximity to the norm.

The performance of the as if of genre fantasy is only imaginable for Berlant as a story. Since Parker “does not even bother to tell the story,” Berlant makes one up, or makes up the way in which the story would be told if Parker were telling it, which she is not.

Instead, Parker, like Berlant, adjusts “the genres of love that she can write” to her circumstances, but that adjustment can only take the form of mastering the form of the sonnet itself, which ends (as genres always threaten to do) by biting her in the ass, or end (of a missing but known sequence of love won and lost). In Berlant’s account, the maintenance of proximity to the norm exemplified by the revenge of the sonnet is essentially masochistic:

Averse to conventionality, but relieved of singularity through it too, sometimes it is all a girl can do to show you a once beautiful shape, a failed conventional form, or an instance of tinny courage that can gesture toward the broken utopian while making you feel the optimism of having an infinite number of second chances at it.

Sometimes. But as gorgeously identified and disidentified as Berlant’s reading of Parker is, even this reading may not go as far as Parker did in making the generic constitution of gender an all-or-nothing game in which there are no second chances. The sonnet is not a story; it is a sonnet, and a double-dog-dare-you sonnet at that, announcing its Italianate break between the octave and the sestet and then adding an Elizabethan couplet as a second volta for extra fun.

Its genre is thus already a palimpsest, and that palimpsest gets more palimpsestic when the direct address to the reader puts misogynist words in that interpellated reader’s mouth and then turns (first volta) from us before we can spit them out. Is it our misogyny that has driven her away, or the misogyny of the guy (we assume it was a guy) who abandoned her in the first place?

Berlant is surely right that the second volta, the closing couplet, performs a masochistic refusal of the question, but that masochism also depends on an inherited genre: the Poetess sonnet. Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese may be the best-known surviving 19th-century sequence of such poems, but in the second half of the 19th century there were hundreds if not thousands of Poetess sonnets, a tradition echoed and varied by Parker’s contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay, among many others. The second line of the sestet (“This scar but points the whiteness of my breast”) is the dead giveaway, since the generic figure of the Poetess (capitalized to emphasize its generic character, and to avoid confusion with any particular woman poet) was known by the thorn that pierced the nightingale’s breast in poem after poem fifty or a hundred years before Parker tried her hand at one.

In its heyday, the Poetess poem created and was the property of an intimate public sphere very much like the mass publics for melodramas and happy endings Berlant describes so vividly in The Female Complaint. The repeated generic outlines of the suffering woman became the vehicle for shared identifications and disidentifications of all sorts for a century before Parker’s sonnet appeared. The Poetess was the figure that made the personal generic in the first place.

The Poetess sonnet itself thus maps the longue durée of the archive of Berlant’s book, since it testifies in every line to “the unfinished business of sentimentality in American culture,” business begun in earnest by the women writers of the 19th century. But the thing about such long historical arcs is that tracing them can put one out of step with one’s contemporaries; like Millay, Parker invokes a genre that no longer flourished as an intimate public sphere by the middle of the 20th century. That built-in waning of genre also seems to me to speak to Berlant’s point in the book (Cruel Optimism) that would follow The Female Complaint that “the waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates.”

Berlant thinks that Parker is demonstrating the sonnet’s intransigence and that the poet played the transhistorically fixed form of the sonnet off against the female complaint in order to shock her readers into an acknowledgment of the difference between life and genre. Berlant’s view is in this sense like Benjamin’s understanding of Baudelaire as a poet who wrote for readers who no longer liked lyric poetry and had to be shocked into paying attention. But I think that Parker knew that the Poetess sonnet already did what Berlant thinks Parker did, and did it better a century earlier. By the time of Parker’s sonnet, the figure of the Poetess had become a figure in the carpet, and the untimeliness of Parker’s performance of that figure is what creates the opening through which we can see the inside and the outside of genre, the inside and outside of gender, at the same time and from a distance.

From that slightly blurry perspective, Parker would be reading the Poetess in the way that Berlant would be reading Parker and, not incidentally, in the way I have been reading Berlant. We are all dizzy dames trying to think our ways out of the genres of which we are made.

By thinking with Berlant in the language of the history of poetics in which I feel more at home than in her language of narrative form, I have hoped to demonstrate how thinking with Berlant does not mean agreeing with her. How could it? She is much too generous to want your agreement, and her generosity is inspiring.

What Lauren Berlant wants is for you to join her in trying to figure out what in the world we can do with and about the genres in which we choose or in which we are forced to live. In the last century, criticism might have dwelled on the pathos of uncertainty located in that “or,” but I think that Berlant takes the function of criticism at the present time into the history of the present by not putting her emphasis on irony or pathos. Melancholia (for lost promises, lost genres, impossible worlds) may be inevitable, but thinking beyond the melancholic position can be an exhilarating if unstable enterprise.

Dorothy Parker (between drinks) wanted to do that, too, and so do I, though Berlant somehow manages more conviction (despite herself) than most of the rest of us do on a normal day that such thinking will make a difference, or maybe that the thinking is just worth doing because it is what critics (and women) do best.

Berlant makes me believe what Arnold believed, that “to have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” It would surprise Arnold to find that he had described in advance the criticism of Lauren Berlant, and it might surprise her even more to find that Arnold’s dream of the good life for criticism turned out after all to have her name on it.


Virginia Jackson is UCI Endowed Chair in Rhetoric in the departments of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.