I sometimes imagine genius as a very fast moving body of water. People naturally slip in and out but it’s impossible to jump in. Or it’s like living in a house, where I’m generally free to wander at will, but the upper floors are boarded up. I know there are people up there, I can hear them, but who knows how they got upstairs, it looks pretty locked to me. This isn’t something to take personally — you either have access or you don’t. And besides, I can’t think of a more appropriate application for that Groucho Marx quote: genius is exactly the kind of club I would resign from if it ever accepted a person like me as a member.
But why do I think of genius as necessarily exclusionary? This says something about me, but it must also say something about the word. As Jameson (a genius) once wrote, “Always historicize.” He was referring to another Marx altogether but this quote also seems apt. Genius is after all, a term that can be taken in a social, historical, and yes, material context. This issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal is dedicated to an examination of that tricky word. There have been, unequivocally, more recognized male geniuses than female, though as Massimo Mazzotti points out in his essay on the filosofessa, there was a brief period in 18th century Italy where the genius of little girls was fostered. Johanna Drucker makes the case for understanding the term in a broader sense — not as something confined to individuals but distributed widely through the world, in systems and organisms. Helen DeWitt talks about the ways in which publishing still defines what literature is or isn’t. Yxta Maya Murray writes about Björk, motherhood, the possible destruction and synergy involved in creation. You will also see many pieces that play with the word, poke fun at it, and redefine it in their own terms.
We also have works in this issue by poets, writers and artists that we’d like to celebrate in the context of genius. Whatever we think of the term, we can at least use it as an acknowledgement of extraordinary accomplishment.
This issue isn’t about pushing anyone out of those upper floors, it is more about investigating the rules of membership. Or, to put genius back in Marxist terms: it is perhaps, a way of giving more people the opportunity to resign.
Editor, Quarterly Journal