Literature and the Arts in Times of Crisis

A Berkeley Conversation held on April 29, 2020, and available now online

Literature and the Arts in Times of Crisis

Literature and the arts have always had a prominent place in defining who we are as human beings and in making life worth living. This is all the more apparent in times of crisis, such as the one we have been living in. Join prominent Berkeley faculty members from Music, Art History, and English as they share their insights into what makes literature and the arts so critically important to us now. The panelists:

Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, UC Berkeley’s Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Arts and Humanities, specializes in 18th- through early 20th-century French and American art and visual and material culture, particularly in relation to the politics of race and colonialism. Grigsby writes on painting, sculpture, photography and engineering as well as the relationships among reproductive media and new technologies from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. Her essay on Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa, which she discusses in this conversation, was published in Representations 51.

Mark Danner is a writer and reporter who for three decades has written on politics and foreign affairs, focusing on war and conflict. He has covered, among many other stories, wars and political conflict in Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the Middle East, and, most recently, the story of torture during the War on Terror. Danner holds the Class of 1961 Endowed Chair in Journalism and English at UC Berkeley and was for many years James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College.

Nicholas Mathew, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Music, has focused on music and politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the place of music in political institutions, the role of music in public life, and the ways in which music produces social attachments and collective identity – as well as issues of political appropriation, subversion, musical trashiness, and political kitsch. Mathew is a member of the Representations editorial board. With Mary Ann Smart, he co-edited the special forum Quirk Historicism (Representations 132), for which the two wrote Elephants in the Music Room: The Future of Quirk Historicism.

Moderator Anthony J. Cascardi is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley.

The discussion is part of a live, online video series, Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19, featuring Berkeley scholars from a range of disciplines.

Eve Sedgwick Again

Triple Cross: Binarisms and Binds in Epistemology of the Closet

by Whitney Davis

The first in an occasional series of Untimely Reviews, a format for reengaging with important critical works of the past.

 

The essay begins:

Published in 1990 (with a portion initially written as early as 1983–84), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet was written in the mid- and late-1980s context of an “open season on gay men” in public discourse (as she put it)—not to speak of gay bashing and an apocalyptic medical crisis. By now there’s an extensive secondary scholarship on Sedgwick’s literary criticism and queer theory. But to my knowledge none of it pursues the thread I’m going to try to draw out here.

Sedgwick’s book remains as exciting to me now as it was nearly thirty years ago—in some ways more exciting, as I’ll explain. I’d still embrace its central argument, stated on her very first page, that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” (1), an operation that “intersects every issue of power and gender” and “transforms the other languages and relations by which we know” (3).

Sedgwick didn’t greatly revise the history of that process of definition from about 1890 to 1990, the period David Halperin has called “one hundred years of homosexuality,” of same-sex sexual attraction conceived, as Michel Foucault had emphasized, as a way of being a person—a species, a human natural kind—in the sociocultural and interpersonal fields of eroticism and sex in which “one particular sexuality was distinctively constituted as secrecy” (73). Sedgwick had some critical remarks to make (see 45–47) about both Halperin’s and Foucault’s framing of this history. Among other things, she wanted to imagine histories of sexuality in the modern Western world yet to be fully “known” historically—notably histories of masturbation and “the masturbator” as a sexuality. Nonetheless, in the end her mapping of the definitional field of (homo)sexuality more or less built in—assumed—the original Foucauldian perspectives. (Shortly after Epistemology of the Closet appeared, Sedgwick published an extended examination of Foucault’s perspectives on the history of sexuality and their influence on post-Foucauldian literary and cultural historians; it is useful to read it alongside the earlier book.) Speaking for myself, since the late 1980s (and especially after reading Epistemology of the Closet) I’ve devoted much of my research and writing as an art historian to consolidating—and in some respects to challenging—Foucauldian cultural histories of same-sex desire, which have often tended to privilege textual sources (as distinct from visual representations), to overemphasize the role (and downplay the variety) of medical-psychiatric discourses, and to neglect some of the rich evidence for same-sex sexual subcultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (if not before).

Of course, Sedgwick was not primarily a social or cultural historian. She was a literary scholar—a reader. In virtuoso readings both of public discourse in the 1980s in the United States and of canonical texts in the traditions of the French, British, and American novel, she set out to unravel the “radical and irreducible incoherence” of the historically emergent modern definition of homosexual personhood (85)—its constitutive contradictions about which, she said, there were “no epistemological grounds” for “adjudicating” or “decisively arbitrating as to their truth.” (Associate Justice Byron White had claimed to adjudicate authoritatively, though in fact his majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick was only 5–4; in 2003 it was overturned by the Supreme Court itself in Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 [2003]).

Above all Sedgwick identified what she called—and as “queer theory” became in her wake— “minoritizing vs. universalizing” models of sexual orientations and “separatist vs. liminal/transitive” understandings of their relations to gender identifications. In this regard, I reproduce her well-known table of models of gay/straight definition. In Tendencies, a collection of her essays more or less contemporary with the writing of her book, Sedgwick noted that Epistemology of the Closet dealt primarily with the first register—“sexual definition”—and the essays dealt primarily with the second register, “gender definition.” The larger point, of course, is to “theorize gender and sexuality as distinct though intimately entangled axes of analysis.” This might seem blindingly obvious now, but Sedgwick insisted, quite properly, that “new psychoanalytic developments” in late-1980s America (despite the supposed depathologizing of “homosexuality” by official American psychiatry) were “based on precisely the theoretical move of distinguishing gender from sexuality.”

Equally or more important, Sedgwick urged that the “versus” implicitly organizing each register of definition is itself misleading. More salient—more real—is a complex cycling of reciprocities and recursions between the ostensible poles of the putative contradictions (gay/straight, male/female, and so on)—a point to which I’ll return. She didn’t bang on, then, about “nature versus nurture” and “essentialism versus constructivism” in approaches to human sexualities—widely bruited polarizations at the time. Instead, and laying the groundwork for a more recent “intersectional” approach to gendered sexuality, she counseled us to explore the overlapping—the blending and binding—of biosocial phylogenies and sociocultural ontogenies of homosexual desire; of the homosexual-as-species and other sexualities not so naturalized, such as the aforementioned “masturbator”; of gay and lesbian “self-descriptions” that should be awarded “propriodescriptive authority” (27); and of fourteen descriptions of erotic preferences and sex/gender positions and relations that supposedly we all intuitively know and accept in practice in ourselves and in other people (25). Perhaps this last list has dated somewhat. But I’ll still bet on its reliability as a real person’s guide to real life. (Her first item of commonsense wisdom: “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.” Her sixth: “Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do.”) Continue reading …

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

Talking about Brexit

October 24, 2019, Noon – 1:30

Matrix On Point: Brexit

Social Science Matrix, 820 Barrows, UC Berkeley

Three distinguished UC Berkeley scholars—Ian Duncan, Representations editorial board member and Florence Green Bixby Chair in the English Department, Mark Bevir, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for British Studies, and Akasemi Newsome, Associate Director of the Institute of European Studies—will discuss important questions about Brexit, when the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union. What’s next for Brexit? Will a deal be reached, and if not, what are the implications of another delay? How will Brexit transform political and economic life in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world?

Berkeley Book Chat with Stephen Best

Stephen Best, UC Berkeley Professor, will be discussing his recent book:

None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life

Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm | Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall | UC Berkeley

It passes for an unassailable truth that the slave past provides an explanatory prism for understanding the black political present. In None Like Us Stephen Best reappraises what he calls “melancholy historicism”—a kind of crime scene investigation in which the forensic imagination is directed toward the recovery of a “we” at the point of “our” violent origin. Best argues that there is and can be no “we” following from such a time and place, that black identity is constituted in and through negation, taking inspiration from David Walker’s prayer that “none like us may ever live again until time shall be no more.” Best draws out the connections between a sense of impossible black sociality and strains of negativity that have operated under the sign of queer. In None Like Us the art of El Anatsui and Mark Bradford, the literature of Toni Morrison and Gwendolyn Brooks, even rumors in the archive, evidence an apocalyptic aesthetics, or self-eclipse, which opens the circuits between past and present and thus charts a queer future for black study.

Stephen Best is Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. His research pursuits in the fields of American and African American criticism have been closely aligned with a broader interrogation of recent literary critical practice. Specifically, his interest in the critical nexus between slavery and historiography, in the varying scholarly and political preoccupations with establishing the authority of the slave past in black life, quadrates with his exploration of where the limits of historicism as a mode of literary study may lay, especially where that search manifests as an interest in alternatives to suspicious reading in the text-based disciplines.

He has edited a number of special issues of Representations: “Redress” (with Saidiya Hartman), on theoretical and political projects to undo the slave past; “The Way We Read Now” (with Sharon Marcus), on the limits of symptomatic reading; and “Description Across Disciplines” (with Sharon Marcus and Heather Love), on disciplinary valuations of description as critical practice.  In addition to None Like Us, he is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession.

 

Berkeley Book Chat with Michael Lucey

Michael Lucey, UC Berkeley Professor , will be discussing his recent book:

Someone: The Pragmatics of Misfit Sexualities, from Colette to Hervé Guibert

Imagine trying to tell someone something about yourself and your desires for which there are no words. What if the mere attempt at expression was bound to misfire, to efface the truth of that ineluctable something?

In Someone, Michael Lucey considers characters from twentieth-century French literary texts whose sexual forms prove difficult to conceptualize or represent. The characters expressing these “misfit” sexualities gravitate towards same-sex encounters. Yet they differ in subtle but crucial ways from mainstream gay or lesbian identities—whether because of a discordance between gender identity and sexuality, practices specific to a certain place and time, or the fleetingness or non-exclusivity of desire. Investigating works by Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Jean Genet, and others, Lucey probes both the range of same-sex sexual forms in twentieth-century France and the innovative literary language authors have used to explore these evanescent forms.

Michael Lucey is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at UC Berkeley, where he specializes in French literature and culture of the 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-centuries. He is also the co-editor of Representations“Language In Use” special issue and the author of several essays in this journal.

New from Michael Lucey

SOMEONE : THE PRAGMATICS OF MISFIT SEXUALITIES, FROM COLETTE TO HERVÉ GUIBERT

University of Chicago Press 2019

Imagine trying to tell someone something about yourself and your desires for which there are no words. What if the mere attempt at expression was bound to misfire, to efface the truth of that ineluctable something?

In Someone, Michael Lucey considers characters from twentieth-century French literary texts whose sexual forms prove difficult to conceptualize or represent. The characters expressing these “misfit” sexualities gravitate towards same-sex encounters. Yet they differ in subtle but crucial ways from mainstream gay or lesbian identities—whether because of a discordance between gender identity and sexuality, practices specific to a certain place and time, or the fleetingness or non-exclusivity of desire. Investigating works by Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Jean Genet, and others, Lucey probes both the range of same-sex sexual forms in twentieth-century France and the innovative literary language authors have used to explore these evanescent forms.

As a portrait of fragile sexualities that involve awkward and delicate maneuvers and modes of articulation, Someone reveals just how messy the ways in which we experience and perceive sexuality remain, even to ourselves.

Michael Lucey is Professor of Comparative Literature and French at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. An earlier version of the chapter “Simone de Beauvoir and Sexuality in the Third Person” appeared in Representations 109. His new work in progress is Proust, Sociology, Talk, and Novels. Previous books include Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust and The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality.

Catherine Gallagher Wins Barzun Prize

The American Philosophical Society has announced that Professor Catherine Gallagher has been selected as the 2018 recipient of the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for her book, Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction.

 

Inventing counterfactual histories is a common pastime of modern day historians, both amateur and professional. We speculate about an America ruled by Jefferson Davis, a Europe that never threw off Hitler, or a second term for JFK. These narratives are often written off as politically inspired fantasy or as pop culture fodder, but in Telling It Like It Wasn’t, Catherine Gallagher takes the history of counterfactual history seriously, pinning it down as an object of dispassionate study. She doesn’t take a moral or normative stand on the practice, but focuses her attention on how it works and to what ends—a quest that takes readers on a fascinating tour of literary and historical criticism.

The topic of counterfactual histories has long engaged Catherine Gallagher. In addition to the essays in this new book, her “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” was published in the special forum Counterfactual Realities in Representations 98, and “The Formalism of Military History” appeared in our 25th anniversary special issue On Form.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding member of the Representations editorial board. She is the author of many books, including The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.

Kent Puckett Wins Perkins Prize

Congratulations to Kent Puckett

–whose book  Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge UP, 2016) has won the 2018 Perkins Prize from the International Society for the Study of Narrative. The Barbara Perkins and George Perkins Prize is presented annually the society to the book that makes the most significant contribution to the study of narrative in the preceding year.

Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction provides an account of a methodology increasingly central to literary studies, film studies, history, psychology, and beyond. In addition to introducing readers to some of the field’s major figures and their ideas, Puckett situates critical and philosophical approaches toward narrative within a longer intellectual history. The book reveals one of narrative theory’s founding claims – that narratives need to be understood in terms of a formal relation between story and discourse, between what they narrate and how they narrate it – both as a necessary methodological distinction and as a problem characteristic of modern thought. Puckett thus shows that narrative theory is not only a powerful descriptive system but also a complex and sometimes ironic form of critique.

KENT PUCKETT is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, in addition to Narrative Theory, of War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939-1945 (Fordham, 2017)  and Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Oxford, 2008). He serves on the editorial board of Representations, for which he  edited the special forum Search (127) and coedited, with C. D. Blanton and Colleen Lye, the special issue Financialization and the Culture Industry (126).

Is literary criticism political?

The Politics of Literary Criticism Now

A Panel on Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History

April 5 | 6-8 pm | 315 Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley

With Stephen Best, Catherine Gallagher, David Marno, Joseph North, and Namwali Serpell

People in today’s literature departments often assume that their work is politically progressive, especially when compared with the work of early- and mid-twentieth-century critics. In Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North argues that when understood in relation to the longer arc of the discipline, the current historicist and contextualist mode in literary studies represents a step lo the Right. Since the global turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character; scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this respect, the political potential of current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes, which, for all their faults, at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change. Yet neoliberalism is now in crisis – a crisis that presents opportunities as well as dangers. The creation of a genuinely interventionist criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.

In Memoriam: Saba Mahmood

On Saturday, March 10th, we lost a valued member of the Representations editorial board, Professor Saba Mahmood. Our thoughts go to her family and friends. She will be sorely missed.

Saba Mahmood, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away on March 10th, 2018.  The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Professor Mahmood specialized in Sociocultural Anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt.   Born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle.   She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to the University of California at Berkeley in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017.   At Berkeley, in addition to the Anthropology Department, Professor Mahmood was affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies (where she was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, the first of its kind in the United States).

Mahmood made path-breaking contributions to contemporary debates on secularism, opening up new ways of understanding religion in public life and contesting received assumptions about both religion and the secular.  Against an increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, she brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. Her publications and presentations have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical approach to religion in modernity.  As a scholar and teacher, she embodied and followed strong moral and political principles, offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated new ways of understanding the subject of feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, the rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations.

Together with anthropologists Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind, Mahmood showed secularism to be a complex political formation that produces differences among the religious traditions it seeks to regulate. In her words, “political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices.” Secularism never escapes its own religious histories, nor does it ever achieve autonomy from the religious formations it aims to regulate.  In fact, the distinction between public and private life central to secular reason draws its bearings from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. This Christian religious framework, focused on belief, contrasts sharply with religions such as Islam which foreground strongly the role on embodied practices within religious life.  As a result, she argued, secular epistemologies cannot grasp the way that Islam articulates religious values, misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices.

Within feminist theory, Mahmood challenged readers to understand that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in distinct hermeneutical approaches to reading the Qur’an in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as a form of ethical conduct.  Challenging views of subjective freedom bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and challenging argument: to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive of a subject defined in its relation to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine.  Women who engaged in a religious practice of this sort, she argued, ought to be understood as engaging in ethical practices of self-cultivation. And yet, in these cases, the subject of ethics is not voluntaristic, a notion that would separate ‘free will’ from formative social and religious norms; rather, in Islam, the subject of ethics embodies a living and practiced relation to the divine, and requires a different notion of subject-formation.   One consequence of this view was made clear in her intervention in the 2006 debates on the Danish cartoons caricaturing Mohammed. Those who claimed that such images were merely offensive missed the nature of the injury itself.  Within Islam, she argued, the attack on the divine image is the same as the attack on the living and embodied self, since that self resides in that very relation.

In her last work, she studied the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. Against the view that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularization, she showed how religious differences, and conflict, have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power.   She argued that the discrimination and violence suffered by Coptic Christians have increased as the modern state more fully regulated and managed religious life, imposing its own rationales onto debates about religious doctrine and practice.  Far from realizing ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence. Mahmood considered the norms and practices developed within Islam for negotiating religious difference, showing how such religiously informed techniques of civic governance are overridden by secular regimes of power.

Mahmood was the single author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005) which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association.  She co-authored a Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015).  Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish.  She published numerous articles in the fields of anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical theory, feminist theory, and art criticism and served on several journal boards and read for many presses.  Professor Mahmood was the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. She was the recipient of a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs as well as the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. She also received the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Andrew Carnegie Scholars’ program as a young scholar. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013.

Saba Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor.   Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind, and her brothers Khalid Mahmood and Tariq Mahmood.