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  • The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship
  • Susan Bridget McHugh
Lauren Berlant. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. viii + 308 pp.

With The Queen of America, Lauren Berlant continues her investigation into why discussions of intimacy bear the burden of defining citizenship. Focusing on how and why intimacy and in particular sexuality has come to act as the agency through which public questions are solved, Berlant explores how “the intimate sphere of the U.S. present tense” (the public time that is nobody’s time, produced moment-by-moment through television media) has come to dominate the spheres of politics and everyday life. Berlant argues that in this intimate present tense the nation’s value becomes figured not on behalf of an adult, “live” citizen but of an abstract, incipient, and pre-historical citizen. But she refuses to perform a post-mortem on public political life. Instead Berlant opens this discussion by formulating a “theory of infantile citizenship” to ask how and why hopeful national narratives at the end of the twentieth century have come to focus on images of “pre-citizens”—fetuses, queers, and immigrants.

Berlant develops the concept of the National Symbolic (the “tangled cluster” of official texts that mediates a national “public”) central to her earlier book, The Anatomy of National Fantasy, this time emphasizing how the National Symbolic is constituted through appropriations of demonic and idealized images and narratives. By actively combing the tangles out of this cluster, citizens construct present-tense narratives of traumatized identity that forestall national-public discussions of intimacy. Through Berlant’s construction of an “antipolitical politics [of] ‘national sentimentality,’” historicization thus emerges as the stakes of live citizenship. Outmaneuvering the deadening privatization of public power and corresponding publicization of private affect, Berlant proposes “becoming historical,” that is, “forming a live connection” to the National Symbolic by “inventing new scenes of sociality.” Her essays on “Live Sex Acts,” “America, ‘Fat,’ the Fetus,” and “The Face of America” configure adult, corporeal, and illegal cultural “limits” as instead transformative zones mediating new terms of belonging. For only by making a scene in which to construct “an iconoclastic national counter-fantasy” can live citizens combat the deadening power of the eternal present tense. [End Page 1076]

The Queen of America tells two parallel stories that illuminate “the so-called crisis of critical culture” at stake in its exploration of national forms of intimacy: that of public alterity competing with privatized citizenship in the U.S. for social power and legitimacy, which subtly echoes another narrative of the development of this text’s methodology through the struggle of cultural studies to forge a place in the contemporary academy. To obstruct “the norm of a violent gentility” that threatens both to censure her project and to destroy its intellectual environment, Berlant cultivates a performative theory of concepts by organizing all sorts of artifacts into archives. Starting from the assumption that the structural is suffused with affect and desire (building on Fredric Jameson’s work on Marxism and narrative form), Berlant dispenses with the “false distinction between the merely personal and the profoundly structural” in order to transgress categorical distinctions between sexuality and politics. Queering, defined as a political practice aligned with the project of becoming historical (in chapter 4, “Queer Nationality,” co-written with Elizabeth Freeman), emerges as the means by which Berlant recognizes that the space of disidentification can be converted into a powerful discursive field.

This deconstructive, materialist, and feminist queering of the images and narratives of the National Symbolic aims to disaggregate and to specify the nation as a multiplicity by telling a story that conflicts with narratives of the intimate present tense. Visual texts loom large throughout this discussion, underscoring how subjective and objective experiences of identity become constructed through visualizing technologies. Television episodes, films, music videos, and more traditionally canonical texts inform home movies, underground ‘zines, and morphed photographic images in this investigation of sex and citizenship. It is thus fitting that the final chapter, “Outtakes from the Citizenship Museum,” comprises “found” objects with no added text. Drawing connections between homemade and official...

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pp. 1076-1079
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