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  • Introduction to Focus:Genius
  • Gina Masucci MacKenzie (bio)

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One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor." Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it. My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. I was overcome by an "ontological" desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was "in itself," by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. Such a desire really means that beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn't sure that Photography existed, that it had a "genius" of its own.

—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1981)

The intangible, ineffable qualities of genius are those which compel us to ponder its nature and presentation. Genius, as a figural concept, stands hand in hand with the muse, as she is often capricious and cursed. One's genius and society's bestowal of that title upon someone comes and goes, fleeting, sometimes, as a Snapchat. And yet, the new book by Kay Redfield Jamison, best-selling author and chaired professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is boldly entitled and oriented to popular and credentialed audiences alike, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Like the poor as Jesus said, genius appears to be always with us.

Similarly, as with the hero, genius, as a title, gets over-used and hence diluted. We call sports figures geniuses for the way they pass a ball or manage their media presence. We call our politicians geniuses when they say anything potentially deemed to make practical sense. Genius is the opposite of those things. It can't be held, caught, or simply spoken. It is the essence of a person. In this issue of the American Book Review, we have assembled the advanced work of literary critics focused on genius. The result is a multi-faceted contemporary exploration of the term.

Robert Tally's piece, "An Anagogical Education" advocates for the need of critical genius in light of the drive toward "utility" in liberal arts education. He fights this Benthemesque initiative by advocating for criticism as a vocation, acknowledging the religious overtones of the word. Using Dante, Tally revitalizes the term "anagoge" as a form of genius and ends by endorsing the necessary inclusion of utility in the liberal arts to produce the type of genius of mind that is needed for critical inquiry in the contemporary world.

Jeffrey Di Leo, in his piece, "Publishing Genius," also looks at a somewhat utilitarian function of genius, publishing. Di Leo's piece explores two films: The Scoundrel (1935) about the life of Modernist publisher Horace Liveright, and Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (2016) about Tom Wolff's famous editor. Di Leo makes the point that neither film is able to capture the true geniuses of the men on whom the films focus. His comparison of editors and publishers to the under-appreciation "stage crew" of a theatrical production calls us to question the very nature of art making and genius. Is there really only one genius or is true genius a kind of artistic teamwork?

Daniel T. O'Hara's "The Stakes of Genius" also explores the idea of genius in contemporary society, by applying the theory set forth by Catherine Malabou in her latest book, Before Tomorrow: Epigensis and Rationality. As O'Hara explains, according to Malabou, epigenesist is the means through which reason takes shape in twentieth century philosophy, criticism and even neuroscience. O'Hara deftly uses Malabou's argument to prove the genius of Kant and then makes the leap to show the concept at...


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