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“Of Politics, Aesthetics, and Guilty Subjects”

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 193-206 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0022

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In her recent book Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman invites those of us working in identity based studies—that is, fields such as Queer Studies, Women’s Studies, Intersectionality, Ethnic Studies—to ponder our disciplines’ “field imaginary”—the often taken for granted, “unconscious” assumptions that provide the conditions of possibility of our work. Arguing that “the operation of the political within identity-based fields has not been sufficiently engaged,” (13), she concludes that we have not sufficiently attended to our assumption that “if we only find the right discourse, object of study, or analytical tool, our critical practice will be adequate to the political commitments that inspire it” (2-3). Wiegman’s book is an attempt to do so. The remainder of the book is divided into chapters that each examine the unexamined disciplinary logics that animate a particular identity-based knowledge.

As Wiegman repeatedly states, such an examination of one’s field’s “unconscious” is not precisely critique, and the recourse to psychoanalytic vocabulary is in part intended to remind us that we cannot simply step outside of these disciplinary logics and the conditions of possibility they provide. As a result, Wiegman’s book is at times painful to read, but in the way an analytical session can be painful, involving recognition, frustration, guilt, and denial. It reminds us that one of the reasons disputes in our fields can become, as Valerie Traub has recently described one such debate, “high octane,” (21), is that we are so psychically invested in “our belief in critical practice as an agent of social change” (Wiegman 10).

Despite the fact that I am not a political scientist but rather someone who works in one of the identity-based knowledges whose field formation Wiegman interrogates—Queer Studies/Gender Studies, with a focus on literature and film—I was recently solicited, by an interdisciplinary journal with aspirations to investigate and interrogate the global, to review Michael J. Shapiro’s Studies in Transdisciplinary Method. As for why I was chosen for this project, I assume it was because my most recent book was published in a series on popular culture and world politics. One of Shapiro’s critical agendas is to place the two alongside each other to see what new kinds of thinking might emerge.

In the spirit of Shapiro’s “writing-as-method,” which I will describe shortly, I began writing the review before I had finished reading the book, and permitted myself to let my thinking wander in whatever direction Shapiro’s project led me. Before I had even reached the end of his study, what was supposed to be a 2,000-word essay had stretched to twenty plus pages. What follows is an expanded and differently focused version of what that original review became.

As I will emphasize more than once, the catholicism of Shapiro’s intellectual and aesthetic taste is impressive; his work refers to such “aesthetic subjects” as Aimé Césaire, Hortense Spillers, Martha Rosler, and Philip K. Dick—that is, the kinds of authors with whom people in literary and film studies are often familiar, particularly scholars working on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. What I want to explore here is how, because he is a political scientist, Shapiro does not ask of his discipline the kinds of questions posed by Wiegman. What he does do is provide a method that is trans-disciplinary in a way that, despite our claims to the contrary, identity studies are not. And, as I will suggest, because he has no debt to identity politics to settle, his imaging of the relationship between the very objects of desire to which Wiegman suggests we attend—our “good” and “bad” objects (of analysis), our critical methods, the “political” work in which we hope our scholarship engages—looks very different from the one described by Wiegman. Reading his book, I found myself using it to think my way out of the critical impasse into which I had been backed by Wiegman’s compelling study. By focusing, in the pages of SubStance, on Shapiro’s book, I hope to stimulate more analysis of our “field formations” as literary and film scholars. That is, I see...

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