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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 397-404
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Citizens and Superheroes
José Esteban Muñoz
The title of Lauren Berlant's most recent book, The Queen of America Goes To Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, captures the imagination. Who is this Queen? The full title sounds like an American fable, a tall tale. In trying to picture the queen of America that the title promises, images of William Moulton Marston's creation of 1941, Wonder Woman, the flag-wearing Amazon Princess, come to mind. Queen of America is a combative, brave and adventurous project. For these and other reasons, the book is superheroic. Its superheroism has something to do the fact that this book arrives in the nick of time, when the discourses of American studies and critical theory seem especially depleted and in need of bold and brazen paradigm-busting criticism. Like any super hero cosmology, readers will encounter a rogues' gallery of arch-foes, including the forces of backlash, the power of outmoded disciplinarity and the diabolical resistance to theory that continues to plague fields like American studies. The Queen of America Goes To Washington City faces these threats with sustained and intense beams of critical force. The book's real power is its ability to assemble and enact a world of persuasive critique. Berlant offers a cogent lexicon matched by sophisticated theoretical formulations that readers can easily adapt to propel their own projects forward.
For the generation of cultural studies scholars coming into their own, Lauren Berlant's work is superheroic in its ability to function as a [End Page 397] vanguardist criticism that moves beyond the limits of previous cultural studies inquiry, especially previous modes of theorization that have been unable to coterminously conceptualize multiple nodes of difference like race and sexuality. Berlant's work often succeeds in achieving a truly intersectional approach. Intersectional critique, a concept I adopt from the work of critical legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw, 1 insists on considering the intersecting antagonisms that define the social, antagonisms that include race, gender, sex and class. The vision of American studies that Berlant's book invents is one in which all of these different nodes within the social are not seen as isolated but, instead, are interactive and dynamic, which is to say that Berlant simultaneously contributes to and helps build queer critique, critical race theory, feminist inquiry and the more amorphous fields of cultural studies and American studies. Readers of the text are thus offered an actual model of intersectional analysis.
Much of this book has appeared previously in journals and anthologies of critical theory. Yet it would be unfair to think of the text as a collection of essays since chapters powerfully resonate with each other, cohering as clear and sustained intervention. This cohesion is due in no small part to its strikingly useful introduction, "The Intimate Public Sphere." Berlant's methodology and theoretical location can be described, along with the work of critics like Nancy Fraser, Miriam Hansen and her frequent collaborator Michael Warner, as post-Habermasian. In this opening chapter she offers a nuanced and complicated rendering of the public sphere, building on and amplifying Habermas's theory. Berlant contrasts Habermas's model of the intimate sphere of modernity in eighteenth-century Europe, a story in which persons produced their own sense of uniqueness through self abstraction and alienation in the public sphere of capitalism and within the intimate public sphere of contemporary U.S. national culture. The U.S. national public sphere is a construct that values a certain notion of intimacy--primarily associated with private acts, the logic of the family and heteronormativity. Berlant summarizes the distinction between Habermas's model with the contemporary scene when she writes, "No longer valuing personhood as something directed toward public life, contemporary nationalist ideology recognizes a public good only in a particularly constricted nation of simultaneously lived private worlds" (5). The intimate public sphere unmasks the fake publicness of North American culture's public sphere...