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  • Once More with Feeling
  • Lara Langer Cohen
The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture by Lauren Berlant. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. Pp. 353. $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper.

By turns sidesplitting and devastating but always revelatory, Lauren Berlant's new book explores why we insist that what the world needs now is love, and how much we lose in the process. The Female Complaint is the third installment in Berlant's "national sentimentality" project, following The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997). Historically speaking, however, it is the second, covering the mid-nineteenth century through the 1980s. It is also the most satisfyingly coherent of the series. The Anatomy of National Fantasy was brilliant but claustrophobic (can we really still be talking about Hawthorne?), whereas The Queen of America was the reverse, brilliant but scattered; it often read more like a collection of individually marvelous essays than a book (as indeed, its subtitle signaled). The Female Complaint is perfectly scaled, a series of interlocking case studies that together build a breathtaking account of U.S. "women's culture." The book's cohesion is especially impressive considering that Berlant began it in the late 1980s and published versions of many of the chapters as essays over the past fifteen or so years. Her archive and argument revisit that period's often heated discussions of the woman's film and especially sentimental literature, but throughout those back-and-forths over what [End Page 333] sentimentality did, there was an assumed consensus over what sentimentality was. Berlant vastly complicates that here, in part by articulating it with more recent developments in affect theory, object-relations psychoanalysis, and debates in queer theory over futurity and optimism, but mainly through an exhilarating critical practice that is manifestly her own.

That The Female Complaint maintains its coherence while traversing such a wide historical and generic range seems to testify to the shape of "women's culture" itself, which "claim[s] a certain emotional generality among women, even though the stories that circulate demonstrate diverse historical locations of the readers and the audience, especially of class and race" (5). "Women's culture" assumes that all women share a body of experiences, interests, and desires, and thus it assures each one that she is not alone. In its acknowledgment of alienation and its promise of belonging, it constitutes women as "the first mass cultural intimate public in the United States" (viii). An intimate public, Berlant explains, congeals around the "expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience," usually, one of structural subordination (viii). The term "consumers" here is key: women's culture is the product of a mass market in which women constitute a buying public and femininity is mediated by commodities. Its "politico-sentimental" (21) aesthetic registers structural inequity as emotional suffering, trading political transformation for a longing to feel better in terms one can already imagine inhabiting. The female complaint, Berlant explains, is its primary mode, an outcry of disappointment that simultaneously salves that disappointment with "tender fantasies of a better good life" (1). That "better good life"—one of Berlant's signal phrases, whose bleakly attenuated, clichéd aspiration captures the book's "disaffirming scenarios of necessity and optimism" (2)—tends to take the form of fantasies of conventionality, whose appeal lies in their ability to make women's complex lives simple, intelligible, recognizable. (Toward the end of the book, Berlant offhandedly but wonderfully appropriates Emily Dickinson's famous first line, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," to describe this trajectory, in which the hurt of subjugation sends one running into the arms of form, whose security is a pleasure.) Most often, this fantasy is expressed in terms of heterosexual love, whose demand for reciprocity is a "seeking out of form" (220), a form that functions when it is unmet as well as when it is met, for "where love is concerned, disappointment is the partner of fulfillment, not its opposite...


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pp. 333-338
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