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  • The Intricacies of an Intimate Public Sphere
  • Brenda R. Weber (bio)
Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 368 pp. $84.95; $23.95 paper.

Over the course of her distinguished career, Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English and chair of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the University of Chicago, has proven herself a rich theorist of the complicated logics of gender and market that express themselves through cultural artifacts. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture offers another installment in her ambitious project to chart the meanings of sentimentalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this, the conceptual second (although the chronological third) in a series that includes The Anatomy of National Fantasy (Chicago, 1991) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke, 1997), Berlant continues her dogged pursuit of just what constitutes the intimate public sphere, a place of fused ideology and everyday practice that Berlant loosely terms "women's culture."

Berlant argues that an amalgam of primarily woman-produced, woman-consumed, and woman-coded texts, from the sentimental to the melodramatic, functions to create an elaborate imaginary of intimacy that assumes women share a bond of communal longing. In Berlant's view, women's culture stems from a "sense of lateral identification" in that it "sees collective sociality routed in revelations of what is personal, regardless of how what is personal has itself been [End Page 619] threaded through mediating institutions and social hierarchy" (10). Berlant contends that these mass-mediated texts putting pain, suffering, social alienation, and affective disconnection on display "magnetize many different kinds of women to the scene of suffering, sacrifice, survival, criticism, and sometimes sublimity," so as to create a truism, which she filters through Derrida, that the more one develops knowledge, the more one unravels (11). This fraying of both ego and identity, Berlant explains, is nothing other than "ordinary feminine consciousness" (18). Because of this, Berlant argues, "the female complaint is a discourse of disappointment" (13).

Rather than letting her critique sink into irremediable desolation, however, Berlant reassures her readers that the disappointment standing at the heart of the female complaint augers not misery and isolation but potentiality. For "where love is concerned, disappointment is a partner of fulfillment, not an opposite" (13). In order to demonstrate her claim of the workings of love and the consequent construction of the intimate public sphere, Berlant divides the book into seven chapters that involve close readings of mainly American sentimental literary works and their stage and film adaptations. Her archive reaches back to Harriet Beecher Stowe's affective classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and adroitly moves through other contributions to the literature of emotion, including Toni Morrison's Beloved, Edna Ferber's Show Boat, Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life, Olive Higgins Prouty's Now, Voyager, and Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, with illuminating readings of Dorothy Parker, sentimentality and citizenship, and women's suffrage. Readings of these texts are supplemented with discussions that consider their filmic and stage adaptations, since Berlant argues that it is in revisiting, reviving, and revising that the intimate public sphere gains saliency.

I particularly appreciated Berlant's reading in chapter 4, "Uncle Sam Needs a Wife: Citizenship and Denegation," of the ways in which "[s]entimentalists strive to save the political from politics" (145). Using women's suffrage as her initial point of focalization, Berlant argues that the intimate public sphere works through a fantasy that one can change the political by transcending politics. It is affect, or the supposed universalized features of the heart, that offers a way of being that is outside of—and yet in deep relation to—the political. Berlant also explicates in this chapter the reverse [End Page 620] side of what she calls the "sentimental-utopian" as she shows the ways in which the sentimental manages anxieties about too much change. In the second half of the chapter, Berlant turns her consideration to more contemporary traumas, like the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., to show how "[t...


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