- Wishful Thinking
How do you know when an analysis is done?A:
When you have a different story to tell.Q:
How do you know when the story is different?
According to most definitions, an object lesson is a pedagogical tool for learning how to grasp the complex meaning of a principle, moral, or ideal. It works by using real-world examples to make what is abstract both tangible and clear. Without the object, there would be no lesson, which might suggest that the object is what is most dear. But the measure of pedagogical success is typically oriented in the opposite direction, as the object’s value is contingent on its ability to satisfy the pedagogue’s needs. Thus enmeshed in illuminating ideas that live beyond it, the object plays its part as if no interpretative complexity could possibly attend it. What is at stake in this instrumentalization? Or more to the point, exactly what kind of lesson does this object lesson teach?
As readers of this dossier know from the generous and compelling commentaries that comprise it, Object Lessons (2012) is a lengthy meditation on the work that objects of study perform in academic fields that take identity as a key figure for defining and enacting their commitment to social justice. The lessons it aims to track emerge largely from the psychoanalytic framework it adopts, which draws attention to the affective and aspirational complexities of the object relations that shape the scholar’s disciplinary world. Its primary interest lies not in what scholars take their objects of study to mean, but in what we want them to do. This distinction is underscored throughout the book by a critical idiom that translates the apparatus of scholarly discipline—method, argument, theory, and analysis—into psychoanalytic terms in order to consider the desire, anxiety, attachment, fantasy, disavowal, transference, and pleasure [End Page 202] alive in the critical habits of scholarly work. By shifting the framework from the epistemological to the affective and ideational, Object Lessons deliberates, in its own words, on “the political desire that attends both our relationship to our objects of study … and our relationship to that relationship as well” (8). In doing so, it invites conversations, as the commentary by Nick Mitchell so nicely puts it, “on what our work demands of us, on what our work demands in spite of us, on what our work promises to us, [and] on how promising constitutes our work” (188).
Given the endlessly contentious reputation of psychoanalysis, it is perhaps no surprise that Object Lessons has been read as a polemic. But its aim was never to take, let alone to defend, a position. Following Avery Gordon (1997), it wanted to cultivate pleasure in the detour, which meant relinquishing belief in the destination as the ultimate measure of an argument’s worth. By focusing instead on what gets muted, ignored, or simply lost along the way, Object Lessons sought to craft an interpretative environment capable of nurturing the “magnetism between ourselves and our objects of study,” as Zahid R. Chaudhary writes in his introduction to this dossier. Shannan Hayes’s commentary redescribes this environment in temporal terms as a commitment to “slow thinking,” which orients Object Lessons away from resolution and toward a pedagogical engagement with “postponement” (176). My name for the book’s interpretative strategy is inhabitation, which I offer as a counter to the heightened suspicions of critique in order to dwell in the intimate ecology of what I think of as the affective atmosphere, to use Teresa Brennan’s (2004, 1) language, of identity’s politically invested academic domains. Chaudhary reads this dwelling not as “an avoidance of desire’s movements, but a performance of the captivation that rivets it” (132). In his estimation, this performance is the political project of the book: “in order to do justice to its own objects—institutional and disciplinary formations, the movements of political desire—[Object Lessons] cannot and indeed must not offer directions” (131; emphasis in original).
In organizing this dossier under the title “Inhabitations,” Feminist Formations answers my hope to find readers who will not only “insinuat[e] themselves into the relationships that Object Lessons describes...