- The Object of Object Lessons:Thoughts and Questions
One of the most curious claims to be found in Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons (2012, 35) is that it “offers no new objects or analytics of study.” For how might we speak of what Wiegman refers to as “identity knowledges” without understanding it as a new object, singular-plural?1 And what might we make of the way that Wiegman teaches us to read the disciplinary force that motivates the commitment of identity knowledges to make knowledge do justice, if we do not understand it as a new analytic? What Object Lessons accomplishes, that is to say, is already caught up in the sway of the new, even though the political imaginary endowed with the capacity to “marshal the discourse of the new” (78) has been among its author’s most abiding critical concerns (see, for example, Wiegman 2002).
Part of what marks Object Lessons as new has to do with the moment in which it emerges, a moment that, thankfully, no one has yet sought to package as a “turn,” but that nevertheless operates the tropology of one, with its sights set on reversing the gaze. Over the past decade, scholarly attention in identity-related domains has moved increasingly toward the questions of how we got here—now, in the university and the social order—and what we might make of our attempts to know these domains. It seems important to acknowledge that the effort to study the field-making histories and protocols of identity studies seems to be inseparable from a broader desire to know (and an anxiety about what might come of knowing) what our fields have become in the university today.2
What makes identity knowledges an object, and not just a name, emerges, in part, out of Object Lessons’ analytic practice of reading multiple fields in [End Page 180] relation to one another. It is an outcome, therefore, of history, of variously articulated institutional and epistemological relations, and of interpretive practice. This practice responds not only to the implied need to investigate the post–civil rights project of institutionalizing the study of marginalized and dominant constituencies, but also to the value of studying these formations as a whole—that is, as the kind of historical phenomenon that only comes into view when we view them together. The methodological conundrum that accompanies an understanding of identity knowledges as a whole provides one of the most productive tensions to be found in Object Lessons, a book that wants, at once, to say something definitive about identity knowledges writ large while nevertheless grounding its claims in a particular constellation of identity knowledge–related fields, objects, debates, and analytics. It is, perhaps, a fitting irony that a book that takes such painstaking care in reading the ways in which fields negotiate the tensions between particularity and universality should be animated by a particularity/universality, or particularity/generality, problem all its own. The question here is: What can we learn by attending to the specific constellation of identity knowledges offered in Object Lessons?
The claim on which this question is based is simple: identity knowledges, as an object, does not precede Object Lessons; rather, identity knowledges is invented in its pages, as it will inevitably be reinvented as the book encounters a readership and as its analytic sensibilities travel more broadly. In this brief response, my claim will be that the constellation of objects, analytics, and field imaginaries with which Object Lessons engages is enabled by its situating of academic feminism both as a field imaginary of its own and as a scene of mobilizing agency. This distinction between field imaginary and mobilizing agency, in the case of academic feminism, I think is crucial to understanding how Object Lessons makes its object (identity knowledges). What renders identity knowledges into the form of a whole has to do with the performance of a critical mobility that transports us as readers from field imaginary, to field formation, to analytic practice, and back again. What makes this performance particularly gripping is the way that throughout this itinerary, Wiegman finds herself so much at home—although sometimes uneasily so—with the...