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  • Justice Regained:The Objects and Lessons of Object Lessons
  • Shannan Lee Hayes (bio)

In an understated footnote on page 3 of Object Lessons (2012), Robyn Wiegman opens her text with a measured caveat: while centrally concerned with the role that “justice” plays in identity-based disciplines, Object Lessons makes no claims toward answering the question of what justice entails. Instead, it addresses the compulsory desire for justice that undergirds much intellectual work. Wiegman is keen to pause her reader here, a step prior to defining justice, at the cusp of its pursuit. In the unchallenged idea that social justice can be attained through critical analysis, we discover a phenomenon of perpetual disappointment that is only ameliorated by repeatedly replacing our objects of study with new ones. “In its broadest stroke,” Wiegman writes, “Object Lessons aims … to attend to the daunting hope that underlies [this tendency]: that if only we find the right discourse, object of study, or analytic tool, our critical practice will be adequate to the political commitments that inspire it” (2–3).

From broad strokes to details, Wiegman’s deft writing holds together the incommensurabilities produced by nuanced analysis, while asking her readers to consider rather than conclude. Why, for example, are we so convinced that our objects should satisfy all of our intellectual and political desires? How has “the political” become a disciplinary imperative within identity fields that have historically positioned themselves as critical of disciplinary knowledge? Moreover, how does the field-forming desire/compulsion to be political limit that which we recognize as political? How do we fortify our critical-political subjectivities through our investments in chosen objects and practices, even as we remain committed to changing the worlds on which these objects and practices depend? What, in Wiegman’s words, have identity studies wanted “from the objects of study they assemble in their self-defining critical obligation to social justice?” (3). Wiegman pursues these questions in a reflective, meta-theoretical analysis [End Page 175] of the political desires that animate identity-based knowledge practices within the US academy.

Object Lessons offers a vantage point from which to view the critical habits and political ambitions that both Wiegman and we, fellow justice-seeking thinkers, tend to overlook. It does so through an inquiry that functions both within and across the field formations of women’s, ethnic, queer, whiteness, and American studies by mapping these disciplines’ affective relationships to their shifting referents. Tandem to each disciplinary object, one finds the critical subjectivities and political investments that make up a field. Wiegman notes, for example, the way that gender takes the place of women as the conceptual means by which women’s studies defines itself as a justice-seeking endeavor, and that with this shift, a new feminist subjectivity arrives to ensure the field’s political futurity. Objects, subjects, and political desires form a triangulated relation in each chapter, and it is at this second level—across chapters—that Object Lessons explores three privileged objects of its own—namely, identity-knowledges, the political investment in progress, and the habitus of critique. Between these three objects, Object Lesson clears what I take to be one of its most significant contributions: a space to think more slowly than is typically recognized as productive by the futural politics that provide us coherence. In what follows, I take seriously the opportunity to delay our critical claims and to think slowly about the objects that Object Lessons renders salient.

Beyond designating a group of academic fields, the term identity-knowledges advances a foremost object for consideration; it signals two simple, yet key, ideas. To start, we are reminded that the practice of knowledge production tends to be organized in relation to an object of analysis. Such a relation typically involves either identification with or the rejection of one’s chosen object. In the case of identity-knowledges, this relation fashions the political legitimation of a field. For example, while the project of women’s studies has tended to define itself through the validation of women, whiteness studies finds its political force in analyzing race through disidentification with the culturally privileged category white, just as queer studies has established a critical orientation in opposition...


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pp. 175-179
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