- The Object as Usual1
Object lessons. At a moment when it would be difficult to account for the epistemological commotion that “objects” of study (failed or otherwise) have created in critical theory, and at a moment when we seem, as critics (particularly those of us who work within minoritized field-formations), to be constantly battling against the saturated resilience of objects of study we seem to have dislodged, or at least wearily decentered, we are invited here to consider why such institutional attachments to objects persist and what analytical habits they beget and/or endanger. Analytically, narratively, and ideologically, Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons (2012) carefully flags the precarious objects causing such critical tumult, situating them within the porous and emergent “field imaginaries” of identity-based studies: women’s studies, queer studies, and American studies, to name a select few. Throughout, one is struck by Wiegman’s commitment to revitalizing our relationship to identity-based objects of study as a subject of serious inquiry, even a political paradox, and as a spur for the occasion of her own writing.
In what follows, and in the spirit of object lessons and object relations, I want to turn Wiegman’s text into our constituted object here and trouble some of the analytical habits that enable its own questions. Object Lessons, for the most part, mobilizes an effective structure of negative dialectics, advocating persuasively for the potentiality of immanent critique as a mode of productive undoing rather than analytical paralysis. The book espouses a rousing ethics of pedagogy, urging us as readers to attend to how objects have come to matter, and to learn from the uneven waves of reaction and anticipation surrounding their emergence. Wiegman’s critical aspirations speak directly to the seismic shifts in feminist scholarship over the past few decades, a period of acute “identity crisis,” if you will, where the incursions of minoritized field-formations, such as women’s, ethnic, queer, masculinity, and whiteness studies, have both revitalized and deadened intellectual debates around gender, race, class, and sexuality. [End Page 143] Such shifts, I would add here, have further led to a robust engagement with the ethical and political quagmire of the “double bind,” of a critical vernacular that enables the possibility, not a consummation, of a political vision (what Wiegman calls “social justice”), while at the same time placing that impulse under erasure. Such a politics of the double bind is, of course, most spectacularly seen today in the work of affect studies, but, more substantially, I would also suggest in the work of postcolonial and black studies: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her call to an aesthetic education and Frederick Moten in his refusal of black pessimism, to name just two exemplary meditations.2 The challenge for all of us, as Wiegman also reminds us, is how to engage objects within relationalities that do not add value through their salvific promise, but rather through their stubbornly nonredemptive and yet reparative scope. I would wager that the current recuperation of queer negativity (Lee Edelman), queer failure (Jack Halberstam), and cruel optimism (Lauren Berlant) are all attempts—with varying degrees of success—to sustain that impulse in the face of, or rather because of, our embattled political horizons.3
Yet, these idioms—and Wiegman’s book is an exemplary case in point—draw our attention to the recursive forms at work within our political endeavors, whether they be cast in analytical habits that constitute objects only to disperse them or to situate them within field imaginaries like American studies, in a sort of feedback loop that even as it turns on itself, still returns to itself. We are all, it seems, keenly aware of the failed seductions of a liberatory hermeneutics, and yet, we return over and over again to the flight of the object as the only sightline worth following. Is there an outside to this plangent object lesson of recursivity and return that is so routinized in any critique of political excess, or are we doomed to lessons of repetition without rupture? Can we imagine instead a counter-lesson that foregoes such a diagnostics of recognition and pushes against the pressing legibility of an...