George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor
Department of English
1115 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Office: Walker 505
My work has focused on politics, emotion, and intimacy in the U.S. nineteenth and twentieth centuries—now the twenty-first: in particular, in relation to citizenship, to informal and normative modes of social belonging, and to affective attachments and fantasies that take shape through ordinary practices. These scenes zone and disturb the relations between public and private, white and non-white, straight and non-straight, and/or citizen and foreigner—along with providing settings for other, inventive kinds of social bond through which people imagine and practice world-making.
I am interested in how institutions and people orchestrate the overcloseness of the world, the fundamental non-sovereignty of people in relation to each other and of states in their interdependence. This involves pursuing how people and populations absorb the blows of power and the discriminations of privilege while preserving critical and optimistic attachments to the political and/or to what’s intimate and magnetizing in the ordinary. To this end, I developed a national sentimentality trilogy—in order of their historical address, The Anatomy of National Fantasy (1991); The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2009); and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997). I have also followed out this interest in attachments and affects in the edited volumes Intimacy (2000); Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (with Lisa Duggan; 2001); Venus Inferred(with Laura Letinsky; 2000);Compassion: the Culture and Politics of an Emotion (2004), and Desire/Love (2013).
Cruel Optimism (2011) is about the moment when the promise of sentimentality frays. It attends to wearing out of the fantasy of the good life that has bound people to various kinds of intimate and political normativity despite their inadequacy to the fantasies that bring people to them. Here “optimism” does not mean the emotion of optimism but the affective structure of attachment that enables people to survive and even thrive amidst the ordinariness of life-in-crisis, life without reliable anchors or cushions. The following book, written with Lee Edelman, is Sex, or the Unbearable (2014) pursues this question of the beyond of survival. In this book “sex” stands for the intensities of encounter with oneself and the world, and the problem of bearing seemingly intractable contradiction, self-divisions, and world-dominations. This book, a dialogue and a debate, pursues the question of how political and aesthetic practices can transform the encounter with negativity or difference-in-relation without promising (sentimentally) repair.
Also related to the affective components of the political is an interest in pedagogies of normativity in the academy, culture, and politics. I have edited two volumes of Critical Inquiry called On the Case, which bring together leading thinkers to examine the “case”—the standard unit in law, medicine, psychoanalysis, the humanities, the sciences, and popular culture. What makes a case ordinary, easily dealt with, or forgettable? What makes some cases, and not others, challenges to the way ordinary life or institutional systems usually proceed? How does a thing become exemplary? How does critical work participate in normative calcifications and their transformation?
Graduate: Ordinariness: An Introduction; The Intimate Public Sphere; The Case Study; The Literature of Trauma; From Sentimentality to Affect Theory: Aesthetic Legacies of American Liberalism; Literatures of 9-11; Feminism and the Public Sphere; The US Historical Novel; Introduction to Advanced Theories of Sex & Gender.
Undergraduate: After Great Pain: From Sentimentality to Affect Theory; The Literature of Trauma; Sex and Ethics; Form, Problem, and Event; Reading Cultures; Media Aesthetics; American Literature Survey I, 1630-1850; African-American Women Novelists; Problems in Gender Studies; What’s Love Got to Do with It?: The Genres of Modern Romance; Feminist Theory-Feminist Practice; Early American Novel; Realism and the Unsayable: Wharton, Cather, Parker; Utopias.
- Cruel Optimism (Duke UP, 2011), 2011 René Wellek Prize, American Comparative Literature Association
- "Love as a Properly Political Concept" (Response to Michael Hardt), Cultural Anthropology (2011)
- "Affect and the Politics of Austerity," Variant 38/40, with Gesa Helms, Marina Vischmidt (2011)
- "Opulism," SAQ (2010)
- "Neither Monstrous nor Pastoral, but Scary and Sweet: Some Thoughts on Sex and Emotional Performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?" Women and Performance (2009)
- "Affect Is the New Trauma," The Minnesota Review (2009). Rpt. 2010.
- “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” by Sina Najafi and David Serlin, Cabinet (2008).
- “Thinking about Feeling Historical,” Emotion, Space, and Society 1, 1 (2008). Rpt. Political Emotions, ed., Janet Staiger, Ann Cvetkovich, and Ann Reynolds (2010).
- "Risky Bigness: On Obesity, Eating, and the Ambiguity of "Health," in Jonathan Metzl et al., Against Health/ (NYU, 2010).
- The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke UP, 2008).
- “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” Public Culture 19, 2 (2007): 272-301.
- Keyword, “Citizenship,” in Keywords of American Cultural Studies, Edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, http://www.nd.edu/~ghendler/keywords.html (NYU press, 2007).
- “Cruel Optimism,” Differences 17, 5 (2006): 21-36; and New Formations (2008; longer version).
- “Starved,” SAQ 106:3 (2007), 433-444.
- “Slow Death,” in Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007): 754-780.
- The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke UP, 1997).
- Compassion, ed. (Routledge, 2004).
- Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest. Ed. with Lisa Duggan (NYU Press, 2001).
- Venus Inferred, with Laura Letinsky (University of Chicago, 2000).
- “Unfeeling Kerry,” Theory and Event 8, 2 (2005).
- “The Epistemology of State Emotion,” in Dissent in Dangerous Times, ed. Austin Sarat (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005).
- “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” in Regarding Sedgwick, eds. Stephen Barber and David Clark (New York: Routledge, 2002).
- “Love (A Queer Feeling),” Psychoanalysis and Homosexuality, eds. Tim Dean and Christopher Lane (Chicago, 2000), 432-451.
- “Sex in Public.” Written with Michael Warner. Critical Inquiry (Winter 1998).
- Editor, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” Critical Inquiry (Winter 1998).
- “Poor Eliza,” in American Literature (1998).
- “Pax Americana: The Case of Show Boat,” in Institutions of the Novel (Duke UP, 1997).
- “The Female Woman: Fanny Fern and the Form of Sentiment,” in The Culture of Sentiment (Oxford, 1993).
- “National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life,” in The Phantom Public Sphere (Minnesota UP, 1993).
- The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago, 1991).
Ph.D., Cornell University, 1985. Teaching at Chicago since 1984.