Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.1
"Terminally Uncool, Unfunny, Lame"
Guest Writer: Bruce Robbins

Monday, April 14, 2014

[The first in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Terminally Uncool, Unfunny, Lame"

Written by: Bruce Robbins (Columbia)

The opening credits have been predicting Don Draper’s fall at the beginning of every episode since Mad Men began airing. Last year, at the end of season six, it looked like the moment of professional collapse had finally come. But it also looked like Don’s breakdown in front of the Hershey brass and the indefinite time-out decided for him by his partners might be balanced by some sort of moral redemption. The breakdown itself comes in the form of compulsive and disinterested truth-telling, and the final sequence of last year’s final episode involved more of the truth: Don showing his children the brothel where he was raised.

As the new season premiered last night, many viewers must have been asking themselves how this impulse would or wouldn’t take over and work itself out as the show draws to a close. To put this in a series of questions: what might moral redemption look like, if that’s what’s coming? Would it mean turning against advertising itself? When Don says (during the meeting where he self-reveals and self-destructs, but also earlier) that Hershey’s chocolate doesn’t need advertising, he is echoing a theme that the show has already raised and that may be its most fundamental link with the political vision of “the Sixties”: is the work these advertisers do worth doing at all? Is it good for us? If the answer is no, then what? We find ourselves lost in a dark forest of contradictions. Wouldn’t a rejection of all that professional success mean turning against the vice-ridden virtues by which viewers have been so charmed--turning against what got us so involved in the show to begin with? Are we ready for that? 

In particular, what would a critique of the profession mean for the gradual emergence of women into the ranks of the professionally successful? After all, that emergence has become the show’s single most emotionally compelling line of development as, season by season, the men seemed to get more and more exhausted, empty, and self-repeating. Could Don redeem himself morally without undercutting the rising trajectory of Peggy and Joan? And if their success, too, is going to be undercut, will we get the familiar and distorted logic that associates women’s achievement at work with failure and desolation in private life? I’m not sure I can survive any more of that moral.

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Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, "Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital" Response by Anustup Basu

Monday, April 7, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013). The response from Anustup Basu (English/Media and Cinema Studies) is below.] 

“Language, Anti-Humanism, and Postcolonial Studies”

Written by Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies)

I, of course, come as a relative outsider to the domains of historiography and historical sociology. I come neither to bury subaltern studies nor to praise it. Instead I want to ask Vivek a few questions about some aspects of his critical method. These are some of the things I will not be talking about: is Chibber guilty of misrepresenting subaltern studies? Is he misreading the project wholly or partially? Is the critique exhaustive or piecemeal? Etc. Etc.

I will instead invite Vivek to open up, clarify, and elaborate some of his key postulates and categories. I shall also request him to satisfy my curiosity about why he did not go in certain directions that I, while reading the book, thought he could have gone.

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Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” Response by Hina Nazar

Thursday, April 3, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013). The response from Hina Nazar (English) is below.]

“Vivek Chibber’s Two Universalisms”

Written by Hina Nazar (English)

I should begin by saying that I am not a scholar of South Asian history. Nor am I a specialist in postcolonial theory. So my comments on Vivek Chibber’s book will be somewhat oblique. I will focus less on the specifics of Chibber’s reading of South Asian history than on the larger theoretical concerns animating his project—above all, the question of whether progressive or leftist forms of critique are compatible with what Chibber describes as the culturalist turn in the humanities and social theory (a turn exemplified by the Subaltern Studies Group). Chibber, of course, is not the first scholar to question the broadly anti-Enlightenment direction of recent theory, and as such, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital belongs to a larger critical conversation about the legacies of Enlightenment modernity—a conversation that includes, for example, the debates in the 1980s and 1990s between liberals and communitarians, and between poststructuralists and critical social theorists of the Habermasian school. I will refer in passing to these debates, both by way of gaining a purchase on the distinctiveness of Chibber’s project and in order to raise some questions about it.

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“The Rhetorical Victory of SB 1062” Guest Writers: Patrick Fadely & Dave Morris

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism

[Patrick Fadely and Dave Morris are affiliates of the Unit for Criticism from the Department of English, and the authors of the post below, written in response to the Arizona Senate Bill 1062 and its consequences with regard to religious freedom.]

“The Rhetorical Victory of SB 1062”
Written by Patrick Fadely (English) and Dave Morris (English)

Arizona Senate Bill 1062—the so-called “Anti-Gay” or “Right To Discriminate” bill vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer last month—has largely faded from the news cycle, even as versions of the same legislation keep popping up across the country. Promoters of the bill claim it is a reaction to incursions of the secular state into the religious consciences of citizens, as exemplified by the Colorado court who admonished a business for discriminating against lgbt customers. But such explanations, which insist that the law is a defensive measure setting forth the “terms of surrender” for defeated opponents of same-sex marriage elide the bill’s exclusionary force. At the same time, critics of the bill have focused narrowly on its discriminatory intent, without recognizing the full range of issues at stake. SB 1062 and other bills like it are more capacious in scope than previous discussions have allowed. We believe now is an appropriate time for a more thoroughgoing examination of the theoretical stakes of attempting to redefine the legal and cultural concepts of religious freedom.

SB 1062’s attempt to change the definition of religious freedom joins a larger effort by conservative activists to redefine secularism in the United States. Secular freedom relies, according to Talal Asad, on identification of citizenship in the nation-state as transcending religious differences. This transcendent identification theoretically allows people with a wide range of religions to participate in public life and enjoy the protections of the state. Secularism serves to mediate and construct this transcendent citizenship. This is problematic, since secularism as a global project relies on the production of conceptual binaries between free and non-free and West and non-West. It also entails the violent imposition of state structures that guarantee particular definitions of freedom of religion. In a 2003 interview, Asad argued that “[i]t is precisely in a secular state—which is supposed to be totally separated from religion—that it is essential for state law to define, again and again, what genuine religion is, and where its boundaries should properly be.” The secular idea requires the state to define religion and combat threats to freedom of religion. Because this power to define carries legal and cultural implications, any interest seeking to normalize particular religious subjectivities at the expense of others works in part through the state’s definition of a threat to freedom.

Thus, Asad brings to light a paradox: freedom of religion provides a discourse through which certain forms of religiosity are inevitably repressed. Beyond its pointed attempts to discriminate against lgbt people, the bill helps to define the public presence of a variety of cultural others—sexual, religious, national, racial, and so on—as threats to religious freedom. In this sense, Arizona SB 1062 might be usefully placed alongside Arizona SB 1070 and a set of “anti-Shariah” laws proposed in several state legislatures.

What is at stake in such legislation is not so much the ability to discriminate against any one group, but rather an attempt to redefine religious freedom, and hence to reorient secularism, in order to enshrine a specific form of fundamentalist Protestantism. SB 1062 offered two key revisions to its predecessor, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): first, it made clear that religious freedom can be impinged not only by the secular state, but also by any “nongovernmental person seeking the enforcement of state action.” This implies that any individual seeking the protection of, for instance, the 14th amendment, potentially embodies the secular state and its intrusion into religious liberty. The second revision is even more radical: it enlarges the scope of those who can claim that their religious freedoms have been impinged. Under the RFRA, the definition was limited to any “religious assembly or institution”; SB 1062 would have expanded this to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.”

The bill thus suggests that any individual may act as a proxy for the secular state’s incursions into religious freedom, and any individual may claim to be a representative of their religious institution as a whole when confronted with the mere presence of such a person. The bill’s language seeks to transform any encounter between individual citizens into a scene of potentially actionable religious conflict, regardless of whether the terms of that conflict are explicitly religious. Conservative critics of the bill argued that this deeply individualistic view of religious freedom might allow a Muslim cab driver to refuse service to unaccompanied females, or people with dogs, or people drinking alcohol. Such objections, whose Islamophobic tenor is obvious and telling, are based on the misleading claim that the bill’s defense of religious freedom would be symmetrical. In fact, though, the bill would have introduced a host of subjectively defined criteria (the “sincerity” of a belief, for example) which are already adapted to Protestant conceptions of religiosity. Proving that religious freedom has been violated under this definition would depend on whether a given belief was readily culturally legible. In the current political and media environment, a fundamentalist objection to lgbt people is readily construed as “sincere,” whereas the hypothetical objections of the hypothetical Muslim cab driver would face more strenuous scrutiny.

Upon vetoing the bill, Governor Brewer argued that the law does not respond to particular cases or well-articulated needs. The law is not an example of jurisprudence developing in response to changing cultural conditions raised in actual cases; it’s a pre-emptive attempt to reverse the potential opening of the public sphere to full (or fuller) citizenship for lgbt citizens and for non-whites and non-Protestants.

For these reasons, we hesitate to read Brewer’s veto as more than a temporary, legal victory. In fact, given the particular form of political pressure to which Brewer responded, we’re prepared further to read it as a rhetorical victory for those seeking to reverse gains made by civil rights activists over the course of the 20th century. By making civic equality an issue of religious freedom, conservative lawmakers have successfully pulled the conversation to the right—the argument is now between religious conservatives on one hand and neoliberal privatization on the other.

Despite protest from the left, the debate over SB 1062 became largely a debate between economic and social conservatives. Much has been made of the pressure placed on Brewer by prominent figures like John McCain and Mitt Romney, in addition to large corporations like Apple, American Airlines, and the National Football League. This position, however, should not be read as a sign that these corporations and individuals endorse gay rights. The NFL, for example, seeks customers across as many identity groups as possible, but this differs from a desire for a just and open public sphere. It is rather a desire for businesses to have total freedom to restructure the public into an assembly of semi-private consumers who substitute economic liberty for civic power. The pro-business argument against SB 1062 posits that markets, not governmental institutions, should be the guarantors of religious liberty. Global capital brings people together (to watch football), but it can’t guarantee anything like civic freedoms, only the liberties that economic privilege provides.

Conservative supporters of the bill have frequently protested that it does not intend to discriminate against lgbt citizens. In a sense, they’re right: the bill is much more about normalizing and protecting a particular form of Protestant religious belief. It legitimates the exercise of personal prejudice on religious grounds if and only if those prejudices fit within a normative Protestant definition of “sincerely held” religious conviction. The bill thus exemplifies a broader effort to bend the secular toward a socially conservative agenda.
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"Sexual Sovereignties" Guest Writer: Ben Bascom

Monday, March 10, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
“Sexual Sovereignties” 

Written by: Ben Bascom (English)

Zoe Leonard, "Observation Point," 2012

[On March 7, 2014 the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies organized a talk by Ann Cvetkovich (University of Texas, Austin) entitled “The Sovereignty of the Senses.” Below are reflections of the talk by Ben Bascom, a doctoral candidate in English and student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism.]

Ann Cvetkovich began her talk by narrating a moment of misremembering. She had thought she had written “the sovereignty of the senses” in her most recent book, Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), but upon returning to the section where she developed that idea she realized the exact phrasing was different. What she had written was instead about “forms of felt sovereignty that consist not of exercising more control over the body and senses but . . . of ‘recovering’ them from the mind or integrating them with it.” A few pages before, and building from Jacqui Alexander’s notion of the relation between “radical self-possession” and decolonization, she had written that the “sovereignty of the sensory or embodied self is not necessarily about claiming land but about claiming a relation to a place or environment as a way of grounding the self.” These moments that underscore the relation between affect and the self became the starting points for a current project that combines indigenous studies and diaspora studies to articulate the relation between sovereignty and the senses, which, as Cvetkovich argues, will endeavor to reimagine democracy as an embodied collectivity.

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Worlding Realisms: Closing Roundtable Rob Rushing, "Otherworlding Realisms"

Monday, February 17, 2014

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[On February 7, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the symposium “Worlding Realisms.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant, Rob Rushing (Italian/CWL)]

"Otherworlding Realisms"

Written by Rob Rushing (Italian/CWL)

This conference has explored both the ways that realism creates a world around its characters, situating them in the totality of social and economic forces that determine their lives, as well as “the world of realisms,” the different forms and problems that realism takes on around the world. So I thought I might end by taking us, as it were, one step farther, and asking about the “other worlds” of realism, the worlds above and beyond the horizon of the realist world.

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Worlding Realisms: Closing Roundtable François Proulx, "Realism's Others"

Thursday, February 13, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On February 7, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the symposium “Worlding Realisms.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant, François Proulx (French)]

"Realism’s Others"

Written by François Proulx (French)

As participants in today’s symposium described various contemporary and historical instances of “realism,” there were repeated concerns that the category risked becoming a “large loose baggy monster” (Henry James’s putdown of overly capacious narratives), a concept so broad that it becomes critically useless. I was reminded of a strategy I like to use when a student seems so enamored with a critical term that every third word in their writing becomes “postmodern,” “ideological” or the like: asking “as opposed to what?” If we can figure out what realism isn’t, we might find ourselves closer to a useful, manageable definition of what realism actually is.

Today’s participants defined realism(s) as the opposite of:
- warmed-over modernist or magical realist narratives of the 1980 and 1990s that presented a “new” global reality as dazzling and ungraspable (Jed Esty)
- the sedimented aesthetics of Booker Prize-ready postcolonial narratives (Ulka Anjaria)
- the singular, the individual, the non-communal (Colleen Lye and Ayelet Ben-Yishai)
- the “cooked” aesthetics of conventional television, over-processed and easily digestible (Sean O’Sullivan)
- performances that are repeated and over-copied to the point of exhaustion (Miriam Thaggert)
- images that are decontextualized, de-narrativized and over-aestheticized (Terri Weissman)

In French nineteenth-century studies, scholars including Margaret Waller, Margaret Cohen, and the late Naomi Schor have shown that Realism did not simply emerge out of the exhaustion of its diachronic other, Romanticism; rather, the so-called “classic” French realist novel was formed out of a conflict with its synchronic other, the sentimental novel, a practice largely dominated by women writers. Now-canonical realists like Balzac and Stendhal (I quote Margaret Cohen) “made bids for their markets shares in a hostile takeover” of what was the dominant and most prestigious practice of the novel when both started writing, around 1830. That Madame de Genlis, Claire de Duras or even George Sand are not as well-known to a non-specialized audience as Balzac is today, has much more to do with the way the French canon was written when literary history was first established as a discipline in the 1890s, than with what the Parisian public largely read or what contemporary critics actually favored in the 1820s and 1830s.

What is the sentimental novel? It’s a novel of the improbable rather than the verisimilar; of the tragic struggle of principles rather than the heroic conflict of the individual and the collective. It’s a genre that tugs at heartstrings instead of appealing to (or rather, constructing) readers’ desire for vision and order (that sense of “oversight” we get from a Balzac novel); in nineteenth-century technological terms, it’s a diorama rather than a panorama.

Revisiting the French nineteenth-century realist novel as a gendered genre (Margaret Waller suggests that we recast some of its mainstays in gendered terms: the omniscient narrator, for instance, as a “Mister-Know-It-All”), we may think of sentimentality as the (culturally feminine) presence locked in its closet, or perhaps in its bedroom, like Eugénie Grandet who, in Balzac’s eponymous novel, gets locked up by her penny-pinching father because she – sentimentally, idealistically – gave away all her savings to her cousin: shut out but present, subsumed yet central, an excluded but defining foil.
Might we think, then, of the “new realist turn” described by Jed Esty and Colleen Lye (in a recent special issue of Modern Language Quarterly) as a similar “takeover” of previously dominant over-aestheticized genres, operating along analogously gendered lines (though not gender lines as in nineteenth-century France)? If so, what’s in its closet?

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