Lauren Berlant – The Queen of America Goes to Washington City + Ken Plummer – Intimate Citizenship

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Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essay on Sex and Citizenship, Duke UP, 1997.

Ken Plummer, “Public Intimacies, Private Citizens,” Intimate Citizenship, U of Washington Press, 2003.

Berlant’s book is a quite dense text which assembles various and multiple layers of narratives around politics of identity, queer theory, media and text analysis, feminism, and so on. This book asks the question of how a person comes to recognize the nation he/she feels and thinks him/herself belongs – is subjected – to or how people get to understand themselves in relation with the nation. In other words, Berlant investigates in great detail the secrete mechanism in which citizenship is produced and proliferated in the intimate – and private – way but via the imagined public sphere. Her method is, by collecting and reassembling the diverse stories about citizenship, nation, body and sexuality, to narrate in her own voice specific historical and social moments in the United States.  

The main object of the book is to articulate citizenship in the intimate public sphere, with the basic assumption that citizenship is traumatized and all citizens are suffering. Especially focusing on the “right-wing cultural agenda of the Reagan revolution”(6-7), Berlant is interested in the way citizenship is socially produced, in the intermingled chain of self-family-nation, which is also the main political spaces where the private and the public coincides with each other.

Echoing Althusser’s theory of ideological states apparatus, national culture embedded in its pedagogical project (education), according to her argument, turns people into private citizen who identifies themselves with the ideal and fantasy nationality. At the same time, media technologies and culture industry such as film, television, newspaper, and radio spread the ideological images that render the nation powerful and omnipotent. However, this ideology tried to “destroy an image of the federal state that places its practice at the center of nation formation”(56). In this sense, the intricate set of relations present tense between economic, racial, and sexual processes has been decoupled from the state (which is local and material) and attached to the nation (which is abstract and imagined). Through this process of privatization of citizenship, thus, suffering citizens – poor, women, gay and lesbian, colored, and youth – are doubly excluded from the political public space, without feeling of being affiliation oneself with a direct, critical, and common public culture but with idealized, mediated and consumed patriotism.

That is why pilgrimage-to-Washington narrative which would be resulted in infantile citizenship is always more or less a failed project for the private citizen to find out his/her real im-mediated identity in the virtual existence of self-family-nation chain. At best, in the “logic of infantile second-class citizenship”(70), one can recognize oneself as the icon of feminized infantile vulnerability(72). Not surprisingly, author’s axiom is that “there is no public sphere in the contemporary United States”(3), It seems quite radical to argue that in the sense that she negates the possibility of formation of minor citizenships through the various layers of public space enabled by the traditional and new social movements.

Instead of radical impossibility of the public sphere, and as an alternative of Habermasian unique bourgeois public sphere, Plummer argues for plural or multiple public spheres. His concern is “how to deconstruct essential identities in the public sphere and yet be able to have them available for political purpose”(83). In order to solve this paradoxical problem, he wants us to look at identity as a matter of strategy not as ontological one, or to accept “strategic essentialism” Spivak formulated. This strategy has a double task of extending (sexual) minorities from the intimacy of the private sphere and, at the same time, of liberating them from the oppressiveness of the public sphere. In other words, contemporary politics of identity examines the possibility of political participation and liberation by interpolating private citizen into the space of public intimacy and thus by constructing new communities based on solidarity on the one hand, but citizens of minority in a certain sense refuse to be included in – or to be reduced to – the fixed identity on the other. There is the new task of identity politics for the emerging citizenship of rarely organized people. 

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