Oct. 4, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 2

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    Q & A with Lauren Berlant: Our Monica, Ourselves delves into one scrutinized scandal

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    “It was a moment of astounding incoherence,” Lauren Berlant, Professor in English, and Lisa Duggan, Professor of American Studies at New York University, write in the introduction of their new book, Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest. That years-long moment, which began with the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, dragged on through the discovery of the affair, the investigation, the impeachment hearing and the painful, embarrassing, explicit national conversation that surrounded it all.

    More than two years after the fact, Our Monica, Ourselves (New York University Press) attempts to make sense of that incoherence. The book contains 18 essays written by scholars who focus on a range of complex issues, such as democracy and presidential authority, feminism and sexual politics, and ethics and morality. While these concerns might feel abstract in the wake of the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, the book addresses the emotional manipulations in the public sphere of citizenship, patriotism, what counts as innocence and threat in ways that can only feel more resonant now.

    How does Our Monica, Ourselves differ from the saturation media coverage at the time of the scandal? Does the fact that Clinton is no longer in office allow a greater distance and understanding of the events?

    Our Monica, Ourselves was conceived during the scandal’s most intense period of spectacle, moralizing and politicking. Lisa Duggan and I felt confident that the normativity and unimaginativeness of the media and the politicians’ responses to the revelations would continue. Therefore we thought a book of progressive commentary would continue to be useful as we struggle over the terms of citizenship and historical memory in the national public sphere. Thinking about the recent history of patriotism not only helps us shape the past, but conditions future analyses not only of Clinton, but of other thorny ongoing issues about what connects occupants of the United States to each other and to projects of survival, justice and freedom.

    Why did you call the book Our Monica, Ourselves?

    The title derives from the feminist self-health book of the 1970s, Our Bodies, Ourselves. That book was about taking medical practice back from the medical experts and developing a lay expertise that was more responsive to women’s experience of their bodies and sexuality. Likewise, Our Monica intends, in a sense, to wrest from the neoconservative/neoliberal media the terms for a public discussion of sexuality and politics, feminism and misogyny, morality and power.

    One of the most hilarious essays in the book is Sasha Torres’ “Sex of a Kind: On Graphic Language and the Modesty of Television News.” Has the media changed in the wake of the scandal? Has more graphic sexual language become acceptable in the media or in general discourse?

    Clearly, the taboos on graphic sexual description have slowly been falling over the last 10 years on television generally. As Torres shows, though, the “hard” news was one of the last places where a thing could be called by its explicit sexual name.

    I’m not convinced especially that the network news has become more competent at talking about sexuality (in itself or in its relation to other modes of agency, identity and privilege) even if there is now precedent to name things more explicitly. The question isn’t so much whether dirty words can be said, but whether the words are still deemed dirty, which I think they still are, at least in the tonality of the public-sphere discussion about character and sexuality.

    Laura Kipnis’ essay “The Face That Launched a Thousand Jokes” centers on Linda Tripp. How did she figure into a narrative that seemed to be more about bodies than about faces?

    Tripp’s face, Kipnis argues, was central to the scandal because she was there as a talker, a secret keeper and betrayer, a commentator, and an interview subject. The jokes that Kipnis describes fixate on the ways Tripp’s non-normative celebrity looks were deemed to express her inner meanness, distortedness, ugliness. When Tripp got plastic surgery it seemed to be a category error in regards to her public persona.

    When did you first begin collaborating with other academics? Is this common in the humanities?

    My main collaborator over the last decade has been Michael Warner of Rutgers. In addition to this book with Lisa Duggan, I’ve worked with Beth Freeman, the Black Public Sphere Collective and photographer Laura Letinsky (Associate Professor on the Committee on Visual Arts). Collaboration is unusual in the humanities because our norms of authorship have always tended to overvalue the image of the intellectual as a great mind expressing greatness most impressively in virtuosic, solo rhetorical performances. I have worked collaboratively as an editor and writer for a long time now because I think what one gives up in control, one gets back in greater wisdom and in an opening up of thought to its necessarily collective nature. No one thinks autonomously. Collaboration is one way of marking the contingencies and intimacies involved in moving the salient questions from place X to place Y.

    You’ve received a fair amount of media attention about this book. How does it feel to be part of the media machine that the book critiques?

    The ironies have not escaped us. Once we got a good review in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and then got mentioned ironically in a conservative column in the New York Post, the ball of interest started rolling. Otherwise we never would have been reviewed at all. Academic anthologies rarely are, if for no other reason than that it’s harder to use the language of the great mind and/or the scandalous professor, which is how the humanities tends to be represented in the press.

    We could have refused to do interviews, but since our aim was to change the terms of expertise and of the ways sexuality and power are talked about in the mainstream public sphere, it would have been odd for us not to take the chance on putting our otherwise unimagined views out there.