Driven by an immense pedagogical curiosity, Prof. Lauren Berlant has spent more than three decades studying, analyzing and writing about what sentimentality means in American culture for gender, sexuality, and politics. The renowned University of Chicago scholar is engaged with the current moment—with the desires and emotions that compel people to create forms of life that support a sense of belonging, and the ways in which gender, race, citizenship, class, and sexuality affect and mold those attachments.
For her perceptive interpretations of American literature, politics and culture, Berlant will receive the 2019 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement, making her one of two UChicago faculty members to be honored this week by the Modern Language Association.
On Jan. 11 at the MLA Conference in Seattle, Berlant will be joined by Asst. Prof. Edgar Garcia, who will be recognized for his recent article on Native American pictography.
Past recipients of the Hubbell Medal, awarded annually by the MLA’s American Literature Section, include Robert Penn Warren, Lewis Mumford and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Berlant’s path to the prize is rooted in her career-defining entrance into national sentimentality and affect theory, which began through the study of historical novels during her doctoral studies at Cornell University.
“The historical novel produces a story that moves between history and subjectivity, often entwining a law plot and a love plot,” said Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English. “I realized structural, functional and political norms synergize and shape subjectivity.”
Berlant arrived at UChicago in 1984, just before completing her dissertation. For 35 years, she has connected to her colleagues in many disciplines in a culture that valued her intellect and intensity. Her conversations with historian Peter Novick, for example, helped her realize “how profoundly the radicalism of 1968 had made citizen-attachment seem shallow to so many.”
“Lauren’s work reaches beyond academia to give readers the tools for understanding the complicated interactions between self and society, and between expressed emotions and the methods that imperceptibly affect them,” said Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities. “Drawing on sources ranging from classical literature to contemporary stories in film and television, Lauren’s analysis unveils the devices that affect everyday human connection, and how our culturally conditioned material regard for the perfect life compels us to act against own self-interest in such scholarly books as Cruel Optimism.”
Prof. Deborah Nelson, who chairs the Department of English Language and Literature, called Berlant “one of the most influential scholars of the 21st century across a number of fields,” including American literature, gender and sexuality, affect studies and trauma studies.
In addition to Cruel Optimism, Berlant also has written The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture and The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Her most recent book The Hundreds, co-authored with University of Texas anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, explores life under the radar in essays of 100-word multiples.
Award-winning essay on indigenous pictography
During its conference this week, the MLA also will award Garcia an honorable mention for the William Riley Parker Prize, recognizing his scholarship on the cultural practices and literatures of indigenous people in the Americas—a field that has historically been overlooked in literary studies.
Published in the March 2019 issue of PMLA, the MLA’s literary journal, Garcia’s article “Pictography, Law and Earth: Gerald Vizenor, John Borrows, and Louise Erdrich” argues that the arts and legal thinking of Native Americans through pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs and khipu (knot writing) are not dead sign systems, but are living and in contemporary use.
“Pictographs shift attention from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law and therefore are used by contemporary indigenous scholars of law, such as John Borrows,” said Garcia, who joined UChicago in 2015 as the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in English. “For the MLA to recognize my scholarship has significant meaning for nonalphabetical works and is very important.”
The PMLA selection committee praised the article as a “powerful and illuminating essay,” highlighting its interdisciplinary treatment of underutilized archives and its “keen analysis of the interface of law and literature, particularly in relation to race, nationalism, and decolonization.”
“The breadth of Garcia’s knowledge on these topics is truly impressive, and he synthesizes that knowledge into a compelling, perceptive and gracefully written essay, a model for interdisciplinary scholarship,” the committee wrote in its citation.
The article was included in Garcia’s new book Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu.
Through his scholarship, Garcia focuses on answering such questions as: How are semiotics and aesthetics an interface for racial and national positionalities? How do the social locations of identity, race, gender, kinship, and ecology change when cast in aesthetic forms found in nonalphabetical signs? How do Puebloan pictographs, Anishinaabe petroglyphs, Mayan hieroglyphs, and Andean khipu express and shape contemporary experiences? He seeks answers to these questions in the context of the literature, law, anthropology and history in the Americas.
“My peers at the University of Chicago have encouraged me to think more expansively about indigenous law in conversation with poetics and rhetoric—how, for example, indigenous law illuminates 18th century legal problems considered by such Western scholars as Edmund Burke,” Garcia said. “I began to consider my ideas on different scales. For example, how do these signs bear intellectual form as well as content? What is their historical context, and what are their theoretical horizons?”