Object Lessons

Object Lessons

Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies

More about this series

Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: Published: January 2012

Author: Robyn Wiegman

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Queer Theory

No concept has been more central to the emergence and evolution of identity studies than social justice. In historical and theoretical accounts, it crystallizes the progressive politics that have shaped the academic study of race, gender, and sexuality. Yet few scholars have deliberated directly on the political agency that notions of justice confer on critical practice. In Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman contemplates this lack of attention, offering the first sustained inquiry into the political desire that galvanizes identity fields. In each chapter, she examines a key debate by considering the political aspirations that shape it. Addressing Women's Studies, she traces the ways that "gender" promises to overcome the exclusions of "women." Turning to Ethnic Studies, she examines the deconstruction of "whiteness" as an antiracist methodology. As she explores American Studies, she links internationalization to the broader quest for noncomplicity in contemporary criticism. Her analysis of Queer Studies demonstrates how the commitment to antinormativity normalizes the field. In the penultimate chapter, Wiegman addresses intersectionality as the most coveted theoretical approach to political resolution in all of these fields.


“The lesson that emerges from [Wiegman’s] argument resounds forcefully throughout Object Lessons as a whole. It teaches that whether in creating fields of scholarly practice or in the theorization of objects of knowledge, the institutional formation of identity knowledges is inescapably attached to what these knowledges critique and thereby attempt to leave behind. Identity knowledges, in other words, appear in Object Lessons as moored to and made in the very gestures of disavowal,” — Nick Mitchell, Signs

“[Wiegman’s] book left me reeling in the best possible way, precisely because it focuses in on the affective life of our critical impulses. Wiegman peels back the veneer on our investments in a variety of politics — feminist, anti-racist, imperialist, queer— leaving us to confront why we show up to struggle with our work. This book gave me the gift of recognizing conflict and incommensurability as powerful sites from which to continue to passionately invest in politics.” — Naomi Greyser, Feminist Studies

“Scholar Robyn Wiegman explores the aspirations and limitations of identity studies as instruments of political change in this cross-cutting analysis of disciplines.... Offering separate analysis of several disciplinary frames, her exploration bridges women’s and gender studies, gay and lesbian and queer studies, ethnic studies and whiteness studies, and global American studies (among others) to examine what happens and what doesn’t when fields continually redefine themselves.” — On Campus with Women

“Object Lessons is an excellent contribution to the field of critical scholarship... Recommended for scholars and graduate students working in the areas of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, particularly, as well as other identity-based disciplines. Wiegman is a brilliant thinker and her text provides a site for considering the stakes of the projects with which we’re engaged and how the “stakes” are defined in the first place.While Wiegman offers no easy answers, for scholars who have ever asked questions of themselves, like: “Does my work do anything?” and “Does this work really matter?” what Wiegman does offer is a thoughtful meditation on the narratives that work to sustain the aspirational hopes of disciplines emerging out of left critique; specifically, the hope that critical practices will deliver the futures of which we dream.” — Elizabeth Groeneveld, Reviews in Cultural Theory

Object Lessons by Robyn Wiegman is a profoundly pedagogic book. By which I mean: it is a book that teaches us how we are taught. . . . The book prompted me to reflect on my own relation to Women’s Studies even if I did not always recognise the version of Women’s Studies being presented (and we do not need to recognise each other’s versions to know they bear some relation).” — Sara Ahmed, Feminist Theory

“Analytically, narratively, and ideologically, Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons carefully flags the precarious objects causing such critical tumult, situating them within the porous and emergent “field imaginaries” of identity-based studies: women’s studies, queer studies, and American studies, to name a select few. Throughout, one is struck by Wiegman’s commitment to revitalizing our relationship to identity-based objects of study as a subject of serious inquiry, even a political paradox, and as a spur for the occasion of her own writing.”  — Anjali Arondekar, Feminist Formations

“One of the things that is most exciting about Wiegman’s work in Object Lessons is the attention that she pays to not only the institutional histories of women’s and gender studies, whiteness studies, queer theory, and American studies, but also the ways in which these fields, these processes of institutionalization, have often gone far beyond the original intentions of the individuals who helped to found them. Wiegman precisely names the methods by which insurgent modes of inquiry have at once restructured traditional disciplines and been deeply marked by them in return.” — Robert F. Reid-Pharr, Feminist Formations

“Having charted the objects and wishes of Wiegman’s masterful book, the task is not to sit back smugly and declare everything to be properly deconstructed and thereby politically unimpeachable (or impossible), nor is it to leap out into the streets or behind the lecterns with better terminology. Instead, the book’s point is precisely that “what to do” may be the wrong question. Object Lessons challenges its readers to unpeel critique from the assumption that it is coterminous with immediate political efficacy, with the accomplishment of social justice.” — Elizabeth Freeman, Feminist Formations

“From broad strokes to details, Wiegman’s deft writing holds together the incommensurabilities produced by nuanced analysis, while asking her readers to consider rather than conclude. . . . Object Lessons offers a vantage point from which to view the critical habits and political ambitions that both Wiegman and we, fellow justice-seeking thinkers, tend to overlook.”  — Shannan Lee Hayes, Feminist Formations

Object Lessons is a remarkable, powerful work. It has the potential to give occasion to long overdue and heretofore unlikely conversations among students, teachers, lovers,and stakeholders of identity knowledges, conversations on what we want our work to do, on what our work actually does, on what our work demands of us, on what our work demands in spite of us, on what our work promises to us, on how promising constitutes our work (even in our moments of critical despair), on what, ultimately, the substance of our work is.” — Nick Mitchell, Feminist Formations

“In not taking the object for granted, Wiegman distributes a whole lot of fabulousness, historical knowledge, and curiosity about her objects. In doing so, she erects a habitation for critical thought and a welcoming pavilion for both persons and things. Wiegman’s is an unfinished world that I would not mind living and flourishing in.”  — Michael O’Rourke, Feminist Formations

“In addition to engaging identity studies’ practitioners, Object Lessons effectively addresses students being disciplined in interdisciplines and schooled in the tradition of oppositional positions: all those, in other words, for whom the limits, possibilities, and pleasures of academic labor are inextricably bound to the questions of the legibility and precarity of their institutional homes.” — Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, Women & Performance

“In Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman considers how the political imaginary of the feminist alternative functions. She explores our attachments to feminism’s objects, quite brilliantly showing how we – as feminists – invest in theory and critique’s ability to transform the world. I am not entirely sure how she manages it, but Wiegman combines uncomfortable insights about, for example, our desires for the concept and practice of ‘intersectionality’ to deliver us from the burden of ongoing racism and injustice, with a generosity that invites the reader in and keeps her reading.” — Clare Hemmings, Feminist Theory

"Reading Object Lessons requires letting go of one’s own logical strains of thought and relinquishing oneself to Wiegman’s beautiful and somewhat vulnerable ways of thinking." — Sarah Kornish, Rocky Mountain Review

"An extraordinary work of critical theory within academic identity knowledges, and deserves to be numbered among the best works of contemporary feminist and queer theory."   — Jessica Durham, Colloquy

"Masterfully cover[s] a wide range of theoretical material, from the complex intercalation of women’s studies with gender studies, through the fraught relation of queer studies to conceptions of 'normativity' (306), and the equally fractious question of how the discourse ofinternationalization has played out within the 'field imaginary' (14) of American studies.  . . . Object Lessons is an important book, shrewd both in its critique and its awareness of the limitations of critique." — Paul Giles, American Literature

“This book is as incisive in its articulation of the stakes involved in post–Civil Rights academic field formations as it is responsive to the affective investments shaping specific fields' modes of self-governance and self-reinvention. What do we want from identity knowledges—and what do they offer us? In the incongruent spaces opened up by these questions, and against the nonsynchronized discourses marked by political obligations, institutional structures, and methodological ambitions, Robyn Wiegman narrates what she calls object lessons with inimitable intensity, agility, and imagination. If visionary thinking about identity studies is an art, she has given us a brilliant master-class performance.” — Rey Chow, author of Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture

“This brilliant, commodious book gives us a name for that fast-moving conceptual traffic arrayed across the academic galaxy from the 1970s to the present; as a strategy for naming, Object Lessons brings about ‘identity knowledges’ as a rethought object of desire and destination, its political commitments pursued to the bone, in the immediacy of its institutional arrangements. The reader will not want to miss Robyn Wiegman in this quite stunning and masterful outcome.” — Hortense Spillers

“This is a contentious book, but without contention, knowledges become rigid and fortified. Robyn Wiegman induces us to think more carefully about the ways in which politically committed knowledges make themselves as they make knowledge of their objects of investigation.” — Elizabeth Grosz, author of Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Robyn Wiegman is Professor of Women’s Studies and Literature at Duke University. She is the author of American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender, editor of Women’s Studies on Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, and coeditor of The Futures of American Studies, all published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: How to Read This Book 1

1. Doing Justice with Objects: Or, the "Progress" of Gender 36

2. Telling Time: When Feminism and Queer Theory Diverge 91

3. The Political Conscious: Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity 137

4. Refusing Identification: Americanist Pursuits of Global Noncomplicity 197

5. Critical Kinship: Universal Aspirations and Intersectional Judgments 239

6. The Vertigo of Critique: Rethinking Heteronormativity 301

Bibliography 345

Index 391
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5160-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5146-7
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