Max Fattal / Associate Editor

May 27, 2024

FATTAL | Annotations for an Essay That Will Never Exist: Reading Barbara Johnson and Narrativizing a Week in New York

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My apartment smells like weed: I have been here for three days and been offered some two dozen joints from my roommate. I haven’t taken one yet — my psychiatrist’s anti-scientific fear mongering must have gotten to me. Anyways, I’m busy and I’ve got to get out of the house. I need a new suit, a haircut, housing for the second half of the summer and (if my insurance lets me swing it) prescription sunglasses. I haven’t started my law school essays though they’re due in less than a month and I can’t seem to pick a coffee shop in which to work. I go to The Strand — I’ve decided that it’s finally time to read Walter Benjamin. 

I Google: “Where start Walter Benjamin” 


Gotta love philosophy Reddit. Whelp, time to finally read Hegel. 

“Where start Hegel” 


I pick up Philosophy of History. Knowing, inevitably, that I’ll be bored or confused, I also grab a copy of Barbara Johnson’s The Feminist Difference — last week I’d had it recommended (perhaps that’s overselling). I check out with both. I might as well have preemptively deposited Philosophy of History in my storage unit to gather dust. The Feminist Difference, on the other hand, has already been read twice cover-to-cover. It’s all I can think about. 

Lacking the intellectual ammunition to place Barbara Johnson within a broader history of critical theory, or to analyze the texts she analyzes, I can only speak to what it feels like The Feminist Difference is doing. So here goes nothing. Obviously, Johnson knows what Freud or Lacan are going to conclude about that case of insanity or trauma — don’t we all. She knows that Baudelaire had already decided to uplift Desbordes-Valmore above all other women poets before he’d written a word about her — why he made that decision becomes semi-irrelevant. The conclusions are given and uninteresting; just as boring is the unremarkable observation that many of those conclusions neither make sense nor fit within their own internal logic. At this point that’s baked into the whole deal of reading the masculine literary and psychoanalytic canon. 

So, rather than a righteous feminist assault or precise dismantling of silly observations, Johnson simply refracts the narratives her subjects develop. She takes, for a moment, Baudelaire or Freud or Kohut at their word and enables their line of reasoning to expand outward —  the positing “as universal what may be the perspective of a particular place and time.” As the logic balloons outward and slams into walls of contradictions, cascading back and down with the force of true nonsense, she keeps going. With each essay’s final paragraphs, having successfully universalized beyond any one idea’s legitimate reach, she allows us a look at the fallen pieces of titular difference. Her conclusions are the various strands within which her subject’s reasoning cannot fit, and the perhaps unexpected places where they can.

In perhaps the collection’s best essay, Johnson cites Patricia Williams, writing about style and the often toxic veneer of face neutrality with its violations. Johnson’s appreciation for Williams is unsurprising, given the two’s common attention to causal directionality: Johnson frames the essay around The Alchemy of Race and Rights, where Williams describes the narratives necessary in the interpretation of the law. As I read her, we might view our unjust legal bedrock as a given, existing in order to preserve systems of inequality that predate it. Thus, jurisprudence follows the exact same formula of intermediating through narrative: How can we make this make sense from a social or logical perspective? Why is this injustice legally sound? From there, we can read the law as a story, knowing that it began with the ending and examining how the author gets to that point. 

So now, back to New York. I’d decided I wanted to start my column with an essay on NYC about two months ago — it was the longest stretch of my adult life that I’d spent away from the city, and my bus ticket was booked for the inevitably traumatic, closing, perhaps cathartic return just a couple weeks down the road. Before I had even arrived I was certain that the proceeding events would become the opening salvo of my next phase of writing — I’d even developed some preliminary theses. I was preparing to treatise on the process of retraumatization before I even knew an experience to be traumatic. In perhaps a libidinal display of masculinity (or maybe a preemptive pre-law hubris), I was attempting to tell a story (that is, accurately convey my internal monologue) with my conclusion already decided. 

Re-reading the half-drafted essay I attempt to follow Johnson’s approach — the perpetual expansion of my own conclusions until they collapse under the weight of an impossible universalism. My past self anticipated the draw of bold claims and offered up plenty (after all, what even is a city). In expanding I quickly came to the contradictions of my own writing; I already tend to notice the possibility as I outline, but I’ll shut my brain off for fear of perpetual dissonance — I love contradiction unless it’s my own, then I fear it. As an act of exposure therapy, the retraumatization I’d been pursuing in the original essay, that is the exercise of slamming one’s own thoughts into walls of failed universalism, was manageable. But with regards to its replacement (I still insisted upon starting my column with New York, but I’ve above flattened the phony philosophizing into a precise-diary entry reflection), I worry that I may have lost something in the deliberate attempt not to make everything about the things I make everything about. 

After a first skim of “Muteness Envy” (the first of the collection I encountered), I was asked what I thought. I said I liked it and pointed out a few quotes, but shied away from any fuller articulation. I felt thrown in the middle of a narrative without an understanding of either theses or reference points. Reading the whole collection I felt better for my fitting silence, and perhaps wonder if I’ve erred in my above articulation. For all its little digressions, thorny lines and moments of fascinating internal conflict, the overly conclusive lesson I’ve learned from The Feminist Difference is to avoid dogmatic interpretation and check for the causality of narrativization. Then again, it is precisely those things that make for such exhilarating criticism… I’ve already hit a contradiction. 

Max Fattal is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They* can be reached at [email protected].
 Let’s Unpack That is an arts column that traverses autocriticism and borderline psychotic hyperfixation through the lenses of pseudo-intellectualism and film analysis. It runs occasionally throughout the year.