Universally practiced across the disciplines, description is also consistently devalued or overlooked. In this introduction to the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best propose that description is a critical practice more complex (and less contradictory) than its detractors have taken it to be. They argue that turning critical attention toward description’s nuances gives us access to the ways that scholars conventionally assign and withhold value and prestige. The authors set forth a number of principles (using their contributors’ essays as a guide) toward the end of “building a better description.”
Building a Better Description
Sharon Marcus is Dean of Humanities and Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Public Books, an online review of books, arts, and ideas. She is the author of Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (1999), and the prize-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007), as well as guest editor of several special issues of scholarly journals, including a 2009 issue of Representations, “The Way We Read Now” (co-edited with Stephen Best), a 2014 issue of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film (co-edited with Katherine Biers), and a 2015 issue of Public Culture, “Celebrities and Publics in the Internet Era.” She is currently completing a book on the history of celebrity.
Heather Love is the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard) and the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”). She has written on topics including comparative social stigma, compulsory happiness, transgender fiction, spinster aesthetics, reading methods in literary studies, and the history of deviance studies. She is currently completing a book on practices of description in the humanities and social sciences after World War II.
Stephen Best is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004). He has edited a number of special issues of the journal Representations—“Redress” (with Saidiya Hartman), on theoretical and political projects to undo the slave past, and “The Way We Read Now” (with Sharon Marcus), on the limits of symptomatic reading. He is currently working on a new project, Unfit for History, on slavery and the limits of historicist critique.
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Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, Stephen Best; Building a Better Description. Representations 1 August 2016; 135 (1): 1–21. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2016.135.1.1
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