Deborah Nelson - "Tough Enough" - Jim Sparrow

Event Presenter/Author: 
Deborah Nelson

“Thanks to Nelson, we now know that these ‘tough’ women share the trait of unsentimentality, which is not a character defect, as their critics often claimed, but a principled commitment, even a style: austere, pitiless, clinical, unwavering." -Bonnie Honig, author of Antigone, Interrupted

Deborah Nelson discusses Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. She will be joined in conversation by Jim Sparrow. 

At the Co-op

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About the book: This book focuses on six brilliant women who are often seen as particularly tough-minded: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Aligned with no single tradition, they escape straightforward categories. Yet their work evinces an affinity of style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a “cold eye” was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches.

Tough Enough traces the careers of these women and their challenges to the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain. Their writing and art reveal an adamant belief that the hurts of the world must be treated concretely, directly, and realistically, without recourse to either melodrama or callousness. As Deborah Nelson shows, this stance offers an important counter-tradition to the familiar postwar poles of emotional expressivity on the one hand and cool irony on the other. Ultimately, in its insistence on facing reality without consolation or compensation, this austere “school of the unsentimental” offers new ways to approach suffering in both its spectacular forms and all of its ordinariness.

About the author: Deborah Nelson is associate professor of English at the University of Chicago.

About the interlocutor: Jim Sparrow is an historian of modern US politics broadly construed, with special interests in the mutual constitution of social categories, democratic publics, and state formation. His first book, Warfare State, is a history of the social politics of the national state as its foundations shifted from welfare to warfare during World War II. He is currently completing a sequel to Warfare State tentatively titled Sovereign Discipline: The American Extraterritorial State in the Atomic Age. This book examines the mass politics of extraterritorial sovereignty, and the crisis of legitimacy it engendered, from V-E Day to the Cuban Missile Crisis. His third book project is also nearing completion. It is an intellectual history titled New Leviathan: Rethinking Sovereignty and Political Agency after Total War.

Event Location: 
Seminary Co-op
5751 S Woodlawn Ave.
Chicago, IL 60637