Generality refers to the commonality of experience that rests between the particular and the universal. Whereas the universal’s applicability can be abstracted to all of humanity, generality refers to a shared feeling amongst a collection of individuals in a particular time and place, such as national culture, or a collective response to a particular traumatic event. What is significant about generality, then, is that it can push beyond individual particularity and into a state of general consciousness through an affective state of shared intuition, as Lauren Berlant describes it. “Intuition,” here, refers to the means by which any individual senses their present historical moment (the collective present moment which we here refer to as “generality”). The moment, therefore, is being comprehended and created in a collective act of intuiting and reacting to the events that are occurring; this shared sensation constitutes the state of generality. Such experiences of shared sensation are made of unclaimed experience that has often not yet been identified and fixed, and its character can therefore only be grasped intuitively, or affectively.

Generality thus paints a picture of history that, unlike Adam Smith’s theory of sympathy, cannot have universal standards extrapolated from it. Although a large group of individuals will automatically intuit their shared present moment, this intuition that binds them together is “general,” meaning that it does not imply a universal experience. Similarly, this generality rejects any teleological historical narrative that posits history is progressing toward any single conclusion. Such a model would imply that history ends in a universal present moment,and that this “end” of history is a universal truth to all historical progress. As such, the end of such teleological narratives is a moment that is a universal present rather than a historically situated point in time. Hence, any generality of such a telos would no longer be “general,” because it would paradoxically be the generality of a universal historical present (the “end” of history, specifically).

Lauren Berlant has suggested that because “generality” is something comprehended through affect and intuition — meaning that affect automatically (and pre-cognitively) situates individuals in any particular moment — it is fruitful for scholars to grasp those affects in order to understand the present moment. Moreover, we can capture the affective present through intuition, which enables us to harness and change the present moment according to particular ideological and/or political commitments. As such, Berlant implies that affect can be tied to political causes: if one can intuit the present affective moment, one can obtain a degree of control (or at least increased navigation) of that present generality. A potential critique of this model, however, is its reliance on intuition: because intuition is a pre-cognitive process that links individuals to generality, it may perhaps not serve to alter the generality that grounds it.

Ian M. Thomas

Works Cited:

Berlant, Lauren. “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event.”  American Literary History 20.4 (2008): 845-60.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Ed. Raphael, D.D., and Macfie, A.L. London: Oxford UP, 1976.