W. J. T. Mitchell
“‘I didn’t think it would turn out this way.’”
That, according to Lauren Berlant, “is the secret epitaph of intimacy.”
It is also the most fitting epitaph for Lauren Berlant’s own career, not just as a critical theorist and scholar, but as a complex individual in an intimate space of thought and community. For Lauren was supposed to live forever. Now they have defied expectation once again and moved on to a place of silence, leaving us to assess what they meant to us, what they did for us, what they left us. The job is overwhelming and will require many more hands and brains than my own.
So let me start with the simplest facts. Lauren Berlant arrived in Chicago with a fresh PhD in American literature from Cornell in 1984. Lauren rode the crest of a wave of brilliant young arrivals who took over Chicago’s English Department from the old, mostly male, generation that was in charge when I arrived some ten years earlier. It quickly became evident that Lauren was perfectly suited to the ambitions of Critical Inquiry, which I had been editing since 1977. The journal was hot on the trail of new developments in the humanities and social sciences, with recent issues on feminism and race, politics and interpretation, and the fateful transformation in the human sciences that went by the name of “Theory.” Lauren joined our editorial board as an untenured assistant professor, a decision that was regarded by some as risky because the workload of a coeditor (300 pages of reading per month) was thought to be a distraction from what was called “one’s own work.” But Lauren’s work turned out to be all about others—their colleagues, friends, students, and an ever-expanding network of allies and interlocutors in fields other than literature. Anthropology, poetry, philosophy, sociology, political theory, psychoanalysis, critical legal studies, movements for Gay Rights, racial equality, immigrants, the list goes on of fields where their interventions made a difference. What exactly was that difference?
Let me begin with the obvious. It sometimes struck me, reading Lauren’s footnotes, that they never slept—or at least one of their many selves was always awake and watchful, even when dreaming. We often talked about our dreams and our writing, which somehow stretched across numerous territories, from ambition to fantasy to comic failure. Lauren provided the best advice I ever received about writing. In a response to one of my first drafts, Lauren told me: “Keep going. Once you get all the gas out of your system, the good shit is bound to follow.” Lauren did not merely write things that ventured into “other fields.” Constantly on the move, Lauren followed a question into the dark corners of “adult bookstores” and the laws that shut them down or moved them to “the waterfronts” of violence and poverty. Channel surfacing through the spaces of women’s magazines, late-night TV, kitsch and celebrity culture, Lauren once quoted to me a comment from a senior colleague: “I love your mind, but I hate your archive.” True enough. It was the wrong archive for an English professor. Not merely “popular culture,” but deeply unpopular, controversial, and marginal subcultures formed the habitus of Lauren’s inquiries, right alongside all the monuments of high and official culture. Lauren’s second book, The Queen of America Comes to Washington City, brought together the Reagan version of the American dream with Anita Hill, Queer Nation, Forrest Gump, and The Simpsons. Essays like “Sex in Public,” “Cruel Optimism,” and books like The Female Complaint (2008) made it clear all the received ideas about politics, culture, sexuality, and the American nation were (and are) in deep trouble.
Trouble, however, of the very best kind. For Lauren’s special contribution to human thought (as distinct from academic knowledge) was the unsettling of “normativity,” the routine, normal unexamined habits that infect thinking in the mundane spaces of everyday life, the halls of academe, and the corridors of power. For Lauren, these infections (not just heterosexuality, but the entire panoply of normative differentiations—yours and mine, his and hers, private and public, us and them) generate destructive fantasies of purity and fulfilment, not to mention the slow death of routinized thought and behavior. Needless to say, this made Lauren a crucial member of a feisty editorial group that loves nothing better than a battle of wits and tastes. Like a dazzling point guard who opens unexpected passing lanes with jukes, changes of direction, and sudden bursts of speed, Lauren raised everyone’s game, keeping us off balance, uncertain, with a correspondingly heightened attention to everything being said, decided, and done. Lauren demanded alertness, responsiveness, and counter-play. It was never enough, in my experience, to tell Lauren that you agreed with something they had just said.
All this could be summarized best in Lauren and Michael Warner’s “Sex in Public” (1998):
Queer social practices like sex and theory try to unsettle the garbled but powerful norms supporting that privilege—including the project of normalization that has made heterosexuality hegemonic—as well as those material practices that, though not explicitly sexual, are implicated in the hierarchies of property and propriety that we will describe as heteronormative.
Normativity: we were enjoined by Lauren neither to accept it or reject it but to “unsettle” it. Is this where deconstruction meets queer theory, where pure reason unveils its affective foundations? It is notable that Lauren regarded theory itself as a “Queer social practice,” right alongside that most mundane and mysterious thing called sex. I immediately want to insert a third term at this point, namely Death, the Queerest thing of all, and wonder what Lauren would have to say to us. Somehow, consolation is not the first thing that comes to mind. Death at age 63, with a mind constantly reaching beyond itself, was not the way things were supposed to turn out. Inconsolable at losing a dear friend who went from being my mentee to my mentor in a few short years, I think of how Lauren’s last conversation with me was a Seminary Co-op dialogue on Mental Traveler, my memoir—deeply influenced by Lauren—of the life and death of my son, Gabriel. In the last months before passing, Lauren found a way to emerge from the isolation of illness and the pandemic to find the right questions to ask. Lauren transformed our mourning, helping us find a way beyond melancholy into a manic intensity that reveals Death itself in all its unsettling Queerness. I didn’t think it would turn out this way.
W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry