Monthly Archives: July 2021

After Lauren

Katie Stewart

Lauren hated academic politics. 

Collaboration took its ferocious place. A bossy push for associational thinking together.

She wanted reaction; she wanted to be edited; she wanted reciprocity.

It was hard to keep up with her. She’d wait.

Our phone calls were long in the tooth. Stories with back stories and speculations, each of us hanging on the other’s every word, she already typing notes, rewriting sentences, feeling-out a  structure of tentative lines around something that seemed to be showing-up.

A phone call accreted a world of words. 

It would open into the funny. The tip into play was the most serious thought we had. Company was in the riff. We held there like card players staring at the colorful miracle of a handful of queens arrived from somewhere, already shot through with intensity, already composing and decomposing.

We sharpened what words we had; we twisted off. Nothing was ever dismissed out of hand though thoughts failed. We’d land in a logic of one thing after another, fragments languishing, bodies laden in the skittish overwhelm of the crisis ordinary, an endless potential, good and bad.

I remember once after a hard session together in Berlin where things happened as we tried or failed to defend each other from attack she came up behind me and threw her arms around my neck like a monkey.

For Lauren, enduring was not a minimalist practice. She showed up.

For her, to be intellectual is to produce new forms for optimism by being in sync with someone, with something forming up in some rickety damaged world.

Work, after Lauren, is a binding to things ideas people smells we don’t know. The binding is what matters in the labor of making a more fitting world for the affects we have.


Kathleen Stewart is a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas, Austin. She writes and teaches on affect, the ordinary, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment.

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COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL

Jenny Holzer

She was an ally.

“COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL” is a warning and a belly laugh.

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On Being Difficult

Lisa Duggan

Lauren Berlant was luminous, intimidating, uncannily perceptive, generous, incisive, devastating.  Their years long investigations of everyday affect, their extensive collaborations, their fierce and capacious pedagogy, their creative vocabulary, had a decisive impact on overlapping worlds of scholarships, politics, and friendship. Lauren  was an extraordinarily influential writer and thinker, and a dearly loved comrade with whom I collaborated and socialized for over two decades.  Their contradictions complicated their impact. A generous collaborator and a withering critic, they were a warm and empathic friend who could also be mean to the people they loved.

The words often used to describe them are brilliant, and difficult. When the first term is used to describe outsiders in elite social or intellectual spaces, the second almost goes without saying. There is something about being out of place and knowing it, about excelling in a sometimes hostile environment, that produces difficulty. In getting to brilliant, the sharp, cutting edges of difficult are often forged.

The use of the term difficult can be confusing. It is usually an invidious epithet, used to demean and discredit people who are principled, forthright, and too direct for the comfort of more powerful or more compromised others. In this usage, it is often misogynist or aimed at others who are socially or politically marginalized (racialized minorities, queer and trans people, colleagues from working class backgrounds, supporters of Palestinian freedom). In this usage it is a weapon of psychologized political and cultural war. Combined with the epithet crazy this kind of labeling can be a very effective tool. I’ve been on academic hiring committees where every single senior woman of color nominated was considered either not accomplished enough (because on so many committees etc. as an institutional and professional token), or if clearly accomplished, she is difficult or crazy (because of refusal to function as an over-committed token).

Lauren was brilliant and therefore difficult in this sense. They irritated complacent gatekeepers.  But there was something else to the description difficult, something familiar to me in my own life as a difficult person, and to many of those close to me. There was some kind of missing social radar, some imbalance in sensitivities (bracingly described in Anna McCarthy’s short stories about Thorny Acres, co-housing for difficult people).  Lauren was easily hurt, but sometimes weirdly unperceptive when they hurt students, colleagues, friends and comrades. This is a common kind of imbalance in assertive, ambitious people with a sense of unbelonging. Always already hurt by the persistent experience of rejection, the push through despite the barriers can develop insensitivity that becomes too cutting, too pervasive.  More unquestioningly privileged and complacent people are often grossly insensitive to others of course, but they are not usually so easily hurt themselves. They are not called difficult or crazy, but maybe just jerks.

Lauren Berlant’s stunning achievement is that they used their uncanny sensitivity to see the affective impact of power over time, to analyze the dominion of neoliberal capitalism’s cruelties in daily lives of struggling precarity, but also to mine the utopian wishes embedded in otherwise crushed hopes. Their imperviousness helped them put their genre bending work out there despite not fitting any disciplinary or theoretical mold.  Lauren’s alchemical trick was to turn the everyday life of difficulty into the dazzling light of brilliance.


Lisa Duggan is professor in the department of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author most recently of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed (2019). 


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for lb

Joseph J. Fischel

“Art humbles theory in its propositional mode, allows an encounter instead of inciting a pronouncement.”[1]

I did not write this sentence even though I did. Time varnishes memory like fantasy fabricates it, as Lauren describes.[2]  But my recollection is this: in the winter of 2011, Lauren wrote that sentence into the first pages of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Lauren’s was a translation of my effort to explain to an imagined audience of political theorists why I was turning to an archive of films, rather than an archive of other political theorists, to evidence my argument. The argument was that adolescents and adolescence, as idealized abstractions, offer countermodels against the suffocating sovereignty of liberal personhood, the rigid taxonomy of modern sexual orientation, the gothic figures of the sex predator and the innocent child, and consent as a moralized, underperforming guarantor of sexual freedom. All this from Superbad, more or less. I have hyperbolized here my already-ambitious argument, but I figured if Lauren successfully squeezed a theory of intimate citizenship and national belonging out of a 22-minute The Simpsons episode, why not give big thinking a shot?[3] “One must refuse the intractable’s demand to experience pre-defeat.”[4] Most importantly, they taught me that big thinking, politically emancipatory thinking, is too often desiccated by pronouncement or prescription.  To allow an encounter, and to build solidarity out of that encounter, is to reperceive or sustain the inconveniences, incongruences, and contradictions of others.

I rear-ended into this essay’s epigraph—my/Lauren’s claim for the political theory of film—when control effing for “Berlant” in my first book (the dissertation’s final draft), as if I could enumerate by citation the influence Lauren had on my scholarship, research methods, and teaching. Ha ha, Lauren would have said. In bluntest terms, Lauren inverted consent as my normative gold star (if we get consent right, sex will be unsexist and nonviolent) to my central object of critique. An object of critique, Lauren modeled, is the opposite of an object of cynicism. Our cruelly optimistic attachments to consent require an analytic that is caring and careful, neither trashing nor glib.[5] In the 1990s, Lauren explained that our national sexuality was heterosexuality, and they so spectacularly surveyed the political imaginary and collateral damage that heteronormativity conjures and obscures.[6] I came to propose, building off Lauren’s work, that by the early 2000s adult consensuality was rivaling heterosexuality as nationally endorsed. This was not an altogether unwelcome development, thus demanding greater interrogation, not less.

Lauren would email me troves of articles and podcasts, book, film and television show recommendations, stand-up routines, cartoons, and whatever else pertaining or proximate to my research.  They did this for countless others, exhibiting to their students, and therefore to their students’ students, that archives ought to be wildly expansive, promiscuously interdisciplinary, multimedia, alive, sometimes funny, enriched by your friends.  Co-teaching a class titled Sex & Ethics with Lauren around 2009, I discovered that the interdisciplinary, multimedia syllabus is a pedagogic gold mine for students too, students aching to make sense of their historical present, to countenance their present as historical.[7]

Lauren revolutionized my thesis, thinking, teaching. They also taught me how to watch a film as a theorist and not just as a supplicant; how to theorize cultural artifacts in relation to social problems; how to generatively engage challenging material with students, that is, how to stage a scene of learning to be a scene of learning; how to offer feedback to colleagues and comrades that is fierce yet facilitative (“constructive criticism” does not quite capture Lauren’s modus operandi; it was more like “the way a Band-aid covering an unhealed wound will take away part of the wound and its bit of healing with it … an opening of the wound to air … a foundational condition for the next steps”);[8] how to record attachments and identifications as partial and ongoing, nourishing and relieving;[9] how words lubricate thought, despite but more surely because of the “distancing mediation of speech.”[10]

About words, I hope the first sentence of this tribute hooked you. I learned the art of first sentence seduction from Lauren.  “You are a better writer than I was when I was a graduate student,” Lauren once said to me in a dingy grey basement cafeteria at the University of Chicago. As my ego began to bloat, they side-smiled, “but then again, I didn’t have me.” Lauren was being neither hubristic nor a jerk. Their caveat took me down a notch and betrayed an outward confidence that female-bodied scholars rarely possess. This does not mean Lauren was without their insecurities.  Late in 2009, after I gushed to them that their review of Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ Intimacies and David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? was fabulous (and for me, paradigm-shifting), they replied something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be writing about Leo Bersani?”[11] To which I answered something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be eating lunch with Lauren Berlant?” My suspicion, which feels Berlantian, is that academics who never suffer imposter syndrome are assholes.

“Italics make you look anxious,” Lauren once commented in the margins of another dissertation chapter, drafted more than a decade ago.  I recall this sentence—I hear Lauren say it, even though they did not—whenever I write anything.  I imagine I was not the only beneficiary of this insight. After I draft an essay or book chapter I comb through the text, de-italicizing words or phrases that I thought demanded super-duper emphasis. What Lauren meant was: italics imply you are unconvinced by your own claims, so fancy typography stands in for an argument that should have been better made, or for an argument that was made well-enough despite your anxiety about sharing it with readers.  I relay this advice, hat-tipping Lauren, to all my students.

Two final examples of Lauren’s marginalia on my dissertation that forever bettered my writing and my thinking and my life: 1) in the second chapter, I had written the phrase “Justice Kennedy believes,” and Lauren had scribbled back, “you have no idea what Justice Kennedy believes”; 2) in the third chapter, I too hastily glossed 1990s US welfare reform, to which Lauren wrote “this is bad history.” I learned not to take short cuts from Lauren, to not let fancy words or superlative (and tendentious) adjectives substitute for textured intervention. And I learned too that claiming to know or report what is in the head of this or that public person or stakeholder (“Justice Kennedy believes”) is hardly ever accurate and almost always uninteresting.  The admonition against telegraphing others’ thinking x or believing y was generative if a generative admonition is not an oxymoron. It helped shift my research focus away from motives, intentions, and the psychic life of anyone to effects, affects, sexual climates, space-making and power.  Absent such a shift, one could never think a thought[12] like, “My mother died of femininity.”[13] Lauren enabled me to register the yawning gap between desire and consent; one can, and girls and women too often do, consent to sex that is undesired, unpleasant, or unwanted (Rebecca Traister and Robin West mind the gap, too).[14]  What does this mean? That consent, a moral-turned-legal concept, may be an alibi for rather than a solution to gendered suffering. Sometimes I think I concentrate my analytic energies on consent, law, and institutions because I do not have Lauren’s capacity to theorize desire, love, and sociality.[15]

Lauren came to give a talk at Yale University in December 2012 on Mysterious Skin and flat affect.[16] I had been working at Yale for the prior three months as an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. It was the unicorn job of the academy, yet I was miserable and ashamed by my own misery. I felt alienated from my colleagues and inadequate to my students (things got better). As we drank Vitamin Zeroes in the lobby of a swank hotel, Lauren said they were unsettled because they had never seen me anhedonic. I asked what anhedonic meant. A few years later, I recalibrated my research in the service of promoting a “democratically hedonic sexual culture.” Thank you lb. When it comes to pleasure, I am not utilitarian. But the pleasureless life, a life without “the optimism of a fundamental attachment,” is not worth living.[17] Feeling pleasureless? It might be political.[18]

After Lauren gave their lecture, a graduate student asked a pedantic question thinly disguising that he knew better than Lauren about Lauren’s object. For academics, this question is all but self-parodic, memed into mundanity.  “You are so good at answering your own question,” Lauren gently reproached the young white man, “why do you need me?”     

The audience giggled at Lauren’s chide. The chide was a necessary corrective, not least to detoxify the drab gender politics stinking up the room. Here is the pedagogy Lauren was serving, just shy of a performative contradiction: one does not need to shit on someone else’s thinking to index their own intelligence. I use that line—you don’t need to shit on others to index your own intelligence—on the first day of class for every seminar I ever teach. I think of it as a Laurenism.

I came across the textual version of Lauren’s comment as I reread some of their work in preparation for this essay. Lauren is asked in an interview to make sense of the affective atmosphere surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but the interviewer, Jordan Greenwald, provides some insights of his own along the way. “You answered your own question beautifully,” Lauren offers, before proceeding to deliver one of their characteristically luminous diagnoses: “One really big difference between political institutions and people is that people are able to manage ordinary affective incoherence and disorganization with much grace as long as their anchors in the ongoing world or the ordinary feel sufficiently stable.”[19] How terribly prescient and presciently terrible as we witness so many right- and good-minded folks pummeled into polarity “by the media’s anxiogenic sensationalist analysis.”[20] In any case, what struck me is how this time, Lauren’s response (“you answered your own question beautifully”) alley-oops their interlocutor as someone to learn with and to learn from. Lauren, by way of Eve Sedgwick, criticized reparatively, refusing Scorched Earth Theory.[21] What a gift for our (inter)disciplines, underappreciated and underemployed by my colleagues and by me, the “splashi[ness]” of reparativity notwithstanding.[22]  

In their final years I failed Lauren as a friend. I sensed that Lauren wanted renewed closeness between us and I could not deliver. I apologized for my absences a lot. Mercifully, Lauren recognized my suffering as a blockage to bear theirs, which meant they also revealed to me that I was suffering. At the time Lauren got sick my family was in great and overdetermined pain.  For too long I could neither see nor manage my own hurt because I thought my social advantages immunized me from injuries. A powerful thread of Lauren’s scholarship is that getting by under conditions of late capitalism and failed infrastructures is attritional and exhausting, even as attrition and exhaustion are asymmetrically patterned by inequality.[23] “We are all combover subjects” now.[24] Still, I wish I had been there for them.

A second wish: that Lauren could revise this essay. It would be better.


Joseph Fischel is associate professor and director of graduate studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University


Thanks to Katie Lofton for her Berlantian review.

[1] Joseph J. Fischel, Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent (Minneapolis, 2016), p. 135.

[2] “Memory is the Amnesia You Like” (Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24 [Winter, 1998]: 549).

[3] See Berlant, The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (Durham, N.C., 1997), pp. 25-52.

[4] Berlant, “Sitting on an Airplane, A Mule,” Supervalent Thought, 18 Sep. 2010, https://supervalentthought.com/2010/09/18/sitting-on-an-airplane-a-mule/.

[5] “An optimistic attachment is cruel when the object/scene of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it: but its life-organizing status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism [Durham, N.C., 2011], p. 227).

[6] Berlant, Queen of America, pp. 15-19.

[7] See Berlant, Cruel Optimism, pp. 4-11.   

[8] Berlant, Queen of America, p. 81.

[9] See Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, N.C., 2008), pp. 9-14.   

[10] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 224.

[11] See Lauren Berlant, “Neither Monstrous nor Pastoral, but Scary and Sweet: Some Thoughts on Sex and Emotional Performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?Women & Performance 19 (July 2009): 261-73.

[12] See “‘What Would It Mean to Think That Thought? The Era of Lauren Berlant,” The Nation, 8 July 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/lauren-berlant-obituary/.

[13] Berlant, “For Example,” Supervalent Thought, 16 May 2012, https://supervalentthought.com/2012/05/16/for-example/.  

[14] See Rebecca Traister, “The Game is Rigged,” The Cut: New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 2015, https://www.thecut.com/2015/10/why-consensual-sex-can-still-be-bad.html, and Robin West, “Consent, Legitimation, and Dysphoria,” The Modern Law Review 83, no. 1 (2020): 1-34.  

[15] See Berlant, Desire/Love (New York, 2012). 

[16] See Berlant, “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 28 (2015): 191-213.

[17] Berlant, Female Complaint, p. 14.

[18] “I close with the slogan that will be on [Feel Tank Chicago’s] first cache of T-shirts and stickers: Depressed? … It Might Be Political” (Berlant, “Feel Tank,” in Sexualities in Education: A Reader, ed. Erica R. Meiners and Therese Quinn [New York, 2012], pp. 340-43).

[19] Berlant and Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20 (Spring/Summer, 2012): 76.

[20] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 225.

[21] See Lauren Berlant, “Reading Sedgwick, Then and Now,” in Reading Sedgwick, ed. Berlant (Durham, N.C., 2019), pp. 1-5.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] “We are all contingent beings, and life proceeds without guarantees, just with more or less reliable infrastructures of continuity” (Jasbir Puar, “Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović,” The Drama Review 56 [Winter, 2012]: 166).  

[24] Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece),” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter, 2017): 308.

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Untitled, for Lauren

Dana Luciano

The first thing Lauren ever said to me? “I see you’re the kind of person who uses exclamation points!” We’d just been introduced; they were sitting in front of me at a lecture (some queer-theoretical something or other, I imagine; it was the fall of 1993), and they’d glanced down at the pad on which I’d been scribbling notes—punctuated, evidently, with exclamation points. (I was young.)  It was pure Lauren, funny, with a caustic edge neutralized by charm: they were teasing me, but it was also their way of asking what had so excited me about the lecture. I have no idea, all these years later, what excited me about the lecture. It’s been replaced in my memory by the momentousness of an encounter that would turn into mentorship, then a friendship, that would energize me for decades to come.

Lauren had a preference for the ellipsis. An ellipsis, for them, marked a number of distinct, even contradictory, possibilities in the break it made between a sentence’s beginning and its end. An ellipsis could be “a figure of loss or plenitude.” They described their own thought as elliptical in that it grounded itself in concepts while seeking to remain live, in process, to permit “unfinishedness” and movement. If you’ve read even a paragraph of their writing, you know how precise it was, how closely it followed the contours of their thought. But part of Lauren’s brilliance was how keenly open they were to not knowing everything already. New objects, complicated concepts, other people’s experiences and ideas extended opportunities to learn a thing or two, to be surprised by an unexpected observation, an intriguing impulse. And being present to such opportunities meant maintaining both a fierce attentiveness and a certain porosity, remaining, as they wrote of José Muñoz, “open, interested and attracted to the surprises” that punch holes in the present which enable us to catch sight of the possibility of worlds beyond the historical present, and perhaps to experience touches of them.   

Lauren described their later critical method as reading with. Reading with texts, with collaborators, with friends, meant attending closely to the strangeness of their ways of thinking, writing, being, so that one might be disturbed. It exposed one to moments of nonsovereignty—not world-shattering, just experiences of double-vision, “see[ing] with the perspective of an object, while also moving through the world in your difference from it,” meant to shift things a little.[1] They possessed a related and remarkable talent for being with colleagues, students, loved ones. They weren’t superhuman; like everyone else they could be distracted, exhausted, annoyed, bored. But when they showed up, they managed to magnetize and redistribute whatever needed to be in the room. An entry on their blog, Supervalent Thought, narrates the experience of giving a visiting lecture and seminar, tired out from being on all the time, sick of their own voice and feeling inadequate, yet still reminding themself to be present, to be “game,” to keep the conversations in “a circulation mode that allows an exchange of fluid in the middle of the water crisis now and always coming.” No romance of blissful community; they were too attentive to the less romanticizable affects—ambivalence, aggression, distraction, detachment—for that. But the kind of sustenance that managed to remind one of the world-altering possibilities resonating out from the “noise of relation’s impact.”[2]

How do you mourn someone like Lauren? Freud tells us that the world, for the mourner, becomes “poor and empty”; that the mourner loses interest in the outside world, turning away from activities not connected with the lost object as they sift through memory images connected with them.[3] But every memory of Lauren reminds me of their interestedness, their attentiveness. Even their writing on modes of detachment—flatness, withdrawal, humorlessness, suicidal ideation—finds in these means of staying in the world. I’ve never been entirely at ease with Freudian mourning; its tidy depiction of the ego’s narcissistic need to sever its attachment to the lost object seems to bypass the possibility of maintaining some degree of nonsovereignty, both as affective necessity and as ethical orientation. At the same time, I’m not wholly persuaded by the revisionary claims of queer melancholia—its conversion of the melancholic inability to decathect from the dead into a defiant refusal to abandon them—even though I’m moved by its utopian aspirations. But its marshalling of affect as resistance leaves too little room for the pain of loss, the thudding recollection that the object is really gone. More than once, writing this, I’d muse over what Lauren might have meant by a word or a phase—ellipses, really?—and think I’ll ask her, then blink, the hand that had already been reaching for the phone balling itself into an anguished little fist instead.

Yet grief’s unbearable withoutness demands some form of being-with, some way of sustaining the presence of the object as we try to make worlds out of whatever we have left. Lauren’s description of José, above, came from a paper they wrote, some years after his death, about Cruising Utopia, a paper that worked through the ongoing incomprehensibility of his death by reading with his writing, closely and caringly, attending to his attention to queer comings-together. They wonder whether one of José’s embodying concepts could be extended to what they are doing in the paper, which is “staying near a body who at this point is a referent, concept, and memory and whose voice, which is part of the body after all, still chatters away in my and many of our heads.” The paper is loose, unrevised, bearing the impress of the event at which it was presented. I don’t know if they later reworked it, but I like this version: it carries their own voice so palpably with it.

The night after Lauren died, wanting to hear their voice however we could, Dana S., Jordan, and I pulled together a flash online memorial, a small happening based on an idea Lauren themself had given me. They’d been asked to say a few words honoring José at some queer event a month or so after his death, but they didn’t want to speak alone. Instead, they suggested, we could make it collaborative, everyone bringing four sentences of Jose’s that they loved and reading them aloud, loudly. The event never happened for some reason, but the idea, like so many of Lauren’s, stayed with me over the years, and we thought it might begin to shift the weight of our loss the tiniest bit. A few dozen people signed on, a few dozen Zoom windows, glimpses into a few dozen rooms. We read our sentences. Mine were about what we do when we revise a sentence. I finished them quickly and then listened to the buzz of so many people giving voice to Lauren’s words. It seemed to take a long time to finish. After we did, we all looked at one another, moved and a bit uncertain. Someone asked if we could collect our sentences. A Google doc was created. Then Anjali told a deliberately terrible joke to close things, and we all waved at one another and signed off.

In the paper about José, Lauren adapts Bracha Ettinger’s term withnessing, which they gloss as “staying alive in sync with a situation of loss.” They use it to describe the activation of queer energy in protest—Jose’s account of a vigil for Matthew Shepard that turned into a defiant march against all homophobic violence, a queer presencing on the street that insisted, in Lauren’s words, “on the right to the version of the city it want[ed].” I don’t know if they’d accept my own adaptation of the term to a loss differently instantiated, a staying-alive differently paced. But if a version of withnessing can index our (myriad, ongoing) demonstrations of the living-on of the vitalizing effect of Lauren’s practices of reading- and being-with, even in the situation, our situation, of withoutness, then it’s a word I want, as long as their words remain to us.     

One of the last things Lauren said to me, a sentiment they shared, I think, widely: “I still look forward to waking up. I hope you do too.” Waking up to a world without Lauren is hard. It leaves me flailing. The hopefulness, and now the heartbreak, of those sentences devastates, but also sustains me. I don’t think that will ever stop. I hope not.


Dana Luciano is associate professor in the Departments of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, where she teaches queer studies, nineteenth-century US literatures, and environmental humanities.


[1] Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1 no. 2 (2018): 161.

[2] Berlant, “Afterword,” in Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, N.C., 2014), p. 250.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London, 1957), 14:246.

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Withholding to Show Up

Kris Cohen

I’ve found myself, in the wake of Lauren’s death, in the weird position of being stuck in exactly the kind of treading water temporality (continually just not drowning) that Lauren always described so well, while also trying to learn how to have patience for that stuckness in ways that I also learned from Lauren . . . or am still learning . . . or have never learned well enough. I’ve wondered, uselessly toggling: Did Lauren leave us possible worlds to strive to inhabit better, or in leaving did they leave us to a more straightened world? When faced with that kind of question—this or that, good or bad, revolutionary or regressive, world or worldless—Lauren would sometimes say: “I’m not that kind of person” and then laugh their staccato laugh, a laugh that was both spontaneous and careful, the one that offered a kind of cushioning for a response they knew was likely to be destabilizing, that a certain kind of interlocutor might take as a rebuke. What I think Lauren meant was: I don’t think that way, I don’t think the work of theory, or writing, or experimental thought, or just a conversation in which one makes oneself vulnerable to others, is to judge, to decide, to pantomime a kind of compensatory sovereignty—it is learning to make different worlds possible.

There’s a related disposition I’m still trying to learn from Lauren about how to pay attention to things . . . what Lauren often called cases, but which we could also call aesthetics, or experiments in social form, or just improvisatory collaborative thought. Cases are the objects that we study in the hopes that they will teach us something, although those hopes are also fraught with worry because learning requires unlearning. Sometimes we collect cases, as in a research project; sometimes they collect us, as in the death of someone we love. Then I remember that Lauren gave us so many ways to re-think that very contrast, the fantasy that there needs to be an opposition between control and the loss of control, between intention and that which turns intention inside out, between what we do and what is done to us—they were always trying to let a relationship (with one’s cases, with friends and mentors) dissolve whatever resources one had for holding something stable, be it object or self. The case in Lauren’s writing and thinking—be it a musical, a deadpan performance, the insider secrets of an intimate public, a concept, a desire, John Kerry, a comb-over, a classroom, a cat’s will to power—was never an example in the sense of upholding a relationship to something larger. Cases, in their hands, didn’t shuttle us to a higher plane of meaning. But neither were they singular in the sense of universal, something great or powerful in and of themselves. It’s not, in other words, that their cases didn’t exist in a world alongside other objects, participating in an always unevenly distributed present tense. It’s that Lauren never let them fall out of a world in order to make examples of them, in order to grace them with the gift of the critic’s acumen. They always brought along the entire mess, invited it. Reading their work, the thrill doesn’t come from the sense of being in the presence of a virtuoso close reading. It comes from the sudden, shocking awareness that description could DO that, could BE that—that that film, that lyric, that political phrasing contained (all along) the possibility of its own unraveling, its own dissolution, and therefore the possibility that another world, a world more possible for more people, could become thinkable in the face of, alongside, in the slow unlearning of . . . that.

Lauren tried to work in a scene where entities came together in a mutual undoing—or, said in the soft hierarchical vocabulary of Liberalism, where a nonsovereign met with another nonsovereign. That was the aspiration anyway, and the effort was measured by aspiration more than achievement, which is why Lauren was always talking about wanting to become a better writer. How does one become pedagogical while refusing the power of the exemplum, the power of the critic to determine what matters and why? What amazes me, every time I read Lauren’s work, is how magnetizing it could be to watch the objects and subjects of writing undo each other, to watch things working together to give up on the fantasy of becoming large, powerful, properly analytical, or stably coherent in encounter with another, which is to say, in encounter with the world. What if criticism, in wanting to resist supremacies hard and soft, didn’t exist to help us learn to be more confident, mimicking those forms of control—what if it helped us learn how to experiment with, to live inside the awkwardness of ceasing to be what we were, of ceasing to cling to whatever shreds and shards and compensations we had? Lauren’s sentences, their phrases, bore the strain of the effort of continually asking that question—it is difficult to give up the grammars of self-empowerment, the compensations of criticism, the confident, orienting assertions of what Eve Sedgwick called strong theory. It was the work of a lifetime.

The first thing Lauren said at my dissertation defense was: “As you know [staccato laugh], you and I disagree about some things.” Actually, I didn’t know. That’s what was really funny about that moment. “As you know”—a conspiratorial phrasing. It included me in a relationship that I didn’t even know was possible. It placed me on the inside of an intimacy, just not the intimacy I had thought I was having, which was, unsurprisingly, the kind that I knew how to have. At the time, faced with the need to defend my dissertation, my brain scrambled to identify the sticking points of that disagreement. Now, I think more about its form, its offer to live together inside an undoing, an unraveling, that could nevertheless feel sustaining (sometimes), promising a kind of ballast for the privations of unlearning.

Because, despite how long and patiently they dwelt with stuck relations, treading water, flailing in stasis, they were a heterotopian through and through. I don’t mean despite; I mean because. Lauren was uniquely committed to maintaining contact between the stuck and the utopian. Their work tried to sustain optimism while never letting us forget that awkwardness, antagonism, anxiety, loss, ordinary destabilizing difference would continue into whatever utopian future one could imagine—should continue! Still, the openings Lauren left were large, teeming with thought and promise, and it can feel now that they are closed. I don’t have a way to make that feel better, to redeem it, or make a lesson out of it. Yet, the forms of life Lauren fought all their life to make space for—minor literatures, weak theory, lateral agency, small objects—these were anything but redemptive or heroic (though one could feel temporarily enlivened by the oxygen they created around the airlessness of norms). Rather, they were all models for learning to make a world by giving up a world. I guess Lauren was always preparing us for life after Lauren.

So, what happens now? Show up with everything you’ve got . . . this is something Lauren said a lot in settings where the aspiration was to learn something, to collaborate, to build relations through undoing power rather than consolidating it. So we show up with our losses too, our uncertainties, our incoherence, our bereavements. It’s the lesson I’ve always found hardest to learn. It’s harder now. Maybe I don’t want to learn it; maybe I’m not ready. Well, as you know, I can imagine Lauren saying, there is no guarantee of living with in living on. I hope that voice never stops talking back to me, washing over my defenses, never stops nudging me to acknowledge that being stuck isn’t the obstacle to moving on, but its source and sustenance.


Kris Cohen is associate professor of art and humanities at Reed College. He works on the relationships between art, economy, and media technology, focusing especially on the aesthetics of collective life. His first book, Never Alone, Except for Now (2017), addresses these concerns in the context of electronic networks. His current research explores the way that black artists, working in the wake of the Black Arts Movement, engaged a set of earlier computational technologies.

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Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

The Affective Publics Reading Group (Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Kris Cohen, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, Rachel Furnari, Luis-Manuel Garcia Mispireta, Laura-Zoë Humphreys, Adam T. Jernigan, Andrew R. Johnston, Leigh Claire La Berge, Michelle Menzies, Anahid Nersessian, Scott C. Richmond, Jennifer Tyburczy)

In 2006, at the University of Chicago, in the wake of a class Lauren taught regularly called “Intimate Public Sphere,” a para-institutional form was born, in the university but not of it, nor about it—though definitely bruised by it. Lauren taught us that publics emerge through their orientation to common objects and scenes. The lesson was so vivid that we established our own “intimate public sphere” to supplement the institutional form of the classroom. Conventionally, this was a reading group. Affectively, it was a refuge from some of the more constraining ways that graduate school reproduces itself. We were a diverse bunch, hailing from anthropology, art history, literature, cultural studies, music studies, queer studies, performance studies, and film and media studies, all variously disenchanted with disciplinarity as we were coming to know it. We were galvanized to and by what Lauren often called a “concept-cluster:” the affective public.

AffPub is what we came to call the group. We all had some questions about how collective worlds were built, and lived, in relation to affects, questions that emerged in our own work, and that eventually changed what we had thought of as our own work. But we were also galvanized by Lauren, their work, their thinking, their commitment to improvising thought with others, their generosity, their laughter. We were all a little in love with Lauren and that slant and sly way they turned conversations on their head. We read and talked and met over food, we curated objects for each other, we invited guests. It’s not too much to say we became a world for each other, though that’s nothing we could have intended. Those conversations happened, they mattered, and they made our work and our relationship to our own disciplines more livable.

Lauren was remarkably horizontal about archives and objects of study: film melodramas, genre fiction, television series, blogs, zines, internet video, installation and conceptual art, songs, political slogans were all valid sources of both analytic insight and cultural theory. Informed by the omnivorous methodological frameworks of cultural studies as well as queer studies, they modeled to us a form of intellectual engagement with overlooked cultural artefacts that made our own projects seem possible. We were encouraged to program AffPub sessions that nourished our curiosity through queerly improper combinations of readings, multimedia, and everyday objects. This aspect of AffPub was especially meaningful to those of us who studied low-prestige topics and archives, who often contended with disciplinary marginalization in our home departments. Lauren was pivotal in making AffPub an oasis where exploratory, experimental, and playful thinking could flourish.

Some of us sought out Lauren’s mentorship because we are queer and sexually dissident. We wanted to write about sex, not only sexuality, as something so corporeally and excessively teeming that we knew our scholarship would be tested (endlessly) for legitimacy in academia. The institutions in which we were matriculated were devoted to reproducing canons of “great books” and great ideas but Lauren gave us a vocabulary to fight for ourselves, our work, and our worlds. Most importantly, they modeled for us experimental methods for analyzing and writing about scandal, censorship, zoning, and public performances of disgust to uncover these practices as well-honed political tools that silence and destroy all forms of difference. Lauren once said (something like this) to one of us, “Sex always involves some discomfort,” in and out of the sack. Lauren showed us how to bravely go to those sites of sexual discomfort, conflict, and backlash, to view them as portals for understanding culture’s deep-seated attachments to erotophobia, and to dream of queer world-making projects beyond these attachments. AffPub became one such site to dream and enact this distinctly queer, feminist, and anti-racist form of belonging.

One of the most important lessons from AffPub was how to read generously. Lauren embodied this in each meeting of the group, in every seminar they taught, and in their writing practice. Every text had something to teach, even (especially) texts we might think we already thoroughly understand. Lauren’s generous reading was an iteration of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick taught us to call “weak theory”: reading from the depressive position for news about one’s own world, anticipating surprise. Weak theory, it turns out, is really hard to do well. It requires admitting that one does not, quite, understand a scene, nor know how to go about understanding it. It demands improvisation. Weak theory requires orienting one’s sensorium to what is general in the personal. What in my own response does not simply belong to me? Lauren called this, in their own work, “dedramatization.” How might we desaturate the scene of scholarly encounter in such a way that admits of ambivalence, curiosity, not-knowing, impasse?

So much of the project of graduate school (at the University of Chicago, at that time) was oriented around proving oneself smarter than a text by exercising a bumptious and performative paranoia: I already know what this is. The vulnerability of weak theory’s reparative posture was often unimaginable in other spaces of graduate school. AffPub—oriented by Lauren’s example and also by the fellow travelers that were drawn to that example—was a space in which weak, and generous, and vulnerable, and excitable thought was not simply tolerated, but supported, elaborated, and encouraged. And, while this was certainly an explicit commitment on their part, it was also something they simply embodied: they knew how to be interested in just about everything, even and especially the tentative, incipient thinking of their students.

When designing a syllabus, Lauren sought to organize readings as an opening toward conceptualizations that didn’t yet exist. They wanted the classroom to be a space where students might collaborate to open new avenues of thought about a set of topics and texts. To encourage such thinking, they cultivated a climate that would make room for the likes of ineloquence and discomposure. Lauren understood that some of the most generative moments in a classroom happen when students take the risk of sharing a “half-formed thought”; and Lauren was careful to reassure such students that the rest of us would provide a holding to help them finish the thought. They gave students permission to exercise their intelligence beyond their expertise, to experiment with what it might be possible to say about a text, and to throw language at an intellectual problem until something would stick.

Yet Lauren was also keenly attuned to the ways in which affects circulate in the classroom. For example, they were attentive to the ways in which students form attachments to the classroom as a catalyst for self-transformation. They wanted students to experience the pleasure that can result from having their minds stretched and expanded. And they worked hard to foster a space where students might experiment with being together in new and enlivening ways. During one of our last AffPub meetings, Lauren waxed poetic about the kinds of events that bring a diverse range of people together around a shared passion: events such as art openings, poetry readings, and protest marches. Lauren observed that such events give people an experience of what a better world might “feel like,” then speculated that such feelings might be leveraged toward utopian world-building. It couldn’t have been clearer, to those of us who were lucky enough to have them as a teacher, that Lauren sought to foster those feelings in the classroom too.

During discussions in courses or AffPub meetings, Lauren encouraged and modeled forms of intellectual empathy and exploration. This often came through an intense listening and discussion of the stakes of a thought or even the group’s conversation. Lauren would help carry a new thought or idea further with the group, but they also modeled a process of generative thinking with others. Even if the thought was tentative, experimental, or abandoned, its working through was the point, and became the practice that we shared and that helped consolidate this group. In moments like these, Lauren showed us how intensity could shed its pejorative associations and generate forms of pleasure and joy. There was care in these acts and in the time they took to help create the community and spaces where that could happen.

Not all of our members shared a common theoretical idiom. “The object” Lauren always said. In psychoanalysis, the object is a subject; but in Marxism, the subject is often the object. That’s quite a conceptual bridge, and yet who better to cross it with than Lauren?

Somewhere between these two transmutations, among others, our AffPub gatherings found common ground. It’s unusual to genuinely delight in an interlocutor’s thought process, but with Lauren’s thought that was a regular occurrence for many in our group. There were certainly more Marxist-oriented members of our group, and indeed, plenty of Marxist-oriented theorists turn to psychoanalysis. Less often, however, do psychoanalytically oriented critics, particularly in Lauren’s preferred Relational Psychoanalysis, turn toward economic criticism. Lauren was an exception. “Love is the commodity form of subjectivity,” they once wrote.  No one used psychoanalysis like Lauren, but their usage of it contained an odd affinity with political economy.  Most people who study Marxism seem to accept some fidelity to its politics in their daily life. Those who study class struggle might honor a picket line; those who talk of revolution might join an uprising—a minimum it should be said. Not so, however, for those who study psychoanalysis—they do not, it seems, tend to be more aware, more self-conscious, less repressed. Lauren was distinct in this regard, too; the seminar room was, for them, the couch and the couch, a site for education. In one sense, Lauren followed Freud in grouping education and psychoanalysis together; he called them both “impossible professions,” ones whose goals could never be achieved. In a more profound sense, however, Lauren differed from the master: for them, everything indeed was possible, if only one adapted one’s scale to all vectors of perceived transformation. 

Risk. For us an enduring facet of Lauren’s mentorship and way of being in the world is bound up with risk as a self-conscious dimension of their ethics. They modeled how to live with it, and the importance of doing so. Intellectual risk pervaded their utterance: the vertiginous quality of their discourse, and the sense of air that expanded the room as they listened intently, reframed, synthesized, summarized, and addressed—acutely, often tenderly—the inarticulate remnant behind what was said.  

Something about this atmosphere of liveness and curiosity and expansiveness allowed our reading group to form a meaningful collective and remain one for many years. Rare for the context, Lauren was uninvested in disciplinary reproduction. Far more vital was the question of how to articulate and maintain a relationship to one’s passions, and thus to various forms of precarity. Perhaps for these reasons, for many of us AffPub remains a touchstone for what intellectual collaboration can be.

Many of us have said that Affpub was a kind of sanctuary, a shelter from some of the cruelties of the university, a place where their work and interests were honored. But it was also possible to feel like an interloper. Not because people were unwelcoming; quite the opposite, there was a wonderful sense of intimacy, comfort, and trust between us. But there were also times of feeling completely lost in the conversation, utterly confused, and even downright stupid. So many things one had never questioned before, never thought to think about, suddenly appeared incredibly complicated. What is a feeling? What does your enjoyment mean? How does this thing work? What does it do? Surrounded by brilliant, welcoming people who spoke a language that seemed familiar, yet totally alien, you’d find yourself wondering whether any word meant what you thought it did. And it taught us how you could think (and feel) differently, how you had all kinds of knowledge that you weren’t even aware of, how anything could become a question. It taught us to theorize.

An enduring memory of those many conversations is an echoing refrain of Lauren’s voice, saying “And isn’t that so interesting.”

Lauren repeatedly told us that they were not in charge of AffPub, we were, and this empowered us to approach thought in newly collaborative ways in an institution that could sometimes feel anything but. As a dissertation advisor (which Lauren served as for many of us), they brought this same interest in encouraging students to follow their own creativity and lines of thought. As so many have noted, Lauren had a particular knack for listening intently. For one of us, Lauren was the advisor she turned to when she was still at a stage where the ideas were nothing but fuzzy intuitions. She would spill words searching for that something she could sense was there and yet couldn’t quite articulate and Lauren would push her thoughts further then give them back to her, shot through with their own brilliance and in a more concrete form that made getting to the writing always more desirable than it had been before they spoke. Despite working outside of our specific subfields, Lauren often seemed to work harder (for us) than could be reasonably expected, giving us copious and transformative feedback.

But most of all, what Lauren brought to their role as advisor was kindness and a practicality that always took into account students’ precarity. For many of us, Lauren was often willing to be present for and hold difficult feelings as we learned to navigate our way through institutional politics. At the collective level, Lauren’s commitment to graduate students showed when they supported the graduate-student unionization effort, in which many members of AffPub were involved, when few faculty did. Even for those of us for whom Lauren was “only” a third or even fourth, or fifth, member of a committee, Lauren was often the one who showed up on a practical level, whether by guiding advisees through mock job interviews or coaching us through negotiating jobs. For some of us, Lauren remained an important mentor and friend even after we graduated, listening to our mixed feelings about the jobs we moved into or brainstorming and playing with ideas about new projects. In a recent message, Lauren wrote to one of us, “don’t let the profession infect your infectious interest in things.” More than anything, what Lauren modeled was this: an infectious interest in people and things that they kept alive in themself and in others, often in spite of the university and the ways it so often works against the flourishing of so many people.   

When we learned that Lauren had died, we looked for AffPub. On email, via text message, WhatsApp, and Zoom, we found one another as if we were walking into one of the free seminar rooms wrangled for our monthly meetings, even though some of us had not spoken in several years. We cried, complained, made jokes, and had ideas together. We remembered why we joined AffPub in the first place, and that, as Lauren used to say, the great thing about AffPub is that it exists because people show up to it. We are grateful to Lauren for showing up for us. We are grateful to them for carrying our optimism and our rage. We will use what they taught us to carry our grief.

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The Berlant Opening

Caleb Smith

An opening might be a welcoming ceremony or it might be an attack. At an artist’s opening, guests are invited to see new work for the first time; in a game like chess, one player’s opening calls for the other’s defense. An opening sets the terms for an encounter, hospitable or hostile, and it is rarely just one or the other. Sometimes an apparent weak spot, a gap in the armor, is really an alluring trap. Sometimes what looks like aggression turns out to be an invitation to play along. Lauren Berlant’s opening sentences bristle with this ambivalence. That’s what draws me back to them just now.

Opening can mean timeliness, a window of opportunity. I am approaching Berlant as a writer, a sentence-maker whose ideas are inextricable from their composition in carefully arranged sequences of words. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant writes, “The problem of detaching from the normal applies to writing criticism” (p. 21). I take this to mean that the political and intellectual task of detaching ourselves from normality—getting some distance from customary, compulsive habits—is, among other things, a writing problem.

Genre makes reading easier, and it also imposes restraint, more or less invisibly, conducting its audiences from once upon a time to a familiar conclusion. This is one reason why Berlant expresses a “need to invent new genres” for speculative work on the page (p. 21). The Berlant opening, at once an invitation and a provocation, is by design disorienting, detaching from the normal so that it might open onto other, less familiar horizons. Closely reading some of Berlant’s opening sentences, I am going to use the literary present to treat them as ongoing but not ahistorical gambits. I attend to how Berlant begins things, rather than the ways they end.

1. “Nations Provoke Fantasy”

The opening sentence of the Introduction to The Anatomy of National Fantasy (1991) contains just three words. The reader comes upon just the bare bones of a plot: a subject, a verb, and an object. There is no article, definite or indefinite. What allows for this economy is Berlant’s use of the plural; the subject is nations, generally. Still, everyone knows which nation the book will focus on. The Statue of Liberty is on its cover.

With just a little modification, the opening line from Berlant’s first book might serve as a topic sentence for most of their work, across what they called their “national sentiment trilogy” and beyond. This nation provokes fantasy.

The sentence Berlant does give us is a premise, rather than a claim. That nations provoke fantasy is an observation, a starting-point. That such fantasies are rich, significant objects of study—that they have real force and consequences—is the book’s wager. Provoke, from the Latin pro and vocare: to call forth or summon, but also to challenge, to disturb. Provocation is an act of verbal magic with a hint of violence.

In the long run, over the course of The Anatomy of National Fantasy, the positions of subject and object, cause and effect, become unstable, even reversible. The reader will be provoked into asking: What if fantasies are substantial and fateful in a way that nations really aren’t? What if there are no nations, only fantasies?

In the example that Berlant turns to in the subsequent sentence, an image from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” a decommissioned government official imagines himself as a walking corpse, headless and absurd. Charged with castration anxiety, it is a fantasy of dispossession, exclusion, even murder by the state. The anatomy of national fantasy begins with a diagnosis of wounded entitlement. Grotesque images of violence and victimization arise not only from within the circle of political belonging but also from the margins. 

2. “Something Strange Has Happened to Citizenship”

The opening sentence from The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (1997) is a line of pentameter in the mode of the forensic. Readers arrive at the scene of a crime. We observe effects, and we are invited to speculate about their causes. An unspecified event has taken place. Berlant withholds its character, except to call it strange. What is it?

In the phrase “something strange,” I can’t help hearing the earworm theme song from Ghostbusters: “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?” One cultural critic has interpreted the Ghostbusters remake using Berlant’s theoretical work as a guide. The film is a mystery with a heavy dose of the supernatural. In this way it is a lot like American national fantasy.

The strange thing that has happened is the intrusion of private, intimate matters into public life, a “process of collapsing the political and the personal” (p. 1). The collapse is so total that there is no genuine public sphere, no arena of depersonalized and disinterested arguing about law. Instead, there is an emotionally saturated scene of public intimacy, populated by children, fetuses, and “citizen-victims” whose vulnerability is their main claim to authority (p. 1). “A citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States” (p. 1).

Berlant does not simply mourn the loss of some earlier, putatively tougher-minded style of politics. They find the transformation curious—“startling” and “moving”—and it draws them in for a closer examination.

3. “Everyone Knows What the Female Complaint Is: Women Live for Love, and Love Is the Gift That Keeps On Taking”

Introducing The Female Complaint (2008), Berlant seems to say that the topic needs no introduction. The female complaint is a matter of general agreement, common sense. Being a woman entails a special kind of grievance, and everyone knows already just what kind.

In making this opening gesture, invoking something everybody knows, Berlant creates a problem for the prose that follows. The sentence will have to express not just its author’s idea but also something larger, more nebulous, a notion entertained by everyone. How do you ventriloquize everyone? Berlant does it by manipulating cliches. There’s a pair of them, conjoined: “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”

Berlant plays the first one straight. Women live for love. The reader is supposed to recognize this proposition, almost as if it were a quotation, not a quotation from any particular love song or story but a citation of our whole culture’s ready-to-hand wisdom. Berlant is saying something that anyone might say.

Women live for love. It is a generic statement, and it is a statement about genericness. It is not for any special beloved that women live. They live for the loving. Their lives are devoted not to an object but to attachment itself.

This first cliché is followed by a second, and the second one comes with a twist: “love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Berlant has lifted and revised an expression out of advertising’s lexicon. The gift that keeps on giving is a stock phrase from radio and television commercials. It has also become a campy euphemism for sexually transmitted disease, one of the ways that love can hurt. But love in the opening line of The Female Complaint does not keep on giving. It takes. It keeps on taking. It is a gift that keeps and takes.

Rehearsing a gendered cultural script, but doing so imperfectly, messing it up, making a crucial difference that disturbs its self-reproducing design: Berlant has composed a sentence that enacts something close to the theory of performativity, as laid out by one of their interlocutors, Judith Butler. The phrase “the female complaint” itself might be read as a reworking of Butler’s famous title, Gender Trouble. But Berlant’s writing here is unlike Butler’s. It operates with a different kind of estrangement, a different kind of critical distance from the popular cultural scripts that it will analyze.

Berlant makes a new cliché out of an older one. The same thing happens all the time in American popular culture, for instance in country music. Take the lyrics “I’ve got friends in low places” or “what doesn’t kill you makes your story longer.” Like Berlant’s “love is the gift that keeps on taking,” these are lines about attachment, describing flawed relations that endure.

What’s more, you could set this sentence of Berlant’s, like some popular songs, to ballad meter:

Everyone knows what the female complaint is:

            Women live for love,

And love is the gift that keeps on taking.

It works almost perfectly, though it is incomplete. The final line, a tetrameter to match “women live for love,” would be the missing piece. It seems to have been taken.

4. “A Relation of Cruel Optimism Exists When Something You Desire Is Actually an Obstacle to Your Flourishing”

Cruel Optimism (2011) opens with a definition. Another writer might have worked their way more cautiously toward the concept. One might have started with an anecdote, then made some generalizations about the case, before endeavoring to coin the term: this is the type of relation that I call cruel optimism. Berlant does not work that way, this time. They begin by establishing the crucial, killer idea.

A relation of cruel optimism exists. It is out there, a reality. It is not an attitude; it is a relation, one that takes shape on certain occasions. It happens when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Take warning, though: you are not the subject of this clause. Grammatically speaking, something else is the subject. It is the object of your desire, the obstacle to your flourishing. Your flourishing is its victim.

Actually is a funny word in this context, as it implies a paradox or a surprise. Berlant’s actually does indicate that cruel optimism is the exception, rather than the rule. Berlant will entertain but also dismiss the notion that all optimism should properly be called cruel.

Meanwhile the interjection actually also bears a further significance, one about the optimist instead of the optimism: it suggests that you are not aware of your predicament. Berlant is explaining things to you. You think the thing you desire will help you flourish if you get it, but you’re wrong. In fact, at present, that very thing is messing you up. What is the cruel opposite of flourishing? Is it wilting? Withering? That’s what the thing you desire is doing to you, actually. The good news is that it is not the only thing.

Extraordinarily, Berlant is writing about cruelty without making punitive judgments. Berlant writes with rigor and feeling but not with piety, never in jeremiads. Cruel Optimism does not condemn the optimist. Rather than policing anyone’s desire, it makes descriptions, and in the end it affirms (not without ambivalence) the necessity of attachment.

Again, Berlant articulates high hopes for what language can do in opening less cruel relations. “The urgency,” they write before ending, “is to reinvent, from the scene of survival, new idioms of the political, and of belonging itself, which requires debating what the baselines of survival should be in the near future, which is, now, the future we are making” (p. 262).


Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.

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Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Elizabeth Freeman

Elegy

Who would I show it to

—W. S. Merwin

Lauren Berlant provoked fantasy.  That wasn’t (usually) Lauren’s fault, and it must have been a burden to bear.  Someone I’m close to said, the day of her death, that now they had to give up the dream of writing something good enough for Lauren to notice.[1]  And I’m now tasked with discussing what Lauren taught us about X, hoping she would not hate whatever I will write, exactly the kind of projection that she recoiled from and that some might say prevents flourishing, though as you’ll see I beg to differ.  And I don’t know who “us” is anyway.  I only know about me.  And I don’t know what X to choose: there were so many.  And I refuse any competition about who knew her best, who understands her work best, who is her legacy.  Fuck all that.  I have no theory.  I’ve only got a story to tell. 

When I was twenty-four, during my second quarter of graduate school in 1991, I took Lauren’s class, “Hawthorne and Power.”  During the third week or so, we read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.  I had moved to Chicago that summer, and that city’s chapter of Queer Nation had just begun meeting.  I went to Lauren’s office hours and mused that I wanted to write something for Out/Look, the late great magazine of queer criticism and commentary.  “I’m curious about putting ‘queer’ together with ‘nation,’” I said, “It seems oddly contradictory.  And I can’t help but think that it also has something to do with the corporate logo, the trademark.  I’m not sure.  Would you help me?”  Lauren swiveled around in her desk chair to face me and said, “Oh. We should write this together.”  I said, “That would be amazing.  But I think we’d have to be pretty meta about what it would mean to write across structural differences, a professor and a graduate student in the Humanities.”  Lauren swiveled back the other way, toward her desk.  “Never mind,” she said, “We shouldn’t write it together.”  I said, “That wasn’t what I meant.  I meant that it would involve a commitment to thinking about the institutional context.”  We began writing in the spring of 1991.

It is an understatement to say that whatever we thought and said to each other, we failed spectacularly to control the institutional context.  A grad student peer said I was selling out the movement by writing with a married straight woman (as if).  A faculty member stormed into her office and asked what the hell she was doing with me, implying that he knew very well.  Another faculty member treated the abstract I submitted for a seminar paper in Fall 1992 with drippingly contemptuous comments, the gist of which were “who do you think you are, Lauren Berlant?” People demanded to know which sentences I had written and which Lauren had written.  A quarter-century after the publication of “Queer Nationality” in boundary 2 (because the stakes got higher), someone asked me, was Lauren my domme?  Queer sex literalism, Lauren used to call it.  And anyway, in the 1990s, America was my domme.  Moving on: anyone who knows me well knows I cracked under the pressure, lost my footing and all intellectual confidence, and proceeded to fail equally spectacularly at everything connected to graduate school.  Lauren didn’t teach me this on purpose, but the academy hates two women, and yes, that’s how we identified then, working together.  There is no utopia uninflected by not only erotics (good!), but also other people’s sexual fantasies (maybe not so good), I had learned from Lauren’s teaching of The Blithedale Romance

But oh, the writing.  What I learned from Lauren about how to think with words.  Picture the two of us, glowing with health, in her apartment living room, as the Persian Gulf War flickered on the TV with the sound off, the Cocteau Twins played, and the AIDS epidemic raged around us.  We’d go over what each of us had written separately.  Lauren would read each sentence aloud and say, “But is that true?”  We’d hash it out: no, she said, that paragraph on tribes was racist and embarrassing; yes, we agreed, changing the P to Y in The GAP was genius; I don’t know, I said, isn’t this commitment to the anti-taxonomic and unintelligible just high Modernism?  She’d spin the verbs like gold—laminate, arrogate, smudge.  I was lucky to get to see that sometimes her first drafts were wandering and opaque and that she revised and revised and revised, and to actually help her by asking clarifying questions.  I was brave to present my clumsy, sophomoric renderings of actually halfway decent ideas to her.  She was generous to see through my commitment to the passive voice and to “that is,” extracting the usable ore.  I’d ride my bike home at 3 AM after these sessions, sobbing from the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep up with her, wishing, in my time-travelly way, that we were age-peers and could just go to the disco at Oberlin, which was both of our alma mater.  We were trying to build a world out of words: a safe inside for queer thinking and experimentation, a redrawing of the outside as already saturated with that inside unbeknownst to itself, a punk elsewhere not constituted by these boundaries. 

We were trying to do this while that world was also happening, as Lauren would continue to do.  She had an incredible capacity to be inside of something and still be thinking about it, dissecting it, unsettling it.  The cliché says “building the plane while it is flying.”  Foucault called it writing the history of the present; Marx called it writing the poetry of the future; I call it making a DIY now.  I used to say about Chicago, to prospective graduate students, that you had to be willing to build the culture there that you would need to survive, that it didn’t come preconstituted as an exciting “scene” to enter and consume the way it might at, say, Duke.  I learned how to do that at Oberlin, a fairly friendly institutional context,  and then from Lauren in the much more hostile context of the University of Chicago, where there were still gay bashings on the quads in 1990—to gather motley crews of people and make things out of photocopies and thrift store costumes and slogans and concepts until the sheer energy of that making felt like, well, a place to live for a while.  But Lauren was the motor of so many of those projects, not just the scrappy little queer one in which I knew her.  And she understood that the world, as a destination, was not the point: it was the attachments generated by making it that mattered. We would both go on to work in and help make a field whose collaborations—good, bad, awkward—are both vital and not guaranteed to last forever. 

After almost thirty years of often stilted conversation precipitated by our parting in the wake of the institutional reception of our work, in November 2020 Lauren texted to ask how I was.  Call me, I said.  And she did, and I told her I had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in June.  Terminal, like hers, though I was near the beginning and she was near the end.  How do you make a world out of cancer?  The endless subjection to medical techniques, the ungodly fear, the understanding that almost everything will continue to be without you getting to behold it?  All there is, it turns out, are the relationships you can sustain in the midst of it.  Lauren sent me a care package of keto chocolate, seasickness bands, a hundred mini-packs of oyster crackers for nausea, and a cell phone stand.  I puzzled over the last item until I realized that it was for when my hands were eventually too numb from chemo to text and my grip too weak to hold the phone up to talk, so that I could continue to commune with my people, continue to be attached to the world even if it would go on without me.  Lauren’s work on how to keep being attached, how to make spacetimes you could live in somehow, was, I think, initially about the depression we both battled: about how not to leave even when you desperately want to.  But finally, it was about the cancer we both endure(d): about how to stay attached even as you know you will be forced to relinquish, at some point, everything. 

In the end, our bodies, this time ravaged by treatment under our professional outfits, shared a pedagogical space that was tender again. Our last academic appearance together (and first since 1992) was, fittingly enough,  for a virtual panel on gay divorce, and eventually we were talking just to each other across the hyperspace of Zoom, about how last wills and testaments reconstitute family.  Lauren, my next of kin, I can’t believe I have to do this, make a world out of cancer, without you.   But then again, I’ve had to make a lot without you as anything but a projection, a melancholic lost object, a fantasy of someone to whom someday, I could show something that would prove how much I learned from you even after our intimacy foundered.  This, too, will have been a failure to do so.  But you might say to me, “I am not the point.  If having known me has helped you stay attached to the world, even to write, that will have been enough.”  And so here I am, for now.


Elizabeth Freeman is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of three books from Duke University Press:  The Wedding Complex (2002), Time Binds (2010), and Beside You in Time (2019).


I thank Bill Brown for not letting me not write this, Ethan Philbrick for bringing Lauren and me together for a panel for the last time, and Candace Moore and Stephanie Foote for offering helpful phrases and critiquing what must have been, for people who love me, very hard to read.

[1] I’m using “her” to refer to Lauren, because I find the turf battle over her pronouns exhausting.  As her partner Ian revealed shortly after her death, Lauren used “they” professionally and “her” interpersonally.  This is an essay about interpersonality.

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Love Is a Muscle

Michael Hardt

I have never met anyone more relentlessly intelligent than Lauren, more intensely present. 

I remember once saying to them – admittedly, a rather banal comment – that love is a muscle.  The more you use it, the more you work at it, the more you will be able to love and, conversely, disuse leads to atrophy.  Loving needs something like a workout regime.

You’re right, Michael, they responded, but you have to remember how violent the process is.  By exercising you are really ripping the muscles apart, creating thousands of micro-tears.  When blood flows to repair those tears is when you start feeling pain.  Only then, with the pain, do muscles grow.  Yes, love is like that.  Don’t forget the pain, the violence of attachment.  It’s inseparable from the joy.  (Lauren is a master at holding conflicting affects together, pain and joy, hope and despair.)

Lauren’s response about love and muscles resonates in an uncanny way with famous US Marine Corps motto, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  But, really, it’s just the opposite.  Rather than pain creating invincible warriors, here it is a sign of our becoming more able to be affected by others, more able to sustain and deepen our attachments.

One of the accomplishments of Lauren’s work that I continually return to is the way they elevate the power to be affected to a primary status.  To flourish, to experience joy, does require that we increase our power to act and to think, but equally important (and, perhaps, inseparable from this) is the need constantly to enrich our affective life, to increase our powers to be affected.  Being able to think and to act more powerfully is the result not of separation or shields but instead of being able to form more powerful attachments, being able to engage more openly with the world.  Hence the supreme power of the affects.

Now, after Lauren’s death, I’m not sure what to do with this pain.  I should remember that the sensation of tearing inside is inseparable from the joy of attachment and love.


Michael Hardt teaches political theory in the literature program at Duke, where he is also codirector of the Social Movements Lab.

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Triptych for Lauren

Virginia Jackson

I. The Function of Criticism

In 2015, before she got sick and after they turned down an offer from my university, I wrote an essay about Lauren’s work and what it meant to me.

That essay was a poor rehearsal for an elegy, since all I was mourning then was the chance to have them as a colleague, the missed opportunity to have her close.  I never imagined a world without her; instead, I selfishly and grandiosely thought that we could create a world together, and then I missed that fantasy world when it did not happen (they would have had a lot to say about that).  I see now (as I think she saw then) that world would have been impossible, but that’s the kind of thing Lauren made you believe: that the sum of [nothing is impossible] + [everything is impossible] = {some things must actually be possible}.  And they made you think that work—academic work!– could be a form of personally motivated communal expression, maybe even a way of making wishes come true.  I needed that reassurance at the time (I still do), and maybe it is also reassuring to confess that Lauren answered that need, though honestly, I am embarrassed to write about my deep affection for and attachment to Lauren in Critical Inquiry, since such public testimony translates so immediately into cultural capital, given who Lauren was and will continue to become.   They would have pointed that out, too.  In fact, they would have said that may be all criticism ever is.  Like that precarious sequence and like the pronouns in those sentences, my feelings then as now were and are a muddle of the personal and the professional:  as everybody can’t seem to stop saying these days, in recent years, Lauren used “she” for personal stuff and “they” for professional stuff, but the problem with this separation is that she was terrible at telling the personal from the public, the personal from the professional, the personal from the academic, the personal from, well, anything.  Whatever they did, there she was.  Now that they are gone, and she is, too, I see that what I wrote six years ago didn’t even come close to measuring our loss.

Lauren was a public figure, so of course they had a mediated life that was very different than her life with her cats and Ian.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I was not one of her best friends, though I loved her dearly, but probably like a lot of people, what I loved most was their work.  Like a lot of people, what I have thought has been made possible by what they thought.  That’s intimacy for sure, but many of us have such intimacy with Lauren’s work—if you pay attention, it demands it—which means that for the most part our intimacy remains silent and widely shared, like most good things.  Apart from our infrequent encounters and calls and texts, what I knew about Lauren was what I read.  But here’s the thing (and again, anyone will tell you this):  their work was not separable from her sheer Laurenness, her over-the-top, full-on, no-holds-barred approach to everything she thought or wrote or did.  I am only one of many people who wanted them to become a colleague, so many of you will know what I mean when I say that even though they never left Chicago, she was all in when it came to investing in the idea and relational dynamics of possible lives.  Just as there was no difference for Lauren between the personal and the professional, there was no doing anything halfway, no reserve, no remove.

I called the essay I wrote about Lauren’s work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” because I thought it was clever to make them into our contemporary Matthew Arnold.  He was a prig, they were anything but; he wanted to tell everyone what to do and they wanted to tell you to do more of what you really want to do; he wanted people to align their desires with the higher good; they told you to find out what your desires are if you want to know what’s good for you.  But like Arnold, I wrote, Lauren was a utopian thinker who knew that utopias are disappointing.  Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, The Anatomy of National Fantasy, even Sex, or the Unbearable and Desire/Love are all books about disappointment.  For Lauren, as for Arnold, “the true life of literature”—and not only of literature—was always “a promised land, toward which criticism can only beckon.”  The funny thing is that for the two of them, the promises weren’t really that different, though the response to being interpellated by those promises could not have differed more.  Arnold wrote that the promised land of literature “will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness”; Lauren told an interviewer on the “Society and Space” blog in 2013 that “it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects.  It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.” For them, exile was just the beginning. What I wrote six years ago was that “if for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment . . . but are instead signs and figures for shared world making.”  That present-tense “is” hurts, as does the fact that I see now that I was wrong.

The reason I was wrong was not only, as Lauren wrote, “the personal is the generic,” but because I thought that the difference between their criticism and Arnold’s was that he was settling and they were not.  But the truth is that Lauren was always settling, too.  And they settled in deeper and deeper, settled for more and more as well as less and less, settled in ways no one else has even considered settling, at least in print.  Matter of Flatness, one of the projects that Lauren was working on while she was ill (I’m hoping they finished it), turned from their earlier preoccupation with melodrama and melancholy in the books they called their “national sentimentality trilogy” toward what they began to call “structures of unfeeling.”  That phrase is not just a riff on Raymond Williams.  If for Williams, collective response could only be registered as a trajectory glimpsed in traces and symptoms and keywords, Lauren had moved beyond such tentative historiography long ago.  In Matter of Flatness, they were deep in the weeds of the multiplying genres of response that belong to the history of the present, and if the personal really is the generic (which it is), which belong to us.  They named these genres one after another, though they also began to see that these ways of being had also left modes of recognition instantiated in discourse behind, too, and so not only are they not exactly genres anymore, but there are also now too many to name: “worlds and events that would have conventionally predicted melodramatic performances of inflated subjectivity, intense relationality, and freighted social existence appear in this approach [the “recessive” approach of “flatness”] mutedly or aleatorily, in gestures and tones that could indicate a range of registers: from trauma-related psychic dissociation and punk style radical carelessness to ordinary dissipated, distracted, or loosely-quilted consciousness.  Events that would have been framed as tragic merge in not-quite-comic timbres that foreground enigmas of causality and the event in contemporary life, as seen in the difficulty of predicting the relation of freefall to pratfall, of suffering to enduring, of disturbance to trauma, and of incident to genre.”  Would have been framed as tragic?  So why not now?  Is Lauren’s death tragic, or is it caught somewhere between tragedy and an enigma of causality?  I am hung up on that last predictive enigma of “incident to genre.”  Lauren liked to say that we are all made out of genres, but what if we are not?  I don’t think she was.  I think they were an incident that never became generic because they were greater than the sum of all these parts, and because their modes of recognition had outpaced those of the rest of us.  We may never catch up.

2. Moulin Rouge

This morning silence is aftermath,

The quiet after the storm.

You were the storm.  You were also

Anything but a sequel.  You were

Those Toulouse-Lautrec dancers shouldering

Us all out of the way.  But then

You wanted to know how we felt

About that.  What I want to know

Is what you really wanted to know:

Did you get out of your way?

About suffering you were never wrong.

And then were you ever.

3. The Visit

A decade ago, Lauren invited me to give a talk at the University of Chicago.  I was of course honored and also very nervous.  Lauren booked a beautiful hotel room overlooking the city, and she picked me up at my hotel and drove me back and forth to Hyde Park for a couple of days.  She asked if I would visit her seminar before the talk, and I agreed.  When we got to the seminar, it turned out that the students had read one of my essays, and we had a conversation about that and a number of other pieces that put me on the edge of my seat.  In fact, we were all on the edge of our seats, because Lauren kept us there.  I cannot remember a thing they said, but I do remember the thrill.  Then I looked at my watch.  The seminar was supposed to have ended fifteen minutes earlier and my talk was about to start in fifteen minutes.  I tried to get Lauren’s attention, but they and the students were so deep in conversation I could not make eye contact.  So I stood up and said I had to go to my talk.  Lauren looked a little surprised, then said, oh sure, please go ahead, we’ll be there soon.  I found my way to the Franke Institute and walked into a room full of people waiting for me.  I asked around for someone to help set up the tech, and then Lauren and their students entered.  I started breathing again, and after their breathtakingly generous introduction, stopped breathing again, but somehow managed to make it through the talk.  I was so relieved at the end I could have cried, but then of course it was the University of Chicago, so the Q & A was a gauntlet.  At long last, the reception began, I was handed a glass of wine, and I felt lucky to have survived.  Then Lauren said the seminar hadn’t quite finished.  Was it OK if we ordered in and went back to work for a few more hours?  To my amazement, it was more than OK.  We did. 


Virginia Jackson is UCI Endowed Chair in Rhetoric in the departments of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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Monumental Fugitivity: The Aesthetics of #BlackLivesMatter Defacement

John Brooks

Defacement’s engine is the excessive, the disorderly, the disquieting, and any other sort of radical exclamation that troubles the state of things. It is not simply an act of destruction but rather a process of rupturing the surface of social normativity to create the conditions in which the public can confront that which it thinks it knows. This is to say that defacement is first and foremost a critique of Western epistemology, which is why it does not resolve into the kinds of meaning that the dominant culture considers to be intelligible or legitimate.

The disfigurement of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument in Richmond, Virginia, exemplifies defacement’s troubling affect. This monument, comprised of a fifteen-foot-tall bronze statue and a seven-and-a-half-foot granite pedestal, depicted Confederate General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart in equestrian pose.[1]

Beginning on 29 May 2020, the J. E. B. Stuart Monument served as a rallying point for #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who climbed its plinth to display signs, chant, and listen to speakers. As a form of publicly staged defiance that cut into the normative surface of racial discourse, these demonstrations aimed to upend received ideas about race and rehearse new terms for Black life.

During the demonstrations, protesters pulled down the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the site and covered the monument in graffiti. The messages included “BLM” and “Black Lives Matter” but also antipolice slogans like “ACAB,” “Police are Creepy,” and “Fuck 12.” Amplifying these familiar political phrases were calls to action like “Justice 4 George Floyd” and “Stop White Supremacy” along with statements of grief like “We Lost a Life for Nothing.” In a country where “rules are rules,” “heritage not hate,” and “all lives matter” have become common refrains, these radical transformations of public space raise provocative questions about the function and value of disruptive social energy.

In this post, I use the term re-curation to delineate such acts of defacement. Conventionally, the curator develops the context in which objects can be encountered and understood. Yet, even when curatorial processes seem to impart their own meaning, the aesthetic value the curator creates serves the institutionalized knowledge of the museum. The re-curator is not bound by such parameters. Re-curation denotes an unsolicited, unapproved, and undesired adjustment to the context in which something is exhibited, one that challenges the authority of institutionalized knowledge in controlling how it should be encountered and understood. These kinds of unauthorized performance gestures share a fugitive relation to Western normativity because their very enactment challenges the status quo as the arbiter of aesthetic taste politics.

During the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the summer of 2020, defacers wholly re-curated the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Originally, the statue had lionized Stuart as a hero with an inscription that emphasized, “He gave his life for his country and saved his city from capture.” These kinds of curated inscriptions serve the New South’s social order by bulwarking the “Lost Cause” nationalist ideology, which sought to vindicate the Confederacy while assuaging white anxieties during—and since—Reconstruction. Protesters re-curated the monument’s eulogy when they spray painted “BLM” and a bold graffiti label identifying Stuart as “RACIST.” The new label overturned the representation of Stuart’s valor and produced, in its stead, an image of a disfigured supremacist who appears inconsistent with the fictive heroes of the Lost Cause narrative.

As an act of re-curation, protesters also bent Stuart’s cavalry saber comically and masochistically backward, and splashed him with red paint reminiscent of blood. The blood-red paint draws attention to both the routine murders of enslaved Africans in the antebellum period and also the continuing racial violence that modern American policing routinizes in the present. It calls to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s martyrs, including but not limited to George Floyd, which organizes revolutionary consciousness around a shared understanding of injustice.

Moreover, demonstrators symbolically lynched Stuart, inverting the conventional master-slave power structure. They draped two nooses around his neck and, on 22 June, pulled on them in an attempt to topple the statue. This action would have completed the death cycle that they had initiated the previous month, but they were unable to unseat the six-ton effigy before police broke up the crowd with teargas.

To consider defacement as an aesthetic act is to recognize these re-curations as creative responses to the racial contract that underwrites social normativity. By disputing the context in which Confederate statuary has been encountered and understood, re-curations also disturb mainstream perspectives about how monuments should be regarded (as neutral historical artifacts or heritage sites, for instance). As a re-curative practice, defacement transgresses the comfort of conceptual familiarity to render visible the everyday racism that the status quo preserves, as well as the public’s complicity with that racism. Defacers use a statue’s surface as material for generating new meaning and thus furnish a confrontation with society’s “public secret,” the term Michael Taussig uses to describe the truths a society is unwilling—or unable—to acknowledge because doing so threatens that society’s unmaking.[2]

Logical reasoning and objective judgment cannot be the end goal of defacement because society already knows its public secrets (even as it also knows not to know them). Instead of appealing to logos, defacement’s strategic violations aim to provoke affective responses—like shock and anger; or relief and pleasure—that might spark an embodied mode of critical inquiry in which spectators can negotiate the tension between society’s professed beliefs and its racial contract. If the body acts as a prism through which the world is experienced, meaning it and its sensations are constitutive of all that can be known, then this immediate sensory experience might be a more significant means for confronting the reach of the racial episteme than abstract rationalism alone.

Defacement’s critical momentum is apparent in the reactions that it provokes. When images of the re-curated J. E. B. Stuart Monument began circulating on Instagram, some users called demonstrators “Left wing thugs” and described their actions as “utterly disgusting” or “Terrible atrocious and criminal.” These attempts to construe protesters’ actions as evidence for the failure—or even absence—of moral reasoning spring of a certain nervousness over the forces that defacement unleashes. Such socio-moral appeals to the law reflect a desire for the stability of the racial order, both a commitment to social normativity and a preservation concern for the racial discourse that safeguards it. Like the paternalistic voice these Instagram users adopt to render defacement juvenile, accusations of criminality and incivility aim to preserve Western perspectives about moral reasoning, modern subjectivity, and respectability, all of which are predicated on the rationality of whiteness.

Other Instagram users accused protesters of vandalism. Some wrote, “Sad to see a debate, whatever it is, expressed in graffiti vandalism of public spaces” and “Sad they had to revert to vandalism and destruction of property.” Like defacement, vandalism describes acts that visibly mar an object. But, as Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger have argued, for the vandalizer the destruction of property serves no purpose other than the pleasure of property’s destruction.[3] More significantly, vandalism’s preoccupation with property ownership and value implies a hierarchy of concern in the service of racial capitalism. Vandalism denotes “ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable,”[4] presuming an unequal differentiation of property-human value in which objects like Confederate monuments are worth more—or, at least, worthy of more protection—than the Black lives they disparage. The charge of vandalism (much like “rioters,” “looters,” or “thugs”) is racially coded language deployed to vilify communities of color while affirming the assumed civility of whiteness.

Reducing #BlackLivesMatter defacement to vandalism erases its disruptive social energy. For example, the demonstrations at the J. E. B. Stuart Monument effectively re-curated Richmond’s “white space”[5] by turning Monument Avenue into an impromptu skatepark. As a conscious, indexical act intended to support #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, hundreds of skateboarders gathered at the statue under the hashtag #SkateInSolidarity on 31 May 2020. One of them could be seen waving a Rastafarian flag, which combines the conquering lion of Judah (a symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy from Haile Selassie’s reign) with green, gold, and red. The flag represents kingship, pride, and African sovereignty. It brings a visible sign of Black empowerment to the scene and disputes the de facto whiteness of the US nation-state.

Fugitivity is an essential feature of re-curation and the critical force that gives defacement its aesthetic value. When cultural arbiters authorize #BlackLivesMatter messages, their apparent “legitimacy” hollows out their impact. Consider the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in Washington, D.C. Its thirty-five-foot-long street mural seems to echo protesters’ calls for inclusion, diversity, and equality, but because a spirit of white supremacy tacitly (and explicitly) underwrites the long tradition of liberal thought, the US Capitol’s advocacy amounts to empty mimicry of #BlackLivesMatter dissent. The mural cannot be interpreted as an unruly and irruptive refusal of Western civilization’s social norms or ethical values, but it might be perceived as a mode of performative appeasement intended to placate protesters while preserving the status quo.

In August 2020, after the defaced J. E. B. Stuart Monument had been removed, city officials commissioned pressure washing and repainting of the site where it previously stood. Undiscouraged, protesters returned to reenact their dissent. When Richmond whitewashed the plinth of the monumentwith a chalky, pale paint the week of 10 August, activists re-curated it with tags of “BLM,” “ACAB,” “Fuck 12,” and “Fuck the Confederacy.” This restoration/re-curation process continued over subsequent months. New messages included “You Can’t Stop the Movement” (20 August), “Marcus David Peters” (22 August), “Justice for Breonna!!! Black Lives Matter!!!” (24 September), “Fuck U Proud boys,” (3 October), “Fuck Trump” (5 October), and “ELECTION NIGHT BECOME UNGOVERNABLE” (8 October).[6]

As an ongoing return to the scene of subjection and a continuing rejection of white hegemony, the reenactment of defacement unfolds as a kind of “rehearsal” of Black liberation. Connected to a theoretical paradigm that I developed with Laura Partain,[7] this sense of rehearsal is double natured. It describes the coordination of a Black liberation ensemble in preparation for a liberated future, something akin to goal-oriented practicing or reciting; however, it also suggests that the processual reenactment of defacement is itself a creative process of liberation, rehearsal being coextensive with the performance that participants plan to produce. I mean that the anticipatory logic of the Black radical imagination infuses and inspires the reenactment of defacement and that this anticipatory logic both imagines new terms for Black life in the United States and, by insisting on agency in the face of subjugation, also creates the conditions in which those new terms can be realized. This is to say that defacement opens onto an experimental exercise of freedom in which radical acts of refusal signal the becoming of a critical Blackness.

The re-curation enacted at the former site of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument on 27 September 2020 shows how defacement rehearses new terms for Black life. On the plinth’s eastern face, a protester painted “Blackness is beauty, patience, love, grace. / We are ART. / I hope this disturbs you.”

The rear of the pedestal was tagged “Blackness is forced / strength / sorrow, pain, suffering.”

The smaller sides were similarly re-curated, one declaring “We Matter” and the other urging spectators to “look / listen / learn.”

This defacement enlivens critical Blackness as an aesthetic response to racialization in the West that expands, synthesizes, and comments on historically entrenched ideas about race. Such a reimagining of Blackness is significant not only because it constitutes an abrupt and turbulent refusal of reason but also because its actors, in the act of refusing, are claiming the authority to refuse, meaning they gain an antagonistic agency that argues with the Blackness-as-slaveness subjectivity posited by racial discourse. As an insurrection against the social codes and customs that aim to make Blackness culturally legible as slaveness, we might even read the defacement as an expression of ontogeny, a coming into being of a mode of consciousness that is distinct from that with which protesters had heretofore navigated the white space reconstituted by the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Indeed, this defacement expresses what Blackness is—a vehicle for querying the West’s racial order—that is known only by its irruptive, rupturing power: “I hope this disturbs you.”


John Brooks is visiting assistant professor of English at Boston College. His research draws on performance studies and phenomenological inquiry to examine the role of abstraction in rendering discourses of race unintelligible. In his forthcoming book, The Racial Unfamiliar: Encountering Illegibility in Contemporary African American Literature and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2022), he argues that a group of twenty-first-century artists refute established racial discourse by disregarding and defying the conventions that govern Black aesthetic practices. His published research includes essays in PMLAAfrican American Review, and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.


[1] Stuart (6 February 1833 – 12 May 1864) was a slave owner and Confederate cavalry commander who died from a gunshot wound sustained during the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

[2] Michael T. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford, Calif., 1999), p. 5.

[3] See Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger, “An Aesthetic Theory of Vandalism,” Crime & Delinquency 24, no. 3 (1978): 309-21.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “Vandalism.”

[5] Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, no. 1 (2015): 10-21.

[6] And later, “Vote Racism Out” (21 October); a large red heart (October 24); spray-painted penises surrounding “Cops are Dicks,” “ACAB,” and “Fuck J. E. B” (30 November).

[7] See “preservation” in Laura Partain, “Dynamic Exchanges: A Mixed Method Analysis of Palestinians and Syrians in US News Media Cycles” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2021), p. 258. 

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Notes on Late Eurocentrism

Achille Mbembe

Translated by Carolyn Shread

When considering the recent history of critical thought, two major events invite reflection today. First, Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. As I wrote in the introduction to Critique of Black Reason, this is “the fundamental experience of our era.”[1] This change does not mean that Europe no longer has any influence on the workings of the world, nor that we should now discount it. But Europe can no longer harbor the illusion that it alone has the power to dictate the course of the world. This is the case not only for the economy or for military and technological power; it is also true in the field of culture, arts, and ideas.

Second, there is a clear danger that in response to this historical downgrading, this eclipse, some people from the extreme right to the extreme left have been drawn either to nihilism or to ideological excess (or both), that is, by what I call late Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that is still more rancid and aggressive, even more deaf, blind, and vindictive than in the past. It is, indeed, a form of folly.

Chronologically, late Eurocentrism is the direct heritage of two earlier manifestations, each as reactionary as the other. Originally, there was primitive Eurocentrism, the type associated with imperial conquests, military occupation, and exploitation of colonial territories.[2] Then, from the 1950s, an anti-third-world Eurocentrism arose in opposition to anticolonial nationalisms. It reached its apogee in the 1970s in the critique of dependence and unequal development theories and the attempts to establish a more just international economic order.[3] All this occurred before the advent of neoliberalism, of which late Eurocentrism is, so to speak, the offshoot.

With the arrival of China on the world stage, the illusion of supremacy seemingly ran up against its ultimate limits.[4] The question now is to assess the full consequences of this situation: first it requires the creation of new paths for art and thought; second, bridges and byways must be built to facilitate encounters, so that together we can finally free ourselves of singular visions of history, and even more than that, the constant colonial temptation to hierarchize beings and objects.

What our present moment in fact demands is a welcoming of other ways of experiencing time and space. In the era of the combustion of the planet, as “radioactive contamination is constantly growing and expanding its reach across the planet beyond national borders,” we must invent other ways of inhabiting Earth, envisaging it as a true refuge not just for some, but for all—human and nonhuman.[5]

1.

In this context, how can we forget that in the Atlantic Basin from 1619 onward the greatest obstacle to the project of a common inhabiting of Earth was race?

Originally, race is an entirely fantastical reality. It has never existed as a natural fact. At the beginning of the modern period, perhaps for the first time, it was discovered that as a spectral reality, race offers an inexhaustible resource, that it is, a formidable technology of power. To achieve this effect, race must be constantly produced, manufactured and circulated. This historical process is what we call racializing.

Racializing refers to the conscious seizing and deployment of a set of techniques of power (legal, instrumental and representational techniques, social conventions, mores, customs and habits) in order to produce a reality (race) and to naturalize it as quickly as possible. To achieve this goal, its manufactured nature must be masked, precisely in order to represent the result as a natural fact, even though it is no such thing.

In the Atlantic Triangle, this production of reality according to the principle of partition, differentiation, separation and hierarchization has been operational since the seventeenth century.[6] Moreover, the long axis that ties Europe to Africa, Africa to the Americas, and the Americas to Europe in what is called the age of Enlightenment, culminated with the production of the Black Codes (Codes Noirs). Via these Black Codes, race—now a hypostatized fantastical category—lodged itself in many legal apparati, notably in colonial and enslavement regimes.[7] These regimes formed a space that was essentially outside of time in which, as a technique of power, racism (actually a historically datable power dynamic) now found within itself both the principle and end of its functioning.

In legal terms, the Black Codes transformed people of African descent into “Blacks,” that is, into an exploitable raw material, the matter of wealth. As the product of a power dynamic and a dominating relation, the raced person, the “Black,” was simultaneously an exchange value and a use value. This person had the value of personal property or a good. The person was related to the use of a thing. At the same time, the person was the creator of things and value. However, unlike the proletariat per se, neither their labor power nor the energy resource they offered nor the product of their labor are exchanged for a salary.[8]

This form of originary expropriation cannot be reduced objectively to the class alienation at the heart of orthodox Marxism. It certainly shares with wage earners the experience of an operation capturing time, energy and labor power but it is fundamentally different in that racial alienation is a form of native alienation that cannot be quantified and has no objective equivalent.[9] In conjunction with the capturing of bodies, energies, and even vital flows, there is an originary discrediting and shaming, a hereditary debasement and abjection that is transmitted from one generation to the next and that is therefore, by its very definition, insurmountable. This effect is what sociologist Orlando Patterson terms “social death.”[10]

2.

There is no shadow of a doubt that race and the principle of racial hierarchy were the preferred motors of colonial thinking.[11] The fact that as a result colonial thinking was one of the primary matrices of Eurocentrism has been demonstrated many times over. But let us not forget that colonial thinking does not comprise the entirety of European thought since throughout the centuries it also developed the terms of its own critique at its very core.

Colonial thinking should thus be understood as the set of techniques and sciences, myths, knowledge and skills that, from the fifteenth century onwards, made possible the destruction of the conditions of renewal of life on Earth. The deployment of this assemblage (myths, science, knowledge, skills) over the course of more than four centuries has, moreover, led to a profound destabilization in both many distant societies and natural processes in general.[12] In Afro-diasporic thought, the colonial gesture reflects the capturing of autonomous power and bodies, vital flows that are subdivided, expended, recoded (racialization) in an attempt to transform them into immediately manipulable, sellable and buyable energy.

One of the major characteristics of colonial thinking—and Eurocentrism—thus understood is the place granted to abstraction. Indeed, from the colonial point of view, knowing does not necessarily consist in a staying with things in themselves, let alone with Others. Knowing essentially amounts to shaping and quantifying relations at a distance—the relations of distance between units, each of which is grasped in isolation. These units are held separate from one another in what, in another context, Bartoli and Gosselin term “a relation of mutual distancing.”[13]

But this capacity to shape, codify, and institutionalize separation relations is not simply a mental affair. In many cases, it leads to the destruction of the conditions of sensible experience, an experience that, as we are realizing more and more today, is absolutely necessary for any ethic of cohabitation, whether it be the coexistence of humans or between species.

Alongside techniques and sciences, knowledge and skills, there were also, of course, infrastructures. Contrary to what orthodox Marxists believe, race was one of these. Who can deny the extent to which colonial racism was consubstantial with liberalism and racial violence necessary to the constitution of the global order?[14] Who can deny the role race has played in the dynamics of dispossession and exploitation on a global scale and in the mechanisms instituting power and society in Western societies?[15]

With the demise of the Eurocentrist illusion, the possibility thus arises for us to turn our backs once and for all on what Stuart Hall called “racial fundamentalism”—a phenomenon that has also served as a pillar for capitalism in as much as capitalism itself constantly leans on what are, in effect, racial subsidies to further its planetary expansion.[16]

In the current moment almost everything points, if not to a rupture, then at least to a renewed contestation of the sort of virulent, nativist Eurocentrism that adopts eradication as its goal and whose manifestations we witness in the regular attempts at stigmatization of thought that is supposedly non-native, both in France and elsewhere.

As the offshoot of neoliberalism in its authoritarian phase, late Eurocentrism is a deceitful ideology that claims to defend science, secularism, the Republic, Enlightenment, and universalism, even as it knows next to nothing about the universe, other worlds, and other histories. In fact, it seeks above all else to make everything that eludes it vanish from the surface of the Earth. What it is, in truth, is both a corrupt and nihilist response to European loss of social privilege. Clinging to a fictive past and ignoring traditions of dissidence within the European canon itself, it fools itself with a mortal melancholy while what the world actually needs now is new thinking about life.[17]

Where primitive Eurocentrism sought to establish European conquest and domination of the world, the late Eurocentrism of the twenty-first century seeks to justify the battening down of Europe on itself, its withdrawal from the world (askêsis) and its eclipse, calling for a extirpating violence against currents of thought that contest it and individuals who bear these ideas, starting with nonwhite women thinkers.

3.

Contrary to common assumptions, critique of Eurocentrism in its various forms is not new. The fact that it is appearing today under the guise of decolonial theories, postcolonial studies, or the critiques of race, gender, and intersectional approaches will be news only to those who, walled off in their local visions, willingly cut themselves off from voyages in planetary thought.

Despite what is frequently claimed, the critique of Eurocentrism never sought to replace class warfare with race warfare; rather, it has always sought to bring together race, class, and gender conflict. In afro-diasporic traditions in particular, the critique crystallized around several key concepts, notably abolition and decolonization, which have always been the subject of fierce debates among afro-centrists, afro-pessimists and afro-futurists.

It is safe to say that abolitionism not only preceded the Enlightenment but is precisely what guarantees its universality. So long as Enlightenment has not integrated abolitionism, it remains fundamentally tribal. This vast multinational and multiracial intellectual movement spanned three centuries. Prefiguring what we now call intersectionality, it brought together in a single knot both racial and gender issues (the race of classes and their gender), questions linked to the history of capitalism itself (the class of races and their gender) and concerns about universal justice (Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice. The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Edited by Alfreda M. Duster, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970).[18]

Abolitionism experienced two significant moments. The first was the growing criticism of the slave trade and the enslavement system in the Americas from the sixteenth century onwards (Bartolomeo de las Casas). This movement reached its apogee among the Quakers and other Protestant dissidents and in revolutionary and anticolonial groups between 1770 and 1820.[19]

This abolitionist moment fostered the emergence of generations of Black intellectuals who, in the pathogenic context of today no doubt appear on the lists drawn up by the Observatoire du décolonialisme and regularly appear in publications—William Wells Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederik Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, William Hamilton, Martin Delany and others.[20] The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 was the high point of the antienslavement cause. The second abolitionist wave, demanding the immediate end of the enslavement system, took place from the 1820s to the time of the American civil war.[21]

While the concept of abolition is opposed on principle to all and any regime of capture and represents a radical demand for justice in the face of everything that endangers the conditions of renewal of life, anticolonialism is no less demanding. In fact, the anticolonialist movement extends the originary intuitions of the abolitionist movement. Anticolonialism seeks self-determination on principle, that is, it calls for the liberation of power, the power of those who are reduced to raw materials in the colonial paradigm.[22] Similarly to the abolitionist project, anticolonialism seeks to reinvent communal forms and support new phenomena.[23]

During the Négritude period, which coincided with the end of the war against fascism and Hitlerism, anticolonialism identified with the quest for a self-founding logos.[24] Today, far more than a cry of protest, decolonize has become an injunction, an unstoppable movement. Of course, this quest has always involved it its own ambiguities and contradictions.[25] Simultaneously an act of defiance, a coup, and a taking of power via the power to self-institute, the decolonial summons captivated as many minds in the North as in the Souths of the world.

4.

The injunction to decolonize would, however, be of limited interest if it did not lead to a truly radical cultural agenda, one such as the much regretted Édouard Glissant continued to propose up until recently. This agenda focused on the idea of Whole World.

The concept of Whole World has three distinctive features. First, it is committed to a total break with all forms of closing in on the self, whether in the form of a territorial, national, ethno-racial, or religious enclosure. Second, it is opposed to the sort of authoritarian universalism upon which the colonial enterprise is founded—a universalism based on conquest that sought to achieve its goals not through a multiplicity of bodies and beings but within a single body arbitrarily held as the one and only truly significant body. Thirdly, in the Whole-World conception, the drive to know is first and foremost an invitation to emerge from willing ignorance and discover our own limits. More than anything, it is about learning to be-born-with-others, that is, an uncompromising break up of all the mirrors expected to faithfully return an image of the self.

In Glissant’s thought, the world of Whole World twists and weaves itself in tangled relations between a multiplicity of centers. The greatest obstacle to its accession is an ignorance that is so self-unaware that it ultimately transforms into a pure nativism that tries to pass as both science and universalism.

The battle against this self-interested form of ignorance requires a departure from the self, a deliberate opening up the possibility of multiple passages and multiple crossings for only the trial of passage and crossing allows us to not talk constantly either about ourselves or about other worlds, in their place, as if they did not already exist for themselves. It is instead to look together and see, but each time starting from several worlds.

The same might be said, mutatis mutandis, of decolonization proper. To decolonize knowledge, arts, and thinking is to try to listen, look, and see reality starting from several worlds or centers at once; to read and interpret history from a multiplicity of archives.

A project of this sort urgently requires a fresh critique of difference and segregation. For without a resolute critique of difference what V.Y. Mudimbe called “the colonial library” that is the cornerstone of Eurocentrism will never be dismantled.[26] To decolonize is to learn to be born together (cobirth). Being born together is the only way to overcome the two-fold desire for abstraction and segregation that typifies colonial thinking—both the separation of humans amongst themselves and the separation of humans from other species, from nature and the multiple forces of life.

5.

Ultimately, the Eurocentrist illusion failed. From its ashes, in the North, South and East, we see emerging new ways of thinking, thinking that is truly planetary. This thought not only takes humans as its object but also earth, fire, air, water, and winds, in short, life itself.[27] These modes of thinking are all anticolonial by definition, if by colonial we mean the refusal to be “born together,” the determination to separate, put up walls, all sorts of walls and fortresses, transforming pathways into borders, identity into enclosure and freedom into private property.[28]

These anti-colonial and post-Eurocentric modes of thought highlight not essences or compact and homogenous blocks, but instead porosities. They do not depend on the flying buttresses of a nationalistic heritage. Where Eurocentrism habitually cut up time, space, and history into discrete parts, marked by supposedly irreducible and unassimilable differences, these ways of thinking deal in tangled skeins. In art, music, cinema, and other forms of writing, they seek to multiply byways and build bridges. While late Eurocentrism sees nothing but lines of occupation, bridges to cut, walls to raise, prisons to build, points of arrival never connected to points of departure, Whole-World thinking valorizes the fact that we are all traversed through and through by multiple genealogies, forged by sinuous, interconnected lines.

Today we are witnessing the take-off of these anticolonial and postEurocentric ways of thinking, and not just in the Souths of the world. They are blooming everywhere, including in the heart of Europe. But in the current withdrawal into often fantastical identities, in the era of conspiracy theories and the deliberate production of fakes and disharmony, their thriving and resonance among new generations give rise to anxiety, fear and panic, especially in the old centers of the world but not exclusively.[29]

This is the case because a new war with a quasi-religious appearance has taken hold of the world. Waged in all corners of the earth scale by the global alt-right against a selection of real and imaginary enemies (liberals, leftists, Marxists, activists for minority, immigration, queer, decolonial feminists, islamo-leftists), its goal is to overturn the very terms of reality along with its modes of appearance and revelation.

Studying the way in which this war is waged allows us to shine a harsh light on some of the great fantasies of our epoch.[30] The first is the fantasy of closure and its corollary, eradicating and extirpating violence. This desire for brutality, especially against those who have lost out, the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us, particularly those who were formerly subjected, feeds off of the rise in theologies of necrosis. It presents feeble fables that preach impossibility and incompatibility—impossible encounters, impossible sharing, in short, the impossibility of a multiplicity of worlds. Here there is a drive towards totalization everywhere.[31]

The second is the fantasy of extinction and replacement.[32] In this war of demonization and delegitimization, which combines fundamentally incompatible narratives, it is claimed that the white race is under siege, threatened with extinction, the victim of pernicious counter-racism.

The West and its “civilization” are presented as having all the features of a full and self-sufficient body, developed throughout the centuries from its own cloth. It owes a debt to no one, still less any reparation. Meanwhile, it is the recipient of serious internal threats from groups that are themselves inside, but that are ready to ally themselves with ungrateful and malevolent enemies.[33]  Hence the obligation to mount a massive self-defense.[34]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle.[35]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right, John Hunt Publishing, 2017).

Meanwhile, from every corner of the earth cries that cannot be stifled rise up constantly towards the heavens. The old problem of knowing how to think the singularity of other people, along with the irreducibility of their suffering, returns once again with acuity, even as the planet is caught up in a movement of accelerated combustion and the call for thinking that is not local or regional, but truly planetary, has never been heard so urgently.

6.

The elements of just such a planetary mode of thinking can be found in the archives of Whole World. Indeed, we should recall, there was a time when the critique of racial enslavement and colonialism, along with the denunciation of anti-Semitism, were established preconditions for the adoption of any position on universal battles for equality, justice ,and human emancipation.[36]

At that time it was a matter of proving that there were not two types of humanity; rather, spread all across the globe, it was thought that the innumerable mass of living beings converged towards a single humanity open to all the forces of life.[37] Far from referring solely to a relative, a compatriot, or a member of the clan, a fellow human being was, by definition, whoever had a human face, whether or not that face had the features of one’s own ethnic group, religion, or nationality.[38]

In the end, it was through revolts by enslaved peoples, such as the revolution in Haiti, the great abolitionist campaigns of the nineteenth century, and the anticolonial insurrections that categories such as freedom, alterity, universality, the right to self-determination “became flesh” for all, eventually acquiring a political and philosophical density, reaffirming the reality of our common participation in humanity. The hope was that through this “community of participation” the human adventure on Earth would eventually find its meaning. Each face taken in its singularity would finally be protected from inhumanity, and the suffering of those who made up the majority of humankind would finally come to an end.[39]

7.

In our time it is clear that ultra-nationalism as a social force and cultural sensibility, along with ideologies of racial supremacy, are experiencing a global renaissance. This renewal is accompanied by the rise of a hard, xenophobic, and openly racist extreme right, which is in power in many Western democratic institutions and whose influence can be felt even within the various strata of the techno-structure itself. In an environment marked by the segregation of memories and their privatization, as well as by discourses on incommensurability and the incomparable nature of suffering, the strictly ethical concept of the fellow human being as another self no longer holds.

The idea of an essential human resemblance has been replaced by the notion of difference, taken as both anathema and prohibition. As a result, it has become extremely difficult to determine the way in which each of the innumerable sites of defeat and dispossession, the trauma and abandon that modern history has bequeathed us, bear the face of the whole of humanity, torn asunder in every instance. Concepts such as the human, the human race, humankind, or humanity barely mean anything at all even if contemporary pandemics and the consequences of the ongoing combustion of the planet keep imbuing them with weight and significance.

In the West, but also in other parts of the world, we are witnessing the rise of new forms of racism that might be described as paroxysms. The nature of paroxysmal racism is that, in a metabolic manner, it can infiltrate the functioning of power, technology, culture, language, and even the air we breathe. The dual turn of racism towards a techno-algorithmic and eco-atmospheric variety is making it an increasingly lethal weapon, a virus.

This form of racism is termed viral because it goes hand in hand with the exacerbation of fears, including and especially the fear of extinction, which appears to have become one of the driving engines of white supremacy in the world. However, the virulence of contemporary racism is equaled only by its denial. Late Eurocentrism is a malignant form of this denial.

In a spectacular reversal, anti-racist efforts are held responsible for the rise in racism. The most invidious historical crimes in the heart of Europe by Europe are now blamed on others, starting with the descendants of the victims of European imperialism. Such is the case with anti-Semitism. At the same time, with the help of the escalation of technology and the crisis of neoliberalism, the illiberal turn of liberal democracies is hardening.

Perhaps the time will come when the regeneration of the forces of life so necessary to our survival on the plant will come from the global North. While we wait, a good part of Europe continues to wall itself up behind the darkest of ramparts. There is absolutely nothing to concede to this part of Europe, or to late Eurocentrism.

[This text was read virtually at the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum on the occasion of the “September Summit” organized in Paris during Saison Africa 2020.


Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the cofounder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar.


[After translating “The Universal Right to Breathe” as the world went into lockdown in 2020, I return here to Achille Mbembe’s thought as some places seemingly emerge from the pandemic – thereby revealing local and global disparities all the more forcefully. Has the virus changed us? Perhaps not, for while this was translated over the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday in the United States, this translation also coincides with a doomed voting rights bill. These Notes offer the clarity and uncompromising historical account upon which the only possible futures for all can be built. Taking Celia Britton’s translation of Édouard Glissant’s Traité du Tout-Monde (Treatise on the Whole World, 2020), I called that world, rather than One or All, Whole World in English. Mbembe’s reflections on the centuries long effects of the fabrication of race via processes of racialization, pointed the way when it came to the “Nègre” of the Codes noirs: it is enough to refer to “Black” rather than any more offensive racial term. Late eurocentrism is a potent conceptual tool for showing the way forward, understanding the place for steely refusal of the newly emerging mechanisms of hate. I hope that my contribution to the linguistic crossings and encounters we need for planetary healing will offer a tiny reparation amidst all the work we have ahead to make our world whole—Carolyn Shread, translator]


[1] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (2017).

[2] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978), and Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, N.C., 2011)

[3] See André Gunder Frank, “Le développement du sous-développement”, Cahiers Vilfredo Pareto 6, nos. 16–17 (1968), and Samir Amin, L’accumulation à l’échelle mondiale (Paris, 1970). See also Samir Amin, L’eurocentrisme. Critique d’une idéologie (Paris, 1988), and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science,”Sociological Bulletin, 1 Mar. 1997.

[4] See Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing. Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2007).

[5] Sabu Kohso, Radiations et révolution. Capitalisme apocalyptique et luttes pour la vie au Japon (Paris, 2021). See also Kohso, “Radiation, Pandemic, Insurrection”, The New Inquiry, 14 Dec. 2020.

[6] See Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877 (New York, 1993), and Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996).

[7] See Phillip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned. Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 (Union, N.J., 1998), and Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols. Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

[8] See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America. An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York, 1935).

[9] See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983).

[10] See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

[11] In the French context, see Elsa Dorlin, La matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la nation française (Paris, 2006).

[12] See David Bartoli and Sophie Gosselin, Le toucher du monde. Techniques du naturer (Paris, 2020), p. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999), and Duncan Bell, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, N.J., 2016).

[15] See Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Race and Difference (Durham, N.C, 2021), and Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton, N.J., 2011).

[16] On these debates and critiques, see Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass., 2016); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass,, 2016); and Trevor Burnard and Giorgio Riello, “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” Journal of Global History 15, no. 2 (2020).

[17] See Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York, 2004).

[18] See Bronwen Everill, Not Made by Slaves. Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, Mass., 2020). See also

[19] See Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Charlottesville, N.C., 1996).

[20] See Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause. A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn., 2008).

[21] See Black Soldiers in Blue. African-American Troops in the Civil War Era, ed. John David Smith(Charlottesville, N.C.,2004).

[22] See Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, N.J., 2019).

[23] See Aric Putnam, The Insistent Call. Rhetorical Moments in Black Anticolonialism, 1929–1927 (Amherst, Mass., 2012); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015); and Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African-American Soldiers in World War I Era (Charlottesville, N.C., 2010).

[24] See Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy. Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York, 2011).

[25] See Mbembe, Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (New York, 2021) and “Thoughts on the Planetary: An Interview with Achille Mbembe,” 5 Sept. 2019.

[26] V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1998).

[27] See Édouard Glissant, La terre, le feu, l’eau et les vents: Une anthologie de la poésie du Tout-Monde (Paris, 2010).

[28] See Tim Ingold, Une brève histoire des lignes (Paris, 2013).

[29] See Arjun Appadurai, “Fear of Small Disciplines: India’s Battle against Creative Thought”, Postcolonial Studies (2021).

[30]  See Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment, and Olivia Goldhill, “The Neo-Fascist Philosophy that Underpins Both the Alt-Right and Silicon Valley Technophiles”, Science Reporter, 18 June 2017.

[31] See Scott F. Alkin, “Deep Disagreement, the Dark Enlightenment, and the Rhetoric of the Red Pill,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 36, no 3 (2018).

[32] See Chetan Bhatt, “White Extinction: Metaphysical Elements of Contemporary Western Fascism,” Theory, Culture and Society, 23 June 2020.

[33] See Ilan E. Strauss, “The Dark Reality of Betting Against QAnon,” The Atlantic, 1 Jan. 2021; Clive Thompson, “QAnon Is Like a Game—A  Most Dangerous Game,” Wired, 22 Sept. 2020; and David Goldberg, “On Civil War,” Critical Times, 9 Sept. 2020.

[34] See Roger Burrows, “On Neoreaction,” The Sociological Review, 28 Mar. 2019, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy. The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (2001).

[35] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right (2017).

[36] See Manu Goswami, “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 5 (2012): 1461–85.

[37] See  Helen Tilley, “Racial Science, Geopolitics, and Empires,” Isis 105 (2014): 773–81.

[38] See Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015).

[39] See Simone Weil, Écrits historiques et politiques (Paris, 1960), pp. 331–78.

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