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.

2 Comments

Filed under Lauren Berlant

2 responses to “Triptych for Lauren

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

  2. Pingback: Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 16: June 16–July 15, 2021 | The Hyperarchival Parallax

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