Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Elizabeth Freeman


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.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

3 responses to “Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

  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

  3. Pingback: Restless Flying / The Berlantian Acknowledgement / Austin Svedjan - ASAP/J

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