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.

1 Comment

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One response to “Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

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