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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One response to “The Berlant Opening

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

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