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.

1 Comment

Filed under Lauren Berlant

One response to “Withholding to Show Up

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

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