for lb

Joseph J. Fischel

“Art humbles theory in its propositional mode, allows an encounter instead of inciting a pronouncement.”[1]

I did not write this sentence even though I did. Time varnishes memory like fantasy fabricates it, as Lauren describes.[2]  But my recollection is this: in the winter of 2011, Lauren wrote that sentence into the first pages of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Lauren’s was a translation of my effort to explain to an imagined audience of political theorists why I was turning to an archive of films, rather than an archive of other political theorists, to evidence my argument. The argument was that adolescents and adolescence, as idealized abstractions, offer countermodels against the suffocating sovereignty of liberal personhood, the rigid taxonomy of modern sexual orientation, the gothic figures of the sex predator and the innocent child, and consent as a moralized, underperforming guarantor of sexual freedom. All this from Superbad, more or less. I have hyperbolized here my already-ambitious argument, but I figured if Lauren successfully squeezed a theory of intimate citizenship and national belonging out of a 22-minute The Simpsons episode, why not give big thinking a shot?[3] “One must refuse the intractable’s demand to experience pre-defeat.”[4] Most importantly, they taught me that big thinking, politically emancipatory thinking, is too often desiccated by pronouncement or prescription.  To allow an encounter, and to build solidarity out of that encounter, is to reperceive or sustain the inconveniences, incongruences, and contradictions of others.

I rear-ended into this essay’s epigraph—my/Lauren’s claim for the political theory of film—when control effing for “Berlant” in my first book (the dissertation’s final draft), as if I could enumerate by citation the influence Lauren had on my scholarship, research methods, and teaching. Ha ha, Lauren would have said. In bluntest terms, Lauren inverted consent as my normative gold star (if we get consent right, sex will be unsexist and nonviolent) to my central object of critique. An object of critique, Lauren modeled, is the opposite of an object of cynicism. Our cruelly optimistic attachments to consent require an analytic that is caring and careful, neither trashing nor glib.[5] In the 1990s, Lauren explained that our national sexuality was heterosexuality, and they so spectacularly surveyed the political imaginary and collateral damage that heteronormativity conjures and obscures.[6] I came to propose, building off Lauren’s work, that by the early 2000s adult consensuality was rivaling heterosexuality as nationally endorsed. This was not an altogether unwelcome development, thus demanding greater interrogation, not less.

Lauren would email me troves of articles and podcasts, book, film and television show recommendations, stand-up routines, cartoons, and whatever else pertaining or proximate to my research.  They did this for countless others, exhibiting to their students, and therefore to their students’ students, that archives ought to be wildly expansive, promiscuously interdisciplinary, multimedia, alive, sometimes funny, enriched by your friends.  Co-teaching a class titled Sex & Ethics with Lauren around 2009, I discovered that the interdisciplinary, multimedia syllabus is a pedagogic gold mine for students too, students aching to make sense of their historical present, to countenance their present as historical.[7]

Lauren revolutionized my thesis, thinking, teaching. They also taught me how to watch a film as a theorist and not just as a supplicant; how to theorize cultural artifacts in relation to social problems; how to generatively engage challenging material with students, that is, how to stage a scene of learning to be a scene of learning; how to offer feedback to colleagues and comrades that is fierce yet facilitative (“constructive criticism” does not quite capture Lauren’s modus operandi; it was more like “the way a Band-aid covering an unhealed wound will take away part of the wound and its bit of healing with it … an opening of the wound to air … a foundational condition for the next steps”);[8] how to record attachments and identifications as partial and ongoing, nourishing and relieving;[9] how words lubricate thought, despite but more surely because of the “distancing mediation of speech.”[10]

About words, I hope the first sentence of this tribute hooked you. I learned the art of first sentence seduction from Lauren.  “You are a better writer than I was when I was a graduate student,” Lauren once said to me in a dingy grey basement cafeteria at the University of Chicago. As my ego began to bloat, they side-smiled, “but then again, I didn’t have me.” Lauren was being neither hubristic nor a jerk. Their caveat took me down a notch and betrayed an outward confidence that female-bodied scholars rarely possess. This does not mean Lauren was without their insecurities.  Late in 2009, after I gushed to them that their review of Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ Intimacies and David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? was fabulous (and for me, paradigm-shifting), they replied something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be writing about Leo Bersani?”[11] To which I answered something to the affective effect of, “who am I to be eating lunch with Lauren Berlant?” My suspicion, which feels Berlantian, is that academics who never suffer imposter syndrome are assholes.

“Italics make you look anxious,” Lauren once commented in the margins of another dissertation chapter, drafted more than a decade ago.  I recall this sentence—I hear Lauren say it, even though they did not—whenever I write anything.  I imagine I was not the only beneficiary of this insight. After I draft an essay or book chapter I comb through the text, de-italicizing words or phrases that I thought demanded super-duper emphasis. What Lauren meant was: italics imply you are unconvinced by your own claims, so fancy typography stands in for an argument that should have been better made, or for an argument that was made well-enough despite your anxiety about sharing it with readers.  I relay this advice, hat-tipping Lauren, to all my students.

Two final examples of Lauren’s marginalia on my dissertation that forever bettered my writing and my thinking and my life: 1) in the second chapter, I had written the phrase “Justice Kennedy believes,” and Lauren had scribbled back, “you have no idea what Justice Kennedy believes”; 2) in the third chapter, I too hastily glossed 1990s US welfare reform, to which Lauren wrote “this is bad history.” I learned not to take short cuts from Lauren, to not let fancy words or superlative (and tendentious) adjectives substitute for textured intervention. And I learned too that claiming to know or report what is in the head of this or that public person or stakeholder (“Justice Kennedy believes”) is hardly ever accurate and almost always uninteresting.  The admonition against telegraphing others’ thinking x or believing y was generative if a generative admonition is not an oxymoron. It helped shift my research focus away from motives, intentions, and the psychic life of anyone to effects, affects, sexual climates, space-making and power.  Absent such a shift, one could never think a thought[12] like, “My mother died of femininity.”[13] Lauren enabled me to register the yawning gap between desire and consent; one can, and girls and women too often do, consent to sex that is undesired, unpleasant, or unwanted (Rebecca Traister and Robin West mind the gap, too).[14]  What does this mean? That consent, a moral-turned-legal concept, may be an alibi for rather than a solution to gendered suffering. Sometimes I think I concentrate my analytic energies on consent, law, and institutions because I do not have Lauren’s capacity to theorize desire, love, and sociality.[15]

Lauren came to give a talk at Yale University in December 2012 on Mysterious Skin and flat affect.[16] I had been working at Yale for the prior three months as an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. It was the unicorn job of the academy, yet I was miserable and ashamed by my own misery. I felt alienated from my colleagues and inadequate to my students (things got better). As we drank Vitamin Zeroes in the lobby of a swank hotel, Lauren said they were unsettled because they had never seen me anhedonic. I asked what anhedonic meant. A few years later, I recalibrated my research in the service of promoting a “democratically hedonic sexual culture.” Thank you lb. When it comes to pleasure, I am not utilitarian. But the pleasureless life, a life without “the optimism of a fundamental attachment,” is not worth living.[17] Feeling pleasureless? It might be political.[18]

After Lauren gave their lecture, a graduate student asked a pedantic question thinly disguising that he knew better than Lauren about Lauren’s object. For academics, this question is all but self-parodic, memed into mundanity.  “You are so good at answering your own question,” Lauren gently reproached the young white man, “why do you need me?”     

The audience giggled at Lauren’s chide. The chide was a necessary corrective, not least to detoxify the drab gender politics stinking up the room. Here is the pedagogy Lauren was serving, just shy of a performative contradiction: one does not need to shit on someone else’s thinking to index their own intelligence. I use that line—you don’t need to shit on others to index your own intelligence—on the first day of class for every seminar I ever teach. I think of it as a Laurenism.

I came across the textual version of Lauren’s comment as I reread some of their work in preparation for this essay. Lauren is asked in an interview to make sense of the affective atmosphere surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but the interviewer, Jordan Greenwald, provides some insights of his own along the way. “You answered your own question beautifully,” Lauren offers, before proceeding to deliver one of their characteristically luminous diagnoses: “One really big difference between political institutions and people is that people are able to manage ordinary affective incoherence and disorganization with much grace as long as their anchors in the ongoing world or the ordinary feel sufficiently stable.”[19] How terribly prescient and presciently terrible as we witness so many right- and good-minded folks pummeled into polarity “by the media’s anxiogenic sensationalist analysis.”[20] In any case, what struck me is how this time, Lauren’s response (“you answered your own question beautifully”) alley-oops their interlocutor as someone to learn with and to learn from. Lauren, by way of Eve Sedgwick, criticized reparatively, refusing Scorched Earth Theory.[21] What a gift for our (inter)disciplines, underappreciated and underemployed by my colleagues and by me, the “splashi[ness]” of reparativity notwithstanding.[22]  

In their final years I failed Lauren as a friend. I sensed that Lauren wanted renewed closeness between us and I could not deliver. I apologized for my absences a lot. Mercifully, Lauren recognized my suffering as a blockage to bear theirs, which meant they also revealed to me that I was suffering. At the time Lauren got sick my family was in great and overdetermined pain.  For too long I could neither see nor manage my own hurt because I thought my social advantages immunized me from injuries. A powerful thread of Lauren’s scholarship is that getting by under conditions of late capitalism and failed infrastructures is attritional and exhausting, even as attrition and exhaustion are asymmetrically patterned by inequality.[23] “We are all combover subjects” now.[24] Still, I wish I had been there for them.

A second wish: that Lauren could revise this essay. It would be better.


Joseph Fischel is associate professor and director of graduate studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University


Thanks to Katie Lofton for her Berlantian review.

[1] Joseph J. Fischel, Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent (Minneapolis, 2016), p. 135.

[2] “Memory is the Amnesia You Like” (Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24 [Winter, 1998]: 549).

[3] See Berlant, The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (Durham, N.C., 1997), pp. 25-52.

[4] Berlant, “Sitting on an Airplane, A Mule,” Supervalent Thought, 18 Sep. 2010, https://supervalentthought.com/2010/09/18/sitting-on-an-airplane-a-mule/.

[5] “An optimistic attachment is cruel when the object/scene of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it: but its life-organizing status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes” (Berlant, Cruel Optimism [Durham, N.C., 2011], p. 227).

[6] Berlant, Queen of America, pp. 15-19.

[7] See Berlant, Cruel Optimism, pp. 4-11.   

[8] Berlant, Queen of America, p. 81.

[9] See Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, N.C., 2008), pp. 9-14.   

[10] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 224.

[11] See Lauren Berlant, “Neither Monstrous nor Pastoral, but Scary and Sweet: Some Thoughts on Sex and Emotional Performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?Women & Performance 19 (July 2009): 261-73.

[12] See “‘What Would It Mean to Think That Thought? The Era of Lauren Berlant,” The Nation, 8 July 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/lauren-berlant-obituary/.

[13] Berlant, “For Example,” Supervalent Thought, 16 May 2012, https://supervalentthought.com/2012/05/16/for-example/.  

[14] See Rebecca Traister, “The Game is Rigged,” The Cut: New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 2015, https://www.thecut.com/2015/10/why-consensual-sex-can-still-be-bad.html, and Robin West, “Consent, Legitimation, and Dysphoria,” The Modern Law Review 83, no. 1 (2020): 1-34.  

[15] See Berlant, Desire/Love (New York, 2012). 

[16] See Berlant, “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 28 (2015): 191-213.

[17] Berlant, Female Complaint, p. 14.

[18] “I close with the slogan that will be on [Feel Tank Chicago’s] first cache of T-shirts and stickers: Depressed? … It Might Be Political” (Berlant, “Feel Tank,” in Sexualities in Education: A Reader, ed. Erica R. Meiners and Therese Quinn [New York, 2012], pp. 340-43).

[19] Berlant and Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20 (Spring/Summer, 2012): 76.

[20] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 225.

[21] See Lauren Berlant, “Reading Sedgwick, Then and Now,” in Reading Sedgwick, ed. Berlant (Durham, N.C., 2019), pp. 1-5.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] “We are all contingent beings, and life proceeds without guarantees, just with more or less reliable infrastructures of continuity” (Jasbir Puar, “Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović,” The Drama Review 56 [Winter, 2012]: 166).  

[24] Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece),” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter, 2017): 308.

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  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

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