Lauren Berlant was luminous, intimidating, uncannily perceptive, generous, incisive, devastating. Their years long investigations of everyday affect, their extensive collaborations, their fierce and capacious pedagogy, their creative vocabulary, had a decisive impact on overlapping worlds of scholarships, politics, and friendship. Lauren was an extraordinarily influential writer and thinker, and a dearly loved comrade with whom I collaborated and socialized for over two decades. Their contradictions complicated their impact. A generous collaborator and a withering critic, they were a warm and empathic friend who could also be mean to the people they loved.
The words often used to describe them are brilliant, and difficult. When the first term is used to describe outsiders in elite social or intellectual spaces, the second almost goes without saying. There is something about being out of place and knowing it, about excelling in a sometimes hostile environment, that produces difficulty. In getting to brilliant, the sharp, cutting edges of difficult are often forged.
The use of the term difficult can be confusing. It is usually an invidious epithet, used to demean and discredit people who are principled, forthright, and too direct for the comfort of more powerful or more compromised others. In this usage, it is often misogynist or aimed at others who are socially or politically marginalized (racialized minorities, queer and trans people, colleagues from working class backgrounds, supporters of Palestinian freedom). In this usage it is a weapon of psychologized political and cultural war. Combined with the epithet crazy this kind of labeling can be a very effective tool. I’ve been on academic hiring committees where every single senior woman of color nominated was considered either not accomplished enough (because on so many committees etc. as an institutional and professional token), or if clearly accomplished, she is difficult or crazy (because of refusal to function as an over-committed token).
Lauren was brilliant and therefore difficult in this sense. They irritated complacent gatekeepers. But there was something else to the description difficult, something familiar to me in my own life as a difficult person, and to many of those close to me. There was some kind of missing social radar, some imbalance in sensitivities (bracingly described in Anna McCarthy’s short stories about Thorny Acres, co-housing for difficult people). Lauren was easily hurt, but sometimes weirdly unperceptive when they hurt students, colleagues, friends and comrades. This is a common kind of imbalance in assertive, ambitious people with a sense of unbelonging. Always already hurt by the persistent experience of rejection, the push through despite the barriers can develop insensitivity that becomes too cutting, too pervasive. More unquestioningly privileged and complacent people are often grossly insensitive to others of course, but they are not usually so easily hurt themselves. They are not called difficult or crazy, but maybe just jerks.
Lauren Berlant’s stunning achievement is that they used their uncanny sensitivity to see the affective impact of power over time, to analyze the dominion of neoliberal capitalism’s cruelties in daily lives of struggling precarity, but also to mine the utopian wishes embedded in otherwise crushed hopes. Their imperviousness helped them put their genre bending work out there despite not fitting any disciplinary or theoretical mold. Lauren’s alchemical trick was to turn the everyday life of difficulty into the dazzling light of brilliance.
Lisa Duggan is professor in the department of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author most recently of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed (2019).