Untitled, for Lauren

Dana Luciano

The first thing Lauren ever said to me? “I see you’re the kind of person who uses exclamation points!” We’d just been introduced; they were sitting in front of me at a lecture (some queer-theoretical something or other, I imagine; it was the fall of 1993), and they’d glanced down at the pad on which I’d been scribbling notes—punctuated, evidently, with exclamation points. (I was young.)  It was pure Lauren, funny, with a caustic edge neutralized by charm: they were teasing me, but it was also their way of asking what had so excited me about the lecture. I have no idea, all these years later, what excited me about the lecture. It’s been replaced in my memory by the momentousness of an encounter that would turn into mentorship, then a friendship, that would energize me for decades to come.

Lauren had a preference for the ellipsis. An ellipsis, for them, marked a number of distinct, even contradictory, possibilities in the break it made between a sentence’s beginning and its end. An ellipsis could be “a figure of loss or plenitude.” They described their own thought as elliptical in that it grounded itself in concepts while seeking to remain live, in process, to permit “unfinishedness” and movement. If you’ve read even a paragraph of their writing, you know how precise it was, how closely it followed the contours of their thought. But part of Lauren’s brilliance was how keenly open they were to not knowing everything already. New objects, complicated concepts, other people’s experiences and ideas extended opportunities to learn a thing or two, to be surprised by an unexpected observation, an intriguing impulse. And being present to such opportunities meant maintaining both a fierce attentiveness and a certain porosity, remaining, as they wrote of José Muñoz, “open, interested and attracted to the surprises” that punch holes in the present which enable us to catch sight of the possibility of worlds beyond the historical present, and perhaps to experience touches of them.   

Lauren described their later critical method as reading with. Reading with texts, with collaborators, with friends, meant attending closely to the strangeness of their ways of thinking, writing, being, so that one might be disturbed. It exposed one to moments of nonsovereignty—not world-shattering, just experiences of double-vision, “see[ing] with the perspective of an object, while also moving through the world in your difference from it,” meant to shift things a little.[1] They possessed a related and remarkable talent for being with colleagues, students, loved ones. They weren’t superhuman; like everyone else they could be distracted, exhausted, annoyed, bored. But when they showed up, they managed to magnetize and redistribute whatever needed to be in the room. An entry on their blog, Supervalent Thought, narrates the experience of giving a visiting lecture and seminar, tired out from being on all the time, sick of their own voice and feeling inadequate, yet still reminding themself to be present, to be “game,” to keep the conversations in “a circulation mode that allows an exchange of fluid in the middle of the water crisis now and always coming.” No romance of blissful community; they were too attentive to the less romanticizable affects—ambivalence, aggression, distraction, detachment—for that. But the kind of sustenance that managed to remind one of the world-altering possibilities resonating out from the “noise of relation’s impact.”[2]

How do you mourn someone like Lauren? Freud tells us that the world, for the mourner, becomes “poor and empty”; that the mourner loses interest in the outside world, turning away from activities not connected with the lost object as they sift through memory images connected with them.[3] But every memory of Lauren reminds me of their interestedness, their attentiveness. Even their writing on modes of detachment—flatness, withdrawal, humorlessness, suicidal ideation—finds in these means of staying in the world. I’ve never been entirely at ease with Freudian mourning; its tidy depiction of the ego’s narcissistic need to sever its attachment to the lost object seems to bypass the possibility of maintaining some degree of nonsovereignty, both as affective necessity and as ethical orientation. At the same time, I’m not wholly persuaded by the revisionary claims of queer melancholia—its conversion of the melancholic inability to decathect from the dead into a defiant refusal to abandon them—even though I’m moved by its utopian aspirations. But its marshalling of affect as resistance leaves too little room for the pain of loss, the thudding recollection that the object is really gone. More than once, writing this, I’d muse over what Lauren might have meant by a word or a phase—ellipses, really?—and think I’ll ask her, then blink, the hand that had already been reaching for the phone balling itself into an anguished little fist instead.

Yet grief’s unbearable withoutness demands some form of being-with, some way of sustaining the presence of the object as we try to make worlds out of whatever we have left. Lauren’s description of José, above, came from a paper they wrote, some years after his death, about Cruising Utopia, a paper that worked through the ongoing incomprehensibility of his death by reading with his writing, closely and caringly, attending to his attention to queer comings-together. They wonder whether one of José’s embodying concepts could be extended to what they are doing in the paper, which is “staying near a body who at this point is a referent, concept, and memory and whose voice, which is part of the body after all, still chatters away in my and many of our heads.” The paper is loose, unrevised, bearing the impress of the event at which it was presented. I don’t know if they later reworked it, but I like this version: it carries their own voice so palpably with it.

The night after Lauren died, wanting to hear their voice however we could, Dana S., Jordan, and I pulled together a flash online memorial, a small happening based on an idea Lauren themself had given me. They’d been asked to say a few words honoring José at some queer event a month or so after his death, but they didn’t want to speak alone. Instead, they suggested, we could make it collaborative, everyone bringing four sentences of Jose’s that they loved and reading them aloud, loudly. The event never happened for some reason, but the idea, like so many of Lauren’s, stayed with me over the years, and we thought it might begin to shift the weight of our loss the tiniest bit. A few dozen people signed on, a few dozen Zoom windows, glimpses into a few dozen rooms. We read our sentences. Mine were about what we do when we revise a sentence. I finished them quickly and then listened to the buzz of so many people giving voice to Lauren’s words. It seemed to take a long time to finish. After we did, we all looked at one another, moved and a bit uncertain. Someone asked if we could collect our sentences. A Google doc was created. Then Anjali told a deliberately terrible joke to close things, and we all waved at one another and signed off.

In the paper about José, Lauren adapts Bracha Ettinger’s term withnessing, which they gloss as “staying alive in sync with a situation of loss.” They use it to describe the activation of queer energy in protest—Jose’s account of a vigil for Matthew Shepard that turned into a defiant march against all homophobic violence, a queer presencing on the street that insisted, in Lauren’s words, “on the right to the version of the city it want[ed].” I don’t know if they’d accept my own adaptation of the term to a loss differently instantiated, a staying-alive differently paced. But if a version of withnessing can index our (myriad, ongoing) demonstrations of the living-on of the vitalizing effect of Lauren’s practices of reading- and being-with, even in the situation, our situation, of withoutness, then it’s a word I want, as long as their words remain to us.     

One of the last things Lauren said to me, a sentiment they shared, I think, widely: “I still look forward to waking up. I hope you do too.” Waking up to a world without Lauren is hard. It leaves me flailing. The hopefulness, and now the heartbreak, of those sentences devastates, but also sustains me. I don’t think that will ever stop. I hope not.

Dana Luciano is associate professor in the Departments of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, where she teaches queer studies, nineteenth-century US literatures, and environmental humanities.

[1] Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1 no. 2 (2018): 161.

[2] Berlant, “Afterword,” in Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, N.C., 2014), p. 250.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London, 1957), 14:246.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

2 responses to “Untitled, for Lauren

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

  2. Tina

    Thanks for these loving, sharp, words, Dana…TZ

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