The Unfinished Business of Lauren Berlant

Ann Cvetkovich

Feminists are still made violently minor in institutional, public sphere, and everyday life contexts. We are considered less rigorous, more sentimental, more “tribal,” more merely subcultural and subnational, more merely lesbian, sexually pathological, or just sexual than others whose vital relation to their work seems, nonetheless, to be less personally motivated. —Lauren Berlant, “’68, or Something”

Even before Lauren got cancer, I was feeling some urgency around making sure that the origin story for the affective turn included all the work that proto-queer feminists of our generation did to make space, or infrastructure as Lauren might say, for scholarship on women’s popular genres – stigmatized sometimes even within feminism itself because our objects were seen as non-feminist, or even anti-feminist, and hence an embarrassment.  It’s definitely a zone for female complaint, as the above passage from “”68 or Something,” which was published in Critical Inquiry in 1994, suggests. 

Indeed, Critical Inquiry, like its University of Chicago home base, is one of those places where Lauren fought to make institutional space both for their own work – and in its wake for that of others.  This effort was visible in their infrastructure-making role as both special issue editor and editorial board member for the journal.  In the special issue on “Intimacy,” for example, catalyzed by the emergence of queer theory, they framed the title concept as a capacious tent that connected and affirmed scholarship on domesticity, sex, and feelings that could be minoritized as belonging to the domain of the feminine.  But I know they still struggled to make that space for others, once they were able to make it, however precariously, for their own ideas.  I remember trying to write something for that special issue that we both knew would never make it through the review process – but through thinking of Lauren as an audience for it, bits and pieces of that writing found its way into an essay for Our Monica, Ourselves, the collection they co-edited with Lisa Duggan, and An Archive of Feelings (whose keyword  “archive” owes a lot to the “I hate your archive” of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City), and beyond.  In both conversations and written exchanges, Lauren encouraged the associative logics that are present in The Hundreds and were cultivated in the salons and other experimental formats we organized and participated in together.  Already in “’68 or Something,” they are aiming for a different understanding of the entanglements of thinking and writing: 

The aim of criticism in this light is not redemptive. It is not to perform retrospective hallowing responses to events, or to texts about events. Trying, and failing, it keeps the event open, animating, and vital. The aim is then for criticism to generate its objects, to construct unexpected scenes out of the materials it makes available.

“’68 or Something” is a beautiful and crazy essay that exemplifies the experimental daring of Lauren’s writing.  Although it points towards the future, it does so by looking to a recent and very personal past, and I remember my excitement about its vindication of the utopian visions of another possible world that Lauren and I – both born in 1957 and hence still just 10 years old in May ‘68 and the summer of love the year before – were young enough to absorb   unencumbered by practical exigencies.  But we were also old enough to have endured the crises at home that, as much as the crises in the streets, pushed us in queer directions and made us want to escape to a somewhere else, or into books.  I see our shared generational history in “’68 or Something”’s efforts to advance an understanding of political transformation and its sometimes deflated aftermath in which affects of all kinds are embraced.   The essay anticipates so much thinking to come around public feelings, political depression, and reparative ways of being through its willingness: 

to confront, in the mode of a powerful ambivalence, the centrality of waste, failure, loss, pain, and chagrin to the project of inciting transformation itself. Apart from providing a basis for the paternalistic virtue dominant cultures claim when dissident movements fold, what does it mean for a movement, a politics, a social theory to fail? How might political breakdown work as something other than a blot, or a botched job?  

I would suggest also that political failure as a felt experience feeds into an interest in women’s popular genres – and the unfinished business of sentimentality – that is also part of my shared generational inheritance with Lauren.  We were not second-wave feminists, but were instead profoundly shaped by its failures and conflicts; we were pro-sex feminists who refused to disavow pornography, and theory heads critical of essentialisms.  My own interest in ambivalence and failure as political feelings sent me to a dissertation and first book called Mixed Feelings – nominally on the Victorian sensation novel, but also on Marx’s affective mode of documentary, and George Eliot’s politics of sympathy.  It was forged in the crucible of graduate training in high theory that I shared with Lauren at Cornell – and which we put to work in a critical relation to romance, sentimentality, sensationalism, melodrama, gothic, and other suspect narrative genres that ran against the grain of second-wave feminist work that celebrated women authors.

We were making it up as we went along, drawing not just from feminism but from critical theory, popular culture consumption, and lived experience, that, yes, included our feelings.  In the high theory world of Cornell, we had access, of course, to deconstruction and poststructuralism but we were also trying to combine that with Marx, Freud, Foucault, and feminism, embracing the tensions without trying to resolve them, anticipating what would become queer theory and affect theory.  And the mash-up of theory with the novel and other narrative genres – present in the work of DA Miller, Eve Sedgwick, Fred Jameson, Cathy Davidson, Nancy Armstrong, Jane Tompkins, Jan Radway, and others just ahead of us, was hugely generative.   Lauren started with Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter’s “love plot,” and I began with George Eliot and “sympathy” because that was the canon we were given, but we were able to crack them open as other texts came into view through the work of feminist historical recovery – for me the sensation novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood, for Lauren Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fanny Fern (a major historical inspiration for the notion of “female complaint”), and slave narrative.  The unfinished business of sentimentality comes out of the queer juxtaposition of high theory and low genre, and a recognition that the cultural work of “national fantasy” within these popular genres explained the failures of abolition politics to eliminate racism, and the ongoing problem of white women’s tears as an inadequate expression of anti-racist sympathies.

From the From the beginning, Lauren’s work exemplified what are now called intersectional approaches to race, gender, and sexuality – although it’s also the result of a critical framing of capitalism and systemic structures, as well as an irreverence towards women’s literature.  Their first publication in Critical Inquiry (in 1988) was about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple – not a venue where you would expect an essay on that novel – even though it was then being quickly canonized by those interested in women’s literature and Black feminisms.  Under Lauren’s scrutiny as a highly imaginative close reader, The Color Purple is almost unrecognizable, read up one side and down the other and situated in a dizzying array of frames.  Writers like Walker – or Toni Morrison and Michelle Cliff in “68 or Something” — are part of Lauren’s repertoire of both critical theory and American literature, also exemplified by their turn to films such as Imitation of Life and Showboat that enlarge the scope of The Female Complaint to situate women’s genres as indispensable to a racialized understanding of American cultural and affective politics.  The unfinished business of sentimentality is the counterpart to the “afterlife of slavery,” and Saidiya Hartman’s critique of the sentimental dynamics of sympathy and spectacle in “scenes of subjection” confirms the stakes of the affective dynamics we were also trying to describe. 

We had a critique of feelings, but we also had a lot of feelings, including ambivalent and mixed ones.   I’m trying here to make vivid the structure of feeling that inspired efforts to forge space for the minor, the stigmatized, the queer, the ordinary, the excessive, and the female complaint in the fraught terrain of feminist debates about essentialism, sex wars, anti-racism, and the expression of feelings.  Sometimes the only way we could have feelings in public was to critique them – and the animus of “‘68 or Something” comes from the struggle to invent a different kind of critical practice, including a writing practice, that has been famously encapsulated in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “reparative.”  It’s a reparative that never shies away from the difficulty of the social, or the inconvenience and unbearability of others, that is revealed by tuning in to affect. Across their career, Lauren wrestled with the back and forth between having feelings and critiquing feelings, moving in close to felt experience and attachments to objects and moving out to systemic and theoretical analysis.  Over time, they refined the art of the sentence so that the oscillations of their mind in motion were embedded in syntactical structures that go in many different directions in their associative movements across citations and cases.  Lauren sought to avoid the dog-paddling that is such a vivid image for the experience of impasse, and they searched for something other the cruel optimism of the hand that reaches into the fridge for the food that will not satisfy – but only because of a deep knowledge of what it feels like to be stuck.  I want to recognize this origin story for affect theory — the unfinished business of sentimentality (and other women’s genres) and the experience of being a queer girl with a lot of feelings.


Ann Cvetkovich is director of the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton University. Here email address is anncvetkovich@cunet.carleton.ca


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One response to “The Unfinished Business of Lauren Berlant

  1. Pingback: Losing Lauren Berlant | In the Moment

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