Category Archives: Lauren Berlant

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

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After Lauren

Katie Stewart

Lauren hated academic politics. 

Collaboration took its ferocious place. A bossy push for associational thinking together.

She wanted reaction; she wanted to be edited; she wanted reciprocity.

It was hard to keep up with her. She’d wait.

Our phone calls were long in the tooth. Stories with back stories and speculations, each of us hanging on the other’s every word, she already typing notes, rewriting sentences, feeling-out a  structure of tentative lines around something that seemed to be showing-up.

A phone call accreted a world of words. 

It would open into the funny. The tip into play was the most serious thought we had. Company was in the riff. We held there like card players staring at the colorful miracle of a handful of queens arrived from somewhere, already shot through with intensity, already composing and decomposing.

We sharpened what words we had; we twisted off. Nothing was ever dismissed out of hand though thoughts failed. We’d land in a logic of one thing after another, fragments languishing, bodies laden in the skittish overwhelm of the crisis ordinary, an endless potential, good and bad.

I remember once after a hard session together in Berlin where things happened as we tried or failed to defend each other from attack she came up behind me and threw her arms around my neck like a monkey.

For Lauren, enduring was not a minimalist practice. She showed up.

For her, to be intellectual is to produce new forms for optimism by being in sync with someone, with something forming up in some rickety damaged world.

Work, after Lauren, is a binding to things ideas people smells we don’t know. The binding is what matters in the labor of making a more fitting world for the affects we have.

Kathleen Stewart is a professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas, Austin. She writes and teaches on affect, the ordinary, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment.


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Jenny Holzer

She was an ally.

“COHERENCE IS ALWAYS PROVISIONAL” is a warning and a belly laugh.

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On Being Difficult

Lisa Duggan

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). 


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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,

[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,

[13] Berlant, “For Example,” Supervalent Thought, 16 May 2012,  

[14] See Rebecca Traister, “The Game is Rigged,” The Cut: New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 2015,, 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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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.


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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.

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Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

The Affective Publics Reading Group (Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Kris Cohen, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, Rachel Furnari, Luis-Manuel Garcia Mispireta, Laura-Zoë Humphreys, Adam T. Jernigan, Andrew R. Johnston, Leigh Claire La Berge, Michelle Menzies, Anahid Nersessian, Scott C. Richmond, Jennifer Tyburczy)

In 2006, at the University of Chicago, in the wake of a class Lauren taught regularly called “Intimate Public Sphere,” a para-institutional form was born, in the university but not of it, nor about it—though definitely bruised by it. Lauren taught us that publics emerge through their orientation to common objects and scenes. The lesson was so vivid that we established our own “intimate public sphere” to supplement the institutional form of the classroom. Conventionally, this was a reading group. Affectively, it was a refuge from some of the more constraining ways that graduate school reproduces itself. We were a diverse bunch, hailing from anthropology, art history, literature, cultural studies, music studies, queer studies, performance studies, and film and media studies, all variously disenchanted with disciplinarity as we were coming to know it. We were galvanized to and by what Lauren often called a “concept-cluster:” the affective public.

AffPub is what we came to call the group. We all had some questions about how collective worlds were built, and lived, in relation to affects, questions that emerged in our own work, and that eventually changed what we had thought of as our own work. But we were also galvanized by Lauren, their work, their thinking, their commitment to improvising thought with others, their generosity, their laughter. We were all a little in love with Lauren and that slant and sly way they turned conversations on their head. We read and talked and met over food, we curated objects for each other, we invited guests. It’s not too much to say we became a world for each other, though that’s nothing we could have intended. Those conversations happened, they mattered, and they made our work and our relationship to our own disciplines more livable.

Lauren was remarkably horizontal about archives and objects of study: film melodramas, genre fiction, television series, blogs, zines, internet video, installation and conceptual art, songs, political slogans were all valid sources of both analytic insight and cultural theory. Informed by the omnivorous methodological frameworks of cultural studies as well as queer studies, they modeled to us a form of intellectual engagement with overlooked cultural artefacts that made our own projects seem possible. We were encouraged to program AffPub sessions that nourished our curiosity through queerly improper combinations of readings, multimedia, and everyday objects. This aspect of AffPub was especially meaningful to those of us who studied low-prestige topics and archives, who often contended with disciplinary marginalization in our home departments. Lauren was pivotal in making AffPub an oasis where exploratory, experimental, and playful thinking could flourish.

Some of us sought out Lauren’s mentorship because we are queer and sexually dissident. We wanted to write about sex, not only sexuality, as something so corporeally and excessively teeming that we knew our scholarship would be tested (endlessly) for legitimacy in academia. The institutions in which we were matriculated were devoted to reproducing canons of “great books” and great ideas but Lauren gave us a vocabulary to fight for ourselves, our work, and our worlds. Most importantly, they modeled for us experimental methods for analyzing and writing about scandal, censorship, zoning, and public performances of disgust to uncover these practices as well-honed political tools that silence and destroy all forms of difference. Lauren once said (something like this) to one of us, “Sex always involves some discomfort,” in and out of the sack. Lauren showed us how to bravely go to those sites of sexual discomfort, conflict, and backlash, to view them as portals for understanding culture’s deep-seated attachments to erotophobia, and to dream of queer world-making projects beyond these attachments. AffPub became one such site to dream and enact this distinctly queer, feminist, and anti-racist form of belonging.

One of the most important lessons from AffPub was how to read generously. Lauren embodied this in each meeting of the group, in every seminar they taught, and in their writing practice. Every text had something to teach, even (especially) texts we might think we already thoroughly understand. Lauren’s generous reading was an iteration of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick taught us to call “weak theory”: reading from the depressive position for news about one’s own world, anticipating surprise. Weak theory, it turns out, is really hard to do well. It requires admitting that one does not, quite, understand a scene, nor know how to go about understanding it. It demands improvisation. Weak theory requires orienting one’s sensorium to what is general in the personal. What in my own response does not simply belong to me? Lauren called this, in their own work, “dedramatization.” How might we desaturate the scene of scholarly encounter in such a way that admits of ambivalence, curiosity, not-knowing, impasse?

So much of the project of graduate school (at the University of Chicago, at that time) was oriented around proving oneself smarter than a text by exercising a bumptious and performative paranoia: I already know what this is. The vulnerability of weak theory’s reparative posture was often unimaginable in other spaces of graduate school. AffPub—oriented by Lauren’s example and also by the fellow travelers that were drawn to that example—was a space in which weak, and generous, and vulnerable, and excitable thought was not simply tolerated, but supported, elaborated, and encouraged. And, while this was certainly an explicit commitment on their part, it was also something they simply embodied: they knew how to be interested in just about everything, even and especially the tentative, incipient thinking of their students.

When designing a syllabus, Lauren sought to organize readings as an opening toward conceptualizations that didn’t yet exist. They wanted the classroom to be a space where students might collaborate to open new avenues of thought about a set of topics and texts. To encourage such thinking, they cultivated a climate that would make room for the likes of ineloquence and discomposure. Lauren understood that some of the most generative moments in a classroom happen when students take the risk of sharing a “half-formed thought”; and Lauren was careful to reassure such students that the rest of us would provide a holding to help them finish the thought. They gave students permission to exercise their intelligence beyond their expertise, to experiment with what it might be possible to say about a text, and to throw language at an intellectual problem until something would stick.

Yet Lauren was also keenly attuned to the ways in which affects circulate in the classroom. For example, they were attentive to the ways in which students form attachments to the classroom as a catalyst for self-transformation. They wanted students to experience the pleasure that can result from having their minds stretched and expanded. And they worked hard to foster a space where students might experiment with being together in new and enlivening ways. During one of our last AffPub meetings, Lauren waxed poetic about the kinds of events that bring a diverse range of people together around a shared passion: events such as art openings, poetry readings, and protest marches. Lauren observed that such events give people an experience of what a better world might “feel like,” then speculated that such feelings might be leveraged toward utopian world-building. It couldn’t have been clearer, to those of us who were lucky enough to have them as a teacher, that Lauren sought to foster those feelings in the classroom too.

During discussions in courses or AffPub meetings, Lauren encouraged and modeled forms of intellectual empathy and exploration. This often came through an intense listening and discussion of the stakes of a thought or even the group’s conversation. Lauren would help carry a new thought or idea further with the group, but they also modeled a process of generative thinking with others. Even if the thought was tentative, experimental, or abandoned, its working through was the point, and became the practice that we shared and that helped consolidate this group. In moments like these, Lauren showed us how intensity could shed its pejorative associations and generate forms of pleasure and joy. There was care in these acts and in the time they took to help create the community and spaces where that could happen.

Not all of our members shared a common theoretical idiom. “The object” Lauren always said. In psychoanalysis, the object is a subject; but in Marxism, the subject is often the object. That’s quite a conceptual bridge, and yet who better to cross it with than Lauren?

Somewhere between these two transmutations, among others, our AffPub gatherings found common ground. It’s unusual to genuinely delight in an interlocutor’s thought process, but with Lauren’s thought that was a regular occurrence for many in our group. There were certainly more Marxist-oriented members of our group, and indeed, plenty of Marxist-oriented theorists turn to psychoanalysis. Less often, however, do psychoanalytically oriented critics, particularly in Lauren’s preferred Relational Psychoanalysis, turn toward economic criticism. Lauren was an exception. “Love is the commodity form of subjectivity,” they once wrote.  No one used psychoanalysis like Lauren, but their usage of it contained an odd affinity with political economy.  Most people who study Marxism seem to accept some fidelity to its politics in their daily life. Those who study class struggle might honor a picket line; those who talk of revolution might join an uprising—a minimum it should be said. Not so, however, for those who study psychoanalysis—they do not, it seems, tend to be more aware, more self-conscious, less repressed. Lauren was distinct in this regard, too; the seminar room was, for them, the couch and the couch, a site for education. In one sense, Lauren followed Freud in grouping education and psychoanalysis together; he called them both “impossible professions,” ones whose goals could never be achieved. In a more profound sense, however, Lauren differed from the master: for them, everything indeed was possible, if only one adapted one’s scale to all vectors of perceived transformation. 

Risk. For us an enduring facet of Lauren’s mentorship and way of being in the world is bound up with risk as a self-conscious dimension of their ethics. They modeled how to live with it, and the importance of doing so. Intellectual risk pervaded their utterance: the vertiginous quality of their discourse, and the sense of air that expanded the room as they listened intently, reframed, synthesized, summarized, and addressed—acutely, often tenderly—the inarticulate remnant behind what was said.  

Something about this atmosphere of liveness and curiosity and expansiveness allowed our reading group to form a meaningful collective and remain one for many years. Rare for the context, Lauren was uninvested in disciplinary reproduction. Far more vital was the question of how to articulate and maintain a relationship to one’s passions, and thus to various forms of precarity. Perhaps for these reasons, for many of us AffPub remains a touchstone for what intellectual collaboration can be.

Many of us have said that Affpub was a kind of sanctuary, a shelter from some of the cruelties of the university, a place where their work and interests were honored. But it was also possible to feel like an interloper. Not because people were unwelcoming; quite the opposite, there was a wonderful sense of intimacy, comfort, and trust between us. But there were also times of feeling completely lost in the conversation, utterly confused, and even downright stupid. So many things one had never questioned before, never thought to think about, suddenly appeared incredibly complicated. What is a feeling? What does your enjoyment mean? How does this thing work? What does it do? Surrounded by brilliant, welcoming people who spoke a language that seemed familiar, yet totally alien, you’d find yourself wondering whether any word meant what you thought it did. And it taught us how you could think (and feel) differently, how you had all kinds of knowledge that you weren’t even aware of, how anything could become a question. It taught us to theorize.

An enduring memory of those many conversations is an echoing refrain of Lauren’s voice, saying “And isn’t that so interesting.”

Lauren repeatedly told us that they were not in charge of AffPub, we were, and this empowered us to approach thought in newly collaborative ways in an institution that could sometimes feel anything but. As a dissertation advisor (which Lauren served as for many of us), they brought this same interest in encouraging students to follow their own creativity and lines of thought. As so many have noted, Lauren had a particular knack for listening intently. For one of us, Lauren was the advisor she turned to when she was still at a stage where the ideas were nothing but fuzzy intuitions. She would spill words searching for that something she could sense was there and yet couldn’t quite articulate and Lauren would push her thoughts further then give them back to her, shot through with their own brilliance and in a more concrete form that made getting to the writing always more desirable than it had been before they spoke. Despite working outside of our specific subfields, Lauren often seemed to work harder (for us) than could be reasonably expected, giving us copious and transformative feedback.

But most of all, what Lauren brought to their role as advisor was kindness and a practicality that always took into account students’ precarity. For many of us, Lauren was often willing to be present for and hold difficult feelings as we learned to navigate our way through institutional politics. At the collective level, Lauren’s commitment to graduate students showed when they supported the graduate-student unionization effort, in which many members of AffPub were involved, when few faculty did. Even for those of us for whom Lauren was “only” a third or even fourth, or fifth, member of a committee, Lauren was often the one who showed up on a practical level, whether by guiding advisees through mock job interviews or coaching us through negotiating jobs. For some of us, Lauren remained an important mentor and friend even after we graduated, listening to our mixed feelings about the jobs we moved into or brainstorming and playing with ideas about new projects. In a recent message, Lauren wrote to one of us, “don’t let the profession infect your infectious interest in things.” More than anything, what Lauren modeled was this: an infectious interest in people and things that they kept alive in themself and in others, often in spite of the university and the ways it so often works against the flourishing of so many people.   

When we learned that Lauren had died, we looked for AffPub. On email, via text message, WhatsApp, and Zoom, we found one another as if we were walking into one of the free seminar rooms wrangled for our monthly meetings, even though some of us had not spoken in several years. We cried, complained, made jokes, and had ideas together. We remembered why we joined AffPub in the first place, and that, as Lauren used to say, the great thing about AffPub is that it exists because people show up to it. We are grateful to Lauren for showing up for us. We are grateful to them for carrying our optimism and our rage. We will use what they taught us to carry our grief.

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The Berlant Opening

Caleb Smith

An opening might be a welcoming ceremony or it might be an attack. At an artist’s opening, guests are invited to see new work for the first time; in a game like chess, one player’s opening calls for the other’s defense. An opening sets the terms for an encounter, hospitable or hostile, and it is rarely just one or the other. Sometimes an apparent weak spot, a gap in the armor, is really an alluring trap. Sometimes what looks like aggression turns out to be an invitation to play along. Lauren Berlant’s opening sentences bristle with this ambivalence. That’s what draws me back to them just now.

Opening can mean timeliness, a window of opportunity. I am approaching Berlant as a writer, a sentence-maker whose ideas are inextricable from their composition in carefully arranged sequences of words. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant writes, “The problem of detaching from the normal applies to writing criticism” (p. 21). I take this to mean that the political and intellectual task of detaching ourselves from normality—getting some distance from customary, compulsive habits—is, among other things, a writing problem.

Genre makes reading easier, and it also imposes restraint, more or less invisibly, conducting its audiences from once upon a time to a familiar conclusion. This is one reason why Berlant expresses a “need to invent new genres” for speculative work on the page (p. 21). The Berlant opening, at once an invitation and a provocation, is by design disorienting, detaching from the normal so that it might open onto other, less familiar horizons. Closely reading some of Berlant’s opening sentences, I am going to use the literary present to treat them as ongoing but not ahistorical gambits. I attend to how Berlant begins things, rather than the ways they end.

1. “Nations Provoke Fantasy”

The opening sentence of the Introduction to The Anatomy of National Fantasy (1991) contains just three words. The reader comes upon just the bare bones of a plot: a subject, a verb, and an object. There is no article, definite or indefinite. What allows for this economy is Berlant’s use of the plural; the subject is nations, generally. Still, everyone knows which nation the book will focus on. The Statue of Liberty is on its cover.

With just a little modification, the opening line from Berlant’s first book might serve as a topic sentence for most of their work, across what they called their “national sentiment trilogy” and beyond. This nation provokes fantasy.

The sentence Berlant does give us is a premise, rather than a claim. That nations provoke fantasy is an observation, a starting-point. That such fantasies are rich, significant objects of study—that they have real force and consequences—is the book’s wager. Provoke, from the Latin pro and vocare: to call forth or summon, but also to challenge, to disturb. Provocation is an act of verbal magic with a hint of violence.

In the long run, over the course of The Anatomy of National Fantasy, the positions of subject and object, cause and effect, become unstable, even reversible. The reader will be provoked into asking: What if fantasies are substantial and fateful in a way that nations really aren’t? What if there are no nations, only fantasies?

In the example that Berlant turns to in the subsequent sentence, an image from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” a decommissioned government official imagines himself as a walking corpse, headless and absurd. Charged with castration anxiety, it is a fantasy of dispossession, exclusion, even murder by the state. The anatomy of national fantasy begins with a diagnosis of wounded entitlement. Grotesque images of violence and victimization arise not only from within the circle of political belonging but also from the margins. 

2. “Something Strange Has Happened to Citizenship”

The opening sentence from The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (1997) is a line of pentameter in the mode of the forensic. Readers arrive at the scene of a crime. We observe effects, and we are invited to speculate about their causes. An unspecified event has taken place. Berlant withholds its character, except to call it strange. What is it?

In the phrase “something strange,” I can’t help hearing the earworm theme song from Ghostbusters: “If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?” One cultural critic has interpreted the Ghostbusters remake using Berlant’s theoretical work as a guide. The film is a mystery with a heavy dose of the supernatural. In this way it is a lot like American national fantasy.

The strange thing that has happened is the intrusion of private, intimate matters into public life, a “process of collapsing the political and the personal” (p. 1). The collapse is so total that there is no genuine public sphere, no arena of depersonalized and disinterested arguing about law. Instead, there is an emotionally saturated scene of public intimacy, populated by children, fetuses, and “citizen-victims” whose vulnerability is their main claim to authority (p. 1). “A citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States” (p. 1).

Berlant does not simply mourn the loss of some earlier, putatively tougher-minded style of politics. They find the transformation curious—“startling” and “moving”—and it draws them in for a closer examination.

3. “Everyone Knows What the Female Complaint Is: Women Live for Love, and Love Is the Gift That Keeps On Taking”

Introducing The Female Complaint (2008), Berlant seems to say that the topic needs no introduction. The female complaint is a matter of general agreement, common sense. Being a woman entails a special kind of grievance, and everyone knows already just what kind.

In making this opening gesture, invoking something everybody knows, Berlant creates a problem for the prose that follows. The sentence will have to express not just its author’s idea but also something larger, more nebulous, a notion entertained by everyone. How do you ventriloquize everyone? Berlant does it by manipulating cliches. There’s a pair of them, conjoined: “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”

Berlant plays the first one straight. Women live for love. The reader is supposed to recognize this proposition, almost as if it were a quotation, not a quotation from any particular love song or story but a citation of our whole culture’s ready-to-hand wisdom. Berlant is saying something that anyone might say.

Women live for love. It is a generic statement, and it is a statement about genericness. It is not for any special beloved that women live. They live for the loving. Their lives are devoted not to an object but to attachment itself.

This first cliché is followed by a second, and the second one comes with a twist: “love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Berlant has lifted and revised an expression out of advertising’s lexicon. The gift that keeps on giving is a stock phrase from radio and television commercials. It has also become a campy euphemism for sexually transmitted disease, one of the ways that love can hurt. But love in the opening line of The Female Complaint does not keep on giving. It takes. It keeps on taking. It is a gift that keeps and takes.

Rehearsing a gendered cultural script, but doing so imperfectly, messing it up, making a crucial difference that disturbs its self-reproducing design: Berlant has composed a sentence that enacts something close to the theory of performativity, as laid out by one of their interlocutors, Judith Butler. The phrase “the female complaint” itself might be read as a reworking of Butler’s famous title, Gender Trouble. But Berlant’s writing here is unlike Butler’s. It operates with a different kind of estrangement, a different kind of critical distance from the popular cultural scripts that it will analyze.

Berlant makes a new cliché out of an older one. The same thing happens all the time in American popular culture, for instance in country music. Take the lyrics “I’ve got friends in low places” or “what doesn’t kill you makes your story longer.” Like Berlant’s “love is the gift that keeps on taking,” these are lines about attachment, describing flawed relations that endure.

What’s more, you could set this sentence of Berlant’s, like some popular songs, to ballad meter:

Everyone knows what the female complaint is:

            Women live for love,

And love is the gift that keeps on taking.

It works almost perfectly, though it is incomplete. The final line, a tetrameter to match “women live for love,” would be the missing piece. It seems to have been taken.

4. “A Relation of Cruel Optimism Exists When Something You Desire Is Actually an Obstacle to Your Flourishing”

Cruel Optimism (2011) opens with a definition. Another writer might have worked their way more cautiously toward the concept. One might have started with an anecdote, then made some generalizations about the case, before endeavoring to coin the term: this is the type of relation that I call cruel optimism. Berlant does not work that way, this time. They begin by establishing the crucial, killer idea.

A relation of cruel optimism exists. It is out there, a reality. It is not an attitude; it is a relation, one that takes shape on certain occasions. It happens when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Take warning, though: you are not the subject of this clause. Grammatically speaking, something else is the subject. It is the object of your desire, the obstacle to your flourishing. Your flourishing is its victim.

Actually is a funny word in this context, as it implies a paradox or a surprise. Berlant’s actually does indicate that cruel optimism is the exception, rather than the rule. Berlant will entertain but also dismiss the notion that all optimism should properly be called cruel.

Meanwhile the interjection actually also bears a further significance, one about the optimist instead of the optimism: it suggests that you are not aware of your predicament. Berlant is explaining things to you. You think the thing you desire will help you flourish if you get it, but you’re wrong. In fact, at present, that very thing is messing you up. What is the cruel opposite of flourishing? Is it wilting? Withering? That’s what the thing you desire is doing to you, actually. The good news is that it is not the only thing.

Extraordinarily, Berlant is writing about cruelty without making punitive judgments. Berlant writes with rigor and feeling but not with piety, never in jeremiads. Cruel Optimism does not condemn the optimist. Rather than policing anyone’s desire, it makes descriptions, and in the end it affirms (not without ambivalence) the necessity of attachment.

Again, Berlant articulates high hopes for what language can do in opening less cruel relations. “The urgency,” they write before ending, “is to reinvent, from the scene of survival, new idioms of the political, and of belonging itself, which requires debating what the baselines of survival should be in the near future, which is, now, the future we are making” (p. 262).

Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Elizabeth Freeman


Who would I show it to

—W. S. Merwin

Lauren Berlant provoked fantasy.  That wasn’t (usually) Lauren’s fault, and it must have been a burden to bear.  Someone I’m close to said, the day of her death, that now they had to give up the dream of writing something good enough for Lauren to notice.[1]  And I’m now tasked with discussing what Lauren taught us about X, hoping she would not hate whatever I will write, exactly the kind of projection that she recoiled from and that some might say prevents flourishing, though as you’ll see I beg to differ.  And I don’t know who “us” is anyway.  I only know about me.  And I don’t know what X to choose: there were so many.  And I refuse any competition about who knew her best, who understands her work best, who is her legacy.  Fuck all that.  I have no theory.  I’ve only got a story to tell. 

When I was twenty-four, during my second quarter of graduate school in 1991, I took Lauren’s class, “Hawthorne and Power.”  During the third week or so, we read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.  I had moved to Chicago that summer, and that city’s chapter of Queer Nation had just begun meeting.  I went to Lauren’s office hours and mused that I wanted to write something for Out/Look, the late great magazine of queer criticism and commentary.  “I’m curious about putting ‘queer’ together with ‘nation,’” I said, “It seems oddly contradictory.  And I can’t help but think that it also has something to do with the corporate logo, the trademark.  I’m not sure.  Would you help me?”  Lauren swiveled around in her desk chair to face me and said, “Oh. We should write this together.”  I said, “That would be amazing.  But I think we’d have to be pretty meta about what it would mean to write across structural differences, a professor and a graduate student in the Humanities.”  Lauren swiveled back the other way, toward her desk.  “Never mind,” she said, “We shouldn’t write it together.”  I said, “That wasn’t what I meant.  I meant that it would involve a commitment to thinking about the institutional context.”  We began writing in the spring of 1991.

It is an understatement to say that whatever we thought and said to each other, we failed spectacularly to control the institutional context.  A grad student peer said I was selling out the movement by writing with a married straight woman (as if).  A faculty member stormed into her office and asked what the hell she was doing with me, implying that he knew very well.  Another faculty member treated the abstract I submitted for a seminar paper in Fall 1992 with drippingly contemptuous comments, the gist of which were “who do you think you are, Lauren Berlant?” People demanded to know which sentences I had written and which Lauren had written.  A quarter-century after the publication of “Queer Nationality” in boundary 2 (because the stakes got higher), someone asked me, was Lauren my domme?  Queer sex literalism, Lauren used to call it.  And anyway, in the 1990s, America was my domme.  Moving on: anyone who knows me well knows I cracked under the pressure, lost my footing and all intellectual confidence, and proceeded to fail equally spectacularly at everything connected to graduate school.  Lauren didn’t teach me this on purpose, but the academy hates two women, and yes, that’s how we identified then, working together.  There is no utopia uninflected by not only erotics (good!), but also other people’s sexual fantasies (maybe not so good), I had learned from Lauren’s teaching of The Blithedale Romance

But oh, the writing.  What I learned from Lauren about how to think with words.  Picture the two of us, glowing with health, in her apartment living room, as the Persian Gulf War flickered on the TV with the sound off, the Cocteau Twins played, and the AIDS epidemic raged around us.  We’d go over what each of us had written separately.  Lauren would read each sentence aloud and say, “But is that true?”  We’d hash it out: no, she said, that paragraph on tribes was racist and embarrassing; yes, we agreed, changing the P to Y in The GAP was genius; I don’t know, I said, isn’t this commitment to the anti-taxonomic and unintelligible just high Modernism?  She’d spin the verbs like gold—laminate, arrogate, smudge.  I was lucky to get to see that sometimes her first drafts were wandering and opaque and that she revised and revised and revised, and to actually help her by asking clarifying questions.  I was brave to present my clumsy, sophomoric renderings of actually halfway decent ideas to her.  She was generous to see through my commitment to the passive voice and to “that is,” extracting the usable ore.  I’d ride my bike home at 3 AM after these sessions, sobbing from the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep up with her, wishing, in my time-travelly way, that we were age-peers and could just go to the disco at Oberlin, which was both of our alma mater.  We were trying to build a world out of words: a safe inside for queer thinking and experimentation, a redrawing of the outside as already saturated with that inside unbeknownst to itself, a punk elsewhere not constituted by these boundaries. 

We were trying to do this while that world was also happening, as Lauren would continue to do.  She had an incredible capacity to be inside of something and still be thinking about it, dissecting it, unsettling it.  The cliché says “building the plane while it is flying.”  Foucault called it writing the history of the present; Marx called it writing the poetry of the future; I call it making a DIY now.  I used to say about Chicago, to prospective graduate students, that you had to be willing to build the culture there that you would need to survive, that it didn’t come preconstituted as an exciting “scene” to enter and consume the way it might at, say, Duke.  I learned how to do that at Oberlin, a fairly friendly institutional context,  and then from Lauren in the much more hostile context of the University of Chicago, where there were still gay bashings on the quads in 1990—to gather motley crews of people and make things out of photocopies and thrift store costumes and slogans and concepts until the sheer energy of that making felt like, well, a place to live for a while.  But Lauren was the motor of so many of those projects, not just the scrappy little queer one in which I knew her.  And she understood that the world, as a destination, was not the point: it was the attachments generated by making it that mattered. We would both go on to work in and help make a field whose collaborations—good, bad, awkward—are both vital and not guaranteed to last forever. 

After almost thirty years of often stilted conversation precipitated by our parting in the wake of the institutional reception of our work, in November 2020 Lauren texted to ask how I was.  Call me, I said.  And she did, and I told her I had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in June.  Terminal, like hers, though I was near the beginning and she was near the end.  How do you make a world out of cancer?  The endless subjection to medical techniques, the ungodly fear, the understanding that almost everything will continue to be without you getting to behold it?  All there is, it turns out, are the relationships you can sustain in the midst of it.  Lauren sent me a care package of keto chocolate, seasickness bands, a hundred mini-packs of oyster crackers for nausea, and a cell phone stand.  I puzzled over the last item until I realized that it was for when my hands were eventually too numb from chemo to text and my grip too weak to hold the phone up to talk, so that I could continue to commune with my people, continue to be attached to the world even if it would go on without me.  Lauren’s work on how to keep being attached, how to make spacetimes you could live in somehow, was, I think, initially about the depression we both battled: about how not to leave even when you desperately want to.  But finally, it was about the cancer we both endure(d): about how to stay attached even as you know you will be forced to relinquish, at some point, everything. 

In the end, our bodies, this time ravaged by treatment under our professional outfits, shared a pedagogical space that was tender again. Our last academic appearance together (and first since 1992) was, fittingly enough,  for a virtual panel on gay divorce, and eventually we were talking just to each other across the hyperspace of Zoom, about how last wills and testaments reconstitute family.  Lauren, my next of kin, I can’t believe I have to do this, make a world out of cancer, without you.   But then again, I’ve had to make a lot without you as anything but a projection, a melancholic lost object, a fantasy of someone to whom someday, I could show something that would prove how much I learned from you even after our intimacy foundered.  This, too, will have been a failure to do so.  But you might say to me, “I am not the point.  If having known me has helped you stay attached to the world, even to write, that will have been enough.”  And so here I am, for now.

Elizabeth Freeman is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of three books from Duke University Press:  The Wedding Complex (2002), Time Binds (2010), and Beside You in Time (2019).

I thank Bill Brown for not letting me not write this, Ethan Philbrick for bringing Lauren and me together for a panel for the last time, and Candace Moore and Stephanie Foote for offering helpful phrases and critiquing what must have been, for people who love me, very hard to read.

[1] I’m using “her” to refer to Lauren, because I find the turf battle over her pronouns exhausting.  As her partner Ian revealed shortly after her death, Lauren used “they” professionally and “her” interpersonally.  This is an essay about interpersonality.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

Love Is a Muscle

Michael Hardt

I have never met anyone more relentlessly intelligent than Lauren, more intensely present. 

I remember once saying to them – admittedly, a rather banal comment – that love is a muscle.  The more you use it, the more you work at it, the more you will be able to love and, conversely, disuse leads to atrophy.  Loving needs something like a workout regime.

You’re right, Michael, they responded, but you have to remember how violent the process is.  By exercising you are really ripping the muscles apart, creating thousands of micro-tears.  When blood flows to repair those tears is when you start feeling pain.  Only then, with the pain, do muscles grow.  Yes, love is like that.  Don’t forget the pain, the violence of attachment.  It’s inseparable from the joy.  (Lauren is a master at holding conflicting affects together, pain and joy, hope and despair.)

Lauren’s response about love and muscles resonates in an uncanny way with famous US Marine Corps motto, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  But, really, it’s just the opposite.  Rather than pain creating invincible warriors, here it is a sign of our becoming more able to be affected by others, more able to sustain and deepen our attachments.

One of the accomplishments of Lauren’s work that I continually return to is the way they elevate the power to be affected to a primary status.  To flourish, to experience joy, does require that we increase our power to act and to think, but equally important (and, perhaps, inseparable from this) is the need constantly to enrich our affective life, to increase our powers to be affected.  Being able to think and to act more powerfully is the result not of separation or shields but instead of being able to form more powerful attachments, being able to engage more openly with the world.  Hence the supreme power of the affects.

Now, after Lauren’s death, I’m not sure what to do with this pain.  I should remember that the sensation of tearing inside is inseparable from the joy of attachment and love.

Michael Hardt teaches political theory in the literature program at Duke, where he is also codirector of the Social Movements Lab.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

Triptych for Lauren

Virginia Jackson

I. The Function of Criticism

In 2015, before she got sick and after they turned down an offer from my university, I wrote an essay about Lauren’s work and what it meant to me.

That essay was a poor rehearsal for an elegy, since all I was mourning then was the chance to have them as a colleague, the missed opportunity to have her close.  I never imagined a world without her; instead, I selfishly and grandiosely thought that we could create a world together, and then I missed that fantasy world when it did not happen (they would have had a lot to say about that).  I see now (as I think she saw then) that world would have been impossible, but that’s the kind of thing Lauren made you believe: that the sum of [nothing is impossible] + [everything is impossible] = {some things must actually be possible}.  And they made you think that work—academic work!– could be a form of personally motivated communal expression, maybe even a way of making wishes come true.  I needed that reassurance at the time (I still do), and maybe it is also reassuring to confess that Lauren answered that need, though honestly, I am embarrassed to write about my deep affection for and attachment to Lauren in Critical Inquiry, since such public testimony translates so immediately into cultural capital, given who Lauren was and will continue to become.   They would have pointed that out, too.  In fact, they would have said that may be all criticism ever is.  Like that precarious sequence and like the pronouns in those sentences, my feelings then as now were and are a muddle of the personal and the professional:  as everybody can’t seem to stop saying these days, in recent years, Lauren used “she” for personal stuff and “they” for professional stuff, but the problem with this separation is that she was terrible at telling the personal from the public, the personal from the professional, the personal from the academic, the personal from, well, anything.  Whatever they did, there she was.  Now that they are gone, and she is, too, I see that what I wrote six years ago didn’t even come close to measuring our loss.

Lauren was a public figure, so of course they had a mediated life that was very different than her life with her cats and Ian.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I was not one of her best friends, though I loved her dearly, but probably like a lot of people, what I loved most was their work.  Like a lot of people, what I have thought has been made possible by what they thought.  That’s intimacy for sure, but many of us have such intimacy with Lauren’s work—if you pay attention, it demands it—which means that for the most part our intimacy remains silent and widely shared, like most good things.  Apart from our infrequent encounters and calls and texts, what I knew about Lauren was what I read.  But here’s the thing (and again, anyone will tell you this):  their work was not separable from her sheer Laurenness, her over-the-top, full-on, no-holds-barred approach to everything she thought or wrote or did.  I am only one of many people who wanted them to become a colleague, so many of you will know what I mean when I say that even though they never left Chicago, she was all in when it came to investing in the idea and relational dynamics of possible lives.  Just as there was no difference for Lauren between the personal and the professional, there was no doing anything halfway, no reserve, no remove.

I called the essay I wrote about Lauren’s work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” because I thought it was clever to make them into our contemporary Matthew Arnold.  He was a prig, they were anything but; he wanted to tell everyone what to do and they wanted to tell you to do more of what you really want to do; he wanted people to align their desires with the higher good; they told you to find out what your desires are if you want to know what’s good for you.  But like Arnold, I wrote, Lauren was a utopian thinker who knew that utopias are disappointing.  Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, The Anatomy of National Fantasy, even Sex, or the Unbearable and Desire/Love are all books about disappointment.  For Lauren, as for Arnold, “the true life of literature”—and not only of literature—was always “a promised land, toward which criticism can only beckon.”  The funny thing is that for the two of them, the promises weren’t really that different, though the response to being interpellated by those promises could not have differed more.  Arnold wrote that the promised land of literature “will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness”; Lauren told an interviewer on the “Society and Space” blog in 2013 that “it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects.  It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.” For them, exile was just the beginning. What I wrote six years ago was that “if for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment . . . but are instead signs and figures for shared world making.”  That present-tense “is” hurts, as does the fact that I see now that I was wrong.

The reason I was wrong was not only, as Lauren wrote, “the personal is the generic,” but because I thought that the difference between their criticism and Arnold’s was that he was settling and they were not.  But the truth is that Lauren was always settling, too.  And they settled in deeper and deeper, settled for more and more as well as less and less, settled in ways no one else has even considered settling, at least in print.  Matter of Flatness, one of the projects that Lauren was working on while she was ill (I’m hoping they finished it), turned from their earlier preoccupation with melodrama and melancholy in the books they called their “national sentimentality trilogy” toward what they began to call “structures of unfeeling.”  That phrase is not just a riff on Raymond Williams.  If for Williams, collective response could only be registered as a trajectory glimpsed in traces and symptoms and keywords, Lauren had moved beyond such tentative historiography long ago.  In Matter of Flatness, they were deep in the weeds of the multiplying genres of response that belong to the history of the present, and if the personal really is the generic (which it is), which belong to us.  They named these genres one after another, though they also began to see that these ways of being had also left modes of recognition instantiated in discourse behind, too, and so not only are they not exactly genres anymore, but there are also now too many to name: “worlds and events that would have conventionally predicted melodramatic performances of inflated subjectivity, intense relationality, and freighted social existence appear in this approach [the “recessive” approach of “flatness”] mutedly or aleatorily, in gestures and tones that could indicate a range of registers: from trauma-related psychic dissociation and punk style radical carelessness to ordinary dissipated, distracted, or loosely-quilted consciousness.  Events that would have been framed as tragic merge in not-quite-comic timbres that foreground enigmas of causality and the event in contemporary life, as seen in the difficulty of predicting the relation of freefall to pratfall, of suffering to enduring, of disturbance to trauma, and of incident to genre.”  Would have been framed as tragic?  So why not now?  Is Lauren’s death tragic, or is it caught somewhere between tragedy and an enigma of causality?  I am hung up on that last predictive enigma of “incident to genre.”  Lauren liked to say that we are all made out of genres, but what if we are not?  I don’t think she was.  I think they were an incident that never became generic because they were greater than the sum of all these parts, and because their modes of recognition had outpaced those of the rest of us.  We may never catch up.

2. Moulin Rouge

This morning silence is aftermath,

The quiet after the storm.

You were the storm.  You were also

Anything but a sequel.  You were

Those Toulouse-Lautrec dancers shouldering

Us all out of the way.  But then

You wanted to know how we felt

About that.  What I want to know

Is what you really wanted to know:

Did you get out of your way?

About suffering you were never wrong.

And then were you ever.

3. The Visit

A decade ago, Lauren invited me to give a talk at the University of Chicago.  I was of course honored and also very nervous.  Lauren booked a beautiful hotel room overlooking the city, and she picked me up at my hotel and drove me back and forth to Hyde Park for a couple of days.  She asked if I would visit her seminar before the talk, and I agreed.  When we got to the seminar, it turned out that the students had read one of my essays, and we had a conversation about that and a number of other pieces that put me on the edge of my seat.  In fact, we were all on the edge of our seats, because Lauren kept us there.  I cannot remember a thing they said, but I do remember the thrill.  Then I looked at my watch.  The seminar was supposed to have ended fifteen minutes earlier and my talk was about to start in fifteen minutes.  I tried to get Lauren’s attention, but they and the students were so deep in conversation I could not make eye contact.  So I stood up and said I had to go to my talk.  Lauren looked a little surprised, then said, oh sure, please go ahead, we’ll be there soon.  I found my way to the Franke Institute and walked into a room full of people waiting for me.  I asked around for someone to help set up the tech, and then Lauren and their students entered.  I started breathing again, and after their breathtakingly generous introduction, stopped breathing again, but somehow managed to make it through the talk.  I was so relieved at the end I could have cried, but then of course it was the University of Chicago, so the Q & A was a gauntlet.  At long last, the reception began, I was handed a glass of wine, and I felt lucky to have survived.  Then Lauren said the seminar hadn’t quite finished.  Was it OK if we ordered in and went back to work for a few more hours?  To my amazement, it was more than OK.  We did. 

Virginia Jackson is UCI Endowed Chair in Rhetoric in the departments of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.


Filed under Lauren Berlant

Remembering Lauren on 28 June 2021

W. J. T. Mitchell

“‘I didn’t think it would turn out this way.’”

That, according to Lauren Berlant, “is the secret epitaph of intimacy.”

It is also the most fitting epitaph for Lauren Berlant’s own career, not just as a critical theorist and scholar, but as a complex individual in an intimate space of thought and community. For Lauren was supposed to live forever. Now they have defied expectation once again and moved on to a place of silence, leaving us to assess what they meant to us, what they did for us, what they left us. The job is overwhelming and will require many more hands and brains than my own.

So let me start with the simplest facts. Lauren Berlant arrived in Chicago with a fresh PhD in American literature from Cornell in 1984. Lauren rode the crest of a wave of brilliant young arrivals who took over Chicago’s English Department from the old, mostly male, generation that was in charge when I arrived some ten years earlier. It quickly became evident that Lauren was perfectly suited to the ambitions of Critical Inquiry, which I had been editing since 1977. The journal was hot on the trail of new developments in the humanities and social sciences, with recent issues on feminism and race, politics and interpretation, and the fateful transformation in the human sciences that went by the name of “Theory.” Lauren joined our editorial board as an untenured assistant professor, a decision that was regarded by some as risky because the workload of a coeditor (300 pages of reading per month) was thought to be a distraction from what was called “one’s own work.” But Lauren’s work turned out to be all about others—their colleagues, friends, students, and an ever-expanding network of allies and interlocutors in fields other than literature. Anthropology, poetry, philosophy, sociology, political theory, psychoanalysis, critical legal studies, movements for Gay Rights, racial equality, immigrants, the list goes on of fields where their interventions made a difference. What exactly was that difference?

Let me begin with the obvious. It sometimes struck me, reading Lauren’s footnotes, that they never slept—or at least one of their many selves was always awake and watchful, even when dreaming. We often talked about our dreams and our writing, which somehow stretched across numerous territories, from ambition to fantasy to comic failure. Lauren provided the best advice I ever received about writing. In a response to one of my first drafts, Lauren told me: “Keep going. Once you get all the gas out of your system, the good shit is bound to follow.” Lauren did not merely write things that ventured into “other fields.” Constantly on the move, Lauren followed a question into the dark corners of “adult bookstores” and the laws that shut them down or moved them to “the waterfronts” of violence and poverty. Channel surfacing through the spaces of women’s magazines, late-night TV, kitsch and celebrity culture, Lauren once quoted to me a comment from a senior colleague: “I love your mind, but I hate your archive.” True enough. It was the wrong archive for an English professor. Not merely “popular culture,” but deeply unpopular, controversial, and marginal subcultures formed the habitus of Lauren’s inquiries, right alongside all the monuments of high and official culture. Lauren’s second book, The Queen of America Comes to Washington City, brought together the Reagan version of the American dream with Anita Hill, Queer Nation, Forrest Gump, and The Simpsons. Essays like “Sex in Public,” “Cruel Optimism,” and books like The Female Complaint (2008) made it clear all the received ideas about politics, culture, sexuality, and the American nation were (and are) in deep trouble.

Trouble, however, of the very best kind. For Lauren’s special contribution to human thought (as distinct from academic knowledge) was the unsettling of “normativity,” the routine, normal unexamined habits that infect thinking in the mundane spaces of everyday life, the halls of academe, and the corridors of power. For Lauren, these infections (not just heterosexuality, but the entire panoply of normative differentiations—yours and mine, his and hers, private and public, us and them) generate destructive fantasies of purity and fulfilment, not to mention the slow death of routinized thought and behavior. Needless to say, this made Lauren a crucial member of a feisty editorial group that loves nothing better than a battle of wits and tastes. Like a dazzling point guard who opens unexpected passing lanes with jukes, changes of direction, and sudden bursts of speed, Lauren raised everyone’s game, keeping us off balance, uncertain, with a correspondingly heightened attention to everything being said, decided, and done. Lauren demanded alertness, responsiveness, and counter-play. It was never enough, in my experience, to tell Lauren that you agreed with something they had just said.

All this could be summarized best in Lauren and Michael Warner’s “Sex in Public” (1998):

Queer social practices like sex and theory try to unsettle the garbled but powerful norms supporting that privilege—including the project of normalization that has made heterosexuality hegemonic—as well as those material practices that, though not explicitly sexual, are implicated in the hierarchies of property and propriety that we will describe as heteronormative.

Normativity: we were enjoined by Lauren neither to accept it or reject it but to “unsettle” it. Is this where deconstruction meets queer theory, where pure reason unveils its affective foundations? It is notable that Lauren regarded theory itself as a “Queer social practice,” right alongside that most mundane and mysterious thing called sex. I immediately want to insert a third term at this point, namely Death, the Queerest thing of all, and wonder what Lauren would have to say to us. Somehow, consolation is not the first thing that comes to mind. Death at age 63, with a mind constantly reaching beyond itself, was not the way things were supposed to turn out. Inconsolable at losing a dear friend who went from being my mentee to my mentor in a few short years, I think of how Lauren’s last conversation with me was a Seminary Co-op dialogue on Mental Traveler, my memoir—deeply influenced by Lauren—of the life and death of my son, Gabriel. In the last months before passing, Lauren found a way to emerge from the isolation of illness and the pandemic to find the right questions to ask. Lauren transformed our mourning, helping us find a way beyond melancholy into a manic intensity that reveals Death itself in all its unsettling Queerness. I didn’t think it would turn out this way.

W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry


Filed under Lauren Berlant

Losing Lauren Berlant

Joining the faculty in 1984, Lauren Berlant had a transformative impact on students, colleagues, and the intellectual culture at the University of Chicago—most robustly, perhaps, in the ongoing conversation named Critical Inquiry. Lauren joined the editorial collective in 1991.  The insight and creativity of Lauren’s critical thinking—about the past and about our present—proved no less field-changing in their editorial work at CI, which included three special issues: Intimacy (Winter 1998); On the Case (Summer 2007 and Autumn 2007); and Comedy, an Issue (Winter 2017, with Sianne Ngai).  Their work will continue to challenge and to inspire. 

Frances Ferguson and Bill Brown, Editors

Photo by Nathan Keay


Race, Gender, and Nation in “The Color Purple” (Summer 1988)

’68, or Something (Autumn 1994)

Intimacy: A Special Issue (Winter 1998)

Sex in Public (Winter 1998, with Michael Warner)

Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture (Winter 2004)

On the Case (Summer 2007)

Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency) (Summer 2007)

Introduction: What Does It Matter Who One Is? (Autumn 2007)

Eve Sedgwick, Once More (Summer 2009)

Comedy Has Issues (Winter 2017, with Sianne Ngai)

Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece) (Winter 2017)


W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Remembering Lauren on 28 June 2021″

Virginia Jackson’s “Triptych for Lauren

Michael Hardt’s “Love Is a Muscle

Elizabeth Freeman’s “Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing

Caleb Smith’s “The Berlant Opening

Feeling Out Loud: The Affective Publics Reading Group Remembers Lauren Berlant

Kris Cohen’s “Withholding to Show Up

Dana Luciano’s “Untitled, for Lauren

Joseph J. Fischel’s “for lb

Lisa Duggan’s “On Being Difficult


Katie Stewart’s “After Lauren

Ann Cvetkovich’s “The Unfinished Business of Lauren Berlant


Filed under Lauren Berlant