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LAUREN BERLANT (1957 – 2021)

Pockets of resistance from the late and leading theorist of political and emotional ambivalence.

Lauren Berlant never stopped being interested in the world. They looked into its ruptures and raptures, seeking to define the desires and affects that compel people to create forms of life. They showed ways to support a sense of belonging and the complex ways in which gender, race, citizenship, class and sexuality mold that very form of attachment. Renewing the field of Affect Theory, their work will keep explicating the interplay between covert and superficial meanings and presents a fusion of psychology and Marxist thought, paving the way for the analysis of contemporary structures of feeling. They passed away too soon at the beginning of this week, and that is why we are here to honor them, too.

As a George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, Berlant’s influence across disciplines were manifold. Insatiably prolific as a scholar, their writings and teachings were devoted to giving space to the marginal, weird, common and seemingly trivial effects not often deemed worthy of “proper” critical theory. 

It was with Cruel Optimism (2011), an award-winning book which garnered mainstream attention, where Berlant observed the devices that affect everyday relationships and the culturally conditioned imperatives for a perfect life as acts against human beings’ own interests. Illuminating: Cruel are the fantasies that people inevitably create in order to sustain themselves in a world where what charms them are the very same obstacles to their well-being. Such fantasies were not a mere addendum to “real” life, but are a material structuring principle of how we relate to the world. In Sex, Or the Unbearable (2013, coauthored with Lee Edelman) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1997), although the dense and by no means easily digestible prose, they persistently materially ground in the quotidian, the experiential, and the ordinary of the contemporary western life. Speculating together with Kathleen Reinhardton in The Hundreds (2019), one of their most experimental projects, Berlant amplified the resonance of things happening in atmospheres, rhythms of encounter, and scenes that shift the social ground, restricting the writing to 100 pieces of 100 words each. 

Throughout their career, Berlant asked fundamental questions about the meaning of incoherence, ambivalence, temporality, failure,intimacy, and the inability to ever successfully exist in a harmonious relationship with the world into which we are thrown. Those questions that formed the core part of their scholarly project were never loftily detached from the daily life of working people, but rather part of the mutability and conditionability of life. We have highlighted a few passages which shed light on a methodology of inquiry which befriends contradiction, fugitivity and the very precious threads which hold them together without enclosing them. 


The question of incoherence.
What would a political pedagogy of incoherence look like?

In the humanities, where a clearly defined point of view is de rigueur, they dwelled in their own inconsistencies while never abdicating rigorous scholarship. With their poetic and at times humorous style, a rarity in highly streamlined and standardised academic writing, Berlant’s writing pushed the limits of the academic straitjacket. Their formal experimentation not only reflected the impossibility of ever being able to transparently transmit a unilateral argument, but actively contributed to the slippery nature of thinking.They wrote: “Any social theory worthy of its ambition requires a space for enigmatic, chaotic, incoherent, and structurally contradictory attachments.”[1]


The question of ambivalence.
What does it mean to be stuck, reproducing a life that gives you nothing in return?

Contrarily, the economy dictates to streamline ourselves by professionalising every nanoscopic detail of our existence, causing spaces for ambivalence to diminish: one must be either one clearly delimited identity or another, either this or that. And in these compartmentalizations of life reproduction, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; “fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.” [2] Berlant never ceased opening up spaces for ambiguity, illegibility, or of failure to ever be just one, unchanging, unidimensional subject. Their teaching seemed especially vital in today’s world where the tensions and experiences of ambivalence seem to be increasingly ostracised from social life as a response to its powerful potential..


The question of temporality.
What do we make of the times when brokenness is a default state, and not an exception?

In The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times* (2016); Berlant states that “at some crisis times like this one, politics is defined by a collectively held sense that a glitch has appeared in the reproduction of life.” Their world-building impetus has again and again addressed the ongoing struggle for the commons and for the life of the people that isn't merely about survival, but flourishing: “I know that “satisfaction” might seem like too high a bar when the Earth’s and so many populations’ survival are at stake, but there has to be an “index alongside survival that attends to flourishing as well.” [3] Intimacy cannot be detached from the economic and the political. What we (choose to) do as our most intimate selves is permeated and continuously troubled by the political and the economic; the so-called public sphere is persistently haunted by the messiness of the intimate and vice versa.


The question of failure.
What if we realised that failure was more normal than the norm itself?

Berlant never stopped believing in the powers of world building and the promise of a better future to come. “Better”, not in the sense that some ever elusive social good will finally be attained, but where more room will be made for incoherence: being comfortably in two minds about things, without the pressures for such a state to be redemptively resolved in the story arc of life. The glitches and gaps on the way to reproducing conventions are not exceptions, but the warp and woof of our plots and practices.” [4] Their pedagogical concept invites us to live with the messed up yet shared and ongoing infrastructures of experience in order to rebuild them.


The question of intimacy.
What could interrupt the translation of all social relations into propertied ones?

Most impressively, it is Berlant’s writings on love that are somehow able to address this impossible topic through a proper political lense. It is in the supposedly most intimate field of love that we realise that there is a potential for change, for getting outside of our myopic possessive individualism. If “love is one of the few situations where we desire to have patience for what isn’t working”, it can help us realise that relationality precedes the fiction of autonomous sovereignty. The deus-ex-machina-like contingency of love (as well as sex) is an eruption into the seemingly well-functioning mechanics of life, disorienting us and corroborating the fact that the only subject is the subject in transition. Desire cannot be captured by binary oppositions and “there is no cure for ambivalence.” 

What remains for us to hold? Berlant’s theoretical production with its attention to keeping spaces between bodies complex and affectively dense, yet populated by softness and illogical desires has been and will be our guide in order to formulate

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