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The Books of Lauren Berlant

Draft of a piece for the American Book Review

Published onJan 30, 2022
The Books of Lauren Berlant

This past summer, the global community of high-intensity readers, thinkers, and talkers lost one of its most wonderful writers: the University of Chicago English Professor and Queer Theorist Lauren Berlant, who died last June at the age of 63. I was a student of Berlant’s in the 1990s and remained in touch with her after I matriculated from Chicago and moved to Texas; I have lots of memories of her and thoughts about things she said and did, and one day I may write those up, adding another to the many remembrances we’ve been graced with since her death.

With this short essay, however, I want to remember Berlant by celebrating their books—the currents of their volumes and their enveloping prose style. (I’ve switched here to they/them pronouns, as Berlant themself did late in life when referring to themself in a professional capacity.) While Berlant could hate on the jargon of authenticity with the fiercest acolyte of Theodor Adorno, they also enjoyed the role of charismatic original, and expertly embodied their voice in their books, which, at least for me, do truly bespeak the person Berlant was and the mission they undertook.

Now, arguably, Berlant’s prime medium was the essay. Their pieces began as academic talks, often quite long and spectacular, which would next be published in academic journals or collections, and those of us who followed the progress of Berlant’s arguments from talks to essays to books may not think so much of their books as the medium for their thought. Yet going forward, their books are where their work will mainly be first encountered. And all along, their essays imagined themselves part of those broader projects they announce, and those broader projects—their books—were in turn imagined as segments of still larger sets and sequences. If we understand the charge Berlant gave their books, we’ll understand how they sought to change our idea of American culture, and beyond that, the shape of thought to come.

The main set of books Berlant completed was the sequence they called their “National Sentimentality Trilogy.” That sequence, and Berlant’s book-writing career, in a sense begins with The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture, not because it was the first book Berlant published, but because it was the first book they announced, with a programmatic Social Text article of that title that came out in Autumn, 1988, when they were just turning 31. In this 22-page manifesto, Berlant “outlines” the “speculative” “history of female discourse as it has emerged in American culture” they would spend the next 33 years substantiating, and debuts the dazzling bricolage of high, low, and middlebrow texts that would become their stock in trade (253). In this one article alone, Berlant juxtaposes Erica Jong, Erma Bombeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Roxanne Shanté, and many more complainants, building the case for the minor genre their title identifies as a major discourse in which women articulate injuries and longings alike.

The Female Complaint, too, stood for a while as “unfinished business,” if of a different kind than its object. Its overarching argument required establishing important axioms about “sex and citizenship” in America, formulae Berlant began to systematically work out at length in their first published book, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago, 1991). Drawing on their 1984 dissertation, but substantially expanding and transforming it, The Anatomy of National Fantasy concentrates on just one work— Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Berlant uncovers how that novel, as it animates a complex of repeated and repeatedly thwarted desires, shows a distinctively American amalgam of patriarchy, nationalism, and insurgency to have been written on the body: in its time, in its historical past, and still as we read it now.

I read The Anatomy of National Fantasy when it was Berlant’s only book, and I was a baby poststructuralist looking for a graduate school mentor. At the time, I experienced it as a fully polished performance, one that expertly scales up the exhaustive thoroughness of classic studies like Roland Barthes’s analysis of a single Balzac story, S/Z, so as to situate structural literary analysis within broader, destablizing, contexts of politics and history. Within a few years, however, I was studying with Berlant, and discovering that her intellectual method was a fundamentally improvisatory one that pulled together concepts and objects to experiment on whatever text seemed most urgent to understand at the moment. A revelation of this method came when, while working at the University Press, I found the proposal Berlant had submitted for The Anatomy of National Fantasy, and discovered it to be a hand-corrected, drafty document whose ephemeral nature only underlined its compelling timliness.

One can well say of Berlant’s prose what Berlant says of Hawthorne’s: that it “involves mining the past for facts and practices but is also an experiment in how to think—about the machinery of citizenship and political identity” (194). And from the start, Berlant’s experiment engaged not just past, but also present texts: in the “Female Complaint” article, and in the essays intervening in the activist wars of the Reagan/Bush years that constitute their second book, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke, 1997). “The Queen,” as Berlant refers to that book, juxtaposes treatments of Anita Hill’s appearance at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, pornography controveries, anti-abortion rhetoric, and (in collaboration with Elizabeth Freeman) Queer Nation, with readings of popular texts ranging from Simpsons episodes to Forrest Gump, and from Look Who’s Talking back to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

The essays collected for The Queen saw the emergence of Berlant’s mature style, which features elaborate cascades of multisyllabic patter the form of which echoes the successive sixteenth-note figures that characterize free jazz. Just as in music “sheets of sound” can be immersive, the rapidity of Berlant’s cadence sweeps one into a temporality where one finds oneself suspended in the turbulence of words—if not, for that, calm. This style bears a family resemblance to the esotericisms of Berlant’s contemporaries Fredric Jameson and Judith Butler, but because its emotional palette favors humor and fierceness, it was better equipped to mediate the philosophical discourse of modernity with those “silly objects” which, Berlant notes proudly, led others to declare to them, “I hate your archive.”

In The Queen, then, as Berlant declares at the book’s outset, they were “conducting a counterpolitics of the silly object by focusing on some instances of it and by developing a mode of criticism and conceptualization that reads the waste materials of everyday communication in the national public sphere as pivotal documents in the construction, experience, and rhetoric of quotidian citizenship in the United States.” And like a virtuoso playing two horns at once, Berlant was meanwhile unfurling the essays that would be collected in the full book of The Female Complaint (Duke, 2008), which completed what Berlant came to call her “National Sentimentality trilogy.” Most of the essays that compose The Female Complaint analyze “supertexts” composed of the various versions—novels, stage plays, musicals, films—of signature American melodramas like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Show Boat, and Imitation of Life. Writing on a version of A Star is Born co-written by one of the book’s subjects, Dorothy Parker, Berlant sums up The Female Complaint as “arguing that, for the people who identify with it, femininity is a B movie, a genre of the unsurprising that is deeply fulfilling because it is unsurprising” (210). Still, like Parker, and Hawthorne before her, Berlant finds that even—or especially—the artists who work in such a minor genre enact, as they do so, crucial experiments in living differently.

“Improvisation,” Berlant writes in The Female Complaint, “is a formalism that hides itself in the richness of variation” (212). Questions of if and how we might forge liveable new forms bind together the essays collected in their fourth book, Cruel Optimism, the last to be published in Berlant’s lifetime. (In the fall of this year, Duke University Press expects to publish a posthumous volume completed just before their death, On the Inconvenience of Other People.) “A relation of cruel optimism,” Berlant writes in the instantly classic opening paragraph of the book,

exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It night involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too; like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.

While stating its central conundrum, this paragraph also introduces the case studies that compose Cruel Optimism, which features such essays as “Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency),” “Two Girls, Fat and Thin” (where Berlant triangulates their own thought with that of fellow queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, and with the Mary Gaitskill novel of that name), and “After the Good Life, an Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and the Precarious Present.” (Cruel Optimism did as much as any work of its time to make “precarity” a term for the late capitalist predicament.) While the book’s analyses could not be more discerning, they have themselves seemed cruel to more than one reader, since Berlant’s periodic evocations of a “more sustainable optimism” made possible by a “new politics” with “new fantasies” must nevertheless, as their conclusion makes clear, be suspected of perpetuating the cruel relations it diagnoses.

It was to engender such hope, perhaps, that Berlant relied so repeatedly on collaboration as a way to generate ideas, projects, and books that could hover beyond any one person’s relations or attachments. A different look at a different set of books by Berlant might track instead the networks, and the truly novel concepts, that emerged out of their (often jointly) edited collections—from Our Monica Ourselves (on the Clinton imbroglio) and the Intimacy and Comedy special issues of Critical Inquiry (the journal Berlant co-edited for decades) to, most recently, a collection of essays on Reading Sedgwick—and out of the co-authored books in which they traded choruses with Lee Edelman and Kathleen Stewart (Sex, or the Unbearable, and The Hundreds, respectively). And such a take might capture how Berlant might continue to write—write (in a pun bad enough to be Judith Butler’s) through us. For many, conjuring that voice again and again, whether by reading, writing, talking, or just thinking, will remain an irresistible pleasure. For others, Berlant’s work could be a welcome new addiction. As much as I miss Lauren, I look forward to continuing to meet their ever newer friends and students.

Myles Jeffrey:

Most of my comments were proofreaderly in nature, so I’ll add my overall thoughts here. I think you succeed in the aim of remembering Berlant through celebrating their books and the somewhat Boswellian approach of writing about someone you knew strikes a pleasant chord. One small quibble might be that you say you will introduce their books as a list, but it doesn’t end up feeling like a list, which is to say that tone and style feel consistent before and after the list comment. Perhaps weaving the memory of the list into entries further down or excising the list comment altogether (though, I understand the homage aspect of it plays a part in your aims) would help.