‘In academia,’ Lauren Berlant wrote, ‘reputation is gossip about who had the ideas.’ Berlant had all the good ones: about sentimentality in American culture; about the place of sex and intimacy in public life; about what it feels like to live in a fraying world. Berlant taught English at Chicago from 1984 until their death in 2021 (Berlant used the non-binary pronoun in professional life). In their work on American literature and film, Berlant was less concerned with traditional objects of literary critique – plot, narrative, character – than with the mood and atmosphere that pervaded a text: the more ordinary the feelings, the more seriously Berlant took them. Affect theory is hard to define; I like the approaching-a-definition suggested by the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, one of Berlant’s long-time collaborators. She writes that ‘ordinary affects’ are
public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they are also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation … Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible.
Berlant’s first three books – The Anatomy of National Fantasy, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City and The Female Complaint (sometimes called the ‘national sentimentality trilogy’) – consider the shared feelings and identifications that bubble under the surface of American culture and are critical to understanding its political life. Berlant reads Obama and Oprah as part of a shared national sentimentality: ‘Oprah’s sentimentality always abjures the political: always sees change as coming from within; always sees obstacles to change as internal wounds and not structural blockages.’ In a similar way, Obama ‘wanted to believe that through him we could dissolve affectively what’s antagonistic structurally’ – that is, the long history of American racism – ‘and then bring politics to make structural what had been achieved [first] in … “true feeling”.’ For Berlant, Oprah and Obama are ‘classic sentimentalists’ who view individual feeling as the crucible for political change; without considering sentimentality, we cannot fully account for their popular appeal, or for their limitations.
In 2016, Berlant showed Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ advertisement to undergraduates who were too young to have followed the 2008 presidential campaign. They began to cry. Until that moment, Berlant writes, the students ‘didn’t know they had national sentimentality’. I once took my English boyfriend to a minor league baseball game, and he welled up at ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. That’s the power of American affect for you. I laughed at him, but Berlant was generous enough to watch the students cry over Obama and conclude that ‘the world is just not a very safe space for anybody’s tenderness, when the tenderness means they would like the world to be different and they don’t want to experience much more loss on the way.’
In The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Berlant argues that in the Reagan era sentimentality collapsed the public and the private to such a degree that ‘a nation made for adult citizens [was] replaced by one imagined for foetuses and children.’ Berlant called this ‘infantile citizenship’. Deprived of meaningful advancement, the white male citizen felt ‘a desperate desire to return to an order of things deemed normal … a general everyday intimacy that was sometimes called “the American way of life”’. This was in 1997, when Donald Trump was divorcing Marla Marples. It would be a mistake to think that feelings are flimsy, ephemeral things; for Berlant, structures of feeling guaranteed the durability of conservative cultural politics.
In the final book of the trilogy, The Female Complaint, Berlant writes about the production of the first ‘intimate public’ in the US: the literature, popular culture and consumerism that coerced women into a kind of feeling-in-common. How did women come to believe that their emotional lives were contiguous, already known to one another, when, as Berlant writes, ‘aloneness is one of the affective experiences of being collectively, structurally unprivileged’? On their blog, Supervalent Thought, Berlant described the harm done to their mother in pursuit of femininity: she wore high heels to her abortion, tripped down the stairs and permanently injured her back; she had two fingers partially amputated after a manicure went wrong; she smoked to lose weight and died of lung cancer. For Berlant, the problem is obvious: ‘Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.’ Femininity, with its injunction to live for love’s sake, makes women into experts on sentiment: we sense feelings, name them, bargain, adapt and regulate ourselves to the feelings of others. And yet love disappoints. It’s never enough.
Berlant’s most influential book, Cruel Optimism (2011), describes the ‘relation which exists when something you desire is an obstacle to your flourishing’. Romantic love. Fast food. The Democratic Party. Prestige TV. Each offers comforts and securities. Each diminishes us in large or small ways, makes false promises, prevents us from striving for something better. Yet we continue to strive, often blaming ourselves when things go wrong. Cruel optimism explains why you continue to accept casual contracts, hoping for a more secure position. It explains why you continue to ‘work’ on your marriage or save for a down payment on a house. It explains why you just spent £6 on a coffee. Cruel optimism might even explain why you decide to have children, or why you vote. Berlant’s critical theory serves not only as an explanatory paradigm for neoliberalism, say, but for your own little life.
Berlant’s central example is the so-called obesity pandemic in the US, which they argue has been framed in American policy and popular culture as a crisis of will. If only the obese person would diet, or exercise, or cook certain kinds of food, or eat at home; if only they would exercise sovereignty over their desires, they could become an ideal American citizen. For Berlant, obesity offers a way to think about agency. Individual sovereignty, they argue, is itself cruelly optimistic: the fantasy that we are in control of ourselves is a legacy of the Enlightenment ideal of the political subject. Obese people, in Berlant’s analysis, don’t act according to this fantasy and are therefore vilified and pathologised in American culture. Fatness is physical proof of the individual’s resistance to what, under neoliberal capitalism, is agency transformed into ‘an activity of maintenance, not making’. Obesity shows us an alternative view of agency, though it might not look like much. Sitting. Scrolling. Eating a nice meal. Having a nap.
Berlant looked to literature (Hawthorne, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) for evidence of historical affect. Contemporary novels by authors such as Sheila Heti, Ottessa Moshfegh and Jenny Offill convey the inertia and passivity Berlant describes in Cruel Optimism. In Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), the central character drugs herself with sleeping pills to switch off from ‘anything that might pique my intellect or make me envious or anxious’. In these novels, it isn’t blue-collar workers with their fast food, but (often conspicuously thin) humanities graduates who experience the precarity and plotlessness of cruel optimism. Berlant is more concerned with the post-industrial crisis of the Rust Belt than the suffering of failed art curators, but there’s a reason cruel optimism appeals to middle-class women in their twenties and thirties. They are among neoliberalism’s most profitable targets.
Berlant was unusual not only in their attention to seemingly superficial feelings and desires, but also in their refusal to pass judgment on them, no matter how irrational or self-limiting. They used their own incoherent desires as raw material. In The Hundreds, co-written with Kathleen Stewart, Berlant includes an experiment called ‘This Week in Shakes’ that documented the taste of ‘virtue breakfasts’ – protein shakes of xanthan gum and probiotics – consumed over the course of a week: an examination of a particular fantasy of health in all of its ‘grainy austerity’. Berlant finds that the shakes are defined not by what they contain but what they don’t (calories, gluten, dairy, soy, taste), offering up an ideal of being nourished by nothing at all. ‘This Week in Shakes’ becomes a comic experiment in the promises and failures of women’s wellness culture. Instead of hiding their own embarrassment at being seduced by green shakes in the supermarket, Berlant paid ordinary feelings the compliment of critique.
This is what is so disarming about Berlant’s feminism. They rejected the argument that says don’t get the manicure, don’t wear high heels to your abortion, forget the green shakes, ignore the command to thinness. Berlant argues that we can’t feel or desire outside of capitalism, outside of history. So instead of diminishing ourselves (no high heels), let’s add more. ‘I never want someone to talk less in class,’ Berlant wrote. ‘I want everyone to talk more. I never want less fantasy; I always want more. I never want less citizenship; I always want more – more different ways of being a citizen.’ This is a feminism that replaces judgment with a call to the imagination: a feminist maximalism.
On the Inconvenience of Other People is a kind of coda to Cruel Optimism, taking as its subject the other side of attachment: its frictions (or frustrations) and inconveniences. Other people aren’t hell, Berlant writes, just bothersome, ‘which is to say that they have to be dealt with’. Why is it so hard to live with other people? And why do we seek to ease the friction of intimacy and collective life even as we are driven towards encounters that create friction? Knowing someone, and being known, for Berlant, involves a threatening inconvenience: the irruption of someone else into your (fantasy of a) coherent self.
Inconvenience helps us loosen our attachment to the ideals, fantasies and ideologies that limit and sometimes harm us. ‘You can’t decide not to be racist, not to be misogynist,’ Berlant writes, ‘but you can use the contradictions the object prompts to loosen and reconfigure it.’ I think this means: pay attention to your difficult feelings. I was reminded of the shitty car I drove when I was nineteen. Whenever it broke down, as it often did, I asked my boyfriend to fix it, while at the same time resenting having to ask. I decided to learn how to fix my own serpentine belt. If I had read Berlant, I wouldn’t have bothered. I would have seen that those inconvenient feelings of helplessness came from contradictory ideas. I had confused feminism with self-sufficiency. It’s useful to know how to change a belt, but it’s more important to realise that dependence on others is not antagonistic to feminism but intrinsic to it, and to unlearn, as Berlant puts it, a particular fantasy of self-sovereignty, exchanging an attachment to a liberal tradition of selfhood for a conception of necessary reciprocity. ‘One task for makers of critical social form,’ Berlant writes, ‘is to offer not just judgment about positions and practices in the world, and not just prefigurations of the better good life, but terms for transition that help alter the hard and soft infrastructures of sociality itself.’ Berlant thinks criticism can help us move to new ways of living.
Sex is one of the central objects of Berlant’s critique, representing in its most heightened form the desire for ‘an impossible state of things: the perfect rhythm of being in and out of control, of being open and closed in the right or bearable ways’. At the same time, the intimacy of another person presents various challenges to that fantasy. A wayward limb. An awkward touch. The wrong word, whispered in the wrong tone. Sex is disturbing, and consensual sex means consenting to being disturbed; it is ‘a good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control’.
According to this view, there is a kind of psychic relief in resolving the ambiguities of sex by hating it. American erotophobia is best exemplified in the political sex scandal (‘Whenever there’s a sex scandal,’ Berlant writes, ‘I feel sorry for sex.’) Pleasure isn’t simple but that doesn’t mean seeking pleasure is traumatic; only that one must be willing to be inconvenienced. In a long analysis of Last Tango in Paris, Berlant discusses whether the incoherence of sex might suggest other ways to live radically. They see it as neither a doomed utopianism nor a form of hedonism (both common criticisms of the sexual revolution). Instead, ‘sexual optimism can build genre muscles for the possibility of elaborating one’s own and the world’s revolutionary resistance to projects of fake coherence.’ Freedom is something we have to practise, and sex can be one way of going about it.
The most interesting section of On the Inconvenience of Other People focuses on a short film from 2009 called In the Air, a documentary about a circus school in an unnamed post-industrial town in Ohio. The town is an exhausted place of junkyards and empty buildings, of lives spent drunk or otherwise numbed to the disillusionments and degradations of capitalism. But the teenagers in circus school are learning to tumble. ‘To be awkward, to be graceful, to leap and to fall,’ Berlant writes, ‘is a training in attention and also in revisceralising one’s bodily intuition.’ In other words, the film isn’t an allegory; Berlant’s focus on sex, muscles, movement, isn’t metaphorical. Circus school – like sex – is training for collective life rather than the worn-out futures of work and exhaustion and atomisation. As Berlant wrote elsewhere, ‘one must refuse the intractable’s demand to experience pre-defeat.’ That refusal can look like high critical theory. Or it can look like a leap into thin air.
Berlant’s prose is dense, elaborate and at times opaque. They often wrote about writing. ‘I’ve spent my whole career learning how to help sentences hold something out there. But I’ve been bad at it, they’re right about that.’ Here is the introduction of a key concept, infrastructure, from The Inconvenience of Other People: ‘The affectivity infrastructure generates is not just in the air or the gut or thrown together or ideology but specifically involves the sensing of the dimension and extension of what we might call organised air.’ This is a Berlantian sentence: rhythmic, atmospheric, flirting with meaning; somewhere between incoherence and poetry (‘organised air’ – that’s pretty, and I almost know what it means).
But Berlant could be precise, witty. ‘“She did what she could do at the time” has long been my comic epitaph, and by comic I mean it enables me to write even from the limits of my ordinariness.’ Berlant was anything but ordinary. They wanted their writing to draw the reader into the unpredictability of their own mind. ‘When I read,’ they said in an interview, ‘I can feel [the writer] plunking down placeholder phrases until they get to a thought.’ Berlant asked the reader to remain in the thought with them, accepting its formlessness and volatility. Writing was a race against life. ‘So you’re writing,’ Berlant says in The Hundreds. ‘You make a pass at capturing something or tagging along. It’s too fast for you, it doesn’t co-operate.’ The breathlessness was left intact in the prose. If the result is that one sometimes comes away from Berlant’s books with only an impressionistic understanding, that might be an appropriate response to a theorist of vibes.
It’s difficult not to think in terms of personal examples when trying to make sense of Berlant’s ideas (a reflection, no doubt, of my own bourgeois attachment to solidity). But Berlant mostly rejected the personal in favour of literary and cinematic material. In The Female Complaint, Berlant writes that although they tried using scenes from their own life in one version of the book, they soon abandoned the attempt: ‘The autobiographical isn’t personal.’ In other words, one of the effects of an intimate public (such as American femininity) is to make personal narratives seem to be shared; to make the intimate and the revelatory stand in for more transformative kinds of collective political culture.
In their final book, Berlant claimed to be writing in ‘my parenthetical voice’, the insider’s aside. I don’t perceive much difference in voice or style. The intimacy here isn’t fostered through the pretence of personal revelation, but through a description of affects that we may feel have never been articulated before. It wasn’t supposed to be a therapeutic exercise: ‘The point is to make an experiment out of thought, to loosen up the tight knot of what’s satisfying, even if it means risking being not understood.’ It should be no surprise, then, that their critical theory can feel closer to revelation than scholarship; and that, despite its difficulty, it found such a devoted readership, both inside and outside the academy.
The university was not a frictionless home for Berlant’s work. On the one hand, the classroom generated energy for the fight; in the collective struggle of the seminar, Berlant saw a way ‘to model being undefeated’ for students. On the other hand, the university was a terrible laboratory for experiments. ‘The claim to truth is still too seductive. So are the reproductive demands of disciplines, with their beautiful staircases.’ They were especially scathing about the liberal delusion that the university might be a home for feminism, a delusion predicated on the compromise that ‘feminist knowledge will be safe for, will not do harm to, anyone who encounters it.’ Berlant’s own experiments were playful, prefiguring. With artists and academics they organised a ‘feel tank’ in Chicago, which convened an International Day of the Politically Depressed. They had T-shirts printed. ‘Depressed? It might be political.’
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