Lauren Berlant, a pioneering scholar and cultural theorist, died on June 28 of a rare form of cancer. A professor at the University of Chicago since 1984, Berlant had wide-ranging influence as a scholar: They made contributions to literary studies, queer theory, and political theory, but were best known through their work on affect theory—a way of understanding political and cultural life through the individual and collective experience of mood and feeling. The loss of Berlant is immeasurable, and the effort of remembering and understanding the legacy of their scholarship is just beginning. As a contribution to that project, The Nation has asked four thinkers to share their thoughts on what Berlant’s thinking meant to them.
Ways of Hoping
The death of Lauren Berlant, one of the most esteemed and influential literary and cultural critics in the United States, has been met with a keen sense of loss through the academy. From their earliest work, which ranged from the provocative essay “The Female Complaint” to a doctoral dissertation that offered a reading of Hawthorne through both cultural Marxism and feminist theory, Berlant tried to show how claims to unity on the part of the feminist movement are invariably accompanied by complaints from those who felt excluded. Berlant cast doubt on conventional ways of positing social and cultural unity, asking at what price such unity is achieved, and whether it unwittingly relies on mechanisms of hierarchy and exclusion. Their work on “national unity” in Hawthorne brought out this fantasy of a social unity in another register, underscoring the forms of sacrifice, stigmatization, and dispossession that follow from some ideals of national unity.
In the 1990s, their work developed a steady critique of nationalism, revising the idea of a national imaginary for the US. In 1997, they published The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, which became a central work in both queer and feminist literary and cultural theory. Throughout these early publications, Berlant asked about the relationship between sexuality and phantasmagoric formations of national unity. Indeed, in Berlant’s volume on Monica Lewinsky (Our Monica, Ourselves), they sought to understand more specifically how national self-understanding is articulated through sexual fascination, seeing in the contemporary object of sexual interest/condemnation a reprise of Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. Berlant’s highly influential work on “heteronormativity” with Michael Warner cautioned against the nationalist ideal within queer theory and queried what, if any, critical potential could still be derived from the continuing investments in the idea of “the nation.”
Their work has always been highly influenced by Marxist theory, most prominently that of Raymond Williams, whose “structure of feeling” provided an early entry into the account of affects for which they have become widely known and admired. Following the precepts of cultural Marxism, they look for critical and radical possibility not in state structures, but in civil society and cultural forms. In recent years, Berlant provided an indispensable framework for literary and cultural scholars and students for understanding the affective legacies of austerity, precarity, and neoliberalism. Their highly acclaimed Cruel Optimism (2011) has been hailed as the most widely read humanities book by the American Comparative Literature Association and has been at the center of several panels at the Modern Language Association. Along with an intellectually powerful and incisive cohort, they produced a new paradigm for “affect studies” that includes scholars such as Ann Cvetkowich, Clare Hemmings, Sara Ahmed, Beth Povinelli, Janet Jakobsen, Lisa Duggan, Ann Pellegrini and Tavia Nyong’o, the late José Muñoz, and, significantly, the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. They also worked out their positions in a series of compelling collaborative texts written with Lee Edelman, Michael Warner, and Kathleen Stewart, all of which exemplify the kind of experimental imagining required for making the world anew through connections both intimate and anonymous.
Cruel Optimism effectively sought to describe the oscillation between manic exhilaration and devastating disappointment bound up with contemporary neoliberalism wherein the inflated expectations of what life could be are repeatedly disappointed. These “affects” were not simply the effects of an economic system but one way that such systems are maintained and regenerated. The emotional underpinnings of the economy can be found in the phantasmatic structuring of a national ideal of the good life. In this way, Berlant revised the idea of imagined community (of Benedict Anderson) and even the Althusserian idea of “ideology” as engaging the imaginary domain. In their view, opportunities for advancement and self-marketing within neoliberalism appear limitless at the same time that basic social services are decimated by that very market logic, leaving ever greater numbers abandoned by the state.
The structuring contradiction of contemporary social life, according to Berlant, is that the very people struggling to establish an economic livelihood are filled with a sense of their expendability, consistently find themselves cast out of ever-shrinking safety nets and undergoing a systematic degradation of their lives that includes a devastation of their very sense of value. Berlant tracks how economic contradictions suffuse emotional life, ways of hoping and losing, but they also show how strong emotional investments keep such systems in place. At once drawing on a range of psychological theories and adamantly “de-psychologizing” a political condition, Berlant offered a wide-ranging and versatile vocabulary that resonates across generations of scholars and critics who are already taking up Berlant’s perspectives not only to criticize cruel forms of social and economic life but to imagine together new forms of sociality and support, queer communities, experimenting in new versions of a good life in common.
In Berlant’s view, we have to lose the falsifying ideals of the nation in order to begin to imagine anew a common life in which the basic goods of social democracy, including health care and education, are public values, where every life is valued, however “productive” it is judged to be within the scheme of market values. Berlant was not against optimism per se, but only the cruel kind that lands you in the ditch. The work is full of hope and will remain a clarion call for all those who seek to build a sense of the world that we can all trust. But that hope cannot depend upon a false sense of inevitable progress: Berlant thought that queer forms of sociability and intimacy unstructured by the state provided an experimental venue for developing the commons in which we would all like to live. Such trajectories were not straight lines, but deviating and converging pathways.
Toward the end of their life, Berlant also clearly called for a form of social democracy in which the state would provide basic public goods to everyone rather than leave its own population abandoned and morally vilified. As a literature professor, they saw how expectations and devastations can be wrought through structures of plot, and found a way to make clear how these phantasmatic investments in our own doing are part of the larger social problem we must solve, constituting the affective labor required of social critique. At the same time, the imaginary domain remained for Berlant a source of promise, a hopeful site of experimentation where intimacies could lead to a new sense of social connection and solidarity.
“Imagine Reading Those Words”
I don’t know how else to say it: Lauren Berlant’s work changed my life. I read The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1997) early in my time in grad school—I thought the book was brilliant, and more than that, extremely fun—but the work that really shook me was Cruel Optimism (2011). I can still remember where I was sitting in the library when I read the book’s first line: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”
Imagine reading those words as a doctoral student in English post-2008, in the midst of a recession: You’re already anxious and depressed. You’re ruining your physical and mental health in an attempt to do Serious Scholarship in hope of landing some non-existent academic job, in a place far from everyone you love, and in an industry that makes too many people miserable. And then imagine being that graduate student, and reading those words, and also being in a bad romantic relationship which you couldn’t bring yourself to leave.
For this kind of person—for me—Berlant’s work illuminated such cases of professional and personal paralysis: I was attached to academia and to my boyfriend, even though they were destroying me, because I kept returning to “the scene of fantasy that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.” As I read the book, the pieces of my life rearranged themselves and fell into a new kind of order, a pattern that I could finally see.
I wish I could say that I walked out of the library, then away from campus and out of my relationship. But “all attachment is optimistic,” as Berlant noted, and it took me years to extricate myself and to attach myself to other, less “problematic” objects. I’m no longer an academic, and I don’t write scholarship, but I think everything I write is influenced by Berlant’s thinking. Their work taught me to look closely at the ways people attach themselves to objects (lovers, nations), and to look too at the material conditions from which affect and attachment spring. Their writing led me to psychoanalysis, to feminism, to organizing. In my life and in my work, I try to follow Berlant’s lead and to politicize feelings: to see them as part of public, collective experience, rather than as features of private, individual lives.
Every so often, scrolling through Twitter, I’ll see someone say something to the effect of how their anxiety or depression is not a “disorder” but rather a reasonable emotional response to life under capitalism, or on the eve of climate apocalypse. I’ll like the tweet, then recall one of the slogans of the “feel tank” Berlant organized with other scholars and artists: “Depressed? It might be political.”
The Fabric of Crisis
The week that Lauren Berlant died, it was over a year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic. Hundreds lay dead in a no longer once-in-a-thousand-year heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. On the other side of the world, record heat burned 225,000 acres of boreal forest in Siberia, not only eliminating one of the great carbon sinks in the world but contributing to all-time highs of atmospheric carbon concentration surpassing 420ppm. Draughts and water shortages stretched from Mexico to Madagascar. Global refugee populations reached highest-ever levels, even excluding those euphemistically categorized as “climate migrants.” A few days after Berlant’s death, images—worthy of a Roland Emmerich production—circulated of the ocean on fire, as a gas pipeline burst from an offshore drilling platform west of the Yucatan peninsula. As tempting as it is—politically and aesthetically—to cast such phenomena into “the genre of the dramatic event,” they are more accurately described as of a piece with the seemingly more quotidian struggles and exhaustions of daily life under capitalism. Berlant’s proposition that this moment is characterized by “crisis-shaped subjectivity,” that we are all (differently) feeling our way through a long, unraveling present, couldn’t be more timely.
I first encountered Berlant through reading The Queen of America Goes to Washington City in an undergrad political theory seminar. It was, however, in starting a massive project on the political theory of climate change that I realized how indispensable Berlant’s thinking is for contemporary political theory. The full socio-ecological breadth of climate change is perhaps the best case for Berlant’s affective theories of politics and their most well-known concept “cruel optimism” in particular. But perhaps not as some might imagine.
In Berlant’s most influential text, 2011’s Cruel Optimism, they begin by asking why one “stays attached to conventional good life fantasies—say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work—when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abound?” However, it quickly becomes clear that the investigation of cruel optimism is more about what happens in the disjuncture between officially sanctioned realism and affective experience of reality that is totally at odds with it.
The realities described above are felt by the vast majority of people in the world. Cruel optimism persists in center-right and center-left attachments to a liberal capitalist system fundamentally at odds with climate mitigation and adaptation. But they persist in radical thought as well. Over the course of five years of research, I had to disabuse myself of the cruel optimism that just because capitalism is so fundamentally linked to climate change, socialism is simply and straightforwardly the answer. A left-wing climate realism will be more lateral, to adapt another phrase from Berlant, than that. I had to disabuse myself of the cruel optimism of liberated techno-utopian magic—from absolute decoupling to Promethean geoengineering. All manner of fantasies—about infinite growth and climate universality, about apocalypticism and fatalism, are politically convenient optimisms in which climate is simply stapled to preexisting political formulae. At a time when many Americans are turning away from “the American Dream,” a left-wing climate politics must embrace not only the impossibility of the American Way of Life on a global scale but also the reality of how few people desire such a life.
Climate politics, like climate change itself, is a matter of an “elongated present”—not as a frustrated future but as an “impasse” in which novel political intervention is possible. Berlant’s whole affective political frame—from public feelings to intimate publics—is fundamental in understanding the question of the “who” of climate politics even if they were ambivalent about whether “crisis-shaped subjectivity” could translate into something like a mass global political subject. Affect spills over lines of social class and identity, even while it doesn’t obliterate or overcome them. It is the feelings of “crisis ordinariness” and the degree of immediate detachment from normative fantasies of the good life that can be organized politically in the necessary time frame.
Berlant’s affective political theory synthesizes Marxist and queer theories, as much informed by Gramsci, Benjamin, Fanon, Harvey, and Federici as by Sedgwick, Butler, Klein, Halberstam, and Foucault. A theory of affect is already present in Marxism, Berlant argues, in the space between subjective experience, concrete historical situation, and “communally generated class feeling.” Such a synthesis is grounded in accounts of “lived” structure as well as investigations into conventional patterns of desire, norms, and attachment in ways “we haven’t yet noticed.” All our crisis-shaped subjectivities are not the same. The anxiety of crisis management is unlike the exhaustions of everyday life. As Berlant puts it at different times “the terms of survival” or, in a more politically pointed sense, “the terms of antagonism” are “up for grabs.” Right-wing climate realism already has a leg up, beginning with the structural power of capital and extending not least into new modes of “national sentimentality.” Marxism in general and a left-wing climate realism in particular must grab “waning fantasies of the good life” as part of the stuff that politics is made of. Fantasy, for Berlant, is not always pejorative or obfuscating; it can be the necessary recuperation of what Adorno identified as the “it could be otherwise” utopianism of even the most sublimated work of art.
This kind of high-wire theory is frequently held in suspicion today. However, it is precisely what contemporary political urgencies demand. Truly scholastic work from the academy is deserving of suspicion, but neither an ahistorical dogmatic “Marxist” catechism nor a knee-jerk anti-intellectualism is warranted. Letting go of fantasies—and orienting towards new ones—is sometimes difficult, painful work even if we know that attachment is an obstacle to our flourishing. Reading Berlant is a good first step to alleviating the left’s cruel optimism.
An Organizer’s Question
I never knew Lauren Berlant, though we shared some friends. Even after I started work at the University of Chicago last year, we had contact only once—by email on a listserv for a reading group. I suggested that the group read Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy (1967). Despite my interest, I had avoided the group until then because Berlant so intimidated me—especially since I had published an essay in 2015 partly about their work, which I now recall as clumsy and immature. (Had they read it? What did they think? I wanted to know and didn’t want to find out.) After Berlant responded enthusiastically to my suggestion, I never followed up, failing to propose selections to read or a time to meet. Scuttling toward some imaginary attachment, then shrinking back again in anxiety at the prospect of encounter and approval—I realize now that Berlant probably would’ve been bemused by such behavior.
The Intellectuals and McCarthy argued that the postwar red scare had produced a “traumatized intelligentsia,” which became increasingly hostile to popular politics, even democracy itself. “The intellectuals” associated Populism and Progressivism with McCarthy and thereby with fascism. But even if we were to concede that the American masses may harbor antidemocratic beliefs, Rogin wrote, “There is no reason to assume that that . . . [these beliefs] will affect their actual political activity. Indeed, their activity may change their attitudes.” At this formulation, I think Berlant would have smiled.
Berlant once described affect theory, the field they helped pioneer, as “another phase in the history of ideology theory.” The new field’s promise was to allow us to “formulate, without closing down, the investments and incoherence of political subjectivity.” To be a political subject was to be “disheveled.”
Their career was characterized by a refusal to read the artifacts of ideology—that is, culture—with the same paranoia with which the traumatized mid-century intellectuals had greeted the American masses. Who wants to be caught out this way, unfinished? “It would be all too easy to ridicule the [American] Dream,” Berlant wrote in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, “and to dismiss it as the motivating false consciousness of national/capitalist culture. But the fantasy of the American Dream is an important one to learn from. A popular form of political optimism, it fuses private fortune with that of the nation: It promises that if you invest your energies in work and family-making, the nation will secure the broader social and economic conditions in which your labor can gain value and your life can be lived with dignity.” Not without tension, however, for the Dream only recognizes unconflicted subjects.
To be American, in this view, would be to inhabit a secure space liberated from identities and structures that seem to constrain what a person can do in history. For this paradoxical feeling to persist . . . the vulnerability of personal existence to the instability of capitalism and the concretely unequal forms and norms of national life must be suppressed, minimized, or made to seem exceptional, not general to the population. This sets the stage for a national people imagining itself national only insofar as it feels unmarked by the effects of these national contradictions.
This passage, from a 1997 book, illustrates Berlant’s commitment to the reparative rather than paranoid reading of culture (in the formulation of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of their influences and interlocutors). This practice resists the critic’s impulse to unmask and condemn, and instead asks how “selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has not been to sustain them.” And it reveals perfectly why, unlike so many critics of American politics and culture, Berlant proved equal to the intellectual challenge of Trumpism. Berlant recognized a general crisis in the stability of normative identities, and therefore saw that tremendous explanatory power lay in queer theory: the study of normativity and its subversion; the pains and pleasures of subversion as well as accommodation; and the relations among intimates that sustain each.
I found Berlant’s work while working as a graduate student union organizer, through Cruel Optimism, which is a theoretical account of how neoliberal stagnation locks individuals into harmful fantasies because abandoning them would require, even more painfully, becoming someone new. Berlant named my frustration, voiced over and over to those whom I struggled to reach. To impassive colleagues, I’d plead, “If we all keep doing the same things we’re doing now, why would we expect tomorrow to be different from today?” (“What social change is always about,” Berlant writes, “is partly unlearning the things that you enjoy in order to make something frightening possible.”) But no one releases a fantasy or develops new attachments under pressure of rational argument, and certainly never all at once.
Berlant was known for asking in class, “What would it mean to think that thought?” This is, among other things, an organizer’s question (presumably not how Berlant imagined it). To respond is to become someone who takes responsibility, and in this way the question imagines a democratic public. It holds out the possibility that something new and strange might be possible, but can rarely be grasped all at once; we can only grope toward it. Typically, we need someone to hang onto along the way.