Berlant’s Phraseology: An Impression

Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué

Feb 15, 2022

Beyond Lauren Berlant series >>

Lauren Berlant was ripe for imitation. Some young scholars imitated them in their writing in the hopes of being taken more seriously, disgruntled students imitated them as a way of venting their frustrations with their teaching, loving students and friends imitated them for the pleasure of sharing with each other this loved person’s unique echoes. As a PhD candidate at UChicago, I was briefly Berlant’s student before their passing, and in this time and beyond my colleagues and I would often trade “Laurenisms.” Whether out of love for their thought, out of confusion at a sentence structure, or just to revel in the thick comedy of our academic intimacy, noting Berlant’s phrases and patterns was one way we were alive with them, our gentle pricking at a person who was both a titan of our department and a lovely weirdo we spent so much time with. As I’ve sat with these “Laurenisms” more, especially in revisiting their work in the wake of their passing, I’ve come to find them a useful access point into thinking about how—and I mean these only as positives—formalist and formulaic their thinking was. Which is to say, how much they depended on forms and formulas; how good they were at describing patterns; how for them objects, worlds, theories, and forms interlocked and overlapped in such a way we would be compelled to call their amalgamation “life.”

The first of these that I encountered, which solidified the category for me, likely because it haunted my assignments and because every student of Berlant’s seemed to hear it in equal measure, was “you think you’re writing about [X], but you’re actually writing about [Y].” It was a recurring joke among students that this was how Berlant related to paper ideas, that you would present something and they would both motivate you and perplex you by saying your idea was “really” about something else. When I proposed a (wonky, slipshod) paper close reading Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land for Berlant’s class on trauma, saying I was writing about AIDS and eventality, they told me I was actually writing about adaptation and historicity, and then sent me an extensive reading list (PDFs attached, as was always their style) on adaptation studies and on the historical novel. They were more right than I cared to admit at the moment, as the work in adaptation studies quietly revealed to me an entire critical angle on this book of poetry which Berlant hadn’t even read but only heard me talk about. I said to myself, crap, I am writing about adaptation, but how did they hear that in what I said? This style of listening was something Berlant was known for: more careful, precise, and generous than most professors, but sometimes confounding or taxing, making you question if you were not being heard or if you had just explained yourself badly. When it worked, it was like someone read your mind for an idea you hadn’t quite had yet; when it didn’t, it alienated you from your ideas. To this day I’ve never quite understood the historical novel angle of their suggestion to me, and in the end, through a mix of intimidation and winter blues, I wrote them a pretty bad paper. At the end of it, they wrote “in a way, [now] you’ve found the project.”

In a similar vein, Berlant was someone who illuminated for me that various actors may use the same terms but mean wildly different things. Sex, events, time, love, satisfaction, anxiety—any simple term that we would assume everybody would understand exactly what we meant when we said it—these for Berlant might in fact be the terms we most disagree about and that we most need to parse out. I would commonly hear them ask, “when you say [X], do you mean your idea of [X] or mine?,” “whose version of [X] do you mean?,” “are we holding the same object when we both say [X]?” These questions were not attempts at being picky or pretentious, even if they were reminding you that a Badiouan event, a Deleuzian event, and a vernacular event were indeed very different things. Instead, I took these questions to mean that you cannot assume mutual understanding before you’ve done any work to get there. Part of teaching, of reading, or even just listening to someone talk is recognizing that understanding each other (or feeling like you understand each other) is a very delicate, contingent, and intimate thing. It reminds me of an old conflict resolution trick: two people are fighting over a bottle of water, you ask them what they want to do with it. If one says, I want to drink the water inside the bottle, and the other says, I want to use the bottle as a container, you don’t actually have an unresolvable conflict before you. Berlant’s precision in this way was often incredibly generous, a live version of Sedgwick’s first axiom (“People are different from each other”). This is sort of a microcosm of what was exciting and difficult about their teaching in general—you’ll be listened to and disoriented at the same time.

To students anxious about what they did or did not know (a common occurrence, as you can imagine), Berlant reassured them by calling themself a “slow learner.” They believed it took them an enormous amount of time, a counter-intuitive amount in fact, to learn anything from what they read, said, and heard. But I also always appreciated the other side to this feeling: an effort they made to always tell us, in short form, what we might take away from something they were saying. It was an efficiency they provided at the start or end of longer explanations with something like “what I want you to learn from this is [X]” or “the reason I’m saying this is [X].” Now, mind you, sometimes those summaries could sound worlds away from the rest of the explanation, and that’s what we learned more slowly—how the details could summarize into a trend, or how a rule could reveal its cases over time, or how to transfer that information to anyone else not in the room. This was sometimes a demand to students as well. “What do you want us to learn from that?” they might have said to a student rambling on, someone making a too-personal comment, or just someone who is very close to gathering their thoughts but hasn’t quite done it yet. That comment could cut like a knife, leaving you devastated or anxious or feeling like, well, I guess I don’t have anything for them to learn, but I also think it enabled an attention to the attention of others.

Learning from Berlant, and hearing them talk in physical proximity, was what enabled me to really understand their scholarship, which is why I’ve started this reflection with my own sense of their behavioral patterns in the classroom, in all their sometimes heartening and sometimes disheartening idiosyncrasies. But their scholarship contains much of these phrases and a similar relationship to knowledge and inquiry that they imparted in their teaching. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on a formulation that appears a few times in Berlant’s work, which I would transcribe as “[X] is the [not-X] you like.” It appears in “Sex in Public,” one of Berlant’s classic essays cowritten with Michael Warner, as “Memory is the Amnesia you like.” [1] It appears in Desire/Love, Lauren’s short and underread book on its titular terms, as “love is the misrecognition you like, can bear, and will try to keep consenting to.” [2] That formulation is edited in Cruel Optimism into “recognition is the misrecognition you can bear.” [3] And they return to the older formulation in an interview on The Hundreds, saying “in my work, I am always saying love is the misrecognition you like.” [4] This formulation comes out of Berlant’s unification of psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, and queer theory, a unification they enabled for generations of scholars after them, and is usually a way of saying that we tend to sit with much more ambivalence than we think we do, that often the only substantive difference between a negative relation and a positive one might be in the realm of our attachment and fantasies regarding an object. In the first version of this formulation, from “Sex in Public,” this formulation describes a state-sanctioned version of the United States’s racial story, a “racial mirage,” part supplied phobia, part liberal fantasy, around the future of the United States as racially hybrid and equalized (encapsulated, for Berlant and Warner, in a 1993 TIME cover). So, digging into this formulation’s repetition in Berlant’s work shows us just how good they were at thinking about power, affect, and fantasy together.

For Berlant (through Lacanian psychoanalysis and its afterlives), there is no objective object, “all objects are relations,” [5] and what we think of as the form of the object is actually the consequence of our generation of implications around the object. This is the intellectual scaffolding behind my earlier example of “whose version of [X] do you mean?” and it’s also what made Berlant a particularly good collaborator, one who could recognize and challenge how they and a colleague were differently rotating a particular object of inquiry. But it’s also this very understanding that enables their career-long study of sentimentality, of convention, of genre, and of “cruel optimism.” Take Cruel Optimism’s opening:

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might 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. [6]

The “something” desired is such a stretchy term (food, love, a fantasy, a project, a habit) and that’s not because the theory of cruel optimism is being stretched too wide, but because for Berlant the attachment is the thing that defines the object. A misreading of the first sentence would posit the object as the source of both your desire and its sabotage of your flourishing; rather, Berlant’s supposition is that all attachments to our objects are optimistic—we think they will get us closer to a something that we feel we need to set us into rights with the world—and that that is what makes them our objects in the first place. Our attachments to these objects yield conventions, which are forms for our attachments to sit in and return to, which keep us near our objects, and its these conventions that yield the titular cruelty. Feminism and queer theory’s uptake of psychoanalysis, melded with a Marxist’s adeptness for reading the structures of the political and economic, makes such an understanding of objects, attachments, and the “worlds” we hope our objects bring us into not only clearer but necessary.

The bedfellow to Berlant’s use of “object” is their use of “world.” In their work, “world” is a term that appears plentifully as a way of describing the location (geographical, affective, social, political) that is stitched together and held up by multiple actors and objects in proximity (geographical, affective, social, political). Their use of the term can mean “the world” as in Earth, or “the world” as in everybody’s everything, or “the world” as in the situation we all find ourselves in socio-politically and psychosocially. It can be “a world” as in a counterpublic, or “a world” as in one person’s sense of themselves (as when a personal event is described as “world-shattering”), or “a world” as in all the actors and feelings and properties that sit together in a household or a social institution, or “a world” as in the scenes of our fantasy life. In this usage, Berlant clearly learned from writers like Heidegger and Žižek, but in their understanding that people often navigate life while rejecting “the world” or particular “worlds,” there is also the clear influence of Black studies, from Claudia Rankine to Christina Sharpe, and affect studies, from Sedgwick to Sara Ahmed. It’s always impressive to me how much Berlant’s scholarship achieves by the tandem wielding of their unique sense of “objects” and “worlds.” 

I’ve chosen to tag these phrases and formulas in Berlant’s writing and teaching as a way of sitting at their surface, of making an impression of them while doing an impression of them. Since their death, there has been a warm and vast influx of scholarly and personal accounts of just how much this life and work meant, what the work amounted to, how much it enabled, how deep we can go into it. Frankly, I feel ill-equipped to plumb the depths of Berlant’s oeuvre. I don’t really want to enter this conversation as someone who will do the work of revealing critical subplots or creating the richest summary of a body of work that both distrusted and lavished in good summary, as I think others have done better than I could. Instead, my hope is that I’m pointing to some things “everyone knows” about Lauren Berlant, to riff off their famous opening to The Female Complaint. I’m hoping in here there are moments of recognition for readers, friends, and colleagues, some echo of a life I was happy to be around. This phraseology is what I can offer as the blueprint for if someone said to me, do your best impersonation of Lauren Berlant!; or if someone challenged a young scholar by saying, hey get your own voice, you’re just impersonating Lauren Berlant; or if someone asked me, tenderly or sourly or with simple curiosity, what was it like being around Lauren Berlant?

[1] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998), 549.
[2] Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (New York: Punctum Books, 2012), 106.
[3] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 26.
[4] Lauren Berlant, interviewed by Katarzyna Bojarska. “The Hundreds, Observation, Encounter, Atmosphere, and World-making.” The Journal of Visual Culture 18.1 (2019): 298.
[5] Ibid, 299.
[6] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 1.

Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué is a poet and writer living in Chicago. He is most recently the author of Losing Miami (The Accomplices, 2019) and co-editor of An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979-1989, both of which were finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. His fourth poetry book, Madness, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books. He is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago where he works in the study of sexuality.