Lauren Berlant

George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor

University of Chicago

Lauren Berlant's work has focused on the affective components of belonging in the U.S. nineteenth and twentieth centuries—now the twenty-first: in particular, in relation to juridical citizenship, to informal and normative modes of social belonging, and to practices of intimacy as they absorb legal, normative, and fantasmatic forces. These scenes of relation articulate state, juridical, and institutional practices of zoning and more abstract boundary-drawing—between public and private, white and non-white, and/or citizen and foreigner—with other kinds of social bonds through which people imagine and practice world-making.

Berlant is interested in how modes of social membership flourish that absorb the blows of power while preserving critical and optimistic attachments to the political as a site of a vaguely rendered, collective ongoingness or potentiality. To this end, she has finished a trilogy on national sentimentality—in order of their historical address, The Anatomy of National Fantasy (Chicago, 1991); The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2009); and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke, 1997). She has also followed out this interest in collective attachments and affects in the edited volumes Intimacy (Chicago, 2000); Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (with Lisa Duggan; NYU, 2001); and Compassion: the Culture and Politics of an Emotion (Routledge, 2004).

Berlant's latest book, Cruel Optimism, is about the wearing out of the fantasy of the good life that has bound people to various kinds of intimate and political normativity despite their constant inadequacy to the fantasies that bring people to them. So its intervention is two-pronged, to do with conceptualizing affect historically, and with addressing the neoliberal sensorium insofar as it is shaped by the recognition that the social democratic/liberal fantasy of mass upward mobility, meritocracy, and durable intimacy has less and less traction in the world. Here “optimism” does not mean the emotion of optimism but the affective structure of attachment that enables people to survive and even flourish amidst the ordinariness of life-in-crisis, life without foundations, anchors, or footing. Looking at ways to think about attachment and suffering that attend to the structural and therefore that would be misdescribed by the exceptionalist analytic of trauma and the modernist model of “everyday life,” it provides better genres for the historical present.

Also related to the impact of these circuits of social exemplification is an interest in pedagogies of normativity in the academy, culture, and politics. Berlant has edited two volumes of Critical Inquiry called On the Case, which bring together leading thinkers to examine the “case”—the standard unit in law, medicine, psychoanalysis, the humanities, the sciences, and popular culture. What makes a case ordinary, easily dealt with, or forgettable? What makes some cases, and not others, challenges to the way ordinary life or institutional systems usually proceed? How do kinds of people become examples of kinds of thing? The project works through cases—of torture, of scientific paradigms, of OCD and Obesity, of the cinematic closeup, of literary personhood, of philosophical norms for adjudicating ethics, of servants, and gods, and lyric poetry, and sexuality. But all of the essays address their cases with an eye to understanding how cases have been and might be made.