Lauren Berlant is a literary scholar and cultural theorist who works primarily on questions of belonging, citizenship, intimacy and affect. Her writing on fantasies of the good life—how people formulate and pursue desires under precarious political, economic and social conditions—has become a touchstone in contemporary critical theory and cultural studies. Berlant has been teaching at the University of Chicago since 1984 and is the author of several books, including Cruel Optimism (2011) and The Female Complaint (2008). Last year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on “flattened” forms of affect called Matter of Flatness.
Berlant speaks the way she writes: in full paragraphs, punctuated by phrasal asides that nod toward rabbit holes of references before returning to their sentence’s original point. Her thoughts are often structured around some kind of punch line. I first met Berlant at a gallery show where she was quoted in the artist’s statement on the wall; later on in college I took her Theories of Gender and Sexuality class, in which I reserved a section of my notebook for phrases I thought were funny or beautiful but didn’t yet understand. In December, at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, I asked Berlant about the recent election, political emotions, and what America is for.
Bea Malsky: When I first asked you about being in this issue of The Point, you responded that you didn’t know what America was for, but that the question reminded you of a joke: “What’s a meta for?” Can you explain the joke?
Lauren Berlant: It reminded me of a joke for the same reason that “What do women want?” is a joke to me. I understand that when Freud asked this it was a serious question, but when I hear it it’s a funny question, because it’s a ridiculous question. What’s beneath “What is America for?” is: Why do we need the nation form? What does it mean to use an object? How do we think about fantasy in the production of sociality? You know, a question like that means so many things it’s not actually asking.
One of the things that excites me about comedy is the comic disturbance of the shared object. Like, you think you know what it is but you don’t, and you get to delight in that. It allows in the room a multiplicity of kinds of possible effects and affects, and that flooding itself is funny. So a question like “What is America for?” opens up so many possible ways of responding to it, including … nothing. Or, a shrug. I just started laughing at it and it became a joke to me.