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.
So that’s why I’m interested in comedy. I’m also interested in thinking about politics as comedic, by which I don’t mean delightful or funny in the easy Schadenfreude sense. I’m interested in the comedic dictum, which is that disturbance doesn’t kill you, it forces you to live on. The thing about trauma, as I always say to my [Literature of] Trauma students, is that it doesn’t kill you and you have to live with it. And that’s the thing about comedy, too. The comedy is that you get up again after you fall off the cliff, and have to keep moving. You have to live with the brokenness, and you have to live with surprise, and you have to live with contingency. And you have to live with the pleasure of not knowing, if you can bear it. But how you have to live with it is another story.
Comedy is a lot about the question of whether you can bear it, in a way that tragedy isn’t. Because in tragedy the world can’t bear you.
BM: Right, in tragedy you die.
LB: Exactly, there’s that. America tries to be a comedic force, in the sense that it tries to organize a kind of optimism about living politically. About a greatness, about a transcendence, about the practical or concrete utopia. About the history of the nation form as a space of justice.
And saturating the space of justice is so important in America’s modernity that it’s like a failed pun or something: it doesn’t work. I always have had respect for people’s desire for there to be a form that will solve the problem of living. America is one of those forms—the nation is one of those forms. And form can’t solve the problem of living. The constant disappointment at that fact is a lot like the constant repetition in a comic sequence of a slapstick event. Except the violence of the disappointment is not funny! And it has really bad, painful effects on people’s lives.
BM: You’ve been writing a lot about humor lately, including a piece in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry on humorlessness. Why is humorlessness important to your thinking about comedy?
LB: Whenever I tell someone I’m writing a book on humorlessness, they always laugh. Because humorlessness is so unbearable. I think that’s interesting! A liberal model of humor and humorlessness would suggest that you should always try to cure humorlessness with humor, because humor is what keeps things warm between people and it makes it possible to move together in the social. But of course, our political commitments are also humorless. They’re the things that we would like to be intractable about.
One of the ways that I define humorlessness is as the sudden withdrawal of a cushion in a social relation, the sudden experience of the intractable where you thought things were tractable. I don’t think of it as a moral thing. I think we’re all humorless, and we’ve made friends with our humorlessness in certain places. So when making charges of humorlessness, what people think they’re saying is, “I have humor, I’m flexible, I could change. But you, on the other hand, are immovable.” But in fact we’re all unmovable in places, and a lot of politics is a negotiation of different forms of immobility and commitment.
This is why there’s a lot of humor in anti-politically correct discourse. The PC debates have been incredibly interesting since PC was invented as a way of self-policing—PC was an aspiration when we first started using it as a phrase! Because you were trying to unlearn your default sensorium of misogyny and racism and xenophobia and class privilege. Being PC was a reminder that your visceral responses were not justice. Of course, all of us are trained as modern subjects to think our visceral responses are justice. But they’re not.
It mattered to me that Al Franken, when he was on Air America Radio before he was a senator, used to always call Rush Limbaugh “the comedian Rush Limbaugh.” I learned a lot from listening to that and thinking about that. Because what he meant was that Rush Limbaugh has a comedian’s commitment to the joke—if he says something outrageous, he’s going to follow it through to its logical end, even if the logical end is completely untethered from the real. Because affectively, it demonstrates something for him, whereas referentially, it has no traction. And I think the alt right is all about that. It’s all about affective truth that has a distorted tethering to how people live.
I can give you an anecdote that ties this up somewhat: about six months before the election I started having panic attacks from political triggers. It’s not usual for me, and I didn’t really know why. But after some reflection one day, I realized it was because I knew that whoever won, the atmosphere of the Trump campaign had let out of the bag an amplifying pleasure in white supremacy and American exceptionalism and misogyny and xenophobia that, no matter who won, was not going to get stuffed back in.
We are now in, on one hand, an unchanged world—because white supremacy’s not new, and structural violence is not new, none of that is new just because Trump got elected—but the pleasure in it is intensified. They took enormous pleasure. Pleasure won this election, you know. Pleasure and violence are all bound up in each other for this election.
BM: How have you been talking about the election with your students?
LB: This quarter in my undergrad gender and sexual theories class I tried an experiment. We had a unit on citizenship, three weeks of reading about citizenship and sexuality and gender, and then their midterm project was based on citizenship.
And I said to the class, for how many of you is citizenship an active topic of thought? One person. And I thought that was incredibly interesting, because I’ve been working on citizenship since I started doing my graduate work, but I myself had been dialing back from it and thinking more about social membership and belonging and all these more diffuse bindings. And then many different social and political crises since 2008—from the economic crisis to Twitter citizenship that enabled the Black Lives Matter movement and other organized refusals to allow the ordinary destruction of life to just be the thing you knew as realism—started to make citizenship an active category for me again.
BM: How had you first approached that concept of citizenship?
LB: It was partly that I was eleven in 1968, and a precocious—wild—eleven. So I went to anti-war rallies, and my political consciousness came up during a period of radical experimentality about what it was possible to do as a member of a social world, politically. And so I went to a commune when I was fifteen, I went to rallies, I hated Nixon appropriately, and I had socialist proletarian grandparents on one side of the family.
I understood that there were alternative ways of living. And they were, in a material sense, alternative—it wasn’t like someone had a theory about alternativity. It was that people had lived alternatively, and that people were living alternatively. And so it became really important to me to ask the question of what I would now call normativity, but I didn’t have that language at the time.
Then, in the Seventies, the British feminists were all socialist feminists. I went to England when I was a junior in college at Oberlin—you just paid your regular tuition, which I barely paid any of since I was really poor and on my own. They gave me $45 a week and paid my tuition and I got to go to England and take courses. I took these night classes with secretaries, and radical socialist feminists were teaching them at the University of London. And my eyes were completely opened to the collaboration of nationalism and capitalism, and to imperialism, which I had known as a state of exception for the Vietnam War, and later realized to be not exceptional at all.
I got to graduate school and I started reading a lot of historical novels and Marxism. The rise of the historical novel and the rise of Marxism were at very similar time periods, but also Marxist literary criticism was very involved in thinking about the historical novel as a way of understanding the subjective history of class, capitalism and the nation. And there’s the sexuality component, which is that any time you read any criticism of a historical novel it would say, “And then there was this stupid love plot.” So I was curious: Why did there need to be sexuality in the historical novel? And so I started thinking a lot about the mediation of politics through the body, and that’s how I became me.
BM: A couple years ago I was in the Theories of Gender and Sexuality class that you co-taught with [sociologist] Kristen Schilt. One of my favorite sessions was when we discussed the video of Obama announcing that his presidential library was going to be on the South Side of Chicago—the things it was saying about the family and patriotism and hard work, and race without ever directly talking about race. Have you done any similar exercises with video from the recent campaigns?
LB: I had a lot of debates with colleagues around this. Because it was election season, I felt it was important not to be taking political positions in the classroom about voting. Because the minute the teacher expresses a view, people feel that any time they have a view they have to be measuring it against your view. I want people to be able to think about something—I want them to be able to walk around it, you know.
So last year, when I taught affect theory, we looked at political commercials. We looked at the Bernie Sanders “America”commercial in relation to the Obama “Yes We Can” ad. First of all, the students hadn’t come to political consciousness during the first Obama election so they hadn’t seen the “Yes We Can” ad, which surprised me because I’m an idiot.
But they were crying, and they didn’t know they had national sentimentality. And they were a very different group than your class. Your group had a lot of cynicism in it, and when it came to tender political emotions your class was ready to not have them. And I think one of the reasons that class with the Obama library announcement was memorable, and it was memorable to a lot of people, was because we had to think about other people’s tenderness and not just our own in the space of the political. It’s worth saying to people who haven’t seen the video that it includes memories of the Great Migration from the South to Chicago, which stood then as a sign of freedom.
BM: I think that reluctance was part of why that day stuck with me. You encouraged the class, saying, “It’s okay to say something positive about this, or to be moved by this.”
LB: And I wasn’t in fact very moved by that commercial for the library. But on the other hand, watching other people be moved in the commercial made me realize: 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.
And a lot of what politics is about is trying to promise that change won’t be traumatic. You saw the tenderness in that—in the Bernie ad for America, it’s so moving because they’re coming to look for America, and it had no content. It was just a few lines from the Simon and Garfunkel song and a bunch of images of farms in Iowa. And it was very moving, but the condition under which it was moving was that there was no content.
This year, I showed two pieces of art by Carrie Mae Weems and one Hillary Clinton commercial when I was teaching affect theory. And the 2012 Carrie Mae Weems ad—it’s got music but no Obama voice. It’s one portrait of his face and she projects different masks that are associated with different kinds of things people called Obama. And it’s just incredibly powerful as you watch him change into various fantasy things. He has said, I knew that I was a screen that people project onto, and she literalizes it.
The second Carrie Mae Weems video was an ad for voting. The image of it was people on the street in New York, very multicultural. But the voiceover was an Obama speech about his legacy, and how much it means to him that people get out and vote. It’s no body and all voice—the first thing was all body and no voice—and you felt like you were a part of the audience he was hailing. In the third ad, the Hillary Clinton ad, she uses the same speech that Carrie Mae Weems used, but it’s all pictures of her and Obama. And the last shot of it is him with his arm around her walking her onto a stage. So it was really creepy, because in the third ad it was her saying, I have to submit myself to his legacy in order for you to accept me.
Watching the different orchestrations of political affect in these three things makes you really recognize how there is no consensual historical present except the one we make, and how completely affectively complicated it is to have a political desire in the present moment.
I think there’s a lot of mess in solidarity, because the point of solidarity is a concept—an emotion. You don’t have to like the people you have solidarity with; you just get to be on the same team, and have the project of making the world better. But one of the things that we debate when we’re trying to do that is: Do we want the same world? We agree that we don’t want the world that exists, but do we want the same world? And a lot of politics, a lot of the humorlessness of the political, comes when you realize that the people who share your critique don’t share your desire.
I have a kind of long-haul version of intellectual and political self-development which is: there will always be blindness in it, and when that gets revealed to us we have to face it. We have to figure out what kind of conversation we can have, because in the long haul it’s clear that the world has to become less bad, but also much better, for people who are living in it.
BM: What about this process of unlearning as you learn—do you think there’s a violence in that?
LB: Yes. Unlearning is extremely painful, because you’re giving up your object. And I believe in pedagogy—I’m fundamentally a teacher. But I think teaching is really difficult, because the things you’re trying to get people to unlearn are things they hold close, and that are forms of life for them that structure their sense of continuity. Because learning and unlearning happen at the same time, there ought to be a lot of grace in the space of pedagogy.
Cruel Optimism is about how people will stay in relation to their object even if it destroys them, because they can’t bear giving up the pleasure of knowing the world in a particular way. So yes, unlearning is very painful because it means you have to experience a kind of complexity about moving through the world that you didn’t have before. And that’s very abstract, but it’s not abstract when you’re losing something.
I remember a colleague of mine saying to me that when he realized Russian communism was also genocidal, he couldn’t be a communist anymore. He was an old leftist, even when I met him. And he said, “So I turned from the world and just chose my wife.” And that broke my heart. But it was so painful for him to lose his object that he just chose a very personal and apolitical love. I would never want to do that, but it means you have to be willing to feel the pain of the contingency of the world.