Conversation: Lauren Berlant with Dana Luciano

Dana Luciano:  I’d like to start by pressing further on your comment (Cruel Optimism 21) about the need to invent new genres for theorizing, genres that can more effectively register, assess and imagine forms of response to the “new ordinary” that Cruel Optimism is dedicated to elaborating.  The comment responds to your uncertainty about the form and structure of Cruel Optimism itself–in a sense, as you became more clear about some of the conditions of the historical present, you became less sure that extant models of theory were up to the task.  What might some of those genres look like? What is needed to better manage the labor of exemplification, illumination and speculation in which the kind of writing we usually called “theory” is engaged?
A corollary question:  several of the responses have commented on how the bristling lushness of your writing embodies and extends the liveness of your thinking. This, I think, is more than praise for your ability to turn a sentence, though that is indeed praiseworthy. It’s also a recognition that the work of theorizing requires attention to form, structure and tone, and that this attention is a crucial aspect of the dimension of care inherent in any theorizing worthy of the name, not an attractive but unneeded surplus.  How, in other words, might we think about the aesthetic dimension of theory/critical thought (instead of reducing style to mere virtuoso performance)?
Lauren Berlant: The first thing we need to do is get rid of the parentheses in the final clause of your question.  Let’s not be paralyzed by the spectre of mere style and be willing to risk the distinction between stylist and theorist, if it means that the kind of writing we produce will seem so alive that it’s worth reading.  Most of us are not trained to write, really: or to make films, curate cases, and so on. We are trained to make arguments: but the arts of mediation that would incite absorption, attunement, and excitement are not seen as craft skills for critics. This seems a mistake.
This realization has significantly transformed my teaching in the last five years, as well as my relation to my own practice.  It has forced me to ask why we have so few principles of experiment in the humanities, as though for reasons of professional dignity or political urgency we can’t afford to admit that we are trying things out and only partially, slowly clarifying problems.  In the sciences they have no problem admitting the proximity of profound incrementality to great leaps.  Latour has really clarified this for me. John Forrester and Stanley Cavell too. Reading Eugene Thacker too, recently–and Katie Stewart, Fred Moten, Patricia Clough:  they’re propositional theorists, but also writers, and in proliferating archives, contexts, and dynamic clusterings of knowledge, they’re bringing new noise to narrative and dislodging objects.  Behind all of that are the examples of Eve Sedgwick, Hortense Spillers, Gayatri Spivak, and Patricia Williams. But there are very few genuine realist-experimentalists. The claim to truth is still too seductive.  So are the reproductive demands of disciplines, with their beautiful staircases.
At the same time, it’s worth saying that I am also compelled by the a narrative-explanatory mode, as Andrew Ross, Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed, Sharon Holland, and Jack Halberstam have done much better than I can do.  I learn a lot from their experiments in open storytelling.  But most of us (including me) do a little of this and that, a little provocative gesturing, a little polemicizing, a lot of demonstrating, maybe too much. So partly my anxiety was to make theoretical and critical writing worth reading again, and part of it was related to the problem of conceptualizing the ordinary and the historical present. I am not trying merely to secure them in satisfying phrases, but to induce a transformation in the ways we recognize and process events. I’m not too good at it yet; the work still contains a lot of stumbling around in intuited labyrinths.
The problem-concept of the ordinary is of course extremely reflexive. If the claim that we (me and Katie Stewart, say) are making is that the ordinary materializes affectively by way of intensities and impacts that demand skepticism about the trajectories and genres of the event that might extend from them, then the work of finding genre as a way into the historical present (any present, including this one) requires rethinking how to convert incidents into exempla that can hold up the sense of a world. By “how” I don’t mean how to periodize symptoms (I am always reminding my readers that taxonomies like “neoliberalism” are heuristics, not facts or laws). If a genre is an affective event that is organized aesthetically, that is, by way of a sensually invested conventional form, and if the historical present makes itself available to us as a structure of feeling prior to its conventional nominalization, there’s a political imperative to be sensitive and creative about all the genres a scene could be, because a genre accounts for and makes available collective experience.  To make available a collective experience of the present is to make worlds available as process-in-formation and in potentiality.  Tim Ingold thinks about it as enmeshment. In institutional life as well as in love and writing I want not only to craft new realisms but to induce precedents for the coming palimpsest.
DL: I’m intrigued by the conjunction of love and institutional life in your last sentence, especially in light of your 1997 essay “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy,” which Kandice Chuh addresses in her response, as well as your more recent work on love. In her reconsideration of the 1997 essay, Chuh identifies the “intimacy expectation” associated with feminist and politically-engaged pedagogy as, effectively, a form of cruel optimism.  But I’m also interested in the way that essay refuses the implicitly self-sacrificing structure of sentimental education that undergirds those models of feminist mentorship, and the way that refusal links up with your ongoing critique of the ways social and queer theory try, in one way or another, to “clean up” love.  In “A Properly Political Concept of Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages,” you observe, in response to social theorists’ inclination to rescue love for politics by cleansing it of any tendency to instrumentalize the beloved, that “”[l]ove is not entirely ethical,” that it is futile to try to invent a wholly disinterested love, because interest is what brings us there in the first place. (“A Properly Political Concept of Love,” 684)
In part, then, I want to use this conjunction to ask you to comment more on your work on love as it’s been taking shape over the past 15 years or so. More specifically, too, I’m intrigued by why theorists keep identifying love as a tactic or solution for navigating what you elsewhere term “something simpler and often unbearable in ordinary time–socially necessary proximity,” which certainly can describe institutional life, at least on some days. Why does love become the name for what would allow us to turn that unbearability into satisfaction, and what other names might we try out?
LB:  I’ve just finished two small books and have another one on the way on this last question, all of which makes it difficult to respond briefly, while also foregrounding for me how much more there is to do. One is called Desire/Love and was drafted in 2000-2002 as a dictionary entry for a volume yet to appear. I revised it last summer to be published in the Dead Letter series of Punctum Books, which makes available texts that had become “that old unpublished thing lying around in a drawer.”
I still believe most of what I wrote there, although I wouldn’t write it that way now, nor use those examples.  But one thing about love is that in love the example is always off: the object always resists my fantasy for it, even though it is my fantasy that has converted that thing into an object! This is one of the performative points of Barthes’ Lovers’ Discourse, which is what makes it both amazing and unteachable, like Walden, a book similarly ambivalent toward the scenicness of its objects. The critical object is unbearable much like the object of love is: too present, distant, enigmatic, banal, sublime, alluring and aversive; too much and too little to take in, and yet, one discovers all this only after it’s been taken in, however partially, always partially, and yet overwhelmingly even at the smallest points of genuine contact. Desire/Love pursues this claim at in introductory level. Simply staying in proximity to the invested object is hard. Staying in sync is an aspiration.  Resolving ambivalence, forget it.  Or remember it, which is what I take Lisa Duggan’s “optimistic cruelty” to be pursuing.
We are talking here about those idioms that are important because they disturb us while offering, at the same time, a solution to disturbance itself. One reason people use love politically to simplify a tangle of impulses is because the hit of attachment feels simple–that is, feels like a fact that could hold up a world. But history, the becoming-event of the relation, involves knitting fantasy and practice to that affect. I think the problem isn’t in love, then, but in how we learn to symbolize ambivalence in relation to satisfaction. Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ essay is worrying this problem in my work, I think: she wants me to value successful sociality, and not to read the generativity of ambivalence so much in the ways we drift from ourselves and objects. I think the book does address this in the Gaitskill chapter’s excursus on eating as offering the ecstasy of a sensual self-encounter that also interrupts the work of a universe of demandingly failed relations. But it is also true that I find the embrace of pleasure that feels like pleasure less interesting on its own than in relation to the atmospheres that attach pleasure to relief from sociality, personality, reproduction, labor, and compelled attention.
As long as “satisfaction” means “resolution” and “repair,” in any case, love is a cruelly optimistic political concept. I have been working hard on this problem, of revisceralizing ambivalence, in the summer’s second love book–a dialogue with Lee Edelman, called Sex, or the Unbearable.  I won’t say much about it now, apart from noting that writing it taught me to think about the ambivalence or noise that structures attachment, criticality, and politics in ways that I had not yet before clarified. The book after that links erotic attachment love to collective-attachment and attachment to the world, and puts forth some pedagogy for, as Lacanians say, traversing the fantasy less poisonously–but you know what I mean by fantasy is much muddier than what they mean, because I am always interested in bringing technical terms in relation to their vernacular materiality.
So you and Kandice are right that the question of love and of institution are related for me, insofar as we are talking about the ways attachment seeks out worlds to hold up and occupy, even making spaces within relations that reproduce violence in its ordinary facticity.  She says that “the university was never a utopian institution,” but what is an institution? In the interview with Michael Hardt, I suggest that an institution is a thing with resources to which we return to anchor our world as we move through it.  It is also a scene of fantasy investment, therefore, because any scene’s solidity as anchor is more real affectively than actually, given the complexity of ordinary dynamics and rhythms.  If we take the Wittgensteinian idea of “form of life” and suffuse it with social complexity, of inequality and access (the Agambenian idea of “form of life”), we get a complex modeling of the institution as process with mutating and internally incompatible procedures, the kind of idea I like.
I learned from the way that she links the work on feminism as an institution of intimacy to my other work on impersonality, in the Two Girls, Fat and Thin essay, and also in Supervalent Thought.  And the work on impersonality links up with the work on trauma (In trauma we discover our profound not mattering to the shape our lives take, but have to live anyway in what has been revealed as an impersonal space that houses the fantasy that we organize our worlds.).
What would happen if we saw what Nigel Thrift calls the “light touch intimacy” of the colleague as a model for what we aspire to in relation to our proximates? I say “colleague” because we hold up worlds with our colleagues, without making any claim on them subjectively: it’s a higher bar than the stranger or the neighbor because, intimately as we might take them, they are less inconvenient to us than the colleague, who is defined as a being with whom we labor in time. I think Kandice is reaching toward this too, in substituting advising for the model of mentoring, a frame that also makes me shudder.  To advise is to tell what we see; to collaborate requires seeing things together with no claim about harmony or intersubjectivity–more like Sedgwick’s “white glasses”–so that the collaborative and transferential scene would focus not on our feelings and fears but on what the scene is that we want to materialize and return to. What if we understood ourselves as part of a set of all of the things that hold up our world (no tickling!)?
When I am optimistic about love as a political concept it’s when I see it as a principle of non-sovereign movement, of trying out forms of life in transpersonal relation and cultivating orientations that admit into the same space comfort, aggression, delight, and surprise.  When I’m pessimistic it’s because of how badly we are trained to admit our own aggression and to move inside dissatisfaction, or what the next book calls “the inconvenience of other people.”  The political point I think you were trying to lead me to has something to do with occupying the relation among profound and merely irritating disappointments.  If my political commitments to make worlds for flourishing generally and worlds that don’t hate sex are related, they’re related partly by way of cultivating an ethics of curiosity about the objects that organize our disappointments and satisfactions.
DL: I’d like to talk more about the relation between the profound and the merely irritating, and the politics thereof, in line with Cruel Optimism‘s insistence on the need to move away from the melodramatic modes–trauma, melancholia–that have dominated critical thinking about the politics of affect in recent years. In my own work I’ve tracked some of the history of the deeply seductive fantasies we tend to spin around grief’s redemptive or reparative power–a belief we also see in recent political theory. If I’m reading you right, though, you’d view that type of thinking as a critical form of cruel optimism–an attachment to something that prevents us from seeing clearly the rhythms of everyday life and the meanings of undramatic emotion. Several of the responses take this theme up in various ways–considering the ordinariness of precarity or frustration (Rebecca Wanzo, Micki McGee). Sianne Ngai situates your attention to “recessive and hesitant affects” in the context of a noteworthy recent critical inclination toward a kind of downsizing, but she also separates Cruel Optimism from that movement by virtue of your explicitly political orientation. I’d agree with that distinction, especially in light of the explicit renunciation of politics in some of that body of work, which I find troubling. Can you say more about the politics of the “merely irritating”?
LB: It seems to me that you’re asking two questions.  One has to do with Sianne Ngai’s reflection on Mark Seltzer’s claim that some contemporary critical theorists have converted the political into the incremental, and whether my polemic about dedramatizing the event is what he’s talking about. It isn’t, as Sianne says, because I’m not really arguing that “small and slow” gets us toward the metaphysically real,  the politically valuable, or the authentically intimate. There’s no more authenticity to gestural being or to the dent of immediacy than to the inflated melodramatic scene (although lots of affect theory suggests otherwise). My interest is in not presuming that actions/symbolizations add up to something, or have a positive productive valence, or signal greater intelligence in another register. As a conceptual aesthetic, my practice is to ask whether interruptive modalities are also ways of not reproducing the world; it is to cleave the relation between impact and importance and to watch how things take shape. But above all I am committed to a criticism that attends to the incommensurate forces that converge in a scene in such a way that recontextualizes the intractable and therefore transforms what it can do. This is also where Kathryn Bond Stockton and I both overlap and not–I learned from and agree with her piece, largely. But she’s looking for a queerly redemptive negativity, whereas I am less sure about what redemption would look or feel like and so tilt toward what’s suspended or multiple  (does loss always feel like loss? What happens in the indirect relation between the experience of intensity and the becoming-event of a thing?). But we are on the same observational planet.
In contrast, as you suggest, most politically-engaged critical work is still super-melodramatic and cruel optimistic in its hope that a strong emotional noise performs the importance and authority of something, a view or a situation; it still uses rhetorics of catastrophe and crisis exceptionality to describe the ordinary of subordination; and it still believes in an ethics that to be ethics must be denuded of realism about affective overdetermination, and the complexity of unconscious attachments. I prefer a non-mimetic ambition for critical theory, because I want it possible for us to represent overdetermination and unclarity.  Sianne’s and Kandice’s pieces get that, in ways I hadn’t seen, tracking my compulsion to repeat making new affect worlds for structurally knotty relations of power, so that it is possible to dissolve the old disavowals and make new forms of encounter. I think that making new worlds for the mess of sociality and the incoherence of subjectivity is crucial to moving what seems intractable, without resolving the intractable to a smooth surface.
You might also be asking whether “the irritating” is itself a good way to describe a primary register of structural subordination. Yes, but not as a sentimental universal: instead as an index of social location.  All over Cruel Optimism I say versions of this–that “precarity” is an affective state evidencing structural inequality without providing much of a ground for building democracy, the harder question; that structural inequality is a different drama for the classes who used to benefit from it than for the classes and populations whose very social form involves managing anchors within manifest contingency–so I am completely on board with the claims about race/class/population specificity made by Kyla Tompkins, Rebecca Wanzo and Micki McGee. The relation of optimism and attenuated suffering is much less exceptional for those whose everyday life must involve re-encountering a constitutively unwelcoming and threatening world. As a member of quite a few biopolitically mediated populations, precarity is no surprise to me, and so the encounter with it involves not the drama of shock but something in the spectrum from disbelief to disgust. The exhaustion of being not shocked.
My next big project, Matter of Flatness, will have a lot to say about this. Cruel Optimism addresses it in terms of the political economy of composure. So irritation, yes:  it’s the encounter of incommensurate objects, what Anna Tsing might call an affective scene of friction, here a temporally-stretched encounter manifesting a structure of resistance but finding a form in a non-political idiom.  It also gets us into the really interesting arena of thinking about mood as a symptom of history–not just in the modes of trauma or the uncanny, either. Your work on grief and its inexplicit communication would have to be part of that: the felt and inarticulate sense of the out-of-jointness or wrongness of the world as an irritant in the present. It would be interesting to think harder and more historically about atmospheres and moods–but of course the challenge is always in demonstrating the indirect, circumstantial evidence of a non-eventilized situation.
DL: Yes, since moods are something one always seems to be in the middle of, not phenomena that have clear beginnings or ends. Whereas love and grief lend themselves perhaps too readily to narrative: love can be referred back to the world-changing moment of falling in love, grief to the shattering event of a loss. Your work on being, rather than falling, in love, and the kind of in-the-middle thinking you’re doing in Cruel Optimism–for instance, your reading of the politics of uncommitted emotion in Human Resources (ch. 6)–is harder, and takes extraordinary patience, as many of the responses here observe. It’s difficult to resist the critical impulse to resolve or ameliorate: José Muñoz says as much when he imagines you “hunkering down in the foxhole of the here and now, jotting down accounts of the eroding edifices and enclosures we occupy,” whereas he jokes that he is “quick to scan for an exit sign in the form of a figurative futurity.”     
On another aspect of resisting the urge to eventilize, I am drawn to your deheroicized accounts of sex in the book, especially in the fourth chapter, on Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Queer theory tends toward dramatic framings of sex because they seem to provide a kind of traction that can help us to imagine and work toward, as you put it, “worlds that don’t hate sex.” Yet you manage to do so without casting sex into the idiom of the heroic, asking instead, “Is it not possible that the very unoriginality of the sexual experience, its banality, can also make it worth cherishing?” (Cruel Optimism 147) In a later essay reflecting on your earlier writing about sex, though, you track a partial critical move away from the topic (and not only in your own work, since that essay was part of the 2007 SAQ “After Sex?” special issue).  It’s worth asking, then, not only what it means to be bored with sex, but also what sex and sexuality have become in contemporary theory? Have they become identified with/dissolved into affect theory? Merged with other body genres?
LB: I didn’t mean to “resist the urge to eventilize” but really to consider that the becoming-event of relation is an ongoing thing, and not resolved in the genre packages of catastrophe, catharsis, trauma, symptom or diagnosis; it is what happens in the afterlife of the sense formed around disturbance.  Efficient foreclosure is a violence on the scene of the subject and of relation.
Which takes us to the question of queer theory’s erotophobia, or aversion to sex, as I and others considered it in the SAQ issue.  One thing that happened was a genuine interest in building a new social epistemology and institutions for it out of relations of care rather than relations of desire.  In feminist work such as that of Martha Minow and Martha Fineman, in LGBT/queer kinship work of Kath Weston, David Eng, Martin Manalansan, and Beth Povinelli, it was the affective labor of the reproduction of life that mattered and sustained worlds.  Lisa Duggan has also been inspirational in this area.  We all took seriously Foucault’s “Friendship as a Way of Life.”
We have not yet had a good debate about the conversion of power to care in our analysis of sexualization and sexuation. One casualty of this is discussions about porn, which seemed to stall into memes a few decades ago. Another casualty is that we stopped looking to sex as revelatory:  instead, it too often appears as blockage, distraction, and harm.  José Muñoz’s powerful representation of this, of our ongoing conversation about queering Adorno’s world “otherwise” or Bloch’s educated hope, is a great beginning for moving along the non-debate between a present-oriented suffering and a future or potentiality-oriented happiness. His reading of Morrisoe’s work tracks an aesthetic in transition from cruel optimism to the otherwise that yet has no conventions. This is what José means by “longing,” which extends what Heather Love means by it in tracking the transference of the future with pasts in need of rescue, resolution, or extension into a possible world.  But often, in our desire to keep political hope enflamed, and to negate negativity by foregrounding twisted sweetness and uncanny longing on behalf of a world worthy of queer attachment, we subtly protect erotophobia.  A demure queer theory!  Who would have thought it.
There are other pressures to separate sex from sexual politics–the rise of genderqueer analysis by way of theorizations of transsexuality, for example, has really complicated the relation of gender, sexuality, and sex in ways of which we’ve just begun feeling out resonances, and sex delightfully turns up in the strangest places.  Also disability studies has produced astonishing stagings of the place of sex in the refusal to become an aversively bad object (there are enticing ones, of course).  You’re right, too, that affect theory, beginning with discussions of shame that we associate now with Sedgwick, Elspeth Probyn, and the big Gay Shame book, has become a place where sex becomes the sexual, and the sexual becomes rerouted into atmospheres of the social and residues of bodily violence and excitement.  This was the great contribution of Foucault, after all, to see all of the sexual things as not reducible to sex: but then sex remains that which doesn’t change while everything else does.
Our desire “not to be reduced to sex” is itself erotophobic: it’s linked up to the place we began, the desire not to be reduced to style. My political and theoretical commitment is anti-erotophobic — to learn from sex how to think about the event and relationality; to learn from intimacy new ways of thinking about sovereignty; to learn from the scene of the reproduction of life how to think about power’s unequal impact on the sensorium and embodiment; and to produce a style that’s genuinely exploratory, as undefended as possible from fear of incoherence and its vicissitudes. One way I’ve found to sustain this exposure is to work collaboratively — to keep the event open by way of extended critical conversation, as we have done here, in this forum and this interview.  I’m grateful.

lauren berlant