Beyond Lauren Berlant
Rosa Boshier & Erik Brown
Feb 14, 2022
01 Berlant's Phraseology: An Impression, by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué>>
02 Feeling Political, by Anthony Sutton>>
03 Losing the Plot: On Lauren Berlant's Desire/Love, by Christina McCausland>>
Gulf Coast’s newest online feature “Beyond Lauren Berlant” pulls together a series of works, to be published monthly between February and May of 2022, inspired by the late scholar and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, who died on June 28, 2021. While the loss of Berlant’s luminous presence serves as the impetus for this project, we decided not to constrain the works that came to us, and instead we offered an opportunity for surprise and rupture, wherever it might occur. Within the spirit of Berlant’s works—such as Sex, Or the Unbearable, a dialogue between Lee Edelman and Berlant that probes the relationships between sex, culture, and sovereignty; and The Hundreds, cowritten with Kathleen Stewart and “indexed” by various other collaborators—this series is a collaboration between Gulf Coast editors, contributors, and Berlant’s own ideas. For many of us, Berlant’s work has shown us that there can be life beyond academia, beyond all this thinking and talking, all this talking about thinking. In inviting us to feel through thought, Berlant showed us that writing can leave the page to influence our ways of being and create its own juicy form of kinship.
A student of desire's dailiness and incoherence, Berlant was radically nonjudgmental of how we feel in the world while remaining critical of affects’ political weight, and the attempts to organize them. "How would you deal with what's overdetermined about your attachment to the world?" Berlant asked in a 2016 interview. "How would you deal with all the ways in which your normative fantasies about your attachment to the world actually don't describe all of the different ways in which you show up for it [...] Maybe you could pay attention to those ways, and in paying attention to those ways, not just reproduce your normative attachment to other humans, but, do some other things." Often Berlant’s work prompts us to consider underprivileged or yet unimagined “other things” or possibilities.
The descendant of self-described communists from Russia and "bourgeoisie nationals and Zionists," Berlant’s early work involved the study of how people form a sense of belonging in society, namely nationalism. Berlant's first three books focused on national sentimentality, and asked the question, "What does it mean to be a public?" In other words, how do we believe ourselves to be bound to each other and how are those bonds institutionally confirmed? Berlant also plied apart the unruly and restrictive social apparatus of gender in their work. They were highly aware of the contradictions that come with living under gendered identities, and they lovingly attended to this chaos.
The public mourning around Berlant’s passing is so resonant that we’re reminded of their concept of optimism. As Berlant describes in Cruel Optimism, “optimism manifests in attachments and the desire to sustain them.” For many scholars and non-scholars alike, Berlant’s work helped to forge a path through the turbulent present. Even while Berlant’s death is an irreplaceable loss, maybe there’s something more at work. Maybe this mourning is optimistic, even if the affect that accompanies such optimism changes to one less comforting like pain or urgency.
Optimistically, we hope to create a chain of relation after Berlant, highlighting the potential that their work holds in getting us to think differently about ourselves and our responsibility to others. Contributors include former students, close friends, distant acquaintances, and those who did not know Berlant personally at all but admired them from afar. This breadth of writers working in response to Berlant shows the enduring generosity and rigor of Berlant's thinking.
Rosa Boshier is a writer and Fiction PhD candidate at The University of Houston. Her fiction, essays, and art criticism have appeared in Guernica, Catapult, Artforum, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, Hyperallergic, The Rumpus, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the Gulf Coast Reviews Editor.
Erik Brown is a poet and MFA candidate at The University of Houston. Erik serves as the Digital Editor for Gulf Coast.