Lauren Berlant fundamentally altered our perception of the importance of language, of how language can create and maintain alternate worlds. And they did it with the stimulating political lessons of the writer’s style – style as praxis, as a means of doing political thought by creating the critical world. Berlant’s sentences do their job by asking a lot of us, by engaging us in the work as comrades, close friends, potential or real friends. Their sentences are coiled tight, portable, quick in their punch but yearning for slow unpacking. One of the most striking examples is the first sentence of The cents (2019), a co-writing experience with anthropologist Kathleen Stewart who explored the powers of fragmentary juxtaposition: “Every day a friend across the ocean wakes up with thoughts of suicide.
Consolidating friendship, suicidal thoughts and the many senses of awakening across the abyss that is here in everyday life, this sentence implements political pedagogy through the powers of style in which Berlant continued to experiment and to train. Berlant later shared, in a interview in the Journal of Visual Culture (2019), what they ‘learned’ from the placement of this sentence, which makes what could be the last thing the first thing:
It is powerful to wake up the book by waking up thinking about death. I thought if I taught this I would probably spend 45 minutes on this sentence. Why? What does it mean to open up with the idea that the first thing might be the last, and that people are living on the edge, and trying to expand on whatever is seeping or resonating through them? pores from the limit?
The limit: this zone of impasse where we cannot continue and not let go, where optimism weakens and the explosion is not exceptional, but where we can find ways of being in life without wanting and even refusing the world as given. Berlant opened the thought with the ends of life and of the world as an altering life practice and a kind of porous environment of detention to destigmatize the thought about death in order to confront the conditions which make this thought necessary.
But this think with– embodied in shared writing and not just in the classroom – was a method and not just an object. Asking “what does this mean?” and “what would it mean to think that thought?” to move the stuck other, Berlant embarked on the uncertain project of thinking and writing with: in public, with us. Consider the framing of their research blog, Supervalent Thinking, as a way “To learn to write. Their writing of life exercised a pedagogy to the limit which worked to undo the attachments to the fictions of sovereignty by the public risk of thinking with what defeats us.
I woke up on June 28 to learn that Berlant had died of cancer. First of Beth Freeman, whose article “Queer Nationality” – co-authored with Berlant – still speaks to us about the collective life of desire after heteropatriarchal racial capitalism. How can we lose the one who taught us to live and to write while losing? How to endure the unbearable and stay attached to life in a world that produces premature deaths? We could turn to Berlant’s risk experiments – often co-worked in one way or another – to “create new realisms”. Take Riva Lehrer Risk photos: Lauren Berlant (standing), 2018, a mixed charcoal portrait of Berlant who retreats from pain as a spectacle to offer loss as a medium. The irregular outline of a red line marks the so-called “risk activity”, Berlant’s exposure of their surgical scar. And he looks back. Much like the eyes – the only other dots of coloring on the otherwise gray field of the body – the scar redraws the red letters of stigma and trauma. Rather, its unfixing aspect demonstrates the outspoken detachment that Berlant theorized as a style of attachment to the rocking life.
As if unstoppable, Berlant wrote towards and not only on the future and the expected. Their trilogy planned in preparation—On the inconvenience of others (to be published by Duke University Press in 2022) and Lack of humor and Question of flatness (eagerly hoped for but whose status is not yet clear) – was to explore a different focus from unachievable fantasies of control and ordinary states of emergency that take post-melodramatic and deflationary forms of underperforming bodily behavior. Berlant continued the work of writing to sustain a life while radically questioning – as they did in a 4 Columns see again memories on cancer by Anne Boyer The immortal (2019) – the “carcino-despair complex”, the “commons of suffering” and the alleged heroism of endurance.
In the absence of national mourning, Berlant reckoned with the Covid-19 pandemic and the criminal abandonment by the state with a characteristic refiguration of urgent responsibility: “We are living at a time when national sentimentality and manifestations of compassion are deafened because the government does not see itself as the first responder, ”they told a reporter from the Washington post. They responded to the call for critical interventions in quarantine by telling their daily life with a piercing mind: “In the morning, I shout” Smells! The ensuing still life interweaves cancer’s ‘cure time’ with the ‘streaming crawl’ of living with the ordinary Covid emergency.
But what are the forms of living our death that also take into account what makes a good life, let alone a good death, unachievable for most of us? In 2011, the Barnard Center for Research on Women in New York brought together the Public Sentiments Fair to honor the event of Berlant’s book Cruel optimism, which theorizes the condition that keeps us attached to things that wear us out, like the corrosive consumer versions of the good life and the good death. At the invitation of the Center to extend the Salon, I contributed to the essay “Handle with Care”, addressing the impossible question of the good death raised in the third chapter of the book, “Slow Death”. Berlant led the way in the challenge of their reply that survival includes the queer work necessary to create a world in which something like the good death is possible by doing it together in a non-normative way:
Casid’s point, and mine in Slow Death, is that survival includes dying, dying well: having good deaths that are part of what it means to value life. When we care about ourselves, we need to think about what it means to value life, and ask what it means to care about something, someone, an object / a scene: it is asking ourselves what we can learn from. the relationship of love and despair, which is, after all, a political issue.
A good death requires nothing less than the reorganization of the healthcare infrastructure for life. And yet, we live our death while waiting anyway. And what are the forms for this? Berlant experienced the disconcerting political question of the good death, turning this object into a scene – and holding the door open. Be in the room with it, they might say. Get dizzy with how they pose the question of not knowing who we will become in crisis in the scene where they stand at the window in the non-fiction film by Shannon Walsh Control illusions (2019), spatially behind and temporally behind their cancer diagnosis. Berlant poses here the fight against death as an integral part of a refusal of the murder norm by helping each other to imagine and implement ways of “being alive beyond the conventions”.
Berlant wrote their own epitaph in advance and shared it. Premiered in 2011 (the Supervalent Thinking) as an address to working conditions which at best only allow tumbling – the scourge later revised to resemble a plan: “[W]so it was only doing what you could do back then (my epitaph) in an act of blind hope. Later published with the distance of the third person in The cents (2019), the epitaph became: “She did what she could do at the time.” Under conditions of co-authoring with Stewart, this epitaph and its “she” grew voluminous – a sort of “they”, even before Berlant changed their pronouns. The complete iteration in The cents offered it as a shareable world-building praxis – a it with the gift of an open, non-binary, attachable and plural theirs:
Then there are the people, my friends, who look to the world to say this and do that because what they see is what they have to give. I want to call their way of being “The New Frankness” and share with them my future epitaph: “She did what she could do at the time.”
In a suite interview for The new survey, Berlant affirmed this epitaph in the present tense:
[P]People are looking for something from someone who has a thought, a pedagogy, an orientation towards resistance and an attachment to life. That’s why my epitaph is, “She did what she could do back then. “
Yet their epitaph still shares the potential of a collective form for more than just living in the fray of our interdependence. By thinking with and after Berlant to imagine and implement ways of living our death beyond the formaldehyde of the necropolis of the colonial liberalism of the settlers, by joining the task of designing forms for blacks, Aboriginals, queers and trans flourish, we could become one them. worthy of their epitaph. They did what they could do at the time.