Lauren Berlant (1957–2021). Life dates are a strange convention; everything interesting about the person actually occurs in the dash. As I write that sentence, I think about how Lauren Berlant would be able to fill out this observation with some surprising insight into conventions themselves, and the strange consequences of our ongoing attempt to observe them. Of the stock of words and phrases that I’ve gleaned from years of reading my friend’s work, the word “juxtapolitical” stands out as enduringly useful for all it condenses. It refers to the work we do to stay attached to living while resisting—despite and through those attachments—the distant and officious rules by which we are governed. Berlant was our anatomist of the body juxtapolitic, our great essayist of our commitments to and evasions of the brutal conditions of neoliberal capitalism. And yet they were a model of the committed intellectual. With a furious intensity about all curiosity’s premature foreclosures, Berlant was that major thinker who persistently sought to speak in and to a minor key. One of those minor keys, of course, was friendship.
Friendship is without institution. That’s why it’s both easy and impossible to write about Lauren, whose expertise lay in mapping institutions for the purpose of evading them. Friendship’s non-institutionality (compromised, naturally, by its many conventions) adds up to a quandary. Called to Lauren’s memorial, from which institution do I memorialize? Theory? Queer, or affect? Marxism? Poetry? The list, while not infinite, is long enough to be instructive: Lauren Berlant’s writing resisted any genre to which you would assign it. It was genre-nonconforming. In American literary history, Berlant will be remembered for showing how closely genre hews to gender, and at what cost. Their trilogy on “national sentimentality” transformed the field for those of us who continue to feel most at home in the “women’s sphere,” where affect remains idealized as both social diagnostic and practical labor. They recast the feminine as a scene to which feminism could relate without resorting, a queer materialist feminism without guarantees. Their work on sentimentality shaped their approach to race, which was also informed by their deep immersion in the long nineteenth century, and by the juxtapolitical matrix out of which both antebellum feminism and abolitionism were born. In my opinion, it was blackness that led them to grapple in recent years with a “No-World aesthetics,” with which they engaged the spare, unsparing poetry of Claudia Rankine. Berlant expressed this aesthetic as “the conjuncture of two orientations”: (i) “wanting to be in life without wanting to adopt or adapt to the world’s normative force,” and (ii) “the impasse that occurs when one does not want the world as it presents itself while feeling, at the same time, averse to normative forms of negation.” I wish I had had the opportunity to talk further with Lauren about how much this account of No-World aesthetics reminds me of double-consciousness.
In queer theory, Berlant will be remembered for copiloting the affective turn, never with the intention of diminishing the importance of sex or gender to social theory, but instead with the objective of giving our desiring of desire a richer palette to paint with. They rose, in their own work and through collaborations with Lisa Duggan, Beth Freeman, Michael Warner, and Lee Edelman, to the political occasion of queer theory’s antagonism to the normative. In Marxism, Berlant clarified the relationship between the “commons” and sensibility, challenging the normie “structure of feeling” framework that pervades much cultural Marxism, while holding onto the scalar ambitions of cognitive mapping. And in contemporary poetry, they will be remembered perhaps as the most effervescent of party crashers, someone who arrived on the scene with cowritten prose poems (The Hundreds with Kathleen Stewart) and academic slapstick, unforgettable for always breaking the rule that “guests of guests don’t bring guests.” With Lauren Berlant, the guest-host relation was always up for as much recomplicating as was the dynamic between student-teacher, or peer-peer. If this sounds like a potential mess, the wonder of Lauren was that it could so regularly be the opposite: a charmed balance of reliable constancy and “see you later.”
What I’m trying to say is: for someone who could write more eloquently than you could believe about the inconvenience of other people, Lauren Berlant excelled at allowing themselves to be inconvenienced. I, of course, was among those inconveniences. Of the intellectuals I actively sought out for mentorship in my formative years, Lauren most closely fit my fantasy of rigor and relaxed candor. If I mention their capacity to be withholding as another aspect of our dynamic, I do so because that too was an education: how to remain alone with yourself even amid others. It’s wrong to say that thinking is solitary, while emotions are shared. But the need to say no the world to which you nonetheless still belong was our constant topic and premise. I aspired to Lauren’s praise, of course, but I am all the more fortunate for having almost never gotten it. The most usefully devastating criticism I ever received from Lauren came when they responded to one of my drafts by calling it a “genre flail.” But Lauren Berlant’s entire oeuvre was a master class in the proficient use of flailing against the constraints of genre. The flail, swerve, or save was a gesture they repeatedly wielded to move language closer to the problem they were trying to prise open. (I am always surprised when I’m reminded of Lauren’s recent interest in comedy, and by reports that they took stand-up classes. Not that I’m confused about their great interest in the power of the zinger, one-liner, retort, and/or kiss-off. It’s just that their thinking is so incompatible with anything like a punchline. That seems too much like just walking away.)
Writing under the influence of Berlant, I am tempted to imitate the forking pathways of their sentences, which so often managed to arrive at two places at once. But mourning Lauren, I have to bear in mind their own investment in upending conventional accounts of melancholia. In which of two juxtaposed places am I here anyway: in public encomium, or intimate bereavement? I find two answers in Lauren’s concept of “cruel optimism,” as presaged in their work on The Female Complaint, which opens with the immortal one-liner that “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Love indeed took Lauren Berlant away from me. The gift of it is, even this particular flail against the conventions of in memoriam could still stand as testament to all the ways LB lives on.
When I found myself in Chicago, I used to meet Lauren Berlant for a drink. I asked Lauren to pick a place, and the place they chose was a bar in a Whole Foods grocery. This is one of the thousands of things I learned from my intellectual hero Lauren Berlant: in Chicago, the Whole Foods has a bar.
It’s not what I would call a charming bar, but Lauren seemed to appreciate the genericness. Genre was one of their favorite topics, after all, and anyway why should we pretend to be people who would never set foot in Whole Foods? Lauren told me they liked to write here. The supermarket was crowded and fluorescent; I think it was a hideout, too.
I drank beer. To tell the truth, I would have preferred a cocktail, but I wasn’t sure whether this bar would serve me one, and I wanted to get my drink quickly, inconspicuously. I didn’t want any fuss. On this point, it turned out, my philosophy differed from Lauren Berlant’s.
I remember Lauren asking for a sparkling water with bitters. It wasn’t on the menu. It disturbed the flow of our transaction at the Whole Foods bar. In fact Lauren tried to engage the bartender in a whole conversation about bitters. What flavors were available? Any unusual ones? The bartender didn’t have very much to say on the topic, but Lauren kept at it. The exchange turned awkward a long time before it ended. At least once, Lauren and I exited the bar and walked out into the grocery part of the Whole Foods, where there were more bitters to choose from.
Lauren was a genius about social worlds and people’s feelings, but they didn’t always use their power to make any particular social situation feel easy for the people in it. Instead, they might make the situation weird. Lauren was interested in things, and things got interesting when they came around. Complications were introduced. Ordinary human interactions went off-script, taking extra time.
I had never really turned my mind to this problem of bitters before Lauren brought it up and didn’t let it go. I wonder why they are called bitters, even though some varieties are sweet, and some are tart, and others taste like flower petals floating in your drink.
Why am I telling you about the bitters? Lauren imposed some restraints on what they consumed. They were interested in self-control, maybe even self-denial. And yet the restraint seemed to enlarge their experience of the world, rather than subtract from it. If you are mixing bitters into sparkling water instead of rye, then the distinction between one kind of bitters and another takes on more significance. It becomes a difference you can notice and discuss and think about, and there, in the noticing, is a pleasure of its own.
Serious thinking for Lauren was not just at school. They refused to become cynical about universities, and the dramas that play out in academic institutions mattered very much to them, but thinking was all the time. Constantly, everywhere, even at the Whole Foods, they were seeing genres and taking them apart. Nothing was settled for good; any little thing was questionable.
For these reasons and many others—for instance, the great critiques of sentimentalism, where Lauren ferrets out the ruses and false promises of genre without ever indulging the illusion that we could live without it; for instance, the mirth in their eyes—Lauren was my ideal of an intellectual. They knew this. I often told them so. They liked hearing it but didn’t want to be conscripted entirely into the role, one that put the wrong kind of distance between us. Other kinds of distance, prickly and unpredictable, were more interesting. Lauren reserved the right to mess things up.
Still, for all of Lauren’s ascetic ways and their restless, demanding mind, they never tried to shame me for my different appetites. Each person’s strategies for managing desire and guilt presented a special object for their curiosity. Smooth hospitality was not Lauren’s style of grace, but they had another kind.
Grief really is the way Lauren described it, thick and strange. It comes in waves. On the morning after they died, I wept and took a long walk on some cliffs above the sea. A gartersnake lay curled on the concrete path. It flicked its tongue like it was asking a question, then it disappeared.
Sometimes Lauren sent messages out of the blue. Once they texted me to praise an essay I had written. It was exciting to get Lauren’s attention, but it must have made me nervous, too, because I responded ceremoniously, using a bunch of exclamation marks and flustered words of filial piety like you have inspired us all so much in our efforts to grapple with power’s emotional arsenal.
Lauren kept me waiting for a while, on edge, before they wrote me back: Ha, you sound like you are talking to ‘Lauren Berlant.’
I was properly mortified. I love how Lauren interfered with bullshit, even mine.
The first time I met Lauren Berlant a bottle of Diet Sprite exploded in their hands. It was my first year in the English PhD program and I was dismayed to find the place not crawling, as I had greenly anticipated it would be, with communards and poetry. Anxious that I was doing things wrong, tired of feeling like the odd one out, and overall at sea, I decided to ask Lauren, whose work I had never read and with whom I had yet to take a class, if I should cut my losses and move along. We sat down in their office and Lauren’s Sprite burst, aspartame spraying all over their clothes, their hair, the desk, and the floor. “It’s that kind of day,” they said, pleased.
Lauren was my advisor, my mentor, and my friend. Sometimes we pissed each other off, but our personalities, which were unalike, fit together in such a way that we could always come back to that same space of pleasure and resilience described by the paroxysm of diet soda in a messy office. We found the same things funny (pratfalls, expletives) and we found the same things tragic, but what I learned from them was to trust that pain plus laughter sounds the desire for more and better life. “Vogliamo tutto,” says Nanni Balestrini, “we want everything.” Lauren took the outrageousness of that desire—its angry, giddy, silly, scathing vitality—and worked it into a comic theory of social change, alive to surprises both good and bad. So much of Lauren’s brilliance came from being hilarious; so much of Lauren came from being hilarious. They didn’t laugh to make fun but to make a world, an opening, an exit ramp that could lead you, if you wanted it, off the beaten path of the inevitable into a kind of freedom—provisional and delicate and demanding, but so much more than what you thought there could be.
I can’t say anything smart now about Lauren’s work, other than that it was saturated with humor and love and organized around two figures whose significance was intimate, political, ethical, and therapeutic: break and repair. Everyone goes wild for Cruel Optimism, with its brisk, portable critique of a modernity that forces us to keep investing time and energy in that which makes really living impossible. For me, Lauren’s most exemplary book, by which I mean the book most like them, is The Female Complaint, which is about how subordinated people of all genders should want everything and get it. Its final chapter begins by observing that most of the time we reject that which is killing us incompletely, that “so many imagined breaks end up being greenstick fractures.” It is hard to be optimistic about loss, particularly when there are no guarantees that what lies on the other side of the split will be better or, minimally, less bad. Everyone who leaves anything leaves it on spec. Or, as Nina Simone puts it in the book’s very last sentence, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”
Songs are said to have burdens, choruses or refrains on which the whole hangs together. The burden of “Mississippi Goddam,” into which Simone inserted that parenthetical indictment, is “do it slow,” the progressive’s check on the revolutionary’s rage: “Desegregation / ‘Do it slow’ / Mass participation / ‘Do it slow.’” The go-slow show is easy to run; the whole of reality rises to sustain it. All freedom has is a tune, which seems even less than a song; it’s a snippet, an air. What Simone did was play it loud, and what Lauren heard in that amplification—in its virtuosity and fury—was the transformative labor of undoing one form of existence and surging toward another.
Sometimes this meant, for Lauren, revolution; sometimes it meant getting out of a bad relationship. A die-hard materialist who believed in the disciplinary mandate of gender studies—i.e., in the claim, well worn and also true, that the personal is political—they moved fluidly between theorizing injustice and theorizing interpersonal bullshit. It might be fair to say too fluidly. I don’t necessarily think it’s a knock against Lauren’s work to say that it stopped short of specifics. Their writing tallied the psychic costs of capital but seldom called for its abolition outright. Instead, they focused on how our painful and hopelessly compromised ways of trying to get through the day flicker with the promise of something more satisfying, equitable, and free. Fantasy helps us forget how bad it is and that’s not good, but fantasy also poses this necessary and implacable question: “What is to be done,” in Kay Gabriel’s words, “given that we have the desires we do?”
This is where repair comes in. To recognize fantasy as a social demand is a reparative act, one that rattles us out of normative patterns of judgment so we can get comfortable with the idea that people have a right both to pleasure and to their own complexity. To be clear, by repair Lauren never meant excuse. They were fiercely impatient with any attempt to invoke structural conditions for exculpatory purposes (“And honestly fuck Foucault,” they once wrote me, “some things need liberating from”), or to let bad actors off the hook. Their commitment to repair was future-oriented in a utopian sense, which is to say it gambled on the possibility that we might handle things better en route toward a better existence. In an interview with Michael Hardt, they said it like this:
When you plan social change, you have to imagine the world that you could promise, the world that could be seductive, the world you could induce people to want to leap into. But leaps are awkward, they’re not actually that beautiful. When you land, you’re probably going to fall, or hurt your ankle or hit someone. When you’re asking for social change, you want to be able to say there will be some kind of cushion when we take the leap.
You might hurt your ankle or hit someone—and then what? Repair, for Lauren, names the set of imaginative skills basic to the survival of the emancipatory project. More fundamentally, it names the set of imaginative skills basic to the project of being differently with others. As anyone who’s engaged seriously and for the long term in any form of activism knows, these projects are connected if not identical. Repair is what you do when you reach out across a distance that feels too wide to close; it’s what you do when you live in a world without cops.
Lauren’s intellect was roving, curious, and compassionate. It taught me to be in a shifting, generous relation to myself and to get comfortable knowing less than I thought I did, especially about other people, especially about the people I love. It taught me how to come back to objects and let them come back to me too, to believe in the more of everything and to want it, even if it unsettled or disappointed me. If it did, there would be a way to laugh about it—to keep going. In “Comedy Has Issues,” Lauren and Sianne Ngai suggest that, when it comes to laughter and its “automatic, spontaneous, freed-up” quality, “the feeling of freedom exists with its costliness,” because being free means being vulnerable and vulnerability is exhausting or, as Lauren would say, a lot. But Lauren was also a die-hard Americanist, so they would also say, I think, that a life of quiet desperation is worse.
On the day I knew Lauren was taking off, I put on a Sarah Vaughan album they gave me a few years ago. The first track, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” always reminds me of Milton’s description of Earth from outer space: “And fast by hanging in a golden Chain / This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr / Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.” It always reminds me of another teacher of mine, who is also dead, holding her hand up, cupped and swaying, thumb and index finger closed together, to emphasize how tenderly those lines see the world and how anxiously, too—the chain about to snap, the orb so easy to knock off its axis. Vaughan’s voice, lustrous and unafraid, nonetheless hums with the threat of something about to fall apart through the insinuating magic of laying full claim to its opposite: bliss, ease, wonder, trust. It is out on a limb and so are we, and here we are.
I didn’t really know Lauren. We only met face-to-face once, when they visited New York to give a talk on Claudia Rankine and dissociation. I remember they stood like a flamingo, one leg tucked up under their pelvis, foot resting against the other leg, locked in place. They say flamingos mate for life, and Lauren was always interested in that kind of thing, when you hold an object longer than you can bear because of what it lets you imagine.
But what about the opposite? How do you go about losing an object you were never in a position to lose? When I applied for a spot in the English department at UChicago, it was Lauren who called me to say they were excited to have someone working in gender and sexuality coming on board. I was 21; I had no idea who they were. Years later, after I had read their book, which felt like reading the inside of my own skull, I would try to reconstruct the memory of that phone call, as if piecing it back together could change my decision to come to New York instead.
I wrote to them saying they probably didn’t remember but would they be the chair of my dissertation committee because I was in love with them, though I didn’t say that last part, except in all the ways I did. Jeez, I wish you’d come to Chicago, Lauren wrote back. They said they couldn’t be my chair; they were overextended already, because they had inherited some of José’s students, just as José had inherited some of Eve’s students, just as someone now will inherit Lauren’s. Now I think it was also because they were sick. They signed it, Ambivalently, LB, which was their way of saying “sincerely,” because they were always thinking about what’s ambivalent about what’s sincere.
That’s a Berlantism: “what’s . . .” “What’s incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments.” “What’s collective about specific modes of sensual activity.” “Navigating what’s overwhelming.” Another is a fondness for the possessive over the genitive, especially when the noun is abstract: “affect’s saturation of form,” instead of the saturation of form by affect. Lauren could write, man; they could really do the damn thing. Most people in the academy can’t, which isn’t their fault, because they are taught not to and teach their students not to in turn. What a beautiful disservice Lauren did us, to make us believe that the university was a place where love, care, and original thought could flourish.
Cruel optimism, Lauren. You wrote me out of the blue when my first n+1 pieces were coming out. Hi, Ms. Celebrity! Are you writing a dissertation too, btw? Or are you going to become a rich crossover journalist who gets an agent and writes the essays we need for the present? I still don’t know how to read this. Which one was the good thing? Should I have stayed in academia? You were on my committee by then. I guess technically you still are. Two years later we were supposed to do that event together for my book tour. I had someone at Verso send you an advance copy, because I could not bear to do it myself, and you agreed to write a blurb. I never asked you why. Did you really like it? Ari says to me that no of course you meant what you said, that you were always sincere. But you and I both know what that means.
I canceled the book tour because my brain was collapsing like a star, and I wrote to you some profuse apology, like I had given up on the university to go be a celebrity, and now I was going the way of all celebrities, which is to say fading away, and you wrote, Oh gosh! All I want to do is lighten your load so That you can feel more possible. You capitalized That. You told me you felt protective of my tenderness. How is it that you talked like that all the time? The thing about you was that your theory was really just your personality. You would hate that idea, Lauren. I’m laughing thinking about how much you would hate it. But it was true; you were just describing what it was like for you to be alive. Now we get to describe what it’s like for you not to be.
I thought that was the last time we talked. That’s what I thought when I first heard the news. Then I was writing this and going through my email, and it turned out that wasn’t true. You wrote me again, at the beginning of lockdown. Just checking in to see how you’re faring. How are you? I hope all of what’s intense is good, and all of what’s ordinary has lots of pleasures in it. What’s, what’s. But I didn’t write back. Why? Was I still too ashamed, too mentally ill? I wanted to have something beautiful to show you, like a seashell. I wanted to get better first and write those essays for the present; then I would come back around, and you could be proud of me, and adopt me, and take me to bed. I mailed that desire to myself, and it went out into the wide full empty world, and I forgot about it, and then today I checked the mailbox and, Lauren, you’ll never guess what I found.
I’ll remember the cacophony of our communication better than the contents, so many Laurens shuttled back and forth: Laurens opening (“Hi Lauren!” “Dear Lauren,” “Hi,” “Hi!”) and Laurens closing (“Best,” “All best,” “Lauren,” “Sincerely,” “LB,”); Laurens sent from iPads; Laurens sent from Dropbox; from the basement café; from the Lakeview apartment; from—most rarely—the institutional office (theirs; or, later, mine). Until relatively recently, I was in the habit of receiving spontaneous dispatches in the form of articles (peer-reviewed, newsy, gossipy); that much neglected and oft-maligned practice of sharing articles via email Lauren utilized with aplomb. Being someone’s student is like loaning out a portion of your mind for an interminable length of time—a few years, a decade, a lifetime (yours or theirs). You get in the habit of being thought of, though never suspecting you could occupy as much room in that someone’s head—for free, at cost, or otherwise—as they do yours. I imagined that someday, tenure gods willing, I would find out the other side of this for myself and perhaps—tenure gods willing—I still will. I won’t be able to run back and tell Lauren though, neither to confirm nor deny a former doctoral advisee’s greatest suspicion.
The self-inflated grad student or budding cultural critic readily learns that one of the easiest shortcuts to seriousness among one’s peers is a severe disbelief of sentimentality, as though the mere perception of its guises would seal off the attraction. Yet, in The Female Complaint—the middle child of the national sentimentality trilogy of books written “when I was little,” Lauren liked to say, a cheeky self-deprecation but also, I believe, a genuine disclaimer from a theorist, writer, and stylist who never wished to wallow in clever projects past—they address what they call “the unfinished business of sentimentality,” in which latter sentimental modes appropriate earlier ones, enacting scenes of subaltern suffering more invested in feeling utopia than mobilizing it, which nonetheless adhere subjects to themselves and the nation again and again. “The unfinished business of sentimentality mostly profits people other than the ones it solicits to do more business,” they write. “But it also teaches that endings can be made into openings.”
Cliché seldom finds quarter in Lauren’s work, yet it was ever a sympathetic inquiry. Curiosity and a touch of chagrin—rather than disdain or some such haughtiness—guided and sustained a career-long interest in why and how people cathect. Their essays were an exercise in wonder, really; what a marvel that so many unimagined, excluded, and persecuted persons nonetheless have not yet or not all been shattered by the regimes that try body, mind, and soul. Lauren’s work reminds me that while the macro is what sells, there is reason to read such everyday scenes of necessary delusion taking place in the most familiar areas: in the mirror, on the sidewalk, in front of—but not necessarily inside—the television.
I hope they’d find it humorous, then, that I can hardly reproduce a sense of what they meant to me without resorting to trite placeholders—though I have to believe Lauren might also rebut my frustration with a proposition: Is this not the occasion where the trite does its best work? Forestalling the more precise apprehension of a feeling until one has collected a better sense of oneself in review?
Put plainly—a routine preamble!—I was not the best student and yet something about this worked. Maybe it was the name thing. Six and seven letters, four syllables. Maybe it was a shared compulsion towards cardio, like engines of perpetual motion, or an interest in the culinary doings of Kelis. I was not the best student, but Lauren was my greatest advocate in the sense that they let me forget there were professors at that place who never learned my name and an administration that did its darndest to present flourishing as too high an ask and in spite of, also, my own wandering ambition, which wanted it all with a passion only intermittently reflected in ethic. (“Checking in again . . . I am worried that you’re floating. / Lemme know if you’re ok, / LB.”) I feel barely grown up from the version of myself who was their student and I am unsure if I ever will feel differently, or want to.
—Lauren Michele Jackson
Lauren Berlant and I were on the phone, this past October or November; it was around our birthdays. We were discussing a virtual event held the night before to mark one decade since the publication of their mythical Cruel Optimism. Always future-oriented, always utopian, Lauren had spent less of their allotted time at the event reminiscing about that book than charting a pathway toward the next, On the Inconvenience of Other People. “So,” they asked me, “what did you think?” I couldn’t, or at any rate didn’t, say what had haunted me since the event: that they looked and sounded sicker, that I imagined they were suffering, and that it was agonizing to tune in as illness took hold of someone I loved. I wanted to avoid casting myself as the subject deserving of comfort and reassurance, a position that, earlier in the same conversation, I had cozily sunk into. I rushed a reply: “Oh, I loved it.” Lauren’s answer was devastating. “Uh-huh.”
I learned to fear passive assent as Lauren’s doctoral advisee, in the mid-2010s. Without fail, Lauren showed up. They greeted every interlocutor with spirited curiosity. When they requested your input, they sought a provocation, not a pat on the back. To remedy the silence imposed by that chilling “uh-huh,” I too had to show up. I offered something like this: “You opened by declaring that you no longer wanted to write your talks in full and recite them, and that a conversational style would unlock a different pedagogy. Right? Well, I missed your asides—the pauses you take to make a joke, cast a knowing glance, or disagree with yourself. If there’s no script, everything becomes aside, and the way you apostrophize your audience loses some of its magic.” Lauren’s voice turned zippy: “That’s interesting.” Our exchange proceeded at full speed.
Asides punctuate Lauren’s scholarship. The Berlantian aside may be as long as a preface or a coda. It may be as short as a footnote or a clause that both protrudes from and subtends a theory. The aside tears down the fourth wall of academic detachment to shift the reader’s relation to a topic. It whispers, This story is about me. Or, It’s about you. And always, But it’s not just about us. (“The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy,” Lauren aphorizes in The Female Complaint.) The aside is, as was its author, frequently funny. Lauren begins Desire/Love, a pair of lyrical encyclopedic entries compiled into a pocketbook, by speculating a more desirable present wherein the text we’re about to read wouldn’t exist. “I would not spend years of my life writing this book now,” they admit, “and if I were forced to do that, I would not write it this way.” The issue, as they see it, with the book as it stands is its flawed examples. Lauren’s discomfort reveals something of value about the book’s matter. “The example,” they note, “is always the problem for desire/love. . . . [W]here love and desire are concerned, there are no adequate examples.” It’s hard to picture Lauren “forced” to write these essays, or anything really, at that stage of their career. Yet duty and obligation were familiar refrains with them. They invoked them not out of righteousness but to set up a joke. Comedy is at its peak when its protagonist is not sovereign.
As Lauren’s student, I yearned to be taken aside and shown the world from their standpoint. It was part of their pedagogy. I adjusted my focus so that everything from literary tropes to mundane habits appeared heightened and fluorescent. Inversely, when Lauren didn’t take me aside—when they ignored me or shamed me, privately or publicly—the world looked flatter and darker. After the elegies for Lauren, the scholar, came from some corners of the internet a denunciation of Lauren, the person. The present piece isn’t a vote I’m casting in some referendum on Lauren. I’m only seeking, as might any grieving person assessing a knotty attachment in hindsight, the space and time to process the blend of gratitude, aspiration, identification, and, yes, hurt that our relationship entailed.
Many of Lauren’s units of analysis are short and transitional: the episode, the interruption, the glitch, the hiccup, the stutter. Their publishing career, by contrast, is best apprehended in its longue durée. It has, or had, an arc. In addition to many collaborations, Lauren published a “national sentimentality trilogy”: a three-pronged argument that nation is but a feeling, and feelings are everything. Cruel Optimism is a hinge of sorts between one trilogy and the next, on the style of attachment that is detachment. Their celebrated blog lays out the sequence of this new trilogy, intended to supply a new critical grammar for performance, event, and relation: first, On the Inconvenience of Other People, then Humorlessness, then Matter of Flatness. Duke University Press will release Inconvenience next year. As for the materials assembled for the other two titles, I don’t know if or when they’ll be printed. Starved, greedy, I hope that new words by Lauren await us in the future.
One of Lauren’s running questions was, Why do people stay attached to lives that don’t work? I don’t know how to reattach to a world that doesn’t work, a world without Lauren. For now I find refuge in their asides.
When Ian communicated to me that Lauren died, I was laid low, unable to show up to my job. I simply wrote to some faculty, staff, and students in the summer MFA program that I direct—“I had a death in the family”—to explain my absence. I went off the grid for a few days. The locution “death in the family” came readily to my fingertips. Lauren is family. Long ago I realized that—to survive—I need a chosen family in addition to the family I was born into. Over twenty years ago, Lauren became part of my extended family.
We are intellectual companions who became close friends.
During the four or so years of Lauren’s cancer battle, I was given a very specific role by Lauren. When they were first diagnosed, they told me, “Gregg, you’re a long-term survivor. I am going to be a long-term survivor. Many people around me are sad, some address me as if I’m about to die. I need something else from you.” Lauren requested that I draw on my ability to make (sometimes ghastly) jokes about illness and death. And I did. I did that with and for Lauren.
I very much wanted to fulfill the role that Lauren assigned to me, but I realize now that it limited the way we related. I had the need to be sad with them, at least to “sit” with them in and alongside sadness. At least once. That didn’t happen. I’m sure Lauren had others in their life who could “sit” with Lauren in the many ways they needed. I do feel that what we shared was intimate and unique to our friendship.
Lauren was the first person to write about my work and to recognize it for what it is—art made by a depressed and angry person. They mapped the affective terrain of my videos, writings, and performances. Our connection around psychoanalytic theory and the political significance of affects began in the late ’90s. I read Lauren’s writings as affirmations and guides. Their example, and our interlocutory relation, are central to my own theorizations and compositions. My performances titled Some Styles of Masculinity are completely indebted to Lauren’s work and writings on humor. The jokes we made together, the hilarity that we sometimes produced for each other, sustained us both.
I am totaled by Lauren’s death. Their cycle of illness and remarkable recoveries presented a continuing possibility of their death and my loss. I accepted that rhythm and I came to expect that Lauren is a long-term survivor.
Grief comes in waves and this loss will be felt along with our continuing conversation for the rest of my life. And sometimes I will think of Lauren and laugh. Laughter, we both agreed, is no palliative for pain: it is pain. Humor is complex and laughter is not necessarily funny. We laugh when we don’t know what else to do. Often, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Yesterday, I felt less muted, less bludgeoned and at times even lighter. Today is a hard start.
For many years Eve had told me wonderful things about Lauren, and I had met them in passing, but it was not until the spring of 2014 that our friendship began. Following Eve’s death, the Gender & Sexuality Studies Group at Boston University had been hosting an annual lecture in Eve’s honor.1 For 2014 they invited Lauren, whose title (and poster) were so scandalous that the lecture’s usual venue refused, at the last moment, to allow it; so, the organizers led us to the Physics Department, which was above scandal (and also had a better auditorium). Lauren was brilliant in their lecture and in the question period; we had a chance to talk a bit during the dinner that followed; and the next day before heading home, we had a long lunch together and found that we enjoyed each other’s company. Lauren took a selfie.
Since then, other projects around Eve have often helped to keep us in touch. Also, my having lived through Eve’s cancer with her had given me experience with the health care system and the medical literature that I could share with Lauren and Ian as, during the past four years of Lauren’s illness, they grappled with sometimes very difficult treatment decisions.
It was clear that Lauren was fighting as hard as they could, through rigorous diet and exercise, to keep physically in shape, to give their body strength to resist the cancer. They had known that they would. In their 2010 talk at a Duke University symposium following Eve’s death, Lauren told a story, dating from almost twenty years earlier. It is in the final section of their talk,2 titled “Cheese,” contrasting their approach to cancer with Eve’s:
Once we discovered that we’d be landing in a small airport at the same time to pick up connecting flights. So we met at the food court for lunch. It was after her first round of chemo. As I entered she was already laying in heartily to a double bacon cheeseburger and fries. I tend toward the ascetic, but I am always scavenging for relief from my “predictable choreography” by imagining what it might do to assume the form of other people’s guesses at living. But still: at that time I was sure that if I’d had cancer, I would defend against future shame and vulnerability by adopting an astringent regime of eating the right diet and doing the right things and becoming pure for the future in reparation for the past. I said, I guess you’re not doing that, and she said no, she thought her health would flourish more if she had fidelity to her pleasures. I loved her for this, and I am still learning it.
As hard as Lauren fought their illness, though, it appeared to me that they fought even harder to keep their illness from being the central thing in their life or perhaps in their presentation of their life. At a wonderful conference on experimental writing that Lauren organized and presided over in 2018, I had been happy with how well they seemed to be doing and feeling, but when we were talking quietly during a lunch break, they told me that they had been feeling quite miserable all day and really needed to be sitting down. One can, to some degree, fake attention, but Lauren was not doing that. Their leadership and participation throughout the day made it clear that they were fully present and engaged, socially and mentally. They willed their illness not to distract from the success of the conference.
In 1992, when Eve’s breast cancer was first discovered, she undertook the standard treatment for her stage of the disease—a radical mastectomy followed by several months of chemotherapy, one of whose side effects was the loss of her hair. She was OK with being bald at home with close friends but not in public. She tried a wig but hated the way she looked in it. Her solution was hats. Over the following months she assembled and wore a dazzling assortment of beautiful hats and caps.3 Her friends admired them and sometimes wore them too. Her Boston writing group, ID450, came down to Durham for a visit, and we took photos of the bunch of us, all wearing Eve’s hats. Years later, when she was writing “Off My Chest,” an advice column for Mamm magazine, one of her columns, titled “Hair and Now,” talks about hats as one way of coping with chemo-induced hair loss.
It was late in Lauren’s treatment that their doctors fell back on the same hair-loss-inducing chemotherapy drug that Eve had had almost thirty years before. I wrote to Lauren, sending Eve’s column and offering Eve’s hats. Lauren replied with thanks. They had, however, already seen Eve’s column—Eve had been sending her columns to Lauren as she wrote them. As for the hats, Lauren’s style of dress was monochrome, which ruled out most of Eve’s hats, but I sent photos of a few possibilities. Lauren chose one hat for me to send them and in return sent me a photo of them wearing it. The title of Lauren’s email is “Legacy of the hat.”
In June 2019 a day-long symposium of dialogues was held at the University of Manchester marking the twentieth anniversary of Eve’s A Dialogue on Love.4 The evening featured a roundtable of people who had been in some form of collaborative dialogue with Eve. Lauren was part of that group, having often served as a reviewer or editor of writing by and about Eve (most recently Reading Sedgwick). Because of Lauren’s ongoing medical treatment in Chicago, they could not be there in person, but they were very visibly present, larger than life, on a flat-panel video monitor hanging on the wall above and to the left of the table at which the four other participants were seated. Each participant spoke (or read) for about fifteen minutes, with Lauren going last, and then questions were taken.
Lauren had the look of a presiding deity. This was due in part to the elevation and scale of their image but was mostly due to the quality of their attention, which was remarkable. They looked straight ahead, seeming to look directly at every part of the room, as painted portraits do. During the hour preceding their own talk, I never saw their eyes waver. They did not fidget, frown, smile, nod, or shake their head. They did not move, yet they were not rigid. They looked focused and patient, like a cat watching a mouse hole. Their attention to the person who was speaking seemed like an encouragement to the rest of us to try to pay attention too. (In their tribute after Eve’s death,5 Lauren discusses Eve’s analysis of the pedagogical intent of our cat in bringing us a dead mouse.)
Later, as Lauren was reading their own talk, they were interrupted by their cat walking by, between them and the camera. They began to apologize, then, sensing the delight of their audience, they gave the cat a cuddle and held it up for everyone to welcome. Eve, like Lauren, had a black cat as her familiar, watching over her writing, as in this 1982 photo (taken by Eve’s brother) of Eve writing Between Men.
On April 12, 2018, by coincidence the anniversary of Eve’s death, Kathleen Stewart and Lauren came to New York City to give two readings from their soon-to-appear book of collaborative prose poems, The Hundreds; the formal constraint of these poems is that each one is composed of multiples of exactly one hundred words. One of their readings was at New York University. The reading and the poems were wonderful, but what I am remembering again with this photo is the quality of Lauren’s attention—the intensity of their focus on Fred Moten, who is introducing them.
This spring a call went out for contributions to a collection of hundreds to be written for Lauren by their friends. Only one such hundred came to me, and I was still hesitating over it when the deadline passed. Here it is now.
I thought maybe this year a candle. A quiet observance. We had a supply of them in case the power went out. Tall, cylindrical, thick glass—one should last a day at least. I find the kitchen matches and light the wick, deep down in the glass. The flame is tiny and weak, like it might go out any minute. But it burns on and on. Like a life, I think, fragile but persisting. Then a couple of hours later the candle has gone out. I look up the company. Lots of complaints about the candles going out too soon.
—H. A. Sedgwick