Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, has generated a path-breaking body of scholarship that has opened up and reinvigorated interdisciplinary conversations about citizenship, sex, law and neoliberalism for over two decades. In this interview, Berlant gives her take on contemporary queer and austerity politics, the political implications of powerful new book Cruel Optimism, and the insights of queer theory for the present. A shorter version of this interview recently appeared in Toronto Xtra! The full version is presented here.
David Seitz: We have this commonsense understanding of citizenship as legally, juridically endowed. You’re also interested in the murky, the intimate and the banal dimensions of citizenship. And they’re obviously not unrelated. What first oriented you in that direction? What got you so curious about intimate life as a scene of citizenship drama?
Lauren Berlant: I was always interested in the relationship between law and subjectivity. As I was coming out, nobody was working on citizenship as a vehicle for world-building that had anything to do with sexuality, except allegorically. What really interested me was the relationship between conventional form and erotic attachment — people’s relation to the world, people’s need for the world to look a certain way. So I got interested in the history of the law’s orchestration of bodies, and I got interested in thinking about the ways that certain kinds of institutional forms held up the world, with respect to which people in everyday life were extremely incoherent. The same people can be authoritarian, libertarian, aggressive, passive, romantic, and unsentimental about citizenship: and then I realized that the same sentence could be written about love and attachment. I realized that the juridical object and the intimate object were more similar than they were different, because people want their objects to protect them, but they don’t want them too over-present. They want them to be transparent, but they want also to have them to be flexible and improvisatory. People make contradictory demands of the objects that hold up their world. That interests me. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is I really do want to understand how to work with political incoherence, and I am irritated by the kinds of arguments that people use about certain kinds of voting blocs voting against their interests, since everyone has conflicting interests. For example, I could love the state because it delivers resources to a whole set of people not really caring about the specificities of who those people are, and I could hate the state because it tries to produce universal citizenship. Those two conflicting thoughts don’t make me psychotic: contradiction enables people to proceed wanting a whole set of things from their institution or from their object.
Also, if you work on political emotions, one of the things you have to deal with all the time is the pedagogy of emotion. Aesthetics is one of the few places we learn to recognize our emotions as trained and not natural. Fear is natural, but the objects that make you afraid emerge historically. You get entrained by the world. When you’re born, all you want is food, and by the time you’re eight, or by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives. That interests me. So for you, what looked like a conflict between institutional attachment to the world and intimate models of attachment are not to me in conflict at all but are a part of the problem of imagining and living attachments to lifeworlds.
When it comes to LGBTQ politics, the first thing after my first book that I wrote on citizenship was “Queer Nationality,” (with Elizabeth Freeman), an essay about the incredibly contradictory attachments queers have had to the nation form. The nation form is a saviour and the nation form is a threat. That doesn’t seem to me to be the sign that people haven’t figured out their politics yet, it’s that the state is a resource as well as a site of domination. Being able to think about the banality of contradiction is a really important scene for thinking LGBTQ politics.
DS: You’ve had some hilarious and trenchant takes on the state of U.S. electoral politics. During the 2012 presidential campaign, you summed up a vote for Obama as “he sucks less bad” — on issues ranging from economic justice to U.S. imperialism. What do you make of Obama’s inaugural remarks on same-sex marriage, and of the second Obama term more broadly?
LB: It has always seemed to me that Obama’s refusal to support LGBTQ politics was a concession to what he felt were the more conservative sides of his support. I didn’t think he believed it. I thought it was cowardly, and so when he finally decided that it was time for him to placate his disappointed his liberal supporters by admitting an opinion I’m sure he’d always had, I didn’t jump up and down with glee.
Inclusion really matters. Him saying Stonewall was a part of American liberation history matters. His support for “our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters” matters. But I also feel very strongly that he allowed himself to say what he already felt as a way of distracting attention from progressive attention to many other vicious economic and military practices his administration promotes. I have a lot of anger about the neoliberal/progressive politics management that gives social issues lots of privilege but really doesn’t care about economic justice, or the brutality of War on Terror. All the LGBTQ inclusion in the world speaks nothing to the incredibly devastating military policy that he has pursued on behalf of “peace and democracy.”
Eve Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet, talked about the “pincers movement” of progress: one step forward, one step back, that’s how a crab walks. Obama is a very good example of this. It’s a cowardly politics, and yet in the context of American conservatism, standing for reproductive rights and the right of LGBTQ people to live the normative life protected by the law is not that cowardly. In that regard, the relationship between democracy and antidemocracy remains extremely stressful.
DS: Your devastating, powerful book Cruel Optimism explores scenes in which subjects desire (and seem unable to countenance not desiring) conditions, political and intimate futures that undermine the possibility of their flourishing. Are there political movements or experiments in dependency and non-sovereignty, in your words, that you look to optimistically — on terms that feel or look less “cruel”? A relation of cruel optimism is a double-bind, as we were saying in our discussion of the nation form.
LB: A relation of cruel optimism is a double-bind in which your attachment to an object sustains you in life at the same time as that object is actually a threat to your flourishing. So you can’t say that there are objects that have the quality of cruelty or not cruelty, it’s how you have the relationship to them. Like it might be that being in a couple is not a relation of cruel optimism for you, because being in a couple actually makes you feel like you have a grounding in the world, whereas for other people, being in a couple might be, on the one hand, a relief from loneliness, and on the other hand, the overpresence of one person who has to bear the burden of satisfying all your needs. So it’s not the object that’s the problem, but how we learn to be in relation.
All political movements in this regard are complicated spaces where the courageous insistence on interrupting the reproduction of toxic normativity is a relief from resignation to life. But every movement that we’ve ever been in reproduces issues of inequality around race, gender, sexuality and education, along with the inevitable personality glitches. That also can be devastating. So that’s why I’m interested in thinking about politics as comic, because if we understand that everything we do is going to be flawed and awkward and slapstick, we have a better chance at surviving our disappointments on behalf of a longer political goal.
So I’m interested in all the neo-anarchisms. I’m still interested in queer and feminist politics, too, because I think everything that’s disappointing is accompanied by forms of refusal to be resigned to normative fantasy. And I do think it’s the job of writers and critics and artists and everyone to create better objects for better fantasies — which is to say objects that offer the possibility of less cruel-optimistic relations.
One great development in LGBTQ politics over the last decade has been the claim that social policy should rely on relations of care rather than institutional relations, like of marriage and family, to help to distribute resources for the flourishing of life. So one of my students said, in response, “I could marry my grandmother.” What he meant was not that he wanted to marry his grandmother as opposed to other intimate relations, but that for him, her care of him gave him an obligation to care for her, and he now saw that as a part of a queer politics. Thinking about what it means to see relations of care as the source for new social relations that would have policy implications is a really great development in LGBTQ politics from all sorts of perspectives. But I think that has to be accompanied by different kinds of cultural activity and different forms of fantasy about what it means to understand collective life as a problem of survival.
DS: Your work has some challenging implications and questions for LGBT movements — but not always or only the predictable ones. Queer critics in the U.S. and Canada are often abuzz about the violence and exclusivity of a focus on marriage, property rights, bourgeois domesticity, etc. In Cruel Optimism, you’re curious about normativity — certainly not because you’re unwilling to challenge or interrupt it, but because you want to understand aspirations to and desires for the forms of belonging, reciprocity and kinship that normative citizenship is imagined to entail. Where does this leave queer critiques of normativity? What are the political implications of the kind of careful analysis of normativity you stage?
LB: This goes to your question about citizenship, too. When I first started working on citizenship, older people would say to me, “How can you even take the state seriously? The state is a monster of imperialism.” And I said, “I’m on the side of people’s survival, and if people’s optimism is attached to things like the state, I want to know what the state stands in for.” If we start seeing our objects of ambition and desire as stand-ins, as things that organize our attachment to life, we have a totally different understanding and a kind of generosity toward those objects. That’s why I started working on citizenship in the first place, not because I loved it, but because I saw that people saw it as a state where they could imagine being collective, and being willing to be collective in ways that were also inconvenient for them.
So when LGBTQ people want what lots of people want — which is a relief from their loneliness and a social world that would be welcoming and not shaming — I can’t disrespect their objects, I just have to say, “is that all there is?” For me, it’s never about shaming people’s objects, it’s always about creating better and better objects. It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.
Do you agree?
DS: I do agree! To actually pluralize our objects…
LB: More and more and more. I never want someone to talk less in class, I want everyone to talk more. I never want less fantasy, I always want more. I never want less citizenship, I always want more. More different ways of being in relation. And then we struggle it out, because we struggle with the ways in which they’re incommensurate. But there’s no reason to have more shame around what people want.
One of the ways that I am so fundamentally motivated as a queer scholar is my absolute commitment to eradicating erotophobia — thinking of sex as a threat to happiness, thinking of the appetites as a threat to sociality, when there is no sociality without them. People learn to think of their appetites as threats. I’m interested always in just better objects, because I think if there’s less erotophobia, there would be less sexual violence, there would be more of a sense that bodies and pleasures really can be the source of a genuinely flourishing sociality. But it will take much reeducation to think about other people as vehicles to happiness rather than a threat.
DS: You’ve spent a fair bit of time outside the U.S., and Cruel Optimism’s framing is explicitly transnational. Do you have any insights on the Canadian queer political scene — as opposed or in relation to that in the U.S.?
LB: I still don’t, no. I feel like I have to study a place for a really, really long time before I can say anything about it.
You are undergoing neoliberal austerity politics here, and the defunding of education, and the dismantling of welfare state here, as are many of the places that I study in Cruel Optimism. I have an interview in Variant magazine where I ask, “If the question of the 19th century in the U.S. and in many places is the problem of the colour line, as DuBois writes, “what does it mean to be a problem?”– the problem of contemporary austerity politics comes from the state saying that the public is itself a problem, too expensive to be borne by the state that represents it.
I think there’s a lot of wealth in world, and the privatization of wealth has been a desperate bad, ploy to redistribute income from ordinary people to the wealthy, and austerity politics maintains that. I think it’s immoral, and people have to struggle against it.
But it also means that they have to retool their fantasies of the good life. If your fantasy of the good life was to have infinitely more things, then austerity politics uses you of an example of an undisciplined appetite. If we recognize that wealth needs to be distributed, that everyone should have a shot at a good life, that also means that people’s fantasy of having an infinite cushion, especially an infinite credit cushion, has to be rethought. That’s part of what social theory and art has to do, is to say, what is a good life? And how do we go about making institutions and imaginaries that support it?
So these questions are really central to transformations in Canadian politics right now, in a way that resonates with things that have been going on in Europe since the 90s.
DS: What would you say makes your work queer now?
LB: That there have been venues that really understood how this book could not have existed without queer theory feels really important, gratifying, and moving to me. Only two of the chapters of Cruel Optimism — three if you count the introduction — are manifestly about LGBTQ material. Cruel Optimism was one of the two award winners for the Alan Bray prize in LGBTQ literature at the Modern Language Association this year. I was very moved by that.
The reason I think that that happened is because queer theory is fundamentally about not presuming your object but understanding that what sexuality is, is a set of patterns that align you to the world in a particular way. What your object is, is a patterning, a set of patternings.
If a gay man likes other men, he doesn’t like all other men, he likes some patternings among men. If in straight life one’s sexual objects are not all the other people who are not one’s gender but a subset of those people who represent a kind of patterning to you that your body and mind attach to as a condition of possibility.
In Cruel Optimism, the idea itself that your object is a relation, that your object is a cluster of promises to you, that you produce kinds of patterns in relation to it that are fundamentally ambivalent and improvisatory– all of those kinds of observations come from my training in Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, but above all in queer theory’s insistence that all objects are relations, projections, forms of interestedness that complicate what it means to be attached to the world. That’s the way in which Cruel Optimism is a very queer book.
Thinking about the object as a patterning that’s loosely organized, so that it would be possible to change the object without having to lose everything, is a really important part of this. So rather than saying “I hate the state,” or “I love the state,” saying “here’s what the state can do.” Rather than hate the couple form or love the couple form, say “here’s what being in a couple can do, and here’s the other things I need in order to flourish.” Then you start to think of yourself as having a capacity to produce many kinds of patterning and attachment to the world. The problem is always that queer life is exhausting because you kind of have to make it up all the time. There are so few conventions to rest in or cruise in. At the same time, it’s also really exciting to think you could be inventing something that will work better than the forms of efficiency that we call normative.
DS: I find that helpful, because I think it resonates with things that Robyn Wiegman and the later writings of Eve Sedgwick are up to. They don’t displace any of the political stakes, but they also ask other questions about what else is going on, and remain fundamentally curious.
LB: I’m all for training my students in curiosity. One thing we might talk about is what is an LGBTQ teacher’s job these days? How much is project of a queer pedagogy not just the project of distributing more fabulousness, or historical knowledge, but also of having curiosity about the object? For me, not taking the object for granted, assuming that it’s powerful because it’s ambivalent, because it’s tapping into a lot of different kinds of things, is a fundamental observation of queer work.