In Memory of Lauren Berlant

BerlantWe at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality are mourning the loss of our colleague and dear friend, Lauren Berlant. Lauren helped found the CSGS in 1996 and served as the faculty director from 1999-2002. Since the formation of the GNSE major, Lauren was a central teacher, starting with “Problems in the Study of Sexuality,” and more recently with our signature courses, “Theories of Gender and Sexuality” and “Advanced Theories of Gender and Sexuality.”  They organized conferences, writing workshops, and teach-ins, all of which pushed the boundaries of gender and sexuality scholarship forward in new ways. While authoring six monographs, numerous edited volumes, and countless articles, Lauren served on more than 100 dissertation committees, M.A. theses, and B.A. theses since 1984. They cared deeply about finding new ways to build a world with faculty, students, and staff, and in supporting radical ideas and new ways of thinking that do not always find nourishment in institutions of higher learning. We will miss Lauren’s energy and wit and generosity at the Center and remain deeply committed to continuing their mentorship and world-building with new generations. We will be announcing plans for a public celebration of Lauren’s legacy in the 2021-2022 academic year, as well as plans for an endowed fund for graduate student research – what Lauren imagined as “the Unfundable Fund” that would support a new generation of scholars producing theory that doesn’t fit the current norm.

In their memory, Critical Inquiry has made all of Lauren Berlant’s articles open access.

Additionally, Lauren’s research blog Supervalent Thought can be read here.

Below, we include a letter about the impact of Lauren’s research and teaching co-authored by Professors Debbie Nelson and Kristen Schilt.

Mourning the Loss of Lauren Berlant

It is with deep sadness that we write with the news that our colleague and friend, Lauren Berlant (they/them), died last night of cancer at age 63. An award-winning author and teacher many times over, Lauren had an impressive thirty-seven-year career at the University of Chicago. A fierce critic of this institution, Lauren was also indefatigable in their efforts to make it a more hospitable home for faculty, staff, students, and radical thought. They turned down multiple outside offers from other prestigious universities over the years, choosing instead to stay in Chicago and do the hard work of making and maintaining a community. Lauren built a world here over the decades with faculty, staff, and students – all of whom feel this loss tremendously. As a member of the English Department, an editor at Critical Inquiry, and a director and irreplaceable participant at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, Lauren left an indelible mark on the University, the Division, their colleagues, and innumerable graduate and undergraduate students.

Lauren was inarguably the most important scholar and theorist of gender and sexuality of their generation. To understand their transformative influence across many disciplines, it’s important to understand their challenge to conventional scholarship in the field. Lauren Berlant’s work revealed affective aspects of everyday life that have been overlooked or contemptuously dismissed as trivial—both by mass-mediated culture and by academic critiques of mass culture—because of their associations with women and sexual minorities. Their work raised significant questions about people’s desires for normativity, conventionality, and social belonging—and about the cultural forms and representational strategies that minoritarian groups have developed to express them: from the “sentimental realism” of women’s culture to the genre of the complaint. In the process, Lauren revealed the surprising centrality of these affective forms to political forms: publics, counterpublics, and the institutions of citizenship. While other gender and sexuality theorists have rushed to critique or destroy norms, Lauren’s first move was to study people’s investments in them in order to understand why social change is so hard and so slow. As they note, scholarship on subcultures tends to foreground the values of transgression and resistance, as opposed to continuity and survival. But in the widespread and unquestioned assumption that “politics” is what everyone wants, what gets left out is any examination of why many members of gendered subcultures are interested less in changing the world than in not being vanquished by it.

The argument for Lauren Berlant’s influence goes well beyond their unrivaled scholarly impact: the trilogy on “national sentimentality” that fundamentally revises how we understand the relationship between gender and citizenship; the many articles that have become classic texts for gender and sexuality studies, like “The Intimate Public Sphere,” “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” and “Sex in Public”; the groundbreaking Cruel Optimism, which seeks to understand people’s attachment to gendered norms and conventions of behavior that other critics have shown to be injurious; the many symposia dedicated to their work. Lauren Berlant always confounded the supposed dichotomy between the academy and activism by demonstrating the degree to which ideas matter to activists and artists, and the importance of activist and artistic practice to the production of knowledge and to cultural change.

Beyond their written work, Lauren’s career is marked by an unswerving commitment to collaboration, both as a pedagogic and scholarly practice. This commitment grows directly from the feminist and queer communities that have supported and inspired their thought. Rather than an older Romantic, masculinist notion of individual genius, Berlant built intellectual communities, collaborative learning practices, and shared writing experiments that draw on older feminist habits of consciousness-raising and newer forms of queer political organizing. Their co-writing projects were not simply generated by multiple writers producing their own portions of the whole on their own time but involve sustained acts of co-writing and co-thinking, developed in person and by phone in a concerted effort to write together. They built a CV through collaborations of all sorts: co-written volumes with artists (Laura Letinsky), with theorists (Lee Edelman, Sianne Ngai), with anthropologists (Kathleen Stewart); edited special issues, such as in Critical Inquiry on “the Case,” or in Public Culture on “Violence and Redemption,” where their work grows from the inspiration they draw from their contributors; a long series of sustained faculty reading groups on campus (Late Liberalism, Critical University Studies) and beyond (Feel Tank); and several “teach-ins” concerning timely topics (queer pedagogy), of interest to the campus community and beyond.

Within their classroom, collaborative pedagogical experiments abound: joint efforts with faculty and graduate students to build bibliographies, to devise communicative spaces in class that eschew a competitive debate environment, and to invest real agency in the students themselves—allowing them to help define the project of the course and redefine the boundaries between critical and creative work. In the signature course for the undergraduate Gender & Sexuality Studies major, Lauren opened up the possibilities of theory for the students, ending each course with the assignment, “Write the paper you came to college to write.” Throughout their collaborations, the common thread binding all these numerous and diverse efforts was Lauren’s insistently curious mind, unafraid to push beyond their initial expertise, to work with challenging interlocutors, to raze and rebuild generic conventions, all in the name of understanding how humans in their most intimate spaces and at their most deeply emotional times aspire to be humans and to build communities when the larger worlds they occupy do not always welcome and sustain them. In the classroom and in the working group, Lauren enabled others to think broadly and wildly, encouraging, when someone felt stuck – “but keep going! What would it mean to have that thought?”

As many of their friends will attest, to the end, really the very last moments of their life, Lauren was Lauren -- sharing ideas, sending copies of articles and bibliography, scribbling notes on drafts, theorizing, and making jokes about their own death. In fact, days before their death, they completed revisions on a last book, which will be published by Duke University Press next spring. None of us can replace their sometimes terrifying brilliance, but we can all do our best to model their exemplary kindness, generosity, and curiosity.

Debbie Nelson, Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of English and the College

Kristen Schilt, Director for the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, Associate Professor Department of Sociology