Sarlo was born in 1942 and studied literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Buenos Aires. The writer, critic, and dramatist David Viñas was an early mentor and influence. In 1978, she co-founded Punto de Vista which was one of the major dissident voices during the military regime which ended in 1983. Because of the authoritarian nature of the regime, Sarlo and her fellow contributors had to use pseudonyms, and subordinate political questions to aesthetic ones. Paradoxically, this entailed a rethinking of the political which moved Sarlo's thought away from an earlier tendency to Marxism and other forms of radicalism. She has continued to maintain a moderate-left political stance that refrains from promoting euphorias of free-market thought or populist solidarity.
Sarlo is a highly laurelled academic who also operates as a public intellectual. She has written both on traditional literary topics—her book on Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1993, is one of the seminal works on the great Argentine fabulist—but she has also worked in more cultural areas, such as feminism, the emergence of the modern Argentine city, and Argentina's divided sense of its place in Latin America. These various interests are linked by an overall concern with the intellectual and how the idea of the intellectual functions in contemporary discursive contexts. Sarlo is not a parochial or regional thinker, but participates in global debates occasioned by critical theory, postmodernity, and the destabilization of set political ideologies after the fall of Communism. She has warned, though, against the naive transnationalism seen in an earlier female Argentine intellectual, Victoria Ocampo. In some ways, Sarlo's project is analogous to the work of thinkers of the previous generation such as Angel Rama in its ability to traverse disciplinary and discursive boundaries, though Rama specifically has not been a huge influence on Sarlo.
Sarlo has worked with other major contemporary Argentine thinkers such as Carlos Altamirano and Ricardo Piglia. She held the Chair of Contemporary Literature at the Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires. In 2001, she was denied a position as the equivalent of distinguished professor, in controversial circumstances. She has also taught at several US universities, held the Simón Bolívar chair at the University of Cambridge, and been a visiting fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. She also writes regularly for Argentine newspapers such as La Nación, Clarín (for which she writes a weekly column), and Página 12.
- El imperio de los sentimientos. (1985)
- Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930. (1988)
- La imaginación técnica. (1992)
- Borges, un escritor en las orillas. (1993)
- Escenas de la vida posmoderna. Intelectuales, arte y videocultura en la Argentina. (1994)
- Ensayos argentinos. De Sarmiento a la vanguardia. (1997)
- La máquina cultural: maestras, traductores y vanguardias. (1998)
- El imperio de los sentimientos. Narraciones de circulación periódica en la Argentina, 1917-1927. ISBN 978-950-9314-07-8 (2000)
- Siete ensayos sobre Walter Benjamin. ISBN 978-950-557-383-7 Fondo de Cultura Económica (2000)
- La batalla de las ideas. 1943-1973. (2001)
- Tiempo presente. (2001)
- La pasión y la excepción. (2003)
- Escenas de la vida posmoderna. Intelectuales, arte y videocultura en la Argentina. (2004)
- Tiempo pasado. Cultura de la memoria y giro subjetivo. (2005)
- Escritos sobre literatura argentina. (2007)
- La ciudad vista. Mercancías y cultura urbana. (2009)
- Borges: A Writer on the Edge (1993) ISBN 978-1-84467-588-3 (Verso 2007)
- Scenes from Postmodern Life (2001, tr. Jon Beasley-Murray)
- The Technical Imagination: Argentina's Modern Dreams (2007)
- Biography at Stanford University's website
- Punto de Vista online
- Beatriz Sarlo at Clarín
- Interview with Beatriz Sarlo, Barcelona Metropolis, Spring 2008.