Lauren Berlant

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Lauren Berlant
BornOctober 31, 1957 (1957-10-31)
DiedJune 28, 2021(2021-06-28) (aged 63)
Known for
AwardsGuggenheim Fellowship
Academic background
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago

Lauren Gail Berlant[1] (October 31, 1957 – June 28, 2021) was an American scholar, cultural theorist, and author who is regarded as "one of the most esteemed and influential literary and cultural critics in the United States."[2][3] Berlant was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where they[a] taught from 1984 until 2021.[4] Berlant wrote and taught issues of intimacy and belonging in popular culture, in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship.[5]

Berlant wrote on public spheres as they affect worlds, where affect and emotion lead the way for belonging ahead of the modes of rational or deliberative thought. These attach strangers to each other and shape the terms of the state-civil society relation.

Early life and education[edit]

Berlant was born on October 31, 1957, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[1][6] They graduated with a BA in English from Oberlin College in 1979,[7] then an MA from Cornell University in 1983,[6] and finally a PhD from Cornell in 1985,[8] after they had already begun teaching at the University of Chicago.[6] (They said student loans obliged them to continue straight through school without a break that would have triggered loan repayment.)[6] Berlant's dissertation was titled, Executing The Love Plot: Hawthorne and The Romance of Power (1985).[8]


Berlant taught at the University of Chicago from 1984 to 2021, becoming the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English.[4] The university awarded them a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1989), a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring (2005), and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award (2019).[9]

Berlant's other honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and, for their book Cruel Optimism, the René Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association[6] and the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award from the Modern Language Association (MLA) for the best book in queer studies in literature or cultural studies.[10] Berlant was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018.[6]

Berlant was a founding member of Feel Tank Chicago in 2002, a play on think tank.[4] They worked with many journals, including (as editor) Critical Inquiry.[6] They also edited Duke University Press's Theory Q series along with Lee Edelman, Benjamin Kahan, and Christina Sharpe.


Berlant was the author of a national sentimentality trilogy beginning with The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Based on their dissertation,[6] the book looks at the formation of national identity as the relations between modes of belonging mediated by the state and law; by aesthetics, especially genre; and by the everyday life of social relations, drawing on Nathaniel Hawthorne's work to illustrate these operations.[11]

The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship—the title essay winning the 1993 Norman Foerster Award for best essay of the year in American literature[12]—introduced the idea of the "intimate public sphere" and looks at the production of politics and publicness since the Reagan era by way of the circulation of the personal, the sexual, and the intimate.[13] In his review, José Muñoz described it as both intersectional, following Kimberlé Crenshaw, and "post-Habermassian", in the vein of work by Nancy Fraser and Berlant's frequent collaborator Michael Warner.[13] Berlant's third book (though second in the trilogy),[14] The Female Complaint: On the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture was published by Duke University Press in 2008. The project initially began in the 1980s when Berlant noticed striking similarities in writing by Erma Bombeck and Fanny Fern, who skewered married life for women in nearly identical ways despite being separated by 150 years.[15] Berlant pursued this mass cultural phenomenon of "women's culture" as an originating site of “intimate publics", threading the everyday institutions of intimacy, mass society, and, more distantly and ambivalently, politics through fantasies rather than ideology.[14] Berlant took up this project by examining especially melodramas and their remade movies in the first part of the twentieth century, such as Show Boat, Imitation of Life, and Uncle Tom's Cabin.[14]

Berlant's 2011 book, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press) works its way across the U.S. and Europe to assess the level of contemporary crisis as neoliberalism wears away the fantasies of upward mobility associated with the liberal state.[16] Cruel optimism manifests as a relational dynamic in which individuals create attachment as "clusters of promises" toward desired object-ideas even when they inhibit the conditions for flourishing and fulfilling such promises. Maintaining attachments that sustain the good life fantasy, no matter how injurious or cruel these attachments may be, allows people to make it through day-to-day life when the day-to-day has become unlivable.[17] Elaborating on the specific dynamics of cruel optimism, Berlant emphasizes and maintains that it is not the object itself, but rather the relationship:

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.[18]

An emphasis on the "present", which Berlant describes as structured through "crisis ordinariness", turns to affect and aesthetics as a way of apprehending these crises. Berlant suggests that it becomes possible to recognize that certain "genres" are no longer sustainable in the present and that new emergent aesthetic forms are taking hold that allow us to recognize modes of living not rooted in normative good life fantasies.[17] Discussing crisis ordinariness, Berlant described it as their way "of talking about traumas of the social that are lived through collectively and that transform the sensorium to a heightened perceptiveness about the unfolding of the historical, and sometimes historic, moment (and sometimes publics organized around those senses, when experienced collectively)."[19]

In 2019, Berlant published The Hundreds with Kathleen Stewart, a collection of brief writing (a hundred words or a multiple of a hundred words) on ordinary encounters, applying affect theory to moments of unexamined daily life.[4] In The New Yorker, Hua Hsu said the book "calls to mind the adventurous, hybrid style of Fred Moten (the book includes a brief poem by him), Maggie Nelson, or Claudia Rankine, all of whom bend available literary forms into workable vessels for new ideas."[4]

Berlant has edited books on Compassion (2004) and Intimacy (2001), which are interlinked with their seminal work in feminist and queer theory in essays like "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?" (with Michael Warner, 1995),[20] "Sex in Public" (with Michael Warner, 1998),[21] Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (edited with Lisa Duggan, 2001),[22] and Venus Inferred (with photographer Laura Letinsky, 2001).[23]


Berlant died of cancer in a Chicago hospice facility on June 28, 2021, at age 63.[1][6][24] They are survived by their partner Ian Horswill.[9]

Berlant's papers are held at the Feminist Theory Archive of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. Berlant began donating them in 2014.[25]



  • Berlant, Lauren (1991). The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-04377-7.
  • — (1997). The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1931-3.
  • —; Letinsky, Laura (2000). Venus Inferred. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-47345-1.
  • — (2008). The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-8916-3.
  • — (2011). Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5111-5. 2011 René Wellek Prize, American Comparative Literature Association
  • — (2012). Desire/Love. Punctum Books. ISBN 978-0-615-68687-5.
  • —; Edelman, Lee (2013). Sex, or the Unbearable. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-7706-1.
  • —; Stewart, Kathleen (February 22, 2019). The Hundreds. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-1-4780-0183-6.
  • Berlant, Lauren (2022). On the Inconvenience of Other People. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-1-4780-1845-2.

Edited collections[edit]

  • Berlant, Lauren, ed. (1998). Intimacy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226384436.
  • —; Duggan, Lisa, eds. (2001). Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9864-5.
  • —, ed. (2004). Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-4159-7052-5.
  • —, ed. (2019). Reading Sedgwick. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-1-4780-0533-9.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Berlant used she/her pronouns in personal life but they/them professionally. This article uses they/them accordingly.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Traub, Alex (July 3, 2021). "Lauren Berlant, Critic of the American Dream, Is Dead at 63". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 4, 2021.
  2. ^ Butler, Judith; Doherty, Maggie; Chaudhary, Ajay Singh; Winant, Gabriel (July 8, 2021). "'What Would It Mean to Think That Thought?': The Era of Lauren Berlant". ISSN 0027-8378. Retrieved October 25, 2022. The death of Lauren Berlant, one of the most esteemed and influential literary and cultural critics in the United States, has been met with a keen sense of loss through the academy.
  3. ^ Patterson, Sara (January 7, 2020). "Lauren Berlant wins MLA's lifetime achievement award | University of Chicago News". Retrieved October 25, 2022. "Lauren Berlant is one of the most influential scholars of the 21st century."
  4. ^ a b c d e Hsu, Hua (March 25, 2019). "Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 28, 2021.
  5. ^ "Big Brains podcast: Why Chasing The Good Life Is Holding Us Back, With Lauren Berlant". Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 28, 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Lauren Berlant (1957–2021)". ArtForum. June 28, 2021. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  7. ^ Carnig, Jennifer (June 9, 2005). "Lauren Berlant, Professor in English Language & Literature and the Committee on African and African-American Studies". the University of Chicago Chronicle. Archived from the original on May 5, 2021. Retrieved June 28, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Pollock, Beth Ruby (1988). The Representation of Utopia: Hawthorne and the Female Medium. University of California, Berkeley. Archived from the original on June 28, 2021. Retrieved June 28, 2021.
  9. ^ a b Patterson, Sara (June 28, 2021). "Lauren Berlant, preeminent literary scholar and cultural theorist, 1957–2021". University of Chicago News. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  10. ^ Seitz, David (February 19, 2013). "Lauren Berlant's queer optimism". Archived from the original on May 23, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  11. ^ Romero, Lora (1993). "Making History". Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 26 (2): 215–222. doi:10.2307/1345688. ISSN 0029-5132. JSTOR 1345688.
  12. ^ "American Literature Section: The Foerster Prize". Modern Language Association. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  13. ^ a b Muñoz, José (2000). "Citizens and Superheroes". American Quarterly. 52 (2): 397–404. doi:10.1353/aq.2000.0021. ISSN 0003-0678. JSTOR 30041852. S2CID 145792484. Archived from the original on July 1, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  14. ^ a b c Hesford, Victoria (2012). "Review of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 21 (2): 325–328. doi:10.1353/sex.2012.0038. ISSN 1043-4070. JSTOR 41475084. S2CID 142678449. Archived from the original on July 1, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  15. ^ "Sentimental education". The University of Chicago Magazine. July–August 2008. Archived from the original on July 22, 2017. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  16. ^ Berlant, Lauren. "University of Chicago Department of English Language and Literature - Faculty". Archived from the original on June 1, 2019. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  17. ^ a b Yorker, A. Nerdy New (July 10, 2012). "Academics Speak: Theory Review: Berlant's Cruel Optimism (2011)". Archived from the original on February 28, 2014. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  18. ^ Berlant, Lauren. "Interview With Lauren Berlant". Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  19. ^ Berlant, Lauren (2008). "Thinking about feeling historical" (PDF). Emotion, Space and Society. Elsevier. pp. 4–9. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 27, 2017. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  20. ^ Warner, Michael; Berlant, Lauren (May 1995). "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?". PMLA. 110 (3): 343–49.
  21. ^ Berlant, Lauren; Warner, Michael (January 1, 1998). "Sex in Public". Critical Inquiry. 24 (2): 547–566. doi:10.1086/448884. ISSN 0093-1896. S2CID 161701244. Archived from the original on June 27, 2021. Retrieved July 1, 2021.
  22. ^ Ayoub, Nina C. (June 22, 2001). "Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Archived from the original on July 1, 2021. Retrieved July 1, 2021.
  23. ^ Worley, Sam (September 25, 2012). "Laura Letinsky withdraws to a further remove". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on October 29, 2020. Retrieved July 1, 2021.
  24. ^ Kipling, Ella (June 28, 2021). "Twitter mourns Lauren Berlant's death: The "Cruel Optimism" author's legacy explained". HITC. Archived from the original on June 28, 2021. Retrieved June 28, 2021.
  25. ^ "Collection: Lauren Berlant papers". Brown University Library Special Collections. Archived from the original on July 1, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.

External links[edit]