New Book Explores 'Concept of the Ordinary'—100 Words at a Time

New Book Explores 'Concept of the Ordinary'—100 Words at a Time

Lauren Berlant photographed by Whitten Sabbatini for The New Yorker

The following was published in UChicago News on August 16, 2019.

By Jack Wang

Prof. Lauren Berlant is a renowned thinker, one who has earned acclaim not only as a leading voice in the study of gender and sexuality, but as an incisive cultural critic.

Still, the University of Chicago scholar considers herself first and foremost a teacher—a collaborative spirit whose classroom is driven by the interactions between diverse ideas. That same curiosity is what undergirds her new book The Hundreds, a collection of experimental poems written with longtime collaborator Kathleen Stewart, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas.

The two authors constrain themselves to pieces of 100 words, or 100-word multiples, plumbing their surroundings for observations that fill a liminal space between the material and the abstract. In terms of subject matter, The Hundreds is wide-ranging, touching on everything from morning routines, to dog-walking confrontations, to the grim etymology of the word “deadline.” Earlier this year, The New Yorker described the book as “strange and captivating.”

The Hundreds also represents the latest collaboration for a writer who finds special pleasure in the intellectual push and pull of such projects.

“Other people’s minds are amazing,” said Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Professor in the Department of English. “Collaboration is like a super-intensified version of teaching, where you and somebody else are working something out, and you’re building on each other—but you’re also just missing each other.”

“There’s the complete joy of the ‘not me.’ Seeing somebody else at work, seeing somebody else’s generativity and seeing how, together, you can compose things that neither of you could have done by yourself.”

A UChicago faculty member since 1984, Berlant recently won the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for extraordinary contributions to teaching and student life. She and Stewart, a friend for more than two decades, have both shaped public understanding of affect theory—a field that, at risk of oversimplification, might be described as a way to think about how our feelings and senses organize the world.

The Hundreds blossomed out of a 2012 writing workshop in which University of Texas scholar Circe Sturm introduced the two writers to a 100-word poetics exercise. That format became a way for them to tease out the spaces between their scholarly training—Stewart in ethnography, Berlant in aesthetics—and to find the overlaps.

“Katie and I are both very interested in the concept of the ordinary,” Berlant said. “We’re both very interested in patterns. We see a pattern, and then it becomes a kind of form and becomes a kind of concept—and we ask ourselves what’s happening.”

Added Stewart: “Writing together, we built an intimacy of words and worlds. A phrase could become hilariously dense with possibilities for thought. We learned to think about how things could be otherwise, and are already otherwise, in ordinary scenes of living.”

To an extent, The Hundreds also obscures authorship, blending Berlant’s and Stewart’s writing into a cohesive flow. Although readers might discern the original source of each poem based on geographical details, there are no bylines under individual sections. Certain parts read like short diaries, while other lines feel almost like aphorisms:

It takes a lot more than clarity to keep someone going; there’s more at stake than just knowing.

The body is a contact sheet with a nervous system.

Thought is an afterthought.

The book ends with a handful of guest indexes, experimenting with a format that Berlant called “the first interpretation of a book.” An appearance by acclaimed poet and scholar Fred Moten. A cartooned “Not-Index” from Andrew Causey, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Columbia College in Chicago. Two indexes that resemble short essays, courtesy of anthropologists Susan Lepselter (Indiana University) and Stephen Muecke (University of New South Wales).

And finally, a blank page for the reader, titled “For Your Indexing Pleasure.”

“I’m not scared of experimenting,” Berlant said. “But I also feel exposed. When you use language for a living, you’re simultaneously using it as a defense and as a way of bringing people in to something that’s unfolding, an object/concept on the move.

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August 16, 2019