By Sara Patterson
Driven by an immense pedagogical curiosity, Lauren Berlant has spent more than three decades studying, analyzing, and writing about what sentimentality means in American culture for gender, sexuality, and politics. Her recent work is engaged with the current moment—with the desires and emotions that compel people to create forms of life that support a sense of belonging—and the ways in which gender, race, citizenship, class, and sexuality affect and mold those attachments.
For her perceptive interpretations of American literature, politics, and culture, Berlant will receive the 2019 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association at the MLA Conference in Seattle on January 11, 2020. Past recipients of the Hubbell Medal include Robert Penn Warren, Lewis Mumford, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Lauren’s work reaches beyond academia to give readers the tools for understanding the complicated interactions between self and society, and between expressed emotions and the methods that imperceptibly affect them,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “Drawing on sources ranging from classical literature to contemporary stories in film and television, Lauren’s analysis unveils the devices that affect everyday human connection, and how our culturally conditioned material regard for the perfect life compels us to act against own self-interest in such scholarly books as Cruel Optimism.”
Berlant’s career-defining entrance into national sentimentality and affect theory began through the study of historical novels during her doctoral studies at Cornell University. “The historical novel produces a story that moves between history and subjectivity, often entwining a law plot and a love plot,” said Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. “I realized structural, functional, and political norms synergize and shape subjectivity.”
Just before completing her dissertation, Berlant arrived at UChicago in 1984. For 35 years, she has connected to her colleagues in many disciplines in a culture that valued her intellect and intensity. “Scholars at UChicago are engaged, and open and curious,” she said. “UChicago historian Peter Novick influenced my work immensely for example. He asked me why I bothered working on national sentimentality, since the nation was a monster of imperialism, and across our conversations I realized how profoundly the radicalism of 1968 had made citizen-attachment seem shallow to so many.”
While Berlant acknowledges it’s an intriguing, wild, and upsetting time in American history, she also realizes that her whole career has prepared her for this historic moment and is reflected in her books such as Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011), The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2008), and The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1991).
“Lauren Berlant is one of the most influential scholars of the 21st century across a number of fields,” said Deborah L. Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor and Chair in the Department of English Language and Literature. “She addresses areas that include American literature; gender and sexuality, where she is perhaps the most influential scholar; affect studies; and trauma studies. Lauren has also pioneered new forms of criticism and experimental writing and has modeled many forms of collaborative work from the single volume, with scholars like Lee Edelman and Kathleen Stewart and artists such as Laura Letinsky, to the collective (Feel Tank Chicago).”
While she has received many accolades recently, including the UChicago Norman Maclean Faculty Award for extraordinary contributions to teaching and student life, Berlant is modest about her own achievements and praises the intellects of the scholars with whom she has collaborated.
Berlant’s most recent book, The Hundreds (Duke University Press, 2019) collaboratively written with Kathleen Stewart, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, explores life under the radar in essays of 100 words or multiples of 100 words. As an example, the piece called “The New Ordinary” defines what it is.
“The new ordinary is a collective search engine, not a grammar. A table of elements flashes up erratically, throwing up a bit of atmosphere or a practice you may or may not take to. There are receptivity genres and they have consequences.”
Always prodigiously busy, Berlant has several scholarly works in progress. She is finishing up “On the Inconvenience of Other People,” which she describes as exploring the ordinary pressure of being in the world and sharing it with other people. Berlant is two-thirds done with writing a book called “Humorlessness” about the different ways—political, comedic, intimate—we manage our relations by making them inflexible. Supported by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, she is also writing a book called the “Matter of Flatness,” which tells a story about subjectivity and affect no longer based on a melodramatic model of ethical individuals who ought to amplify their messy emotions, so they can be known.
Additionally with Stewart, co-author of The Hundreds, Berlant is collaborating on “First Responders,” about the present as a time of crisis when everyone feels like a first responder. Their poetics will discuss the exhaustion and consequences of responding to both ordinary and objective crises. Describing “First Responders” as a work that takes up the feminist and queer focus on care relations (along with the relations of power), she says that it shifts across personal to social to political foci to describe modes of survival, resilience, and life-attrition.
“The concept of the public has itself been worn out during the last 50 years in the US,” she said. “We are turning into a plural space that’s nonetheless increasingly boutiqued and privately held. I am interested in how we move through the world at once together and apart –what norms and mediations allow us to be surprised by life without giving up on attachment to each other, or ourselves. As a result, the widespread discussion of contemporary fatigue, anxiety, and depression points us to the way living also becomes a scene of the wearing out of life.”
Throughout her career, Berlant has re-examined the global scholarly interpretation of gender and sexuality as they have organized formal and informal worlds and, even more extensively, offered methods for explaining the unusual dimensions of everyday lived experience. She uses queer, feminist, race, affect and aesthetic theory to analyze “women’s culture” and other “intimate public spheres,” to ascertain the appeal and practice of sentimentality in the midst of so many kinds of inequality.