Lauren Berlant and the Nonbinary

“They” made my life possible

Sometime in 2019, I noticed that my former teacher, Lauren Berlant, had changed their pronoun to they. They’re gone now, and the work of mourning is ongoing. Yet it seems to me that the most optimistic thing we can do is to keep learning from their work, their thought.

This might be awkward, since our relations to our teachers are so often enigmatic and awkward. Yet they can also sometimes be transformative and life-sustaining. Once, in a rare autobiographical moment, Berlant evoked the power of teachers to hold us together when we’re not really OK:

As though they knew what it was like to be me in my family, my teachers, and the world of school and work they sustained, made my life possible. I do not know whether I expected it, or demanded it, or even whether they knew what they were doing, or whether I deserved it.[1]

I do not know whether they knew what they were doing: we can all say this of our teachers, even if they made our lives possible. I’m not sure exactly what Berlant meant by adopting they, late in life. I do know, though, that Berlant’s life was organized by a long-term disidentification with gender and femininity. As a genderqueer person, I felt a sudden kinship with their pronoun choice, an impersonal joy in finding myself together in the same gesture as my teacher. This joy does not imply any deep mutual understanding or transcendence of the structural distance that always separated us. But it might make space for thought. And what I want to suggest here is that Berlant’s embrace of they was not merely a personal identification. Rather, it is a clue to their larger theory of subjectivity in general.[2] It sheds light on their theoretical project and its grounding in life and history.

(A warning to the reader: The rest of this text is long and quite theoretical.)

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