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.

(Caveat lector: What follows is a bit long and somewhat theoretical.)

A real flower child

By the time I met them, Lauren Berlant was an illustrious and contradictory figure in the academic world. They were on the far left at a fundamentally conservative institution, the University of Chicago. They possessed many kinds of capital and openly supported the graduate student labor union. They sympathized with anarchism while occupying a professorial chair named after George M. Pullman — Pullman being famous for owning a railroad company town where, in 1894, striking workers were shot by federal troops. No wonder, perhaps, that Berlant felt profoundly alienated by the university where they worked, while being in some ways deeply ensconced there. Ninety years after the Pullman strike, Berlant was hired — at age 26 or 27 — as an assistant professor. By age 35, Berlant was already writing about how disappointed they were with the possibilities for radical, progressive, or left action at the university. Their efforts at feminist utopianism in turn had attracted derision. “You’re being characterized all over as ’68, a real flower child,” Berlant reported hearing from a colleague in those days, the early 1990s.[3]

Where did Lauren Berlant come from? Berlant’s own coming of age seems to have been traumatic and utopian, marked by multiple forms of abandonment and awkward intermediacy (particularly in social class terms), and by attempts both to escape from life and to reattach to it. “I was eleven in 1968,” they commented, “and a precocious—wild—eleven… And so I went to a commune when I was fifteen, I went to rallies, I hated Nixon appropriately, and I had socialist proletarian grandparents on one side of the family.”[4] By the time Berlant graduated from college — the countercultural Oberlin in the late 1970s — they were already an experienced feminist teacher. But once they began graduate school, the utopian impulses may have proved a mixed blessing. Berlant has described their graduate education at Cornell University in the 1980s as a scene of trying to survive in a pretentious culture of “high theory.”

Everything was extremely poststructural at Cornell, and besides not having a Continental philosophical background—which I quickly had to cultivate—I was also a Marxist and a feminist. I didn’t think that these should be deemed vulgar compared to what was deemed high theory.[5]

Some people find stability in defining themselves as feminists or Marxists, but for Berlant, while these identities offered space for thinking, they also seem to have conferred a risk of stigma and exclusion. Berlant recalled graduate school as a moment of being socially unrecognizable, “quite blundery and Martian-like from the perspective of my colleagues as well as myself,” and of “struggling terribly, partly because I felt stupid all the time, as usual, and partly because at that time there was very little feminism for graduate students in the English department.”[6] A patriarchal institutional culture can readily produce both an organized absence of feminism and a sexist climate of representing illegible outsiders as “stupid” inferiors. Berlant’s rightful rejoinder to this was that there’s nothing vulgar or unintelligent about feminism.

Yet Berlant’s feminist critique, and their personal struggles against illegibility and marginalization, did not culminate in radical or melodramatic rejections of poststructuralist theory either. It all led into something more nonbinary; and yet the nonbinary for Berlant has never been a simple negation of binaries. Instead it is a way of opening space within, outside and alongside them, a way of holding incompatible things together without subsuming them into a definite theory, a single genre, or a stable affective style.[7] Even after Berlant started using “they” pronouns, they also kept “she” pronouns. I think they saw the pronouns as optimistic invitations, not fixed identity markers. In Berlant’s thought, too, the nonbinary is a conceptual gesture, not an organized object. This gesture consists of a radical affirmation of multiplicity.[8] Multiplicity pervades Berlant’s analysis of subjects and their subjectivities — an analysis which largely eschews conventional psychology in favor of exploring “the multiple tethers of the subject to the world.”[9]

What, then, is Berlant’s account of how we are tethered to the world?

Subjectivity is multiple

Berlant did not prefer the general to the particular, and they did not set out to formulate a general theory of subjectivity. On the contrary, they participated in a version of queer theory where “theory… has meant unsettlement rather than systematization.”[10] Nevertheless, when I sat down to read Berlant’s work last year, certain common observations about subjectivity did become clear to me. Let me suggest a provisional list of Berlant’s conceptual axioms, even if these are heuristics, not absolutes.

1. Subjectivity is multiple. It’s so easy to say this, and yet so hard to think it all the way through. The subject’s multiplicity means many things. It means that there is never just one kind of social subject; there are always many kinds of subjects. It means there is never one thing going on within us, always lots happening. “I would foreground non-coherence as a principle of being rather than a cumulative effect of serial finitude,” Berlant says, “I never thought that the subject ought to be seen as in one state.”[11] It means we are always in multiple relationships (of kinship, sex, school, work, fantasy, etc), never just one primary relationship (it’s not all Oedipal triangles). Our many relationships each emerge, overdetermined, from many different histories. We also have many desires, and many desires about our desires, and many desires not to desire. We have many stories and theories about ourselves, and many relations to these stories. Subjectivity is soothing and it’s vertigo: it proliferates scales and modes of being, oscillating between the abstract and the concrete, the social and the affective, the big deals and the little nothings that are all wrapped together in a life.[12]

2. Subjectivity is radically historical. Such a view has been a hallmark of critical theory since Marx, at least. Berlant particularly insists, following Foucault, that what is historical is not just identities and subject positions, but also all the terms and processes of our affective existences. Thus one of the great moments in Berlant’s work is the analysis of “trauma” as an emergent moment in the history of late capitalist public subjectivity, an analysis which in no way denies the reality of trauma and social violence, but which insists that the genres of traumatic expression have their own history.[13]

3. Subjectivity is conventional. To be a subject, then, is to inhabit terms of subjectivity that come to us from outside, and we can call these terms conventions. But characteristically, Berlant insists that interpellation and conventionality are not only negative processes. Rather, they organize our optimism: “To love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world.”[14] Thus it is not necessarily bad to be conventional, and we cannot really avoid it anyway. Being a person implies inhabiting genres of living and being that capture our attachments, or that teach us what attachment means in the first place. Conventions are not only fetters; they are a space of fantasy and pedagogy.

4. Subjectivity is worldly and permeable. Berlant takes our inner lives very seriously; like a novelist or a therapist, they believe in the complexity of our psyches, of our moods and affects, defenses and boundaries. But they also take seriously our subjective locations within histories, scenes, relationships, and social formations. As they put it, subjectivity is always subject to “the overdetermining work of ideology, atmosphere, the unconscious, distraction, ambivalence, attention—in short, the many ways the subject takes up a position in any episode and in the world.”[15] This is a materialism in several senses. It acknowledges the material impact of feelings and shared moods. It also chronicles the material impacts of systems of cultural production, economic precarity, vulnerability and violence.

5. Subjectivity is a survivor. The subject gets by. Even when we are hit and kissed and damaged and sickened and disappointed and scared and in love and horribly broken, we might still find new places to turn, or even find comfort in our own stuckness. And the very existence of predictability can be a pleasure; on Berlant’s view, a pleasure is simply “a repetition that makes a form, not necessarily something that feels good.”[16] There is a ruthless practicality about the subject, trying to get by in the face of a bad world. This practicality is nevertheless not the essence of the subject either; it is just one more pattern one might notice about people.

6. Subjectivity is wishful. It is a den of fantasies. It is not always centered on our “lived experience” or our “ordinariness.” It is genuinely escapist, whatever content it might give to its escapes. Ironically, this also means that fantasy makes lived relationships more manageable: “Without fantasy… there would be no way to move through the uneven field of our ambivalent attachments to our sustaining objects.”[17] Since desires are multiple, we frequently find that we want a thing and its opposite, or we want something that interferes with what we also want. This interference might not be a problem; Berlant repeatedly cites the Freudian dictum that “there is no negative in the unconscious.” Nevertheless, our wishfulness or fantasy life might threaten our own wish for coherence or our relations with others; just as we are often trying to catch up with others, so too are we stuck trying to catch up with our fantasies.

7. Subjectivity is rhythmic. Rhythm organizes what is overwhelming in our lives; it helps manage our fantasies and contradictions. Thus we can “be ourselves” at one moment and radically out of character the next, and the rhythm of these moments can prevent their interference from being destructive. Sometimes bad rhythms or the breakdown of rhythm do become a problem; but the impact of a rhythmic disturbance is something we can negotiate with, not something that is given all in advance. It is perhaps salient that one of Berlant’s chief instruments of childhood optimism was a rhythm instrument (the guitar).[18] The notion of rhythm comes to orient Berlant’s theory of form, where we attune ourselves to rhythms and patterns that may or may not have any names, genres, or regulatory apparatuses yet. (A genre is an institutionalized rhythm.)

8. Subjectivity is affirmative. This certainly does not mean it is not full of negation, both in the aggressive will-to-destruction-and-incoherence sense[19], and in the sense of being subject to oppression and suffering. Still, “any object of optimism promises to guarantee the endurance of something, the survival of something, the flourishing of something, and above all the protection of the desire that made this object or scene powerful enough to have magnetized an attachment to it.”[20] Desire might be destabilizing or destructive in practice, but the form of it always has a sort of affirmative, optimistic force in the world.

9. Subjectivity is projective and object-oriented. This means that all our relationships constitute their objects. All subjectivity veers towards fetish subjectivity: “The fetish reproduces the general structure of desire, which is an activity that aims at repeating pleasure by finding substitutes for a lost or unstable object.”[21] Nevertheless, “objects are always looser than they appear. Objectness is only a semblance, a seeming, a projection effect of interest in a thing we are trying to stabilize.”[22] Thus all objects are also placeholders for other things. Every attachment is also a reference to an earlier attachment; every scene is derivative of other scenes; nothing in social life is entirely sui generis. These references can become quite abstract too, since many of our desires are for very abstract things. Sometimes what we like in an object is that it represents the very existence of possibility itself or even the possibility of transformation.

10. Subjectivity is impersonal. This means at least three things for Berlant. 1) We are never seen fully by others; they are always projecting so much onto us that, ultimately, they see what they arrange to see. Thus, whether I am being subjected to “violence” or “love” from others, it “isn’t about me.”[23] 2) What’s personal about us, in an emotionally-authentic-and-vulnerable sense of the personal, is at most only one part of our lives. We also contain impersonal multitudes: we can be robots of convention, agents of discipline, radical interruptors of our own personal narratives, bewildered sleepwalkers, and so on. 3) Finally, our very notions of what is “personal” are themselves the result of genre conventions.[24]

11. Subjectivity is incoherent. This follows from its being multiple and having multiple desires. It follows from its being deeply personal, and also deeply not. Subjectivity’s incoherence involves contradictions, tensions and antagonisms. But the impact of its incoherence is an empirical question. Our antagonisms might or might not be experienced as conflicts or dramas. They might just be experienced as alternative “positions” that we can take up one after the other in our fantasies. “The scenic form of fantasy enables the desiring subject to produce a series of interpretations that do not have to cohere as a narrative.”[25] By removing the assumption of radical coherence or of radical incoherence in the subject, we can then be more curious about when coherence does or not happen, and when this does or does not pose problems.

12. Subjectivity is ambivalent.[26] Ambivalence is an affective corollary of incoherence: ambivalence is how our incoherence is lived. On Berlant’s view, ambivalence is “an inevitable condition of intimate attachment.”[27] As such, it is often unfairly stigmatized. Ambivalence means in part that our feelings are always plural and that we are always partly open to feeling incompatible feelings. We are open to affective flows that might push us away from the positions we thought we inhabited. The clichéd view about ambivalence is that it is a genre of inner drama, such as a grandiose struggle between two opposing poles, love and hate. But Berlant does not see ambivalence as having a fixed plot, or even any resolution other than provisional. Rather, ambivalence is something more nonbinary: it is the prerequisite of our existing in multiple ways in the world. Nor is it a purely passive state; it is a site of action, whether conscious or unconscious, and perhaps even “a pleasure in its own right.”[28] At one point Berlant suggests evocatively that “ambivalence is a kind of temporalized bargaining.”[29]

I might emphasize here that a nonbinary theory of the subject is not the same as a theory of nonbinary subjects. Berlant has not to my knowledge specifically analyzed nonbinary gender subjectivity. Rather, what is nonbinary about Berlant’s approach to subjectivity is its rigorous intellectual refusal of dualisms, schematisms, simplifications and closures. It is a radical affirmation that everything that is, is also something else — and thus that everything is enigmatic. Even “the nonbinary” is multiple, in the end. In Berlant’s work, the nonbinary might describe an unconscious desire (to refuse and refashion femininity, for instance); a conceptual commitment (to multiplicity); and a structure of feeling (we feel many things at once). Was this somewhat effervescent approach to thought not influenced by the social and intellectual life of the 1960s and 1970s, and their famously affirmative “philosophies of desire”? Perhaps, but Berlant’s thought always has a dialectical moment too, a moment of negation and critical ricochet. Sometimes I think one can read Berlant as trying to create a dialectics without binaries, a dialectical writing that stays true to immanence, historicity and femininity. Where conventional Marxist dialecticians have tended to privilege production, energy and motion, Berlant was equally interested in reproduction, exhaustion and stuckness.

Fort-da with the dialectic, or supervalent thought

Over the years Berlant came to identify less as a Marxist than, more broadly, as a “materialist.” They quit their campus Marxist Theory Workshop in 1985, switching their focus to feminist and queer studies, and later to affect studies. There was surely a gender politics in this: they tended to avoid masculinist critical theory culture, in its boys’ club version. Nevertheless, like the critical theory tradition, Berlant’s writing always aims to produce thought that is radically immanent to a brutal and inconsistent world. Berlant describes their project at one point as “the activity of being reflexive about a contemporary historicity as one lives it”[30]; they also cite a “desire to angle knowledge toward and from the places where it is (and we are) impossible.”[31] Such a project has no definite genre and no plot.

But this form of thought might still have its organizing images. Berlant at one point anchored their intellectual work around something called supervalent thought, which was also the title of their blog. They explained:

A supervalent thought is a thought whose meaning resides not only in its explicit phrasing, but in the atmosphere of intensity it releases that points beyond the phrase, to domains of the unsaid. It’s a pressure. A supervalent thought produces an atmosphere, disturbs modes of apprehension, consciousness, and experience. It wedges things while inducing leaking. It’s a resource and a threat.

It’s a concept from Freud’s Dora. Freud uses it to describe an expressed thought (I don’t love you) that covers up a concealed thought that is its opposite (I love you). But the spirit of the concept is that in the penumbra an ideation, a sensed concept, generates all kinds of contradictions that can be magnetized to induce an impact beyond what’s explicit or what’s normative.[32]

A supervalent thought is too multiplicitous, too heavily charged, too overflowing and too resonant to pin itself down in any single dialectical drama. In a supervalent thought, the contradictions aren’t gone; they are everywhere. And there is no hope of finding a single driving logic in things or in thoughts. The large “penumbra” of a thought does not necessarily point us towards a Hegelian Absolute or any definite horizon. Rather, it stirs things up, “disturbing” us, shaking us out of our norms or perceptual habits, changing our space of possibilities without imposing a telos. The effervescence of supervalent writing might mirror the incoherence of the world in which we are writing. While much dialectical writing seems to aspire to sovereignty over its object, in supervalent thought we are always outmatched by the multiplicitous force of the unconscious. Supervalent thought might carry us away in spite of ourselves, inducing a sense of nonsovereignty in our thinking.

Still, supervalent thought needs anchors, stock images and points of departure. One of Berlant’s recurrent models for nonbinary subjectivity was the famous scene of fort-da recounted by Freud. Fort-da, as Freud reports, is a game invented by a bourgeois German child around the First World War. In the game, a small child copes with his mother’s periodic absences by banishing and then unbanishing his toys. Frequently throwing a toy away into the corner, he shouts “Fort” (German for gone). Occasionally, he also brings the toy back, shouting “da” (there). Freud speculates that this game helped the child find agency in a situation that he experienced as passivity (since he was powerless to prevent his mother’s absences), adding this may also have constituted a substitute for revenge on the beloved object (the mother).

In Cruel Optimism, Berlant approaches fort-da as a way of thinking about how we spend our lives oscillating between different subjective stances.

The child’s “loss” and “recovery” of the top is read generally as the bargaining any subject does to retain a notion that her or his intelligibility or continuity in the world is a function of her or his will. However, the capacity of the ego to respond to contingency via a principle of form should not imply that the subject “really” is contingent and only masterful in a compensatory way. Each position, repeated countless times, is its own pleasure, and the playing child is also increasing his capacity to be in the room with myriad potentialities.[33]

In other words, fort-da is not only a pathetic Freudian symptom that compensates for the pain of having an absent mother. Rather, it illustrates Berlant’s basic views about the ways that subjectivity isn’t binary. What fort-da suggests, at its most basic, is that to be a subject is to be ambivalent about the object. (Anything, incidentally, can become an object to a subject — our “object” in psychoanalytic jargon could be a parent, a toy, an institution, a relationship, etc.) And we are not fixed in one specific subject position; rather, our subjectivity comes into being as a motion across multiple stances. We cling to our object and we throw it away; we are lost children and vengeful autocrats; we are intrinsically multiple creatures. The game of fort-da, on Berlant’s first reading, is a scene of training in multiplicity — a way in which we learn the pleasure of changing positions, and a way of increasing our tolerance for this stance-changing.

A few years later in Sex, or the Unbearable, Berlant comes to question whether the game should be seen as “a form” at all, in any singular sense. They propose instead that it might be read as an experimental space where multiple things are happening at once.

Although the child’s play with a top that he loses and repossesses repeatedly is widely read as a scene of play as mastery over loss, why not read it as a scene defined by a play with multiple consequences and risks—for example, the risks of possessing, ambivalence, being in control, being out of control, being alienated or dissociated, and/or the pleasures of cycling through these? Why not read the child’s play as an experiment in potential form that does not seek out a form? Is it not possible that recontextualizing a problem shifts its conditions of extension even if one of its persistent conditions is its negativity?[34]

On this second, more expansive reading, fort-da is a scene where we are inventing new practices to process our multiple affects and desires. The Berlantian thought that emerges from fort-da is that we are always responding to ambivalence with intensive bargaining, which becomes the ordinary praxis, in effect, that emerges from supervalent thought. In our everyday scenes of existence, whatever the object of our present desire might be, we are always trying to calibrate our relations to it, trying to make sure we have the right amount of it, but not too much. As Berlant insists, it is so easy to be either overwhelmed or abandoned by one’s object, and so hard to make sure that one’s subjective calibrations are not over-corrections that yet again miss the mark. In short, Fort-da is how people always are with objects and other people, and all thoughts are potentially supervalent.

If one reads across Berlant’s work, it is striking how much it is permeated by people’s ongoing need to bargain with the world.

Even though I wish to remain myself, I may want also to experience the discomposure of intimate relationality, yet want only the discomposure I can imagine, plus a little of the right kind extra, and how can I bear the risk of experiencing the anything that might be beyond? How can I bear not seeking it?[35]

Or earlier:

Think of the frequent moments in the life of a relationship when you experience frustrated sovereignty, needing to feel free to be vague, wrong, opaque, distracted, withholding, or irresponsible at the same time as you need your intimate to remain open, unsuspicious, clear, and caring, as well as alive with the capacity to surprise you (but not too much!). Love demands an imbalancing act.[36]

For Berlant, almost all subjectivity is this kind of Goldilocks subjectivity — suspended between too much and not enough of whatever our desire might seek. It is nevertheless dialectical in the sense that it is not trapped in a closed oscillation. It is reflexive and immanent thinking: it takes us someplace, it becomes historical, it gets us through life. Or indeed, it might make life itself into the object on which one’s ambivalence is enacted or avenged.

Berlant divulges (in a rare moment of linear autobiography) that they had done fort-da with their life, describing their experience in Oberlin College.

I was very ill while I was there with anorexia which stemmed from a lot of things, including poverty and rape, and I returned to the game of fort-da with my own existence. I was supporting myself—I put myself through college—and it was all very insecure.[37]

Is it any wonder that later in life Berlant began to theorize precarity, having lived through it? And what then, what comes after precarity? What happens after you wear yourself out with ambivalence, with fort-da, with relentlessly tracking the environment for new cues, with a frenzy of intellection? Since Adorno at least, dialecticians have no longer known where we were going. For Berlant, the utopian often still lingers as a distant horizon, as something much more fragmentary than The Revolution, as an unreachable object of desire. Supervalent thought leads us in Berlant’s work to one of its blind spots: to exhaustion. One might then ask: who is the subject of exhaustion in an exhausted world? The subject of exhaustion is the subject of reproduction. A subject with a gender.

The nonbinary, the feminine

This brings up a seemingly straightforward question: who is the subject of a Berlantian theory of the subject? The question seems to have a clear general answer: women. Berlant’s work is predominantly about women’s culture and writing, and this feminist methodological choice has a powerful effect. With an eloquent and forceful silence, it displaces men from their historical position as the default subjects and objects of critical inquiry. Nevertheless, Berlant’s work does not idealize women, nor construe their femininity as a singular form. Instead, Berlant is deeply committed to the view that “women” is a historical field without a timeless unity. “Feminists must embrace a policy of female disidentification at the level of female essence,” Berlant wrote back in 1988. “What we share is a history of oppression by patriarchy in its various alliances with other hegemonic economic, state, racial, and religious practices; what we do not share is our relation to these systems of oppression.”[38] Berlant then argued that when we refuse to organize feminism around a universal subject of women, it becomes possible to comprehend “the overdetermined and incoherent activity that passes for, or simulates, something like the essence of woman”[39] (my emphasis).

In 2021, it may be easier to imagine feminism without a universal subject of women than it was in 1988. But I must say, in the face of a new essentialism that pervades many contemporary trans and nonbinary communities — one that sometimes manages to picture even nonbinary gender as an alternative essence of selfit is still powerful to argue that womanhood is already in itself a set of incoherent practices passing as an essence.[40] “Passing” in trans vernacular is understood as the process of becoming recognizable as a coherent bearer of a binary gender category.[41] The heterotopian process of passing expresses an entirely understandable longing to dodge symbolic violence, to slip under hegemony’s radar, and to be welcomed warmly by the world. But in its very framing (passing or not), it also tends to construct cishet hegemony itself as much more coherent than it ever is. Whence the continued radicality of Berlant’s early view: that cis women too are only passing as women.

What does this passing look like in practice? Berlant approaches gender in the first instance as a condition of ordinary subjectivity, and unsurprisingly, it turns out that people really like to play fort-da with gender. Berlant’s work is not remarkably sanguine about our collective capacities to transform gender norms, but it is quite optimistic about the clandestine ways that gender enables us to transform, escape and sustain ourselves. Thus Berlant suggests at one point that “gender categories are best seen as spaces of transformation, nodal points that are supposed to pro­duce general social intelligibility while encrusted with constantly chang­ing noncoherent meanings.”[42] As Berlant’s subsequent work has explored the “overdetermined and incoherent activity” called femininity, it seems to me that the feminine has also led into something nonbinary.

On one level, the nonbinary in Berlant’s analysis of women is purely an emergent rhythm. It is immanent in the patterns of women’s subjectivity. The feminine for Berlant is a space of multiplicity and ambivalence, even if it is permeated by regulatory ideals, foundational fantasies, and aspirations to simplicity. It includes attachments and revulsions, exploitations and egalitarianisms, potential for excess and potential for insufficiency, a permanent flux and a constant repetition. To patriarchal eyes, femininity’s multiplicity has sometimes appeared to be a fatal incoherence, but we could just as well call it ordinary being in the world. In The Female Complaint (2008), Berlant derives a preliminary account of this incoherence from a brief reading of Lydia Davis.

“Generally, the women in [Davis’ book] Almost No Memory lament [their] cramped existence, turning into cedar trees that ‘group together in a corner of the graveyard and moan in the high wind’; fulfilling their femininity by being reactive to men and children; being emotionally central to intimates while querying the value of the bargains they’ve struck with these ongoing intimacies. Their main fascination is in watching themselves shuttle between emotional generosity and resentment at the demands for emotional service by children and lovers to whom they are attached” (17).

Women’s lives here are cramped because they are dominated by the unworkable contradictions of their seemingly endless emotional labor. This labor is not entirely without symbolic benefits, since it provides the “fulfillment” of being one’s gender role, the slow drips of recognition from the men and children whom one tends, and perhaps even the sheer pleasure (“the sensual spectacle,” 19) of seeing one’s care labor keep the world in motion. Nevertheless, these benefits are not enough to provide stability. The Others only take and never give, or not enough: “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”[43] The multiple pressures are overwhelming. The emotional skills that make femininity so rewarding can also sensitize you to everything that is untenable about life in an oppressive system. But even the contradictions of femininity can be partly managed by convention.

The analysis continues: “She feels a failure not because she has not developed emotional competence but because she has overdeveloped it… she keeps from falling apart by shifting between hypervigilance and inattention. This enables her to remain close not to her lover but to the situation of love and the promise of exchange… Over and over in Davis’s work, a woman’s self-consciously writerly eloquence and keen insight lead to descriptions of what does not change despite the woman’s frantic aspirational activity toward making emotional simultaneity… Davis’s point is to show that somehow the accumulation of knowledge leads to an unraveling for the writer/speaker and yet this unraveling, which ought to produce madness, is actually ordinary feminine consciousness. It turns out that even unraveling has its genres” (18).

The unraveling of femininity can thus become a space where we become nonbinary. The capacity to exist in a nonbinary way — to be one thing and also another, to cope with multiplicity more or less gracefully, to process ceaseless demands from the Other while not collapsing, to feel generosity and resentment simultaneously, or conversely to feel affirmed by one’s seeming captivity to the Other — all this is arguably a standard feminine capacity. And femininity, like every gender, is a holding environment: a cultural form that can absorb all kinds of things, indeed a cultural form (more than any other) charged with absorbing all kinds of things. So becoming unraveled or nonbinary (not that these are the same) does not necessarily become an exit from a binary gender location. On the contrary, femininity can readily absorb the unraveling of its own subjects.

But what do people do when they become conscious of the ways that their normativity is a dumpster fire, their gender constituted by unraveling, their dignity tantamount to their capacity to endure structural degradation? Commonly, such subjects turn to other women, who might at least recognize the pain of systematic misrecognition and disrespect. Yet this turn to women’s public spheres might yet again cause you to get enlisted in a type; to experience ambivalence about the conventions of femininity; and to get caught in new forms of repetition. “The circularity of the feminine project will not escape you, therefore: it is a perfect form, a sphere infused with activities of ongoing circuits of attachment that can at the same time look like and feel like a zero” (20). Of course, feeling like a zero, in Berlantian terms, might start to become a familiar consolation. “The sense of treading water or drowning in the present can also mark the pleasure and even the comfort one might derive from the most painful repetition” (244).

Berlant is extremely generous, although necessarily ambivalent, towards women’s conventional practices of solidarity and conviviality. They frequently draw a contrast between feminism and conventional women’s culture, but rather than presuming that the former is a virtuous improvement over the latter, Berlant’s research points to feminism’s limits as an existential rubric. They eventually conclude that “feminism has been a much better resource for critique than for providing accounts of how to live amid affective uncertainty, ambivalence, and incoherence” (234) — a narrative project that I think seems urgent to Berlant, both personally and theoretically. The “female complaint” genres that so interested Berlant are one major way in which conventional women’s culture facilitates survival, by providing categories and narratives that help process the ambivalence of love, care work, and structural subordination. Yet there is no definitive escape from type there, just a refiguring of femininity that makes its ambivalence more bearable.

Misrecognition is an optimism

Berlant’s work is not a new theory of radical politics. On the contrary, it has to be read as a theory of how any radicalism would be radically incomplete without an account of femininity, of reproduction, and of life outside the political. And for those of us who live most of our lives in the capitalist world system, it answers a different question: about how to survive emotionally in the bad world where we spend most of our time. Berlant has occasionally suggested that the core message of U.S. popular culture is “You’re not alone.” One wonders if there is something of a core message in Berlant’s work too. If there were, it might seem at first to be “I’m OK.”[44] No matter how bad it gets, on Berlant’s view, there is an optimism always implicit in our tendency to develop patterns, rhythms, and styles of being in the world. But this core message would also have to have a qualifier: “I’m OK (even though I’m not).” The ways that we are defined by our stories of negativity and negation do not just go away. “Trauma can never be let go of.” This is not a negation of negative dialectics; it is a nonbinary dialectic, meaning an effort to be transformed by ambivalence and to find optimism in our very bargaining. The imperative of Berlant’s materialist reflexivity is, then, to investigate the real places we come from and then to ask what dialectic of optimism and exhaustion they have left us caught up in.

To theorize emotional survival in late capitalism might almost be a utopian act in itself. But I think Berlant’s project holds some more specific lessons for those of us who want to ditch conventional gender and make something new. It implies that to the extent we are serious about remaking social life, this will be not just about creating new social forms such as labels, identities, or publics, but will also be about learning new ways to inhabit our psyches and attachments. Nonbinary gender often seems like a supervalent thought in search of a genre of conventional identity, one inclined to begin with a heroic narrative of largely individual self-assertion, self-transformation, and recognition struggle. Berlant would not try to prevent our creating new conventions. Surely, we need new conventions. But Berlant might also encourage us to reflect on the limits of that kind of identity project. Their work might provide pathways towards inventing new forms of nonbinary desire, love and bargaining. And it might suggest that any nonbinary gender project might need to take seriously the lessons of conventional femininity. Surely no nonbinary space will survive without habits of care and emotional sustenance, habits which should not disregard the lessons of women’s structural ambivalence about care work.

Yet I also find myself thinking: it seems vaguely like a betrayal of these texts to look to them for political guidance. They give us no road maps towards radicality, towards unambivalence, or even towards better ways of surviving. “I don’t usually make credo-style speeches,” Berlant declared in 2009, “nor pitch my practice at a level of generality that’s supposed to model a way of being for colleagues.”[45] What anyone might learn from Berlant’s work is supposed to remain indeterminate; that is perhaps one reason why Berlant has never written a pedagogical introduction to their own thought. “One cannot predict how and when—with intellection as the guardian of the bruised and disappointed self—someone will move toward any number of possible identifications,” Berlant comments in their analysis of Two Girls.[46] It is, in this sense, a genuinely anarchic project, one that refuses the patriarchal imperative to reproduce oneself in one’s students. It provides no clear direction; it only provides the mimetic force of its own example. At most, it might give us hints for making sense of the directions we are already going.

Here I find myself wondering again: Whose intellection guards whose bruise? And who is getting worn out guarding the bruises anyways? We come back in the end to the question of education, the question of teachers. This is one of Berlant’s lasting contributions to materialist feminism: that we must theorize teaching just as intensely as we ever theorized domestic labor or motherhood. Berlant was my teacher for most of a decade in graduate school, and I found their presence to be world-making for me, even though it was overdetermined, glimpsy, and full of misrecognition. One time, I said (after my quals or some other brutal ritual) that I was grateful that they treated me like a human being in a graduate institution (the University of Chicago) that mostly dehumanized us. They protested, saying something like “What about my intellectual engagement with your work, isn’t that what matters?”

I was momentarily surprised that they could felt like anyone could possibly have underestimated their formidable intellectual presence in the world. But for years afterwards I felt guilty — guilty for having equated their existential presence with their femininity, and for having leaned on their care labor to help me survive the toxic culture of the university, as if that were in any way their job. Now, ironically, it feels like my increasing distance from graduate school (and from the academy) makes it easier for me to read their work, or even to acknowledge their thought in a way that formerly was structurally foreclosed.

The nonbinary reading of Lauren Berlant’s work may itself be a scene of misrecognition. But Berlant would remind us that misrecognition is also an optimism. And maybe that’s what we can learn from Berlant’s struggles with a contradictory existence: not just how to use “they” pronouns, but how to find optimism in the struggle to get by in a bad, incoherent world.

Works cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2016. “The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times.” Environment and Planning D no. 34 (3):393-419.

—. 2012. Desire/Love. Brooklyn: Punctum Press.

—. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

—. 2009. “Affect is the New Trauma.” Minnesota Review no. 71-72:131-136.

—. 2008. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

—. 1997. “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy.” In The politics of research, edited by E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine, 143-161. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

—. 1997. “Trauma and ineloquence.” Cultural Values no. 5 (1):41-58.

—. 1997. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press.

—. 1994. “’68, or Something.” Critical Inquiry no. 21:124-155.

—. 1988. “The Female Complaint.” Social Text no. 19/20:237-259.

Berlant, Lauren, and Lee Edelman. 2014. Sex, or the Unbearable. Durham: Duke University Press.

Berlant, Lauren, and Jay Prosser. 2011. “Life Writing and Intimate Publics: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant.” Biography no. 34 (1):180-187.

Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1995. “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” PMLA 110:343-349.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2006. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hobarek, Andrew. 2001. “Citizen Berlant: An Interview with Lauren Berlant.” Minnesota Review no. 52-54:127-140.

Seigworth, Gregory J. 2012. “Reading Lauren Berlant Writing.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies no. 9 (4):346-352.

Tyler, Imogen, and Elena Loizidou. 2000. “The Promise of Lauren Berlant: An Interview.” Cultural Values no. 4 (3):497-511.

[1] “Feminism and the Institutions of intimacy,” 159.

[2] Berlant’s most general formulations of this part of the project appear in blogs and interviews. For example, “I have a really different view of the subject, and this is what I’m trying to write into being. I think it begins and proceeds as a porous and disorganized thing that is constantly impelled (compelled and desiring) to take up positions of clarity in relation to objects, worlds, and situations, but the available clarifying genres of personhood underdescribe the range of practices, knowledges, impulses, and orientations that people have while they’re foregrounding being this or that kind of thing at a particular moment… It’s a new realism of the ordinary subject who is at once durable and diffused” (“Life Writing and Intimate Publics” 187).

Compare also: “a person is a loosely-knotted cluster of impulses, reflections, apprehensions and prehensions moving through ordinary time (imagine a net with head, hands and feet).” (

[3] “’68, or Something” 125.


[5] “Citizen Berlant” 134.

[6] ”Citizen Berlant“ 134, ”Institutions of Intimacy” 145.

[7] Berlant does cite at one point Monique Wittig’s image of “the prisonhouse of binary relationality” — the expression is Berlant’s — that forces us to be “intelligible as a gendered subject” (Sex or the Unbearable, 14). The rejection of that intelligibility would arguably be betrayed by rendering it as a new nonbinary gender, but I digress.

[8] As Michael Hardt explains, multiplicity is a Deleuzian technical term for “a notion of difference that does not refer back to (and thus depend on) a primary identity, a difference that can never be corralled into an ultimate unity… this expanding, proliferating set of differences that stand on their own, autonomous” Hardt in Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (ix). Deleuze at times envisioned this in quite sweeping terms: “There is no being beyond becoming, nothing beyond multiplicity… multiplicity is the inseparable manifestation, essential transformation and constant symptom of unity” (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 23-24).

[9] Cruel Optimism 287n30.

[10] “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?” 348.


[12] Berlant’s world is not just multiple, then; it is recursively heterogeneous. The heterogeneity of the world can pose its own problems of subjective organization. As Berlant comments, ”So many different kinds of structure organize the estrangements and attachments of the world that how we are to live among and transform their existence both materially and in fantasy is my central question” (Sex, or the Unbearable 116).

[13] “Trauma and Ineloquence.”

[14] Female Complaint 3.

[15] Cruel Optimism 287-288.

[16] Cruel Optimism 138.

[17] Desire/Love 69.

[18] I might also cite their persistent affection for Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis.

[19] Berlant and Edelman: ”Negativity for us refers to the psychic and social incoherences and divisions, conscious and unconscious alike, that trouble any totality or fixity of identity. It denotes, that is, the relentless force that unsettles the fantasy of sovereignty. But its effects, in our view, are not just negative, since negativity unleashes the energy that allows for the possibility of change” (Sex, or the Unbearable, vii-viii).

[20] Cruel Optimism 48.

[21] Desire/Love 36.

[22] “The Commons” 394.

[23] Cruel Optimism 125.

[24] Impersonality: “The state of the interruption of the personal, and the work of normativity to create conventions of the personal” (Cruel Optimism 159). I would note that Berlant is exceptionally skeptical of the compulsory melodramas of emotional authenticity that organize a certain version of a “personal life.”

[25] Desire/Love 77.

[26] “What if we derived our social theory from scenes of ambivalence, which is to say, the scenes of attachment that are intimate, defined by desire, and overwhelming? We understand why we are overwhelmed by extreme and exhausting threats and actualized violence, as they menace the endurance of the world and of confidence in ongoingness. What’s harder to process is why it is hard to bear the very things we want.” (“The Commons” 395).

[27] Female Complaint 2.

[28] Female Complaint 2.

[29] Tyler and Loizidou, “The Promise of Lauren Berlant,” 511.

[30] Cruel Optimism 5. Compare Jameson: “Briefly, the dialectic may be said to be thinking that is both situational (situation-specific) and reflexive (or conscious of its own thought processes)” (Valences 322).

[31] Cruel Optimism 124.

[32] “Supervalent Thought,”

[33] Cruel Optimism 287n21.

[34] Berlant in Sex or the Unbearable 79.

[35] Cruel Optimism 146.

[36] Female Complaint 12-13.

[37] Hobarek and Berlant 133.

[38] “The Female Complaint” (1988) 253.

[39] “The Female Complaint” (1988), 254.

[40] It is interesting to note that Butler’s famous rhetorical question along these lines — “Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?” — only appeared in Gender Trouble two years after this paper came out.

[41] Meanwhile, it is common to acknowledge in U.S. queer cultures that genders are “social constructs,” but this often means in practice that gender identity is considered susceptible to individual gestures of self-definition, through a sort of agentive striving to become what one always already was.

[42] Queen of America 86.

[43] This is the end of the first sentence of The Female Complaint.

[44] Berlant comments at one point that “to desire belonging to the normal world, the world as it appears, is at root a fantasy of a sense of continuity, a sense of being generally okay; it is a desire to be in proximity to okayness, without passing some test to prove it” (Female Complaint 9). It seems to me that without downplaying the violence of belonging, Berlant would urge us not to shame people for having this fantasy.

[45] “Affect is the New Trauma” 135.

[46] Cruel Optimism 145-6.