Spectacles of national sentimentality and traumatized citizenship reached new heights in the mass-produced aftermath of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Taking the podium to deliver remarks for the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Rep. Jamie Raskin recounted the terrors of the day. He had come to Washington to certify the election just a week after the death of his son. His daughter, not wanting her dad to be alone, had joined him. Neither expected that hours later she would be separated from her father, locked down in a barricaded office, texting friends final goodbyes, as a mob stormed the building.
When they were finally rescued, over an hour later by Capitol officers … I told my daughter Tabitha, who is 24 and a brilliant algebra teacher in Teach for America, how sorry I was. And I promised her that it would not be like this again, the next time she came back to the Capitol with me. And you know what she said? She said, “Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol.”
Of all the terrible, brutal things I saw and heard on that day, and since then, that one hit me the hardest. That and watching someone use an American flag pole, the flag still on it, to spear and pummel one of our police officers ruthlessly, mercilessly, tortured by a pole with a flag on it that he was defending with his very life. People died that day.Rep. Jamie Raskin
If this scene is not to become “the future of America,” Raskin continued through tears, the ex-President must be convicted of his crimes.
The speech was an instant sensation. Even as the ex-President was acquitted, pundits lauded Raskin as the “defender of democracy.” He was the statesman to carry the nation out of its crisis. Wrapped up in a cloud of sentiment, few paused to ask another set of questions.
Namely: How does this politician’s grief for his dead son come to be the mass-produced frame story for a national crisis? What does his daughter have to do with it? What does Raskin’s promise to her, and her lost desire for this imperial citadel, have to do with the beaten-up cop?
These are the sorts of dynamics that one will wonder about and the questions one will learn to ask when they study the scholarship of Lauren Berlant (1957-2021). I mean to make this point in both a specific way and a general way. Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.
A prolific writer and dedicated teacher who spent their career on the English faculty of the University of Chicago, Lauren Berlant’s contributions traverse disciplines. Their approach to scholarship is a model for interpreters who are inclined to make the whole world their archive, to refuse methodological singularity, and to undertake experiments in narrative form and creation. Their most notable contributions have been in the (intersecting and overlapping) domains of cultural studies, literary theory, gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, affect studies, and 19th and 20th century American literature, even as students of history, anthropology, religion, and political theory have drawn on their ideas.
Many of Berlant’s core concepts echo and enhance questions asked by scholars engaged with political theology. Their critique of sentimentality could supercharge a study of how theological tropes of abasement and redemption insinuate themselves into contemporary political discourse. Their concept of the national symbolic could (does) expose the consensus fantasy that has long animated functionalist frameworks of “civil religion.” Their theory of the “intimate public sphere” can explode the premise of any project that still reifies a public/private distinction. But apart from any specific intervention, Berlant is helpful to scholars of religion and politics because their work demonstrates a way to critique political theological forms without, on one hand, triangulating them as confessional recuperations of a suppressed Christianity or, on the other, revaluing religion as the repository of possible resistance to modern secular discipline.
By combining feminist psychoanalytic frameworks with Marxian cultural studies approaches tied to the Birmingham School, Berlant develops lucid vocabularies for theorizing desire, difference, and possibility in the twilight of American empire.
Berlant’s theory of national sentimentality is arguably the most important anchor for their body of work. This concept structures the first three of their books, conceived as a trilogy on the forms of attachment tangled up within the American Dream. The first book, The Anatomy of a National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991),takes the canonical novelist of its title as a prism for reflecting on the national symbolic. Berlant defines this term as “the order of discursive practices whose reign within a national space” naturalizes and reproduces the notion that individual people who are born within a given political boundary share a common “birthright” and are “subjects of a collectively-held history” (20). The fantasy of “America” congeals not only through public legal or juridical regulation. Equally, if not more, significant are the everyday affective charges of national symbols and signs, as they mediate and are resignified in ordinary citizens’ experiences of desire and disappointment, belonging and alienation, satisfaction and deferral.
In this first monograph and the projects that follow, Berlant attends to feminized and queer social spaces, and the forms of agency that survive and thrive within them. They resist genres of argument that, sometimes in spite of themselves, reify the lines between public life and personal life, with the former celebrated for masculinist political rigor and the latter dismissed as a gooey mess of bodies, feelings, and sex. The second installment of the trilogy, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008),reflects this commitment. The book tunes into “women’s culture”—commodities, literatures, and conventions that since at least the 1830s have hailed “women” as subjects of a common affective experience, regardless of the substance of their actual lives—and designates it the first intimate public in the U.S.
Intimate publics are juxtapolitical. They “thrive in proximity to the political” (x), even as they deny connection to political movements or the conflicts, antagonisms, and frictions entailed in them. Women’s culture, for example, trafficks in sentimental narratives that disavow politics, even as they spill out toward specific political horizons and social infrastructures. Its power lies in how it transposes the personal into the universal. The subject of women’s culture has a singular experience of unfulfilled want. She seeks solace by turning to a romance novel or midday talk show. She discovers in these cultural texts a story about women’s lives in general. She finds that she identifies with these truths–and so much so that their gender ideals insinuate themselves into her own self-conception and social scripts. There are billions more just like her.
For Berlant, this kind of sentimentality indexes a certain political ambivalence. It expresses a grievance with heteropatriarchal failures even as it invests in a privatizing fantasy that, by aspiring toward a conventionally feminine ideal, women might find the love and affirmation that they seek. This optimism is cruel. It coaxes its subjects to aspire toward a social ideal that, for all of its life-orienting promises, mainly delivers disappointment and dead ends.
Berlant wrote Cruel Optimism (2011) to inquire into this scenario of attachment, except this time at a more expansive scale. It is worth underlining that Berlant frames their most well-known concept less as a social heuristic than as an “analytical lever” (27). Cruel optimism describes “an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call ‘the good life,’ which is for so many a bad life that wears out the subjects who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their conditions of possibility within it” (27). The looping clauses perform the tangled condition for which Berlant seeks leverage: the impasse that ensues when a source of harm is also the thing whose loss would be unbearable. Such losses, Berlant says, could induce new freedoms (228).
Berlant deploys “cruel optimism” to probe the relation between, on one hand, the enduring crisis of mass economic precarity and state abandonment under neoliberal order and, on the other, the stubborn sense that hard work can materialize the American dream of relative material wealth, physical security, and thriving children. As with their other books, they are concerned with how people learn to want these deferred and privatized futures, as opposed to finding something different, more alive, more queer, more collective, now. To dwell with Berlant’s writing is to become alert to how everyday terms of scholarship, activism, and teaching may collude with logics of privatization and undermine projects of queer worldmaking. This risk is especially present when we invest in stable oppositions between “public” and “private” domains.
The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1998) addresses such subtle pedagogies of desire in relation to citizenship and national belonging. The final book in the sentimentality trilogy, it interrogates shifts in discourses and experiences of liberal U.S. citizenship following the Reagan revolution of the 1970s. Berlant begins with the premise that “there is no public sphere in the contemporary United States,” at least not in the classic liberal sense of a common context for deliberation and self-governance (3). Instead, there is an intimate public sphere in which membership is conditioned by “personal acts and values, especially acts originating in or directed toward the family” (5).
Berlant wondered how neoconservative demands for small government were made to cohere with their simultaneous calls to legislate sexual morality in the private family. Then they proposed an answer, again pointing back to affective economies. In the emergent right-wing discourse that was increasingly being embraced by liberals, the ideal national subject had ceased to be a socially or civically engaged adult person. The paradigmatic citizen is the infantile citizen–the young child or even the unborn fetus who, because she is naive to the perversions and privations of political life, is able to preserve the national fantasy for the rest of us.
Political culture is now mediated by an imperative to guard her innocence. Enter treatises on the sanctity of family, the danger of monstrous queers, the grift of teacher unions. Enter a discourse where, if you are not speaking on behalf of this child, your best bet is to give an exposition on your own traumatic loss of the dream. Tell a story about how your innocence was destroyed, when you learned that the universal promise was a scam. Now call for restitution.
Which brings us back to Raskin. When he recounts his daughter’s sweet paternal attachment and her faith in a national ideal, and when he weeps for how that optimism shattered into something like terror, he casts her as a young child who has been abruptly and cruelly disabused of a fairy tale life. She has been hurled into an existence–into a nation and a family–that promises freedom and delivers death. Sudden death, slow death, whatever: she has seen where this story is going.
Meanwhile, Raskin cries not so much over the grand bait and switch popularly known as the American Dream, but over the fact his child has witnessed its underside–despite his best efforts to shelter and protect her from it. White heteropatriarchy has failed. This failure, conveyed through affective charge and narrative allusion, is the heart of the national crisis.
Like the cop assaulted with the flag, like the Capitol penetrated by the mob, little Tabitha must now rely on the body of her fellow citizens to sympathize with her violation and deliver her back to wholeness. What to do? The liberals have a plan: convict the lecherous demagogue of his high crimes. They deputize the bereft patriarch, his tear-blotched lament for his children bleeding into his lament for the nation, so that pretty soon you can barely tell the difference, to restore proper order to the House of Democracy.
Pundits herald the speech as an instant classic. He lands a book deal. Listening again, I think Raskin must have read the collected works of Berlant as if they were a handbook on persuasive political rhetoric. Raskin is a virtuoso of affect. He knows what strings to pull, where to cry, how to make his grieving family a metonym for the nation.
Mastering the performance is not the same as controlling its effects. Listen again, this time with an ear tuned to the unresolved, the loss that makes an opening, the refusal of a toxic promise.
I don’t want to go back to the Capitol.
What if you stayed with this? What if there was no need to read on? I could walk out the door with her. I could shout over my shoulder that the patriarchy is lying, and there will be no rehabilitation today. Where could we go? What could we make? What could we learn to want, to lose, instead?
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (January 1, 1998): 547–66.
This collaborative essay is a field-altering critique of how heteronormativity is reproduced through ideas about what is properly “public” and what is properly “private.” It explores possibilities for radical, queer, non-propertarian forms of worldmaking and embodiment in light of hegemonic norms.
Lauren Berlant, “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy.” The Politics of Research, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine (New Brunswick, NJ, 1997).
This essay critiques the sentimentalization of feminist and queer pedagogy. It focuses on the feminist and queer pedagogy to valorize an eroticized story about the charismatic professor and the attached, abjected student who finds, via intersubjectivity with the teacher, her identity. Besides being a forceful account of pedagogy as worldmaking, this article provides a brief but thorough introduction to many of the themes that cross-cut Berlant’s work.
Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).
Something like a cross between experimental ethnographic writing and prose poems, this small book tunes into the affective charges of everyday life and routine practice. It invites readers into practices of reflexive attention, both in the passages themselves and spilling over beyond them.
 Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism was not published until 2011, but the dynamic that this term names is also theorized and foreshadowed in The Female Complaint. Because “cruel optimism” has been the topic of a lot of academic and mainstream analysis, in this essay I have chosen to focus on the parts of Berlant’s work that scaffold, precede, and enable this well-known concept.
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