Berlant has given us through her own interpretation of Cynical philosophy the possibility of imagining and seeing a collective subjectivity.
If body, then everything can follow
(Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 266)
‘Stray dogs have knowledge,’ the late Greek writer Margarita Karapanou writes, ‘because they have suffered pain… Pedigree dogs in relation to stray dogs are still unborn’ (my translation). In this novella, Karapanou’s protagonists are dogs. Stray dogs, pedigree dogs: there is no human character in the book.
Diogenes the Cynic who Plato named a dog mainly for his unconventional lifestyle begged for his living and had a huge ceramic tub as his home (41). Once, he entered into Plato’s school to counter his definition of man. This is how Diogenes Laertius recounts this confrontation:
Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture room with the words, ‘Here is Plato’s man.’ In consequence of which there was added to the definition, ‘having broad nails’ (43).
Karapanou gives voice to dogs in order to de-idealize Athenian middle class society, which is typified by wealthy individualism and the thoughtless repetition of everyday practices, for example, the drinking of coffee at particular trendy places in Kolonaki (a wealthy area in Central Athens) as a way of showing off accumulated wealth and status. Dogs, either pedigree or stray, are given voices. Through the figure of the dog, the writer explores the possibility of being a body otherwise; how it is to be non-human and how it is to be free of the well-rehearsed and familiar formalities and etiquettes of a bourgeois society. Stray dogs, as you may have guessed, are depicted as living outside bourgeois normative values. Pedigree dogs, in contrast, are the embodiment of this type of life. Nevertheless, as the novella progresses we witness the pedigree dog de-idealising such a lifestyle.
Diogenes the Cynic was a critic of the philosophical traditions that succumbed to an idealisation of the world. By bringing to the school a plucked fowl, he humorously demonstrated how Plato’s understanding of man (human) is blind to ‘fleshiness’ (embodiment) and trapped in a skeletal theoretical fiction of what it is to be human.
We don’t know why he brings to Plato’s attention the fowl’s nails. It could be for various reasons. We know anachronistically that in Caravaggio’s paintings, for example in St. Thomas, dirty nails feature as a representation of the ‘reality’ of life, its greediness. Both Diogenes the Cynic and Karapanou invested their practice (in the case of Diogenes) and writing (in the case of Karapanou’s novella) to deface the values and life that the philosophy of the ‘heights’ (as Deleuze calls the Platonic philosophy, see below) and high society represents and propagates.
Berlant is the most influential critical cultural theorist of the late twentieth early twenty-first centuries. She is the author of a number of books, edited collections, essays and a blog that, methodologically (focusing on objects i.e., popular literature, films, adverts, cartoons that have mass attraction and effect) and thematically (sexuality, intimacy, affect generally) has shifted our understanding of how to analyse and reflect upon the operation of culture, politics and aesthetics. Her thought has had a major impact within the disciplines of gender, queer and race, cultural and literary studies. Her philosophical outlook is committed to debunking ideality, which in turn is achieved via a sharp auscultation of the body. It can thus be situated within the tradition of Cynical philosophy, which is characterised by its critique of ideality and an account of the cosmos based on the body. Indeed, this unique aspect of Berlant’s thought — critique of ideality and embodied philosophy (with a distinct emphasis on emotions and affect) — influences the way in which philosophers, such as Judith Butler, understand the formation of the affective subject (see Butler 2009:34).
Lauren Berlant is the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she has been teaching since 1984. She was born in Philadelphia in 1957, graduating with a B.A from Oberlin College in 1979. Berlant received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1984. Her Ph.D. ‘Executing the Love Plot: Hawthorne and the Romance of Power’ (1985) formed the basis of the first book, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia and Everyday Life (1991) and in Spanish (2011b) translated by Schussheim, in what would become a quartet of works, including The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997), The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2004b) and Cruel Optimism (2011a) that demystify how the nation, citizenship and public culture operate, as she astutely reveals how affect and fantasy are utilised in giving expression and authority to these concepts. She is also the author of Desire/Love (2012) and she has just published Sex, or the Unbearable (2013) co-written with Lee Edelman. She is the editor and co-editor of numerous books, including Intimacy (2000), Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest (2001; with Lisa Duggan), and Compassion (2004a). A sustained flow of her ideas can also found on her blog ‘Supervalent Thought‘.
Berlant’s work has been the subject of guest edited collections, for example, ‘Practicing Cultural Studies’ (2012), ‘Cruel Optimism Archives’ (15 January 2013), as well as roundtable discussions like ‘Public Feelings Salon with Lauren Berlant’ (2011). Her theoretical reflections can also be found in a number of interviews like, ‘The Promise of Lauren Berlant: An Interview’ (2000); ‘Citizen Berlant’ (2004), ‘On the Risk of a New Relationality:’ An Interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt (2011) and; ‘Conversation: Lauren Berlant with Dana Luciano’ (2013).
Berlant is the recipient of two prestigious awards. In 1993 she received the Norman Foerster Award for the best essay in American Literature for ‘The Queen of America Goes to Washington City,’ and in 2012 received the René Wellek Prize (awarded by the MLA for the best comparative literature book in a given year) for Cruel Optimism. Cruel Optimism was appraised by the Wellek committee as providing us with a ‘trenchant analysis of the affective dimensions of the precaritization of life under neoliberalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and as ‘giving us the conceptual tools to understand how and why extended crisis becomes indistinguishable from the rhythms of daily survival.’ The Wellek’s committee appraisal of Berlant’s work is both expected and poignant. The committee recognises Berlant’s ability to analyse and critique our contemporary conditions along with her literary ingenuity. Most importantly though, the committee recognises that Berlant provides us with the tools to understand the present. Berlant gives us a philosophy of the present (2000a).
Lauren Berlant has characterized herself as an Americanist (‘Citizen Berlant’ 260). She is most often identified as a cultural studies theorist (261). Sturken points out that Berlant’s work has shifted theoretically the British-American tradition of cultural studies,
from an analysis of cultural practices as a negotiation of cultural meanings and resistance within the context of identity politics to a theoretical framework that deploys intimacy, sexuality, and affect as the key modes through which to analyse the public, the nation, the citizen. (Sturken 2012: 354)
Kamrath and Deem similarly refer to her scholarship as invigorating the field of cultural studies (Kamrath and Deem 2012: 317). Nevertheless, Berlant’s thought has influenced and is still influential in a plethora of academic disciplines and fields, for example, feminism (Ahmed; most importantly though, Kirby, Lury, McNeil, Skegs eds, 2000; Pratt, 2004; Ahmed 2010) queer theory (Cvetkovich 2003; Edelman 2004; Halberstam 2005; Puar 2007), philosophy (Butler 2009; Gregg and Seigworth 2010) political theory (Dumm 1999; Pasley, Robertson and Waldstreicher eds (2004); Bellamy 2008; Castiglia 2008; Sheller 2012), geography (Thrift 2008), literature (Barker 2000), Pratt 2010), and law (Loizidou 1999; Sarat and Kearns 2001, Brown and Halley 2002; Goodrich 2003; Hanafin 2007) to name but a few.
Her work is undoubtedly transdisciplinary. Her writings and thought are distinguished by two specific characteristics; (a) the objects that she reads and analyses (ordinary), (b) the modes (intimacy, sexuality, affect) that she uses to unpack well established concepts: nation, citizenship, public culture. Nevertheless, my account of Lauren Berlant’s work takes a different turn. In addition to the existing identifications — all valuable in their own right — that her work has received, I would like to introduce here Lauren Berlant the philosopher, the Cynical Philosopher. Berlant not only belongs to the field of comparative literature, she also belongs to the field of philosophy.
I began this entry with a quote from Cruel Optimism. In the last pages of the book, we softly and sharply see unfolding Berlant’s vision of a painting, ‘If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age’, that decorates the cover of the book. The painting is one in a series of paintings with the theme ‘If Body’ by the artist Riva Lehrer. The artist imagines herself and Zora, her dog, in middle age. The painter and the dog are disabled; Zora is blind in one eye, Lehrer was born with Spina Bifida. Berlant’s analysis of the painting comes at the end of Cruel Optimism, not as a post-script but as an attribution to a political subjectivity that is present, that is, if we do not skip the cover, if we do not ignore what is on the surface. Riva and Zora in middle age on the floor coexisting.
Berlant through this image is asking us to see with her the possibility of a political subjectivity that lives with its fragility and still manages to build a world. She invites us to see the world through fragility, jointly with her and with Lehre-with-Zora, to breath in its temporality and to exhale without desperation, to see life for what it is, without any clouds of idealisation hanging above it.
Her writings have as a major feature the debunking of an idealised form of the world. They also encourage us to embrace ‘what’ remains after the idealisation breaks down. Defacing idealisation as I suggested earlier is part of the Cynical philosophical tradition. If the Cynics have given us a way in which we can begin to criticize the philosophies and worldly theories that perspire idealisation or, as Deleuze puts it, that aspire to the ‘heights’, then Berlant shows us through both the traumas and breakings (physical and psychological), that the heights (attachment to an idealised form of a good life, job success and security, romantic love, a future invested in children) devour us.
Additionally, she indicates to us how we can build new worlds from the relics of the heights. How? Like Diogenes the Cynic, she does not allow the world to forget that we are bodies, that we breathe, we cry, we eat, we rest, we get depressed, we are happy, we are poor. It is because we are bodies that ‘everything can follow’, a new world and new political horizon.
Berlant’s archive is drawn from everyday discarded objects that academic literary analysis usually ignores. In The Queen of America, for example, she draws upon The Simpsons, mass audience films such as Forest Gump and Look Who’s Talking, and covers from Life Magazine, to bring to our attention objects produced for a mass culture and how in turn form an understanding of citizenship, one that she describes as ‘intimate citizenship’. Similarly The Female Complaint directs us towards women’s intimate public, where once again Berlant focuses on popular films like Imitation of Life, Show Boat, Now Voyager, A Star is Born, and the novel Uncle Tom, to account for the ways in which women through an attachment to certain objects like love, marriage and their failures perform femininity and expose how they ‘negotiate belonging to the world’ (3). Cruel Optimism in turn grasps cinematic, literary and artistic objects (i.e., Bordowitz’s Habit, Johnson’s Exchange Value, Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Cantet’s L’Emploi du temps/Time Out, and Lehrer’s If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age) to unpack the demise of capitalism, and neoliberal ideality.
In all her writings and popular objects (films, novels, art, affects like optimism and love), Berlant debunks ideality (the ideal of a good and prescribed good life) and provides us with a lucid understanding of how citizenship is formed. This philosophical method belongs to the tradition of Cynical philosophy, and has been explored to a great extent by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a major influence in Berlant’s thinking along with psychoanalysis.
The objects that feed her thought and poignant analysis may also be characterised as surface objects. By considering such ordinary things (objects and affects), Berlant succeeds in opening our eyes to a much more nuanced and deeper world. She succeeds in making a different world for us through them. This philosophical ‘technique’ of analysis and accounting for the cosmos is also one deployed by Cynical philosophy and Gilles Deleuze. This technique, as Deleuze explained, both demystifies the valorisation of depth and creates a world out of the sense of the surface:
There is nothing behind the curtain except unnameable mixtures, nothing above the carpet except the empty sky. Sense appears and is played out at the surface (at least if one know how to mix it properly) in such a way that it forms letters of dust… . (Deleuze, 150)
Similarly, for Berlant, the importance does not lie in the analysis of objects of low or high culture (Berlant and Hoberek, 260) but rather in the re-organisation of knowledge that will enable us to see anew the issues/concepts of her inquiry: nation, citizenship, public culture.
In The Anatomy of National Fantasy, Berlant focuses on the work and life of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne to unravel how the nation is formed. For Berlant the national subject, which is at the core of the nation, is formed through a ‘tangled cluster’ (4) emanating from accidental birth in a particular space, history, law, language (4). Berlant coins this the ‘National Symbolic’ and form historical/political collectivity. More importantly though, Berlant draws our attention to the localised aspect of nation formation, to the ways in which the ‘National Symbolic …link(s) regulation to desire …’ to form political subjectivities and produce a ‘National Fantasy’, a fantasy about how the nation is.
Berlant’s contribution to scholarship on nation construction has been significant because she unravels the importance of ‘fantasy’ for the operation of nation building. Fantasy or ‘National Fantasy’ takes a specific articulation in her writing; ‘[b]y fantasy’ she ‘…designates how national culture becomes local — through the images, narratives, monuments and sites that circulate through personal collective consciousness’ (5). One such example in the book relates to the fundraising surrounding the Statue of Liberty: collecting funds from the American people, formed a sense of belonging among new immigrants. Such sentiments of pride, joy, and anxiety around symbolic occurrences where the people are the major protagonists show the limits of national narratives based on just historical grand events (revolution) or legal discourse (constitutional rights). To be a national subject, Berlant teaches, is a complicated and agonistic process, and in understanding this process, we need to take into account both the role of fantasy in the process of national world building.
The Queen of America is a continuation of the Anatomy of National Fantasy. Here, Berlant provides us with a rich analysis of the operation of the national fantasy by paying particular attention to the figure of the citizen and its by-product of citizenship through the ‘intimate public sphere’. The ‘intimate public sphere renders citizenship a condition of social membership produced by personal acts and values, especially originating or directed towards the family sphere’ (5). Consequently, heteronormative indicators of intimacy (e.g. marriage, the couple, procreation) become the only acceptable public figurations and ways of life, to the exclusion of the public sphere of lifestyles, which are fantasies that fall outside this (homosexuality, single parenting, etc). Berlant, in the Queen of America, tracks the perpetuation of this fantasy and its cracks during the Reagan years. She demonstrates how this particular idealisation conceals the failures of heteronormativity (an increase in divorce rate, the disappointment that the figure of the child may bring) and simultaneously creates an abject citizenry who suffers the psychological and socio-economic damage of this idealised version of the American Dream. This damage is a public damage.
This theme is continued in her essay ‘Public Sex’ by taking a specific look at the normativisation of US sexuality. The Female Complainant draws us into women’s intimate culture. Berlant’s journey into this theme invites us to read women’s culture not just as mere private exchanges between friends, sisters and even strangers, but rather as part of the formation of the production of a feminine US citizenship. ‘The intimate public…’ she writes, ‘branched off from, without entirely becoming antagonistic toward, the political scene of inequality that organised women as a subaltern population.’ (xii)
Industries and strategies emerge, in relation to women’s anxiety around household management and emotional distress, to sustain women’s subaltern citizenry. Cruel Optimism extends this flight of thought. ‘Cruel optimism’ is the term that Berlant has coined to describe a particular relation we have to an object:
[a] relation to cruel-optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or, a political project. (1)
Nevertheless, attachments to forms of life, love, friendship, work, pursuit by most populations, crumple in their persistence to hold onto the ideality of such forms. The destruction of the ideal, Berlant indicates, begins to affect not only the subaltern populations (precarious workers, dissident artists or groups) but also the normative middle-class populations who never thought that, for them, the ideal of the good life could be strained. Berlant demonstrates how this takes place in a gentle fashion, as in her exposition of the collapse of ideal forms of life. She also astutely indicates the role in which such forms play in the formation of subjects and citizens. Overall, Cruel Optimism asks us to see life for what it is. Our lives are broken. The ‘ideal’ of the good life may no longer be available, but perhaps a better life or world may be found in the very cracks and vulnerabilities that we so quickly sometimes brush off.
Her work in its totality provides us with a gateway to a more astute understanding of the present. Such an understanding, as Diogenes indicates to Plato, can only be made possible if the body is taken seriously. Berlant’s emphasis on our affective world makes it possible to see otherwise. In a relative recent interview, Berlant explains her distinction between high and low theory as follows:
It never occurred to me to distinguish between high and low objects, because the questions that I was asking required a different organisation of knowledge than the distinction or the related one between the canonical and the non-cannonical.1
Gilles Deleuze observes that the Cynics and the Stoics shared an affinity, the affinity to open up the world through the surface. They, he writes,
establish themselves and wrap themselves up with the surface, the curtain, the carpet, and the mantle. The double sense of the surface, the continuity of the reverse and right sides, replace height and depth. There is nothing behind the curtain except unnameable mixtures, nothing above the carpet except the empty sky. Sense appears and is played out at the surface (at least if one know how to mix it properly) in such a way that it forms letters of dust… The philosopher is no longer the being of the caves, nor Plato’s soul or bird, but rather the animal which is on a level with the surface – a tick or louse.2
Berlant’s writing indeed invests on the surface. She makes sense of bodily gestures, screen-film, books, adverts, art work, etc., opening for us a different world. They make us believe that we could make a different world, a world of collective subjectivities,3 only ‘if body’. While Diogenes defaced the ideal and lived a life of solitary existence, Berlant encourages us to see that we share this world, that no man is an island.
Karapanou’s novel ends with pedigree dogs abandoning their wealthy existence and taking to a dog commune up in the mountains where they hope to rediscover what it is to be a dog. Karapanou’s critique of the normative and bourgeois Athenian society via the figure of the dog proposes withdrawal as a way out. In contrast, Berlant asks us to stay put and rebuild it together, through the cracks on the walls. What they share, Karapanou, Diogenes, Zora and Riga, and Berlant, is a determination to build a world where harshness, difficulty, and pain are an integral part of its construction. Their ways are different, Diogenes takes to an austere and individual life, Karapanou to withdrawal, Zora and Riga to an intimate co-existence, and Berlant to a political and social collectivity. World making, and this is integral to Berlant’s pedagogy, is worlds making, there is space for all. Berlant has given us through her own interpretation of Cynical philosophy the possibility of imagining and seeing a collective subjectivity. At any time this is an important vision, at a time of global transformation, a treasured pathway.
Elena Loizidou is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, London.
A different version of this will appear in the near future in The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Warm thanks to Gilbert Leung for his invaluable comments and to Chrysanthi Nigianni for introducing me to Karapanou.Show Sources
Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia and Everyday Life, (1991), El Corazon de la Nacion: Ensayos Sobre Politica y Sentimentalismo, trans.,Victoria Schussheim, 2011)
Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997)
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, ‘Sex in Public’ Critical Inquiry 24:2 (1998)
Lauren Berlant, ed., Intimacy, (2000)
Lauren Berlant and Lisa Duggan eds, Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest (2001)
Lauren Berlant ed., Compassion, (2004)
Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2004)
Lauren Berlant ed., ‘Making the Case’, Critical Inquiry 33:4 (2007)
Lauren Berlant ed., ‘Missing Persons’, Critical Inquiry, 34:1 (2007)
Lauren Berlant, ‘Against Sexual Scandal’, The Nation (March 24, 2008)
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011)
Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (2012)
Lauren Berlant and Lee Edeleman Sex, or the Unbereable (2013)
Lauren Berlant, Supervalent Thought at http://supervalentthought.com/
Sarah Ahmed, Jane Kilby, Celia Lury and Maureen McNeil (eds) Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism (2000)
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Geraldine Pratt, Working Femiminsm (2004)
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Cultural Values 4:4 (2000)
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- Lauren Berlant, ‘Citizen Berlant’ in Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003, edited by Jeffrey J. Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2004 ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 150. ↩
- For Berlant, the collective political subjectivity is one that invests together in the fantasy of creating a different world, of a different political world, whereby solidarity is a paramount characteristic along with a sustained discussion about the basics for a better life. For more see Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism, 259–62. ↩