Life's work

berlant2.jpg On the coldest Thursday of the past few years, the first-floor lecture hall of the Social Sciences Research Building was packed with people, scarves, hats, and coats. The occasion was a lecture by Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman professor of English. Given in honor of Professor Iris Marion Young, who died in 2006, the Young lecture is presented annually by a member of the Center for Gender Studies faculty. Center director Deborah Nelson introduced the event by praising Young’s legacy, calling her a “pioneering political feminist theorist.”

berlant1.jpgAt work on a project about “modes of collective life and why it’s hard to detach from them,” Berlant encouraged the audience to e-mail her questions and to follow along with her research on her blog Supervalent Thought, where she explains, “I want to know why people stay attached to lives that don’t work. This is a political and a personal question….The projected book’s current title is Detachment Theory: its aim is to describe non-sovereign subjectivity in a variety of scenes, like anxiety, limerence, passive aggression, torture.”

Her lecture, taken from a chapter in her forthcoming book, Cruel Optimism, was called, “After the Good Life, an Impasse.” Using the films of French political director Laurent Cantet, Berlant analyzed the “spreading precarity” that defines contemporary experience in a society where the promises of the “good life” no longer guarantee happiness—or even personal comfort in the workplace or the home.

The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, where she eagerly took audience queries. She mused on the importance of films about pets (and inevitably losing pets), and the concerns of the contemporary age of uncertainty, where instead of imagining themselves in a happy life, people generate fantasies of simply not losing everything.

Rose Schapiro, ‘09

Photos by Dan Dry.

January 16, 2009