Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Untitled. Fused silk. Photograph by Kevin Ryan.
Courtesy of the Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Foundation.
It forces us to acknowledge those sources of suffering and to submit to the inevitable. We shall never completely master nature; and our bodily organism, itself a part of that nature, will always remain a transient structure with a limited capacity for adaptation and achievement. This recognition does not have a paralysing effect. On the contrary, it points the direction for our activity.
— Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
For me in this part-object relation it’s as if, three years ago, some incisive projectile that is Craig had gotten permanently lodged in my heart, long before I could learn who this person, or what this relation, was or could be.
— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Memorial for Craig Owens”
There’s this joke about queer theorists: that they can be divided into a binary—something, and this is the funny bit, that queer theorists famously hate—of those who knew Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and those who did not. What’s more, one’s position on this binary might be identifiable in their work. As Lauren Berlant remarks in the preface to Reading Sedgwick, “the issue of attachment to someone known only through her writing poses different problems and makes possible different modes of reading from those available to those of us for whom Eve was a living presence.” 1
These days I find myself wondering if, like Sedgwick, the same can be said of Berlant themself. If my writing (perhaps even this writing) bears the marks of our relation’s absence, especially now that that relation has been foreclosed. While I am as disinterested as Elizabeth Freeman in “any competition about who knew her best,”2 I’m desperate to know what not knowing Berlant makes “problems and makes possible” for me now that those problems and possibilities—whatever they may be—have been cemented by their death. Putting it spectacularly mildly, Berlant’s death is, to use a term they turned to in the last decade, “inconvenient.” The shock of their absence represents, in the most absolute terms, the forms of nonencounter that fascinated them, that animated their work, and that so thoroughly impelled their distant readers (like me). In a 2019 conference at Duke, Berlant referred to this nonencounter as the unbearable’s “intractability,”3 a formal arrangement that feels a lot like being in the throes of deep and estranging grief. But what made Berlant’s thinking so illuminating—what made Berlant themself feel so vital for those of us they animated with more absence than presence4—was its attempts to live with what’s intractable.
“Once one acknowledges that one has not lost one’s grip but never had it firmly or could have it, ever, in love or any structuring relation,” they write in Sex, or the Unbearable, “the metaphors of holding and hoarding can be affectively reinvested, reconsidered, displaced, distributed, and diluted…In doing so we are shifting our way of occupying negativity’s hold on us.”5 The Berlantian acknowledgment attempts to make a life, even if only ever provisionally, out of those most inexorable of inconveniences without acquiescing to the atrophied infrastructures of attachment that make them so hard to sustain life with. The project of Cruel Optimism, for instance, was not to abandon optimism tout court but rather to ask why it is so painful to detach from those objects which “stupidly,”6 poisonously appear to hold our worlds together. Berlant wanted us to cultivate our “attachment to attaching”7 and “all attachments are optimistic.”8
“If the inevitable nonencounter, then what?”9 Curiously, one of the definitions Berlant offers for an “attachment to attaching” is cruising. Or, more exactly, “a seeking to see what happens in relation without caring to know what precisely the object is or who one is in relation to it.”10 I suspect those of us who did not know Berlant feel a not insignificant amount of familiarity with this, with an awareness of the intensity of our attachment to them even when the precise contours of that attachment or the exact loci of adhesion remain elusive. The persistence of our cruising attachments—even if that persistence is, momentarily, monopolized by grief—is our reply to Berlant’s “then what?”; acknowledging, in our most Berlantian drag, that our “nonencounter” with them made so much more possible than problems.
“An object gives you optimism, then it rains on your parade—although that is never the end of the story.”11 What is the end of the story? Acknowledging Berlant’s death enjoins us to “attach to attaching” even when we are unsure about what draws us to our objects or what they might mean to us. Even when those attachments eventually, intractably wound us. That Berlant’s absence is able to inconvenience and hurt us, able to rain even on the parades of those of us who did not know them, speaks to the worthwhileness of attaching to the world that Berlant held out for, for “staying with”12 those objects we are always yet to know.
“…and now what? That is not a rhetorical question.”13
This is part of the cluster Restless Flying. Read the other posts here.
- Lauren Berlant, Reading Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 2.
- Elizabeth Freeman, “Without You, I’m Not Necessarily Nothing,” Critical Inquiry Blog (July 19, 2021). critinq.wordpress.com/2021/07/19/without-you-im-not-necessarily-nothing/
- Berlant, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” (Keynote at the Duke Feminist Theory Workshop, Durham, NC, March 2019). youtu.be/h7X6j0af7Bo
- These words are more Sedgwick’s than my own. In her memorial for Craig Owens, she writes of being included in “not the people he was most intimate with, but others of us for whom he animated with both his presences and absences this strange, utterly discontinuous, projective space of desire euphemistically named friendship, love at a distance, or even just reading and writing.” Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 105.
- Berlant, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 82.
- Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 126.
- Berlant, Sex, 99.
- Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 23.
- Berlant, Sex, 111.
- Ibid., 99.
- Berlant, Desire/Love (New York: Punctum Books, 2012), 13.
- “Sex in the Event of Happiness.” One of the projects of the forthcoming On the Inconvenience of Other People, Berlant claims, is to “conceptualize and practice a ‘staying with’ that also allows for a disturbance of, a transformation of, but also a part maintenance of relationality.”