How to Read Lauren Berlant: ‘On The Inconvenience of Other People’

Lauren Berlant’s oeuvre provokes ambivalence. As with their posthumous collection On The Inconvenience of Other People I consume Berlant, and Berlant consumes me.

On the Inconvenience of Other People
Lauren Berlant
Duke University Press
September 2022

We have to cure cancer. When I think about global emergencies that have usually not been treated as such—as many as ten million people worldwide die of cancer each year, and surely this touches every family. My thoughts turn to Susan Sontag (dead at 71), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (dead at 58), and Lauren Berlant (dead at 63). It’s obvious that as a queer person born in 1981, I often lacked elders and mentors because, among other things, AIDS cut down so many in my community.

This newer feeling I have is that as a queer cultural theorist whose base camp is in the forest of English Studies, the wildfire is cancer. The queer elders I did manage to latch onto all professed to be swinging from branches of Sontag or Sedgwick, and they lamented over greatness gone too soon. I’d always assumed I’d wait to ascend to that form of grief until Judith Butler’s turn, so my reaction to Berlant’s passing last year surprised me. I didn’t quite know what I had until it was gone.

Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) provided the spark that animated me as a young academic in my 20s, but it’s Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) that has kept me blazing like a badass into my 40s. I’ve worked backward and forward on their publications lists ever since. It was exciting to learn the assignment was not yet totally fixed when Berlant’s On the Inconvenience of Other People was announced as a posthumous publication. Erica Rand and the good people at Duke’s Writing Matters! series did the final edits on this manuscript that Berlant completed just a few weeks before they died. I can confidently say that the book is and is also not a departure from the things Berlant does best. For that reason, it’s a fine starting place for those who have never heard of perhaps the most important literary scholar of the 21st century.

Berlant’s work circulates widely among academics in the Humanities, but especially within English Studies. Each of their books tends to offer a wondrously clear and deeply detailed close reading of several different pieces of media, most often books and films. Sometimes I have turned to look at these media after my encounter with Berlant’s interpretation of them, and other times I have checked to see what the main examples will be and then familiarized myself with those media before cracking open Berlant’s book about them.

The examples given are never especially obscure, but Berlant’s taste in media usually differs from mine, so I’ve often lacked familiarity with their example choices. When engaging with 15 pages on a single example, however, a reader would do well to take a peek at the source material for diligence’s sake. Berlant is hard to argue with or view with any skepticism, even when one does have a keen grasp of the case studies involved.

For On the Inconvenience of Other People, I’m pleased to say such preparation was unnecessary. Professors who study postmodernist feminist poets, rejoice: Berlant has made a gift for you and your graduate students! The reading list begins with Emerson for context’s sake, then Juliana Spahr, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullens, and Bhanu Kapil comprise the bulk of the case studies. For genre variety, in this mix, we also have Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris (1972), Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009),and Stephanie Brooks’ performance series Lovely Caution represented in some photographs.

It’s possible to teach the texts of these contemporary poets and then dip into the relevant information from Berlant, and whether the reader is guided by a classroom or going it alone at home, it’s not whatsoever possible to binge-read any of Berlant’s works. Processing a small part of the work at a time is the best approach, going just as slowly as one must with Sontag or Sedgwick.

Berlant’s oeuvre provokes ambivalence. On the one hand, it offers moments of stunning clarity with the kinds of pithy declarative revelations that can easily spiral a reader toward an entirely new outlook on life. Their writing is a paragon of world-breaking and world-making insight. Three typical examples culled from each of the three main chapters in On the Inconvenience of Other People: “Sex hinges the broken and the disturbed for and against the better world” (68), “Is ‘we’ ever more than a heuristic coupled with a desire?” (114), and “There is something harsh and funny about the spectacle of the ironically self-pitying white supremacist chorus taking pleasure at being ‘forced’ into a performance of negative judgment against populations they love to feel superior to” (147).

When I reached each of these three ideas in the text, I had to take a break for a few days to laugh and cry and properly contemplate each of them. They are too big to integrate smoothly with the rest of one’s survival strategies. Further, not one of these three quotations is a summary of the main argument presented in the three chapters; there are ideas in On the Inconvenience of Other People that are bigger still.

I still have not properly said anything regarding what On The Inconvenience of Other People is actually about. If you have read Berlant before, you already know what you can reasonably expect from their latest book. It’s a continuation of their lifelong project to theorize the affective domain of ordinary living under the conditions set forth by neoliberal capitalism and biopolitical survivalism that proceeds mostly from their interest in Foucauldian queer feminism and the postcolonialist deprogramming work of literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Specifically, On The Inconvenience of Other People engages with sex and “common” sense as two political arenas wherein “the desire for inconvenience is central to the force of ambivalence” that humans feel toward one another as they go about their business in the world (170). It proposes several types of comic dissociation and the knife of ellipses as perspective formatting tools for loosening ourselves as they loosen the objects or people who inconvenience us. From there, we may create a space and time open to the negotiation and the being-with of those ambivalences rather than attaching ourselves to the meritless and impossible mission of trying to resolve them, as the world’s most violent systems would have us believe we should.

If you have not read Berlant before, I cannot summarize the experience or the content for you in 200 or 2,000 words. Berlant’s work is genre-non-conforming and intimately awkward. There are no solid or specific critiques beyond generalized challenges to Foucault or affect theory as a field. I consume Berlant, and Berlant consumes me. I’m open to the possibility that I will be barking up this tree for the rest of my life. To begin the epic climb, On The Inconvenience of Other People is as sturdy a branch to take hold of as any of their others. After leaping onto every branch, I may scrutinize each leaf in further detail.

Berlant’s papers are at Brown University’s Feminist Theory Archive. Who knows whether and when all this compelling interest might cease, but I assure you that when it comes to Berlant, the important thing is to begin.