Walking Around in Lauren Berlant’s “Elliptical Life"

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Tom Ford, Christopher Isherwood, "Film Still from "A Single Man"." December 6, 2012 via .

This is a review of "Culture@Large: On Biopolitics and the Attachment to Life" a panel discussion at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual conference on Saturday, November 17, 2012, 1:45-3:30. Participants in the discussion were Lauren Berlant (University of Chicago), Anne Allison (Duke University), Anindyo Roy (Colby College), Andrea Muehlebach (University of Toronto), and Charis Thompson (University of California at Berkeley)

For Lauren Berlant, “to live elliptically” is to ask a question rather than formulate an answer; a “shrug” is a rhetorical response to a non-rhetorical question of the body – an embodied letting go of future promises in favor of life in the durative present. Revisiting a conceptual grammar drawn from psychoanalysis, Berlant is using “dissociation” to understand it not as a symptom of an underlying abnormality but as a practice of attaching to life. Berlant is dialing back the multiple intersections of subjectivities and pondering what doesn’t add up in social worlds. She is thinking about the content of “being proximate” but not “in community.”

In “Culture@Large,” the Society for Cultural Anthropology's signature event at the 2012 AAA meetings,  Berlant and her interlocutors thought through the sensorium which overcomes “affective stuckness” but does not jump immediately (as is our social science instinct) to discursive symbolization. For these scholars, this is work that is trained at scenes of social abandonment and lostness, the precariousness of life at large. Drawing from Claudia Rankine's poem Don't Let Me Be Lonely and the film based on Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man, Berlant spoke of the way that quick and slow death by racism and homophobia inspires a sociality of not caring, of deciding to be stubborn.

In her response, Anne Allison noted the ways in which Berlant’s current project on the affects of the biopolitical articulates with Berlant’s earlier work, Cruel Optimism. Defined as a circuit in which the object of our desire prevents our flourishing, “cruel optimism” marks a pivot in Berlant’s current work of describing living in the durative present, in our current late-liberal political economy. For Allison, Berlant’s ideas resonate with her own work in contemporary Japan. Tracking an elderly man, alone but for a dog, traveling anonymously, stubbornly, through the post-earthquake landscape in a recent Japanese film, Allison described the emergence of a new sort of sociality (or dissociality) between friendship and family, a rupture in the social. Although the film ends with the man’s death, for Allison, this cinematic death is not an analogy to social death but rather a life and death chosen-for in the durative present. This is a life which is “blanked” rather than “bare life;” a world that retreats from the social but that exists elliptically, in proximity but not in community.

Anindyo Roy remarked on the way Berlant outlined a critical sensorium with which we define personhood and statehood. Tracking this sensorium through his own work in India, Roy discussed the aftermath of a recent defeat of the popularly-elected communist government in Bengal – despite its concessions toward market deregulation. Roy considered the intensities of proliferation and disruption that become embedded in a landscape through the dispersal of graffiti following this political failure, opening questions about political economies yet to come. Charis Thompson likewise considered the way Berlant’s work aligns closely with her own trajectory of dissociation. Deciding to be stubborn, Thompson moved away from sociology of stem-cell research, which always deploys the ethical tools of sex, race, youth to imply an imperative: we cannot live without ‘the cure.’ Thompson instead wants to stay attached to life without trying to cure it. Using Berlant’s hermeneutic as a diagnostic rubric, Thompson’s self-diagnosis is that she, herself, is “living in ellipsis.”

Drawing on recent ethnographic vignettes from two of her colleagues, Andrea Muehlebach noted the presence of a politics that is not meant to be pluralized or commensurate. Using an example from Naisargi Dave’s fieldwork among animal rights activists in India, Muehlebach recognized that making space for others does not necessarily imply a movement toward community. It can also be an ethical intuition, a caring-for, without the promise of a future. Thinking through Kathleen Millar’s recent research among flexible laborers on the margins of a Rio di Janeiro garbage dump, Muehlebach noted the way Berlant’s conceptualization of “shrugging at lostness” is being actualized by workers who give up jobs with a nonchalant brush of the hand. These workers who live on the margins of an infinity of waste (and therefore an endless margin of narrow opportunities) are living in a non-aspirational state in which they are both “alive and a little bit dead.” Thinking through these situations, Muehlebach asked what is the political without fantasy, without the negative, without deferring? To her mind, Berlant is pointing us not toward an analysis of late neo-liberalism but a political economy that is “pre- something.”

About this event: This year's featured guest was Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. She is the author of many influential publications, including Cruel Optimism (2011), The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008), and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997) as well as the editor of Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (2004) and Intimacy (2000).

Darren Byler is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research centers on the intersections of a phenomenology of urban living, expressive culture, and minoritarian politics in China and Central Asia.