Walking Around in Lauren Berlant's Elliptical Life: A Review of Culture at Large 2012

Photo by Bern Hardy.

On Biopolitics and the Attachment to Life

Organizers: Eleana Kim (University of California, Irvine) and Zeynep Gürsel (Macalester College)

Featured Guest: Lauren Berlant (University of Chicago)

Discussants: Anne Allison (Duke University); Anindyo Roy (Colby College); Andrea Muehlebach (University of Toronto); Charis Thompson (University of California, 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 nonrhetorical 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 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.

In the 2012 installment of Culture@Large, the Society for Cultural Anthropology's signature event at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Berlant and her interlocutors thought through the sensorium that overcomes “affective stuckness” but does not jump immediately (as is our social scientific instinct) to discursive symbolization. For these scholars, such work 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 inspire 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 her earlier work in Cruel Optimism. Defined as a circuit by which the object of our desire prevents our flourishing, cruel optimism marks a pivot in Berlant’s work of describing living in the durative present, in our current late-liberal political economy. Allison reflected that 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 postearthquake 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 that 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 that Berlant outlined a critical sensorium through which we recognize 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 with her own trajectory of dissociation. Deciding to be stubborn, Thompson moved away from the sociology of stem-cell research, which always deploys the tools of sex, race, and youth to imply an imperative: we cannot live without "the cure." Thompson explained that she instead wants to stay attached to life without trying to cure it. Using Berlant’s hermeneutic as a diagnostic rubric, Thompson reflects that she, herself, is “living in ellipsis.”

Drawing on recent ethnographic work from two of her colleagues, Andrea Muehlebach considered 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 pointed out 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 research among flexible laborers on the margins of a Rio de Janeiro garbage dump, Muehlebach commented on the way that 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 nonaspirational 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 neoliberalism but a political economy that is “pre-something.”