Lauren Berlant is the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she has been teaching since 1984. Berlant received her PhD from Cornell University. She writes and teaches on issues of intimacy and belonging in popular culture, in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship.
She writes on public spheres as affect worlds, where affect and emotion lead the way for belonging ahead of the modes of rational or deliberative thought. These attach strangers to each other and shape the terms of the state-civil society relation.
Berlant is the author of a national sentimentality trilogy beginning with The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991), which looks at the relation between modes of belonging mediated by the state and the law, modes of belonging mediated by the aesthetic, and especially by genre, and modes that grow from within the everyday life of social relations.
The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship—the title essay of which won the 1993 Norman Foerster Award for best essay of the year in American Literature—introduced the idea of the “intimate public sphere,” looks at the production of politics and publicness since the Reagan era by way of the circulation of the personal, the sexual, and the intimate. Her following book, The Female Complaint: On the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture was published by Duke University Press in 2008. There, the origin of intimate publics in the mass cultural phenomenon of “women’s culture," which crosses over the everyday institutions of intimacy, mass society, and, more distantly and ambivalently, politics, is pursued through readings especially of remade movies, such as Show Boat, Imitation of Life, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Her newest monograph, Cruel Optimism, was published in October, 2011, by Duke University Press. This book works across the U.S. and Europe to assess the level of contemporary crisis as neoliberalism wears away the fantasies of upward mobility associated with the liberal state. Cruel optimism manifests as a relational dynamic which individuals create attachment as “clusters of promises” towards desired object-ideas even when they inhibit the conditions for flourishing and fulfilling such promises. Maintaining attachments that sustain the good life fantasy, no matter how injurious or cruel these attachments may be, allows people to make it through day-to-day life when the day-to-day has become unlivable. Elaborating on the specific dynamics of cruel optimism, Lauren Berlant emphasizes and maintains that it is not the object itself, but rather the relationship: "A relation of cruel optimism is a double-bind in which your attachment to an object sustains you in life at the same time as that object is actually a threat to your flourishing. So you can’t say that there are objects that have the quality of cruelty or not cruelty, it’s how you have the relationship to them. Like it might be that being in a couple is not a relation of cruel optimism for you, because being in a couple actually makes you feel like you have a grounding in the world, whereas for other people, being in a couple might be, on the one hand, a relief from loneliness, and on the other hand, the overpresence of one person who has to bear the burden of satisfying all your needs. So it’s not the object that’s the problem, but how we learn to be in relation."
An emphasis on the “present,” which she describes as structured through “crisis ordinariness,” turns to affect and aesthetics as a way of apprehending these crises. She suggests that it becomes possible to recognize that certain “genres” are no longer sustainable in the present and that new emergent aesthetic forms are taking hold, alternative genres that allow us to recognize modes of living not rooted in normative good life fantasies. Discussing crisis ordinariness, Berlant describes it as her way "... of talking about traumas of the social that are lived through collectively and that transform the sensorium to a heightened perceptiveness about the unfolding of the historical, and sometimes historic, moment (and sometimes publics organized around those senses, when experienced collectively)."
She is a member of Feel Tank Chicago and on the way has edited books on Compassion (2004) and Intimacy (2001), which won an award for being the best special issue among all journals in the same year from the Academy of American Publishers, and which are interlinked with her work in feminist and queer theory in essays like "Sex in Public" (Critical Inquiry (1999)), Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (with Lisa Duggan, 2001) and Venus Inferred (with photographer Laura Letinsky, 2001). Berlant works with many journals, including as editor of Critical Inquiry and Public Culture, and helped to found and has chaired the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago.