Lauren Berlant’s labor of being
“Things are usually in my way but that’s the thing about writing.”
Lauren Berlant (1957–2021)
Shortly after the sad news of Janet Malcolm’s passing in mid-June, there was another piece of bummer news for lovers of superior nonfiction writing: the University of Chicago professor Lauren Berlant had died at 63. I was a latecomer to Berlant’s work—I only found out about it thanks to a 2019 New Yorker piece by Hua Hsu, which I will always remember for the following line:
We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.”
Holy shit, yes! I immediately ordered Berlant’s celebrated 2011 book Cruel Optimism—which Hsu describes as “a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed”—but, truthfully, since then I’ve only had time to dip in and out of it.
After the news of Berlant’s passing, however, I decided to spend some time with her most recent book, co-authored with Kathleen Stewart: The Hundreds, which they describe as “exercises in following out the impact of things (words, thoughts, people, objects, ideas, worlds) in hundred-word units or units of hundred multiples.”
Where Cruel Optimism is dense and academic, The Hundreds is loose, fast-moving, and experimental (the authors call it “an experiment in keeping up with what’s going on”). Each chapter is a sort of prose poem, and though these can be fairly opaque, they are studded with brilliantly spot-on observations and just brilliant sentences. Some of my favorites: