Prof. Lauren Berlant, a world-renowned scholar who examined what sentimentality means in American culture for gender, sexuality and politics, died June 28 of a rare form of cancer. A beloved mentor and esteemed colleague who spent nearly four decades at the University of Chicago, Berlant was 63 years old.
Remembered by colleagues for their immense pedagogical curiosity, their perceptive interpretations of American literature, politics and culture and their collaborative prowess, Berlant gave readers the tools for understanding the complicated interactions between self and society.
The George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Berlant was a leading theorist whose impact stretched across disciplinary lines. They sought to define the desires and emotions that compel people to create forms of life that support a sense of belonging, and the complex ways in which gender, race, citizenship, class and sexuality affect and mold those attachments.
Berlant’s award-winning book, Cruel Optimism (2011), analyzed the devices that affect everyday human connections, and how the culturally conditioned material regard for the perfect life compels human beings to act against their own best interests.
“Lauren Berlant’s pathbreaking scholarship defined the fields of affect theory, heteronormativity and queer theory,” said Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities. “Their influence on generations of graduate students and colleagues was vast, and they will be profoundly missed.”
Beloved as a mentor, Berlant championed generations of students and colleagues. One was Laurie Shannon, PhD’96, who was a student in Berlant’s first class at UChicago and remained friends with Berlant for more than 37 years.
“Walking along North Avenue one January and analyzing some dilemma or other together, Lauren observed: ‘Poor everyone,’” said Shannon, the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English Literature at Northwestern University. “I hope these two words from Lauren capture the rangy magnanimity of their work on affect and attachment, of Lauren’s lion-hearted practice of friendship, and of a measureless contribution to the progress of so many thinkers—and feelers—around the world. Now we are poorer. But Lauren’s thought is our legacy; it teaches us that the best way to live/think/feel loss is always through love.”
Berlant took special satisfaction in working with others. In a 2019 interview, Berlant described collaboration as a “super-intensified version of teaching.”
“There’s the complete joy of the ‘not me,’” Berlant said. “Seeing somebody else at work, seeing somebody else’s generativity and seeing how, together, you can compose things that neither of you could have done by yourself.”