We are deeply sorry to learn of the death of theorist Lauren Berlant following a long illness. Berlant was the author or editor of six books with us. They were also a founding editor of the series Writing Matters! and Theory Q and a contributor to many edited collections and journal issues.
Berlant was George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, where they taught since 1984. Their first title with us was The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (1997), which Judith Butler called “a keen and disarming book.” They followed it up with The Female Complaint (2008) and then with Cruel Optimism (2011), which became their most popular book, reaching outside the academy and inspiring art and even a punk song. Writing in The Progressive, queer humorist Kate Clinton said, “If you are looking for some new language to use to describe the current crisis of hope, read Cruel Optimism. . . . It is a wild, deeply witty examination of our attachments to food, love, politics, family, and pop culture.” Berlant’s most recent book was Reading Sedgwick (2019), an edited collection on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Cruel Optimism was the winner of the American Comparative Literature Association 2012 Rene Wellek Award. In 2019, Berlant received the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Literature Section of Modern Language Association. They were also a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Berlant contributed to a number of our journals, including Social Text, SAQ, the minnesota review, and Public Culture. We have made their 2012 interview in Qui Parle freely available until September 2021.
Berlant especially liked working collaboratively and published two co-written books with us, Sex, or the Unbearable (2013), with Lee Edelman, and The Hundreds (2019), with Kathleen Stewart. In an interview with UChicago News, Berlant said, “Other people’s minds are amazing. Collaboration is like a super-intensified version of teaching, where you and somebody else are working something out, and you’re building on each other—but you’re also just missing each other. There’s the complete joy of the ‘not me.’ 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.” Stewart says of Berlant, “Lauren held a door in the world open for so many of us. Now we shoulder on, in gratitude. The outpouring of love from everywhere is the biggest testimony to Lauren’s beauty and impact.”
Not long after the publication of The Hundreds, Berlant was profiled by Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, an unusual honor for an academic, and a testament to the huge reach of Berlant’s work. Writing about The Hundreds, Hsu says, “In Berlant and Stewart’s hands, affect theory provides a way of understanding the sensations and resignations of the present, the normalized exhaustion that comes with life in the new economy. It is a way of framing uniquely modern questions.”
Around the Press, those who worked with Berlant are deeply mourning the loss. Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker said, “I’ve known Lauren since shortly after they arrived at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s. Lauren had a singularly brilliant mind, questioning their own thoughts mid-sentence in pursuit of a better account. In book after book Lauren advanced a fully connected project, one with deep political commitments, but one that could never be fully known in advance. One of the greatest theorists of their generation— someone always generously reaching out to smart younger scholars—it was the greatest privilege to be their publisher and friend.”
Design Manager Amy Ruth Buchanan designed many of Berlant’s books, including the now iconic cover for Cruel Optimism. She says, “Lauren Berlant was one of the kindest, smartest, and most appreciative and generous authors a publisher could hope to work with. I am so sad to learn of their passing.”
Executive Editor Courtney Berger says, “Lauren was a fierce intellectual who relentlessly challenged our assumptions about gender, sex, nation, and feeling. Lauren was also an incredibly generous collaborator who sought out opportunities to think alongside and in conversation with others. Even as they dwelled on the structural violence and difficulties of thriving in a world dominated by capitalism, racism, and sexism, Lauren saw the potential for us to radically transform our relationship to the world and to ourselves. Lauren was a wit, who liked to share and hear new jokes. They loved cats, silly cat photos, and elaborate cat furniture. And they could always direct you to the best vegan food in town. Above all, Lauren was a friend and a comrade, and I will miss them terribly.”
Berger has been working with Berlant on their final book, On the Inconvenience of Other People. Berlant turned the manuscript in just a few weeks before their death and we expect to publish it in Fall 2022. In the new book Berlant considers how we might “loosen” our relations to the objects and situations that we are unhappily attached to in a way that might transform our political conditions and create new life worlds.
For three decades, we have been honored to publish the groundbreaking work of Lauren Berlant. We will miss them as a scholar, a collaborator, and a friend. Our condolences go out to all of Lauren’s friends, family, and colleagues, and especially to their partner Ian Horswill.