My work has focused on the affective components of belonging in the U.S. nineteenth and twentieth centuries—now the twenty-first: in particular, in relation to juridical citizenship, to informal and normative modes of social belonging, and to practices of intimacy as they absorb legal, normative, and fantasmatic forces. These scenes of relation articulate state, juridical, and institutional practices of zoning and more abstract boundary-drawing—between public and private, white and non-white, and/or citizen and foreigner—with other kinds of social bonds through which people imagine and practice world-making.
I am interested in how modes of social membership flourish that absorb the blows of power while preserving critical and optimistic attachments to the political as a site of a vaguely rendered, collective ongoingness or potentiality. To this end, I have finished a trilogy on national sentimentality—in order of their historical address, The Anatomy of National Fantasy (Chicago, 1991); The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2009); and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke, 1997). I have also followed out this interest in collective attachments and affects in my edited volumes Intimacy (Chicago, 2000); Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (with Lisa Duggan; NYU, 2001); and Compassion: the Culture and Politics of an Emotion (Routledge, 2004).
My next book, Cruel Optimism, is about the wearing out of the fantasy of the good life that has bound people to various kinds of intimate and political normativity despite their constant inadequacy to the fantasies that bring people to them. So its intervention is two-pronged, to do with conceptualizing affect historically, and with addressing the neoliberal sensorium insofar as it is shaped by the recognition that the social democratic/liberal fantasy of mass upward mobility, meritocracy, and durable intimacy has less and less traction in the world. Here “optimism” does not mean the emotion of optimism but the affective structure of attachment that enables people to survive and even flourish amidst the ordinariness of life-in-crisis, life without foundations, anchors, or footing. Looking at ways to think about attachment and suffering that attend to the structural and therefore that would be misdescribed by the exceptionalist analytic of trauma and the modernist model of “everyday life,” it provides, I hope, better genres for the historical present.
Also related to the impact of these circuits of social exemplification is an interest in pedagogies of normativity in the academy, culture, and politics. I have edited two volumes of Critical Inquiry called On the Case, which bring together leading thinkers to examine the “case”—the standard unit in law, medicine, psychoanalysis, the humanities, the sciences, and popular culture. What makes a case ordinary, easily dealt with, or forgettable? What makes some cases, and not others, challenges to the way ordinary life or institutional systems usually proceed? How do kinds of people become examples of kinds of thing? The project works through cases—of torture, of scientific paradigms, of OCD and Obesity, of the cinematic closeup, of literary personhood, of philosophical norms for adjudicating ethics, of servants, and gods, and lyric poetry, and sexuality. But all of the essays address their cases with an eye to understanding how cases have been and might be made.
- Sex, or the Unbearable, with Lee Edelman (Duke UP, 2014)
- Cruel Optimism (Duke UP, 2011), 2011 René Wellek Prize, American Comparative Literature Association
- "Love as a Properly Political Concept" (Response to Michael Hardt), Cultural Anthropology (2011)
- "Affect and the Politics of Austerity," Variant 38/40, with Gesa Helms, Marina Vischmidt (2011)
- "Opulism," SAQ (2010)
- "Neither Monstrous nor Pastoral, but Scary and Sweet: Some Thoughts on Sex and Emotional Performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?" Women and Performance (2009)
- "Affect Is the New Trauma," The Minnesota Review (2009). Rpt. 2010.
- “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” by Sina Najafi and David Serlin, Cabinet (2008).
- “Thinking about Feeling Historical,” Emotion, Space, and Society 1, 1 (2008). Rpt. Political Emotions, ed., Janet Staiger, Ann Cvetkovich, and Ann Reynolds (2010).
- "Risky Bigness: On Obesity, Eating, and the Ambiguity of "Health," in Jonathan Metzl et al., Against Health/ (NYU, 2010).
- Ordinariness: An Introduction
- The Intimate Public Sphere
- The Case Study
- The Literature of Trauma
- From Sentimentality to Affect Theory
- Aesthetic Legacies of American Liberalism
- Literatures of 9-11
- Feminism and the Public Sphere
- The US Historical Novel
- Introduction to Theories of Sex & Gender
- The Literature of Trauma
- Sex and Ethics
- Form, Problem, and Event
- Reading Cultures
- Media Aesthetics
- American Literature Survey I, 1630-1850
- African-American Women Novelists
- Problems in Gender Studies
- What’s Love Got to Do with It?: The Genres of Modern Romance
- Feminist Theory-Feminist Practice
- Early American Novel
- Realism and the Unsayable: Wharton, Cather, Parker; Utopias