In Dialogue, a letter to Lauren

Dear Lauren,

I knew we were going to lose you. You told us in so many words. You have such a way with words that I had to work hard not to be distracted by their beauty from the devastation of what you were telling us. When I heard you had died, I was just so lost.

What if the person you lose is the one who could best describe that loss for you?

When we lose a person, we lose the words they might have shared in a future they will not have. I have no words for saying how it feels to say these words: that Lauren Berlant has died. That you have died. I have no words, but then I do, no words are words, edging for something, connecting us to someone. I still can’t bring myself to believe it. I want belief to lag behind, take your time coming, take your time. Your presence has been so orientating for me, a landmark, like that distinctly shaped tree, or that tower you can see, nearby or in the distance that allows you to know which way you are facing, which tells you how to get to where you need to go. I feel disorientated, without a compass, without you being here. I am not sure how to find my way around.

We muddle through. You taught me to attend to what we do to muddle through.  Your words are still guiding me. I am grateful for all of them. I could read just a few of your words and know they were yours. You have a style like no other, sentences that are crisp but with curious combinations, crisp and opaque, coming at you and escaping from you at the very same time. You have a way of capturing details, of fine tuning amidst the fuzz or the buzz or the chaos so you could hear the singularity of a note, sharp, painfully clear. You found in the materials of the everyday so much to think with, turning things around, giving a different angle on them so they glimmer or flicker, or a different angle on ourselves so we glimmer or flicker.  I have never met or read anyone so able to explain the difficulty we have giving up attachments, even when we provide evidence ourselves of how they are not working, and yet alive to the potential for rearranging things, turning slips into starting points for another story, whilst we are in a muddle, in the middle of something that does not, even will not, acquire the shape of an event.

Nor have I read or met anyone who was so interested in other people, so curious about their histories, what brought them to their work, what they brought into their work, or someone with such profound fidelity to the task of reflection, to sustaining reflection on our shared worlds, feelings, thoughts, attachments, so that what might have, at first glance, seemed solid, a norm say, becomes spongier, looser, lighter. Sometimes, as someone who is shy, unless I am in a formal setting where I know the rules, someone with strong boundaries, maybe too strong, but we do what we can to live the best we can, it made me nervous, the directness of your attention, worried about what you might see or not see in me. I was at the same time grateful for it and for the time you gave me. Gratitude can be near grief, a sense of how much someone gives as a sense of how much you could lose; could lose, will lose. You asked, “I am a love theorist, how did that happen?” I think I know how it happened. A love theorist, a loving theorist, a theorist of love and loss and relationships that end up, as we do, in unexpected places.

As we do. The first time I encountered you, saw your name, read words you had written, yes, that can be enough to encounter a person, was on a piece of paper that had been put in my pigeon hole by a colleague, who was later to become my life partner (you were around during that becoming!), Sarah Franklin. I love that: that I first saw your name, read your words, because of a piece of paper that had been put in my mail box by a friend of yours. Relationships can have priority; they can be how we find each other’s words. Sarah had photocopied your CFP for a special issue on intimacy and circulated it to all members of the department. I emailed you. I suggested I could write a paper on intimacy and autobiography. I was writing, at the time, a chapter for my book Strange Encounters that took me near intimacy but was not on it. I was a very junior lecturer at this time, I had only just finished by PhD, my first book based on the PhD had yet to come out, which meant I was still trying to bend myself to fit any opening, any opportunity. I hoped near would be near enough. You explained that what I proposed was not what you had in mind. I can’t remember the words you used, but it was something like, it is a bit obvious to approach intimacy through autobiography. Our first exchanges were a little tense, funnily enough, as I explained why I thought autobiography could provide an unexpected angle on intimacy precisely because that is where intimacy is expected to be found. I did not know then how attending to the obvious (as well as attending to expectations of where something or someone is assumed to be) would become what I did or how I would follow a thought.

I think there were some tensions between us in the years that followed. There are signs of it in some of our writing. The introduction of Cruel Optimism, for example, positioned me as interested in emotion and not affect. Although I had been critical of the uses of the distinction between emotion and affect, much of my work has been about promises, atmospheres, sticky objects, affective economies, how histories get under our skin, and has thus been in the terrain of what is sometimes called “affect theory.” I referred to your argument in my introduction to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, as an example of how affect and emotion are given distinct trajectories (and even objects). We never spoke to each other about this; I wish we had. Much later when you were writing the paper, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” which I think will appear in your next book (I am so glad I can say this, Lauren Berlant’ s next book!) you did ask me if we could brainstorm together because “your work is troubling me (in a good way)” which was a reference, I assume, to The Promise of Happiness. I wasn’t around when you messaged me, we did not get to brainstorm. We will not get to brainstorm.

Despite these troublings and tensions, there was so much we came to share in our work. Perhaps this despite is misplaced. Troublings and tensions can be how we are in relation. To be in relation, as you taught, is the joy (also inconvenience) of being with someone you are not.

But I have in thinking of tensions fast forwarded. Let me go back.

Our first communications were, from memory, in 1996. And then we invited you to be a keynote speaker at the Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism conference in July 1997. This was the first major international conference for the Centre for Women’s Studies at Lancaster University; it was such an important event in the life of that Centre. You spoke in the first plenary session, and the first time I saw you, you were already on a podium. You were wearing a leather mini skirt, if I recall correctly, and I just remember thinking wow, you were so stylish and cool. I was totally intimidated when we had our first in person conversations if the truth be known, and you said something about it, I can’t quite remember the words, but perhaps that we had those tense exchanges led you to think I might be a little fiercer than I tend to present (my feminist killjoy self, however, is furious as well as fierce, it is just only some occasions when she comes out). Later, I was to learn, you got that, you got it, you got me, how I could take on the assignment of a feminist killjoy not despite being shy, anxious and sensitive, but because of it; the armour we use, has its story, which is our story, hardness comes to matter for those who experience themselves as too easily hurt.

Later, I was to learn what a good reader you were not just of texts but of people.

And you held the room with a lecture on “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics,” from which I still learn so much. That was the first time I heard you lecture. I have since heard many more. I loved how you stood (some call it the tree pose), how you laughed, how you filled the room, yet also seemed to create room for others. The questions you asked in that lecture, which we published as a paper in our edited book, remain so important: “What happens to questions of managing difference or alterity or resources in collective life when feeling bad becomes evidence for a structural condition of injustice? What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation, when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumphs?” After that you came to Lancaster again for a conference on Testimonial Cultures and Feminist Agendas in 1999, organised by myself and Jackie Stacey, and you gave another extraordinary lecture, “Trauma and Ineloquence,” which we published in the journal Cultural Values.  One sentence I remember, “Symptoms that condense history are like dead metaphors, challenging their readers to make them live.” You helped me to question how trauma becomes an expectation of delivery for the negated, the subordinated, but also in that questioning, to imagine another way of receiving somebody’s trauma, of making a dead metaphor live.

A new millennium brought with it plans to bring you back to Lancaster. Sarah Franklin took the lead in a proposal for a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. And then in the summers of 2001 and 2002 you came for extended periods of time, participating in a series of more and less formal events loosely organised under the rubric, “Feelings in Public.” Between 1997 and 2002, then, you were around so much, around at a time I was working on The Cultural Politics of Emotion, around at the time I decided to write about happiness – a decision which I am sure was inspired by our conversations as well as my experience of doing empirical research on diversity and racism. Writing about happiness led me to the feminist killjoy, led me to do the work of changing my work so that it would less bound by the university, less caught up in the dynamics that keeps our work in the university, which is also how I ended up on it, working on the university, on institutions with their manifold histories.

Thinking back, to the good hap of that, you being around there, then, I can see how much my own work on emotion and affect was enabled by being in dialogue with you, and the mark you left on all of us working in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies in the UK. In an endnote to The Cultural Politics of Emotion I wrote, “I am very indebted to Lauren Berlant, whose insightful questions, ‘when do norms become forms,’ has provided the inspiration for my work.”

To inspire, can mean not only to uplift or encourage, but to enable to breathe, to give air. The life you breathed into my work is all over my work. In Queer Phenomenology, I cited your co-authored piece, “Sex in Public,” with the wonderful description of queer worlds, the “queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (2005: 198).  In The Promise of Happiness, I borrowed your delightfully crisp expression “the foggy fantasy of happiness,” and also your idea of objects as “clusters of promises.” In Willful Subjects, I drew upon your essay “Slow Death,” in accounting for snap, suggesting that we “cannot see the slower times of bearing or making do” and also draw on your description of the problem of how will becomes the problem.  As you wrote in Queen of America goes to Washington City, which is still my favourite of your books: “In the new good life imagined by the contracting state, the capitalist requirement that there be a population of poorly remunerated laborers-in-waiting or those who cobble together temporary work is not deemed part of a structural problem but rather a problem of will and ingenuity” (2004: 4). I came back to your work in Living a Feminist Life, a number of times, thinking with your idea of cruel optimism, wondering who gets to diagnose when a life is working or not working, and also your explanation of a situation, “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life.”

Yes, you teach me how to describe what is happening, the usual activity of life, how to notice what will perhaps matter as it unfolds, to notice an unfolding as a way of holding something, lightly.

What we create is fragile because we need it to survive.

We did meet up over the years. You came to London. I remember cooking you and our partners some vegetable curries. And then I came to Chicago a few times, one time to give a lecture for your programme, another to give a lecture at another university. I think that first time was in 2013. You were such a generous host. The other time was in 2015 – the last time we met in person. We met at your hairdressers then hang out for a bit. I was in the middle of supporting students who had made a collective complaint about sexual harassment that led me to leave not just my post but our profession – I told you about that. We have in our work and in our different ways, tried to account for the toxicity and violence of institutions, to think about how to handle it. Handles can turn thoughts into care. When I left my post, I also left Facebook, which is where we usually communicated, so there was a time, almost two years in fact, when we were not in touch. I regret that. When we got back in touch, you told me you hoped I felt freer. I said I was getting there. It can be hard to put it behind you; the institution can find you. But researching complaint was helping me, I said.

Which brings me to complaint. I always expected in my work on complaint to engage directly with The Female Complaint, your middle book in your wondrous trilogy. I learned so much from that book about complaint as a genre with a loose hold. But I didn’t because Complaint! ended up being led by those I spoke to, my complaint collective. They became my theorists. So, I didn’t do what I usually do, follow complaint around, follow the word around, a following that would have led me to your work, to a proper engagement with it.

I emailed you about it. I wanted you to know that I missed the encounter we might have had; the dialogue we were both, I suspect, waiting for. You understood what I was telling you. You wrote, “I’m gathering you’re telling me that you barely think with the female complaint.  It’s a shame for me because we have for so long been interlocutors. We should interview each other like old times when it comes out. Would you like to? I can totes arrange it.” I was sad for that “shame for me,” but I understood it. I said yes, yes to that dialogue. Then you got more and more ill. You still sent me Lauren messages (Lauren messages are not only messages Lauren sent but messages that were so expressive of Lauren). The last message you sent me was on June 11th the same month you died. You wrote that you were writing me from “pain hell.” You wrote that you had seen my book, Complaint! in the Duke University Press catalogue. You made a Lauren quip about how Duke had used an author photo for me (and why they hadn’t for you), and then said, “so excited to get a copy. Meanwhile thank you for thinking with me as I do with you.  It means a lot.”

It means a lot. I think you were telling me that there are many ways to be in dialogue and that we hadn’t missed it. A dialogue can be what we are in, a space, a zone, an intimacy.

“I didn’t think it would turn out this way” (Lauren on intimacy’s secret epitaph).

We can be in a dialogue without having one.

We are in dialogue. This is how it is turning out.

I emailed you back and said I would send you one of my first copies, my author copies, with an inscription.  I will still send it to you, of course.

This is an endnote in the book: “My emphasis on the affective nature of complaint connects with Lauren Berlant’s (2008) consideration of female complaint. Berlant describes complaint as “a way of archiving experience, turning experience into evidence and evidence into argument and argument into convention and convention into cliché, clichés so powerful they can hold a person her entire life” (227). My discussion is more about feminist than female complaint. Feminist complaint can also “hold a person her entire life,” although perhaps less through convention and cliché. With thanks to Lauren Berlant for the inspiration of her work.” I wrote this note without realising you had changed your pronouns. If there is a second printing, I will ask to change her to their, to honour your preferences and your work.

I know we are in dialogue. I know that you were writing fiercely from and through “pain hell” with your Lauren dedication, and that there are more books on their way because of that. But I wish I could have more dialogues with you in person, to hear your laughter, the sound of your voice, to feel you there with me.

I am writing this letter to you. I know it is important to say to each other what we mean to each other. We cannot always do that. Sometimes, we know the importance of something when it is no longer possible. I am sharing this letter on my blog, Lauren because you taught me that if you write through a feeling, with it, you share it. We create an assembly, grief-stricken, yes, but all the better, all the sharper, lovelier, even, for having known each other, found each other, in words, in persons. In the shattering, queer losses, queer lives, creating new shapes; glimmering, flickering.

I wrote to you once last time after you died.

“I can’t believe you are not here anymore. I came back to Facebook as I remembered we messaged just so I could hear you. I can always hear you in your writing, no one else sounds like you. I’ll miss you so much but I will keep learning from you Lauren. I promise xxx”.

Lauren, I promise. I promise to keep learning from you. To think with you, to stay in touch, to be in dialogue.

With love, as ever

Sara xxx

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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4 Responses to In Dialogue, a letter to Lauren

  1. Colin says:

    Thank you for writing this — Lauren meant so much to so many of us.

  2. M. Emilia Barbosa says:

    Dear Prof. Ahmed, I am so sorry for your loss! I too am struggling with the nonsensical repetition of deaths and remote dismissals these days without proper mourning and coming together to celebrate some one’s life. No one deserves to be left unremembered, uncelebrated, uncherished, and unloved. We will miss our people no matter what and we are sure that they are not mere statistics in some cataclysmic version of the world.
    I am particularly interested in your connection of the emotional component or process of complaint as it relates in your heart and thoughts to your friend. In my native Portuguese, we have two words into what to translate the English “complaint”: as “reclamação” it is the formal process of pursuing and perhaps achieve resolution and reparation; but as “queixa” it brings to the table the affective dimension of complaint, which is often interwoven with so many disparate feelings, thoughts, and tensions that deeply effervesce in our personal lives.
    I am overextending my own normally reserved nature here by reaching out to you and sending you a big virtual hug. I think you might need it and so do I.
    Saludos,
    M. Emilia Barbosa

  3. How inspiring and heart warming it is to sense and read the professional intimacy between two colleagues. With much love, respect and gratitude…

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