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PASSAGES Author, cultural theorist, scholar Lauren Berlant dies
by Carrie Maxwell
2021-07-15

This article shared 450 times since Thu Jul 15, 2021
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Author, cultural theorist and scholar Lauren Berlant died June 28 in a Chicago hospice facility of a rare form of cancer. They were 63.

Berlant (who used they/them pronouns professionally) was born Oct. 31, 1957 in Philadelphia and graduated from Oberlin College with a BA in English and subsequently received their master's degree and PhD from Cornell University. They taught at the University of Chicago from 1984-2021 where they were the George M. Pullman Distinguished Professor of English.

While teaching Berlant wrote/co-wrote eight books and edited/co-edited four collections. Their 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," according to a University of Chicago News article honoring Berlant's life.

Berlant also authored scholarly papers that are currently located at Brown University's Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women's Feminist Theory Archive. They were known for teaching and writing about queer theory, heternormativity, the intimate public sphere and feminism among other issues.

Among Berlant's many honors were three from the University of Chicago—Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award. They also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Comparative Literature Association René Wellek Prize for Cruel Optimism and the Modern Language Association's Alan Bray Memorial Book Award and Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement. Berlant also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for the last three years of their life.

Additionally, Berlant co-founded the Feel Tank Chicago in 2002 and co-edited Duke University Press' Theory Q series.

Berlant was survived by their partner of 19 years, Northwestern University Department of Computer Science associate professor Ian Horswill; sister Valerie (Berlant) Davis and spouse Richard Davis; brother Jeffrey Berlant; nephews and nieces—Zachary Davis, Mara Davis, Cynthia (Berlant) Grell, Alison Berlant and Michael Berlant; cats Ru and Chi; and countless friends. They were preceded in death by their father Nathan Berlant and mother Joanne (Bauer) Berlant.

In a Facebook post, Horswill thanked Berlant's UChicago Medicine medical team and the family members and friends who lent their support.

"In the last few years, Lauren adopted they as a pronoun for their public-facing, scholarly interactions, while continuing to use she elsewhere," said Horswill in separate Facebook post. "Especially in contexts where the professional and the familiar are not always sharply distinguished, it can be hard to know which of her preferences to honor. I ask that people do their best to find what is right in a given context.

"If you are in a position of power or privilege and not in a position of precarity, then I can think of no better way to celebrate Lauren's life, work and values, than to be willing to risk some of that privilege for those whose lives are more precarious. I do not mean giving to the local food bank, although by all means do. I mean be willing to take a personal prestige hit for something or someone you believe in. If you are a tenured faculty member, volunteer for a hard committee so a pre-tenured faculty member does not have to. If there is a good candidate who is a version of queer that your colleagues are not used to yet stand up for them. Speak up for the researcher from an underrepresented group who is also working on an underrepresented topic; do not let your colleagues write them off because they are not working in a prestige area. Fight for better working conditions for your non-tenured track faculty."

"I am gutted by the passing of Lauren Berlant," said friend Jonathan Sterne in a Facebook post. "It is a huge loss to a whole constellation of interleaving scholarly communities. We had many great conversations over the years. The second time I met Lauren, I was a grad student at the University of Illinois in the mid-1990s. They had come to give a talk a year or two before and we had a brief conversation. The second time we met, they remembered who I was and what I said, and I was just a nobody grad student. Although I can be terrible with names and faces, I have tried to emulate those two qualities: treating people as people rather than holders of status (still too rare in the university system) and really listening to what people had to say.

"In recent years, [Lauren and I] had an on and off conversation going about cancer from nuts and bolts stuff like food and gloves to much more profound talk about how to think about academic aspirations and limits while living with uncertainty. The last two times we met were both spontaneous: me joining at a dinner after a talk with Katie Stewart at Concordia … and then later the same year running into them at a restaurant in Minneapolis. What is important about my stories is that they are utterly ordinary. I was not special, just another person in their orbit. Lauren touched so many people's lives in so many different ways."

According to Horswill's Facebook post, Berlant's wishes were that no funeral or memorial service was to be held for them. Horswill also stated that the University of Chicago and others will be holding events to celebrate Berlant's work in the fall.

In lieu of flowers, Horswill added that people should "donate to a cause you believe Lauren would believe in" including these organizations— Leiomyosarcoma Support & Direct Research Foundation at lmsdr.org, Evanston Animal Shelter at evanstonanimalshelter.net and the Chicago Abortion Fund at chicagoabortionfund.org as well as assisting low-income students via one's local university emergency tuition/room/board fund so these students can continue their educational pursuits.


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