In Theory, Anyway

On the Inconvenience of Other People by lauren berlant. durham, nc: duke university press. 256 pages. $26.

The cover of On the Inconvenience of Other People

THE PUNCH LINE OF ACADEMIC THEORY IS A REDESCRIPTION OF THE THING WE ALREADY KNOW, so that we might know it once more, with feeling. In Lauren Berlant’s words, heuristics don’t start revolutions, but “they do spark blocks that are inconvenient to a thing’s reproduction.” Berlant’s new book, On the Inconvenience of Other People, arriving just a little over a year after their death, is a study in just that. Inconvenience serves as a sequel of sorts to Cruel Optimism (2011), the work that guaranteed Berlant’s fame beyond the academy. Berlant, the literary scholar of national sentiment, affect, the ordinary crisis, and neoliberalism, published Cruel Optimism the month before protesters were pushed from Zuccotti Park, and just three months before my friends would be arrested outside of the Oakland Y or escape arrest by running through the adjacent hospital. Some of these people, on both coasts, were Berlant’s friends, but I never met Berlant personally or professionally or where those networks cross. Berlant’s work, in a way, opens onto crossings such as these and is present in my digression about them. For decades, they offered a theory of the group in its smallest incarnations—the work of intimates—that scaled back up to the nation and the globe. On the Inconvenience of Other People redescribes discomfort, interpersonal friction, and dependency as potentially productive states—not merely annoying ones—and as new modes that might help us do more than merely survive, to be inconvenient to the reproduction of that which ails us. 

In Cruel Optimism, Berlant gave us a theory of how we attach to and protect things we want that are also harmful to us—objects of love, aspiration, and desire. Their political timing was eerie, perfect: they gave us a story of the “good life” and how it traps us, showed us how we had arrived at that moment in late 2011, after a historical precipice that had birthed the Occupy movement, when people, it seemed, had had enough. And Berlant knew how that rupture would go. They predicted—indirectly—that we would stay stuck on the edge in the cruel optimism of what poet Juliana Spahr called “Non-Revolution.” And that prediction was right.

What they ventured in Cruel Optimism was a theory of attachment as a theory of stuckness: we become dependent on the very structures, objects, and wishes that do us harm, and go in search of them, misrecognizing them fundamentally as aims and pleasures. We need to be in this perpetual state of seek and never find, because the good life is not attainable; to admit that would tear us apart, because we are so identified with our search for it. Freud called this symptom a “secondary gain,” and told his followers that you never treat secondary gain directly—treatment can destabilize more than cure. Berlant concurred without naming the problem as such; they set out to prove that when we get what we’re searching for, or have that search disrupted, we go mad. Just ask lottery winners—you can’t always get what you want and survive it.

While Cruel Optimism wasn’t Berlant’s only book in the past ten years, it became a stable metonymy for their thought. I started graduate school when the book was being taken up, so I was treated to reading it over and over again, as it appeared on most syllabi, even though I was working far from Berlant’s fields. It slowly made its way through my nascent academic circles but jumped outside them; this book had escape velocity. Everyone, it seemed, was doing Berlant Studies, some while occupying a park or thinking about a David Graeber talk. Everyone was reading and cruelly misreading Cruel Optimism (myself included). It got inside. Totalizing in its critique of daily life, it worked as a secret self-help book, generous to self-referential readers, assisting them in identifying their own disaffirming attachments, and naming our ongoing horror as “crisis ordinariness.” It was easy to misread in part because it’s a mare’s nest: both aphoristically easy and so difficult that it can make the head spin. Yet, just as Occupy was not a final word, neither was Cruel Optimism.

One can read On the Inconvenience of Other People as a speculative how-to manual (a term that’s an inconvenient contradiction). There is no neat step-by-step, no clear ordering of commands. Instead, the reader is offered a situation followed by pages of quiet instruction. Berlant challenges, contradicts, and complicates the notion of “proximities”—or what it is to be close to and with others—in its various genres and (possibly fruitful) discontents. Berlant’s long-standing pedagogical commitment was helping us “unlearn” our long-standing commitments, positions, or relations (which I might add, is also the work of psychoanalysis). 

In Inconvenience, that pedagogy is sly, confiding, and digressive. Berlant wrote this book in what they call “the parenthetical voice,” allowing it to become their full, unbracketed style—perfect for the scholar of intimacy who claimed all intimacy happens in front of a third. That voice is both frank and tentative, immediate and disposable. As method, it allows Berlant to curtail “the sneaky ways em dashes, notes, and other modes of insertion produce hierarchies among knowledges.” It also offers a new mode for cataloguing the inconvenience of relationships in many registers. On the Inconvenience of Other People is, finally, a book in all its feels—from happiness to a death wish—all at once. And it’s the last work of a scholar whose theory felt personal, and whose death was mourned far beyond those who knew Berlant: a perfect encapsulation of intimacy within publicity and the publicity of intimacy, a monument to their very work. 

Lauren Berlant. Courtesy Duke University Press
Lauren Berlant. Courtesy Duke University Press

In Cruel Optimism, Berlant focused on attachments that kept us locked in a cycle of striving and failing. In their new book, the work is not in detailing how our attachments keep us trapped, but in how their friction, which we register as “inconvenience,” is productive and can even be used to attenuate those deadly attachments. If other people—and even living itself—irritates, perhaps this can produce a re-seeing, a re-positioning, an unlearning that sticks within stuckness, at last. We still can’t get out, but perhaps can get somewhere new inside. 

The book takes the form of a dissertation (a robust introduction and a coda bookending three cases), albeit one written by one of the field’s most famous scholars. In a series of three “assays,” Berlant offers thought experiments on sex, democracy, and life-in-struggle, or “suidiciation.” Berlant is not interested in extraordinary catastrophes, but in the quotidian, habitual, ongoing disasters of life and how we cope with them (and don’t). Using literary texts and films, they theorize group relations, and their difficulty—verging on impossibility—as a site of potential transformation. Berlant situates their instruction both in the everyday and in the wake of moments of historical rupture, including 1968, the Occupy protests, and the mass events of 2020: the pandemic and the uprisings following the murder by police of George Floyd. 

Inconvenience across the assays is cumulatively meant two ways: some of us (those on the margins of society) are inconvenient for regimes of capital, and on some level, we are all inconvenient for one another, because relationality and communication are nearly impossible. To be an other is to be inconvenient; being with others is too. Berlant treats inconvenience as a grain of sand that has slipped past our mantle and that we cannot eject. Yet we are also inconvenienced because we seek it out. Berlant names this the “inconvenience drive” (alongside the pleasure, death, and aggression drives of psychoanalysis), a desire rather than the mere jostling of social arrangement. Per Berlant: “Our inconvenience drive keeps us up, forces fugue states and naps, and distracts us as we try to move some life-entangling problems somewhere by testing them out, rearranging, and supposing.” Inconvenience is a truth of attachment—and lose our attachments we cannot. For Berlant, the inconvenient relationship might be where we could loosen the hold our bad attachments, as theorized in Cruel Optimism, have on us. Inconvenience might be the thing that lets us live. 

Inconvenience can also be disturbingly synonymous with violence. Berlant writes, “The minima of inconvenience can go under the radar, or not, but it does not register at first as a traumatic or transformative event. At maximum intensity, though, the affective sense of inconvenience is harder, less easy to shake off or step around.” Inconvenience, then, is an index of “inequality’s persistent force.” 

The first assay, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” is a long meditation on ambivalence via the 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris, centered on the characters Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The two are joined in an iterative anonymous relationship in a bare apartment. (The smallest group, is, after all, the pair.) Berlant reads the film for nearly the duration of this chapter, first attending to the apartment itself, a domestic architecture that isn’t quite one. Paul and Jeanne’s relationship represents an experiment, which can have negative, even annihilative, results—and the film is, of course, remembered for its rape scene. Berlant is thinking through the “training” offered for tolerating proximities here, in sex, in which revolutionary desire is negotiated to make a new life, however temporarily. This move demands a new way to think about ambivalence, rejecting Melanie Klein’s notion of simultaneous or oscillating love and hate. Instead, Berlant wants to consider “incommensurate wants” wherein conflicted desires point to the way violence, lust, and even humor coexist uneasily. Berlant writes about how ordinary life and extraordinary violence—all in the shadow of revolutionary potential—appear in the movie: “People in the middle of a situation are punctured by others’ aggression and inflated or controlled by their desire, but also look unsure, uncanny, unlike themselves, unappealing, irresistible, comfortingly predictable, shockingly good and bad, and also boring. One does not have to die or be killed by this variation, and neither do one’s radical political dreams.” 

Berlant asks that we reject erotophobia as the answer to violence precisely because that phobia is not ambivalent; it resolves in favor of no sex. That which is most extraordinary—here, the violence of Tango—is returned to the “crisis ordinariness”; the sexual assault is part of the trash of daily life under cisheteropatriarchy and racial capitalism, all after the failures of the revolutionary May ’68 uprising. Berlant argues that Paul and Jeanne’s experiment is transformative even if it fails to evolve to the politically radical, even if it is negative and violent. They write that by staying with ambivalence, we can move “toward building skills for recognizing, explaining, and finding temporary housing for the discomfort of these inconvenient genres of the intimate.”

Moving from sex to democracy, Berlant turns to the commons, that slippery concept of the Left. This chapter attends to life since Occupy via a consideration of the poetics of the commons that predated it. Berlant argues that “the commons” basically still means “public park,” a “virtual sibling” to Occupy as a tactic. They write, “It is hard to avoid making a powerful concept all-absorbent when all you’ve ever known is how to own, possess, and use action concepts in defense of your existence.” Making the case largely on the poetics of Juliana Spahr, the frameworks for queer of color critique, and Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s 2013 essay collection The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Berlant shows us that reimagining our social infrastructures (whether in lyric poetry, artworks, insurgent study, or Occupation) often ends in a hastily constructed “we” and an “it,” as in: “We are in it together.” This is a mistake, Berlant cautions—we are not always in it together, whatever “it” may be. And yet, there is no politics without building this “we”: “This is the power of feeling-with crossed with solidarity in the political sphere.” The affect of the group again becomes central. The work then, in making forms of common life, is to generate infrastructures that serve the future and our needs now. As they write, “A failed episode is not evidence that a project is in error: by definition, forms of common life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures do.”

The final chapter, “On Being in Life without Wanting the World,” draws on an archive of what Berlant calls “distributed life-attrition of lived inequality”—or how those most pushed to the margins take up and experience dissociation and suicidal ideation. Here, it might seem like the how-to manual ends in a how-not-to. Berlant wants us to learn from these deeply painful states, from those for whom inconvenience is a description: biocapitalism understands them as a nuisance or disposable surplus. Berlant coins “suidiciation” to describe this state, writing: 

Living, thinking, planning, and scrolling through suicide becomes a way of life for the subordinated in exhausted submission and resistance to wearing out. Suicidiation under the discipline of biopolitics, then, is neither an expression of identity nor a plan. It is a register in which the labor of managing the work of living uneasily as a social problem or as a being battered by the ordinary of contingency and crisis imprints itself on consciousness. Sometimes suicidal ideation is executed in suicide.

Suidiciation, in Berlant’s view, describes a scene for life that is not a way of life. For some, life is akin “to a living death.” Drawing on Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964), and the latter’s Tom Ford film adaptation, Berlant argues that when living recedes as a possibility, but suicidal ideation is not acted upon, life goes on. Berlant does not treat suicide glibly, as E. M. Cioran does (“To think that so many have succeeded in dying!”). Instead, they argue that the unsurvivable (I am made to want to die) has been survived (I am alive). This is a triumph of attachment to life hanging by a thread, negotiated down to almost nothing: being in life without wanting the world. Dissociation and suidiciation are not positioned here as a form of medicalized madness, as La Marr Jurelle Bruce would have it, and instead comprise a “common condition that brings with it a clarifying resource for thinking about what to do with a life that is defined by what is out of joint in it.”

The coda, “My Dark Places,” turns us from the inconvenient subject and the inconvenience of others to the unbearable, a process begun in the third assay. The unbearable, Berlant writes, is a foundational paradox: “To call a thing unbearable is to admit that it must be borne. It cannot be other than it is. It is defined by a forced relation to life that taps into insecure and depleted resources. It is a limit case of inconvenience to the reproduction of life.” Berlant here reminds us that individuals are not even a decent judge of good and bad; we can’t be trusted to distinguish healthy attachment from unhealthy, even as regimes of self-help have made us think otherwise. Berlant maintains that all attachments are both. To restore the possibility of adjustment within attachment is posed, quietly, as a corrective to Cruel Optimism. Or as Berlant writes, “The inconvenience of other people isn’t evidence that the Others were bad objects all along: that would be hell.” Instead, the work is to be proximate—to a person, a structure—as a form of intimacy, and, in being near something, to be attached to the friction of attachment itself.

One could argue that Berlant’s lifelong work—the manuscript for Inconvenience was completed just weeks before they died—was to rewrite psychoanalysis via affect theory to rid it of the problems of the clinical case and to make it open to a braiding with Marx. They had to cloak this project in other terms to escape the failure of that project historically. (Reportedly, Sianne Ngai said a version of this, about Berlant as Marxist, in her eulogy at the University of Chicago last fall.) In Inconvenience, the psychoanalytic key comes late in the book, in passing, in the coda: “W. R. Bion says, such inconvenience generates the frustration where ideation begins.” For Bion, the late president of the British Psychoanalytical Society, frustration is more complex than it is in Berlant’s presentation. Inconvenience can exceed the revolutionary engine Berlant imagines it to be. Bion believed we are “a thinker without a thought” until we are frustrated. Only when frustration exceeds our tolerance do thoughts come. For Bion, there is another side to this (when is there not?): if we cannot endure frustration, we evade it, and we turn away, often to the material, as solace, as substitute. It makes sense that Berlant might be a crypto-Bionian. After all, he was the major psychoanalytic theorist of groups, who then pivoted to theories of social linking, attunement, and thought. Berlant moved in both these directions, and at the same time. 

Going on being is hard work, especially when even non-revolution feels far, when “being” as a propulsive verb feels impossible. Bion was once asked why he continued to practice psychoanalysis with those about to die from terminal illness. He retorted that one must make life as if life were still to come. In this statement, one can hear either the yearning for a liberatory horizon or a resignation to the status quo—all the way to the end. For Berlant, not only does thinking start with frustration, but also with “the copresence of an otherwise.” Writing the book itself under a terminal diagnosis was, perhaps, a gesture of life as is yet to come, the copresence of an otherwise and an afterward. The manuscript bears this trace, and death isn’t final until it delivers; a next book is alluded to, a further project sketched and left in the parenthetical voice, a wish to go on. The final book, the one we do have, is about breaking and breakdown, testing and creating, in ambivalent attachment to the serial finality of being alive. 

Hannah Zeavin is the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, 2021). She is the founding editor of Parapraxis magazine.