Lauren Berlant considers what our bodies, attachments, and solidarities make possible in the midst of structural cruelty.
Lauren Berlant once summarised the questions guiding their work as follows: “Why and how do people stay attached to fantasies of a life that are also wearing them out? How is it possible to unlearn visceral responses that reproduce supremacist and privileged imaginaries of sovereign comfort and freedom? How to use the pleasures of attachment to make sustainable alter-worlds in the present that involve creative solidarity and critical judgment? What’s the relation between critique and transformative social vision? In these scenes of relation, state, juridical, and institutional practices tangle with more informal social conventions and movements. The work argues that trauma, injury, and the vitalizing social comedy of getting through things together are not exceptions to the ordinary but the disturbance we’re inside of as we make, refuse to reproduce, and move through, worlds.”
The following note on a painting by Riva Lehrer speaks to these concerns in Berlant's characteristically attentive, insightful, and capacious prose, which had such a profound influence on so many. Republished with permission from Cruel Optimism (2011).
Note on the Cover Image: If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age
The painting here and also on the paperback edition’s cover is Riva Lehrer’s If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age. In the painting, Zora, the dog, blind in one eye and barred by the cone she wears from touching where it’s tender, looks into the air and seems happy. Why? She looks happy because she’s still and her face tilts up and because her tail seems intimately to brush Riva on the floor in the background. Riva, her face half covered, is probably weeping. But Riva is not in an absolute heap, destroyed by discomposure. She is using her hand to hold her face half-together and to touch what Zora cannot also touch. At the same time, she hides what Zora cannot also hide, so that the dog has a face for two, it seems: aimed, perhaps, toward the light. Part of the story lies in the title’s opening phrase: If Body. There is no verb, no action, only a tendency that’s subjunctive, propositional. There is an IF but no THEN: and so, if one follows the IF, what does one find, then? If body, pain. If body, misery. If body, attrition, vulnerability, wearing out. If body, bound to life. If body, fabric, hair, prosthesis, and surfaces that are grounds and backgrounds too. If body, other bodies: unseen and in proximity, abstract and touchable. If body, imitation—Riva covers her face as though she can be blind like Zora, but the difference between being and likeness is played out a hundredfold, and she is not blind, only tender, trying to stay in synch. If body, there’s Riva and Zora, hanging there and hanging in there, in the middle.
If body, there’s always a space in the middle, even when there is touching. Riva is riven in the middle—spina bifida. But this is not the middle to which the title refers—that’s age, the middle age—which, in dog and human years, amounts to an actuarial guess about an arc of existing. In what sense does this tableau of the two vulnerable bodies cover Cruel Optimism? Zora and Riva seem at peace with each other’s bodily being, and seem to have given each other what they came for: companionship, reciprocity, care, protection. Bodies make each other a little more possible: but they can’t do everything. My sight can’t give you your sight, my performative blindness may not even be empathy, and my mix of ability and impairment doesn’t impinge much on yours. What we do have together, in the middle of this thing, is a brush with solidarity, and that’s real. Zora and Riva are a team, a brace of utopian realists; they see things jointly, partially. A fantasy from the middle of disrepair doesn’t add up to repair. It adds up to a confidence that proceeds without denying fragility. Within the ordinary that means having adventures and being in the impasse together, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and also, allowing for some healing and resting, waiting for it not to drop. If body, then everything can follow.
So this scene would seem not to represent a relation of cruel optimism, because no projection or misrecognition is depicted, because so many kinds of reciprocity are on offer, and because there is an “and” that appears to work for both of these beings in the stretch of time that is the ongoing present of the presence of the two. But even in those circumstances mortality and vulnerability hover as the velvet uncanny of the situation. Even when you get what you want, you can’t have what you want. Even the best relation, the one that deserves the optimism you attach to it, can turn out cruelly when conditions beyond your or any dog’s control suddenly cleave your confidence about the scenes of increasing austerity beyond the one here that stretches out infinitely into aesthetic time. The if-bodies should be so lucky to be able to imitate the painting; if only they could follow indefinitely the dog’s tilt toward life. The painting is an aspirational concept. Disability, vulnerability, queerness, femininity, companion species solidarity—there is so much experimental suturing to be tried and so much confidence to be maintained, but because there is so much, there is optimism that sitting in the situation will allow more of a flourishing. Sitting is sitting, and preparation for moving, and the painting is a gesture.
It’s a political problem, of course, the body. If Body is a performance of optimism that lives not just with existential contingency but also with what goes without painting, the structural cruelty of risk, exposure, and affording things like the cone around Zora’s neck: medicine and whatever else it takes to maintain a holding environment for love. As a work, a cover, a cover song, a tribute, a displacement, and a restyling, If Body hovers in the long moment after the two-as-two have sat for the portrait of their undefeated mutual attachment to living on in phase beyond the frame.
Lauren Berlant was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, where they taught since 1984.
“Note on the Cover Image: If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age,” from Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism. Copyright 2011, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder.
- Thu, 29 Jul 2021