Born in 1957, Lauren Berlant theorized neoliberalism’s affective life. From 1984 to 2021, they taught at the University of Chicago, an institution which was instrumental in developing neoliberalism’s ideological infrastructure. Cruel Optimism (2011), Berlant’s breakout hit, is about what happens when “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” We remain, for instance, in a relation of cruel optimism with what Berlant called “the good life,” which is both the fantasy of inconvenience-free existence, and America’s short-lived postwar boom, which, post-Financial Crash, had begun to deteriorate visibly.
As free market capitalism, reduced government spending, and deregulation facilitated authoritarianism across the second half of the 2010s, Berlant looked at the rise of “freedom” as fetish object. In “Trump, or Political Emotions,” Berlant argued that Trump was popular, not because of his policies, but because he is “so free.” Supporting Trump lets his supporters to feel free by proxy, even as Trump destroys their freedom materially. During this same era, Berlant also analyzed the aesthetics of comedy. What’s the venn diagram overlap between the predator and the jokester? Between humor and humorlessness?
Berlant began publicly using they/them pronouns in the last few years of their life, a decision which, as scholar Colby Gordon has pointed out, many queer theorists of their generation took as a deathbed conversion—it wasn’t. In a 2019 interview, Berlant said: “The commune I lived in when I was in high school, Twin Oaks, had a gender neutral pronoun: Co. And I used it for years. And got my ass handed to me in grad school for being pretentious. So stopped.” Berlant was in fact wary of distracting away from trans people who had been out for longer and were more vulnerable (“not trying to get cred,” they said in the same interview). It’s also true that their writing on “lateral agency” and “remaining attached” gave words to what, years later, Trans Studies would call “dissociation.”
On The Inconvenience of Other People (excerpted below) was Berlant’s last book. The title is itself inconvenient, clunky, hard to say. Why not The Inconvenience of Others? What is the “on” even for? But the title is, of course, intentional, as annoying, funny, and necessary as the book’s thesis. Which is: that we annoy each other because perfect mutual recognition and communication is impossible; that some of us, individually and on a population level, are inconvenient to the social reproduction of racial capitalism; and that, despite all this, we (via what Berlant called the “inconvenience drive”) crave others anyway.
While “the university” is gutted by privatization and austerity, one way of keeping us cruelly, optimistically attached is via parasocial attachments to super star academics such as....Lauren Berlant. But as covid-era higher education enters a new phase of decline management, perhaps we’re beyond the phase of cruel optimism which once imagined academia as the vanguard of revolution. Berlant didn’t pretend to know what would come next. Angel of History-like, they proffered “transitional infrastructures.” Prepared for their own death, Berlant even wrote their own eulogy: “They did what they could at the time.”
- Charlie Markbreiter
Hell is other people, if you’re lucky.
“Hell is other people” is a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, although its continued appeal as a thing people say has little to do with the play. In Sartre’s version, characters are sentenced to occupy a room in Hell, exposed eternally to each other’s bodily presence and, much worse, to each other’s insufferable sameness. When people utter “hell is other people,” though, the phrase confirms more than the miserable effects of the relentless repetition of other people’s personalities. Freed from context, “Hell is other people” is an affirmative quip, too, emitting a comic, even courageous, air. Such a blunt cut can generate the conspiratorial pleasure of just hearing someone say it: it’s other people who are hell, not you. They really are, it’s a relief to admit it.
In other words, along with describing a saturating disappointment in others and expressing a kind of grandiose loneliness that aspires to fill its own hole with the satisfying sounds of superiority and contempt, “Hell is other people” has become a consoling thought.
Of course, some other people are hell, relentlessly saturating situations so fully that it’s impossible to relax while being around them—so much so that the very idea of them becomes suffocating. This affective sense of the stultifying person or kind of person also girds the affective life of racism, misogyny, ethnonationalism, and other modes of population disgust that Judith Butler points to in her work on “grievable life.”
Mostly, though, other people are not hell. Mostly, the sense of friction they produce is not directed toward a specific looming threat. Mostly, people are inconvenient, which is to say that they have to be dealt with. “They” includes you.
“Inconvenience” is a key concept of this book: the affective sense of the familiar friction of being in relation. At a minimum, inconvenience is the force that makes one shift a little while processing the world. It is evident in micro-incidents like a caught glance, a brush on the flesh, the tack of a sound or smell that hits you, an undertone, a semiconscious sense of bodies copresent on the sidewalk, in the world, or on the sidewalk of the world, where many locales may converge in you at once materially and affectively. It lives on in the many genres of involuntary memory—aftertaste, aftershock, afterglow. It might be triggered by anything: a phrase, a smell, a demanding pet, or someone you trip over, even just in your mind. It might be spurred by ordinary racism, misogyny, or class disgust, which can blip into consciousness as organic visceral judgments. The sense of it can come from nothing you remember noticing or from a small adjustment you made or couldn’t make, generating an episode bleed that might take on all kinds of mood or tone, from irritation and enjoyment to fake not-caring or genuine light neutrality. In other words, the minimal experience of inconvenience does not require incidents or face-to-faceness: the mere idea of situations or other people can also jolt into awareness the feel of their inconvenience, creating effects that don’t stem from events but from internally generated affective prompts.
The important thing is that we are inescapably in relation with other beings and the world and are continuously adjusting to them. I am describing more than “being affected” and sometimes less than “being entangled”: this analysis is grounded in the problematics of the social life of affect, drawing from situations involving genres of the sense of proximity, physical and otherwise, that might involve a sense of overcloseness at a physical distance, or not, and might involve intimate familiarity, or not. It might involve unclarity about how one is in relation to what one is adjusting to, or not. At whatever scale and duration, “inconvenience” describes a feeling state that registers one’s implication in the pressures of coexistence. In that state the body is paying attention, affirming that what’s in front of you is not all that’s acting on or in you.
Whatever tone it takes, whatever magnetic field it generates, this latter kind of contact with inconvenience disturbs the vision of yourself you carry around that supports your sovereign fantasy, your fantasy of being in control. This state is a geopolitically specific one, too, insofar as its model of the individual-with- intention includes a political and social demand for autonomy as evidence of freedom. The sovereign fantasy is not hardwired into personality, in other words: as US scholars of indigeneity such as Jessica Cattelino, Jodi A. Byrd, and Michelle Rajaha have demonstrated, sovereignty as idea, ideal, aesthetic, and identity claim is an effect of an ideology of settler-state control over personal and political territories of action that sanctions some privileged individuals as microsovereigns. This fantasy, which saturates the liberal colonial state and the citizenship subjectivity shaped by it, is thus seen as a natural condition worthy of defense. But sovereignty is always in defense of something, not a right or a natural state.
As I will argue throughout, the sense of the inconvenience of other people is evidence that no one was ever sovereign, just mostly operating according to some imaginable, often distorted image of their power over things, actions, people, and causality. It points to a style of being in relation and a sense of how things should best happen. People use phrases such as chain of command or the commons of x to describe what to do with nonsovereignty. The fact of inconvenience is not the exception to one’s sense of sovereignty, therefore; sovereignty is the name for a confused, reactive, often not-quite-thought view that there ought to be a solution to the pressure of adapting to “other people” and to other nations’ force of existence, intention, action, entitlement, and desire. Sovereignty is thus a fantasy of jurisdiction. It is a defense of entitlement, reference, and agency. Wounded sovereignty is, in some deep way, parallel to the concept of wounded narcissism. For if you or your nation were truly—as opposed to retroactively—sovereign, what then?
We know that, just by existing, historically subordinated populations are deemed inconvenient to the privileged who made them so; the subordinated who are cast as a problem experience themselves as both necessary for and inconvenient to the general supremacist happiness. All politics involves at least one group becoming inconvenient to the reproduction of power; that power might be material or fantasmatic, in the convoluted paranoid way endemic to the intimacy of enemies. The biopolitical politics of inconvenience increases the ordinary pressure of getting in each other’s way, magnifying the shaping duration of social friction within the mind’s echo chambers and the structuring dynamics of the world.
As an affect, inconvenience can thus encompass all kinds of intensity but still be cast as a mode of impersonal contact that has an impact, opening itself to becoming personal, creating images of what feels like a looming social totality, and making a countervailing social organization Imaginable. Think about Cheryl Harris’s staging of Blackness as “trespassing” on white consciousness as it strolls and scrolls through the world expecting not to feel impeded; think of the pervasive sexual violence women imagine concretely when they’re walking somewhere alone. These sensations of threat are ordinary to the people moving through in the lifeworlds of a supremacist society and its entitlement hierarchies… When is a body an event because of the kind of thing it is deemed to be, as when they walk into a room or cross a state line? What price and what kinds of price are being paid in order to live a life as other people’s inconvenient object?
To a structurally and/or fantasmatically dominant class, though, the experience of inconvenience produces dramas of unfairness. Take, for example, the paranoid reversals of “incels” and other entitled persons who experience their vulnerability as an injury of unjustly denied deference. It is predictable that the structurally dominant feel vulnerable about their status and insist that if the historically subordinated deserve repair, so do the entitled. It is as though there is a democracy in vulnerability, as though the details do not matter.
This means that inconvenience, though intimate, inevitably operates at a level of abstraction, too, where we encounter each other as kinds of thing—but not necessarily in a bad way, because there is no other way to begin knowing each other, or anything. We cannot know each other without being inconvenient to each other. We cannot be in any relation without being inconvenient to each other. This is to say: to know and be known requires experiencing and exerting pressure to be acknowledged and taken in…
Thus, the inconvenience of other people isn’t evidence that the Others were bad objects all along: that would be hell. The inconvenience of the world is at its most confusing when one wants the world but resists some of the costs of wanting. It points to the work required in order to be with even the most abstract of beings or objects, including ourselves, when we have to and at some level want to, even if the wanting includes wanting to dominate situations or merely to coexist. The pleasure in anonymity and in being known; the fear of abandonment to not mattering and the fear of mattering the wrong way. I am describing in inconvenience a structural awkwardness in the encounter between someone and anything, but also conventions of structural subordination. Thus “people” in the title stands for any attachment, any dependency that forces us to face how profoundly nonsovereign we are. The concept also points to hates and to the danger to our sense of well-being that is produced even by the things we want to be near; it clarifies some things about the registers of power that attach dramas of such disturbance to bodies living approximately in the ordinary.
This excerpt is from On the Inconvenience of Other People by Lauren Berlant, out now from Duke University Press. Copyright Duke University Press, 2022.