Beyond Formaldehyde, An Interview with Lauren Berlant

conducted by Kris Cohen (KC) and Christa Noel Robbins (CR)

Question 1 You said in the lead up to this interview that you’re writing a lot about form right now. What’s driving that interest in form? Why now?

I always feel stupid in front of “why now” questions, because they seem to presume a shared “now” and, you know, I don’t think we can presume that, since I think of the present as an effect of mediation, a time-genre giving form to an affective sense that gains traction through circulation. I have always written about form: the nation form, the couple form, the form of life… Think of Formica, a laminate that appears as a single hard substance so stable it can be cut to order. So instead of the couple, of which we have specific or generic personal images in our heads, the “couple form” made me ask about template, norm, schema, object of desire, leakage out of the lines, immanence, emergence and ambition toward something at once stable enough to conceptualize and figural enough to capture as a general and singular movement; I could say the same for “the nation form,” which I derived from translocal analyses and shaped into a loosely self-related idea and cluster of practices rather than some default place or institution. As for “form of life,” so central to ordinary language philosophy and Foucauldian/queer thought practice, it allowed me to see that what seems solidly a form turns out really to be a pattern toward which one has an orientation (so what feels like a law is often a cluster of stipulations plus norms, and what feel like rigid norms are often adaptive and incoherent). Thinking about form as pattern, movement, and convention made it less possible to relax into a default structuralism, where x was a thing that had opposites. It allowed me to see that what seem like random actions or ephemeral gestures can become taken up as form when invested with sustaining interest in the dynamic of their repetitions. I was also probably very trained by Derrida’s “Form of Law” and “Law of Genre,” which attend not to laws or a universal concept of law but the movement within the limit space of its own self-exception.

That said, I’ve been spending a lot of writing time lately describing affects that haven’t yet been well-described, and that means thinking about style and modes of action within encounters—not just between people but among things that gain force through dynamic relations—in an environment or scene, say, that haven’t yet taken on the form of what might be recognized as an event (feeling sad, being concerned, becoming ecstatic, etc.). Since I think of affect primarily as a disturbance rather than an anchor or event, what always interests me are projections from within spaces of receptivity: how people produce heuristic forms within the disturbance of encounter that don’t neutralize disruption but make it possible to move with and within it, developing what Simondon calls a milieu for the relation, and metabolizing its impact, including making more and less durable forms.

This process of attending to and inducing form has little to do with seeing recognition or likeness, since they presume the stability of the object. Thinking about form in aesthetic and social terms has had to do with the action and impact of becoming proximate and changing because of the force of proximity. I learned some language for this from John Forrester’s reading of Thomas Kuhn, in which the case is what we proceed with in the absence of a theory.[1] D. A. Miller has written beautifully on sexuality and sexual identity as style, as practices that are encountered and repeated in a loose yet certain way.[2] Debating the intractability or lability of affective and social form is at the center of my conversation with Lee Edelman in Sex, or the Unbearable too.[3] This inclination to think of form as the traction of tracked processes is also relevant to my sense of intimate publics as live and labile scenes that are at once metastable but always shifting attention and changing qualities. This discussion about form is also, of course, about ideology, about how certain kinds of pattern are invested with responsibility for holding up the world, such that their form becomes burdened with optimism or just interest. So my interest in aesthetics, affect, and the sensorium’s political inculcation circulate through my interest in form.

I note that I am trying hard not to make form all about the visual in these sentences, but to imagine patterning across all of the senses.

Question 2 (CR) You talk about form as a “template” or a norm, which indicates it is something out there, in the world, to identify (or identify with). The reason I continue to be attached to Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss (really, Greenberg via Krauss) in my own work is because they open up a method of description by which form can be discussed as a procedure, in Krauss’s terms a manner of relating that is indexed to historical and material expectations and manners of comportment. This is something that’s deeply misunderstood about both Greenberg and Krauss whose formalisms are often taken to be either restricted to a kind of material specificity or to the recognition of good design. Has any approach to form in the archive of literature you typically refer to helped you in a similar manner to think about the uses and workings of form?

I don’t see how I said anything about how form is out there. I meant to say that form is a process that allows for a return and extension, such that it can carry the affective or visual weight of solidity without being intractable in a temporal or processual sense. That sounds a lot like what you like in Krauss, and it’s also what I like in Krauss. So form is sensed in my sense, and also involves a relational convergence that allows for a scene to emerge without a very high-bar agreement on whether the same object is being mutually or collectively held, by which I mean invested with interest. Is being shared the same thing as being out there, I wonder?

Norms and templates are kinds of relational convergence but not the only kinds. Anyway, I have learned to recognize the activity of form from so many people that this could be a long list. So I will just point to a few genealogies. Deleuze, Latour, and Katie Stewart more recently helped me think about how to think formally about the abstract sensual experience of affectively invested space but when I was starting out in graduate school it was Kenneth Burke, Barthes, Fanon, Jameson and, all kinds of feminism—especially Hortense Spillers and Barbara Johnson. I read Fanon, all of it, on my own in graduate school, and it was a big deal for thinking about the co-presence of disturbance and form, not their contrapuntal relation. Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Adorno and the hegemony theorists helped me too. These thinkers figure out methods for making form for the situation in front of us scenically, aesthetically, or in the broad convergence called the historical present without suppressing the dynamic quality through which form is sustained, circulates, absorbs challenge, adapts.

There’s a prehistory to that set of readings. I suggested in the first response that I am interested in the training in attention through which someone living in the middle of life can see and make social forms happening in time, in institutions, and so on. The first shocker in this regard was reading George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in early college and lots of that kind of journalism (I couldn’t sleep for a week after reading The Jungle, too, and Howl) and I devoured psychoanalytic case studies, and became fascinated with the event of disturbed form that makes an incident into a case in many disciplines. But in terms of professional ethnographers I was introduced right away in college to Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston as a pair, to Clifford Geertz and Sherry Ortner and feminist/sexuality anthropology—reading Brackette Williams really changed me, for example: now, of course, I’m identified with people like my collaborator Katie Stewart, but there are also amazing people like Loïc Wacquant, João Biehl and Anna Tsing, who are such great and challenging teachers of attention to form. In my own generation reading the Deleuzians and performance studies has been very important to thinking about form, body, and affect as impact, movement. Beth Povinelli and Michael Warner too, but I would of course be affected by my collaborators in comprehending circulation of publics, intimates, and aesthetic form. Finally, as I wrote in Cruel Optimism, to me Marxist political theory was affect theory too, and in my mind this resonated with psychoanalytic and semiotic traditions of reading emergent form in structural situations, especially of inequality, and they happened to intersect with queer formalism: Eve Sedgwick, Leo Bersani… It’s kind of interesting to think about how an intellectual autobiography of training in form isn’t identical to what I would say about my training in political consciousness or, say, close reading. But lots of overlap too! Transdisciplinary training in pattern—I guess that’s why we’re talking here about form and not genre, which is interesting.

But you know, I read with theory, not under it. I have wanted to tattoo on my arm, “What would it mean to have that thought?” which is a sentence about how hard it is to metabolize a pattern and understand the kinds of world and knowledge organization it entails. It takes a long time to metabolize a thought. I am very slow. It is probably worth saying also that I have learned as much from seeing forms of relation in artworks and at cafés as I have from reading. Critical theory was a space of permission for following my nose more than a tradition in which I was aspiring to a place.

Question 3 (KC) This is interesting, and not just because we had intended to ask you about form in relation to genre. You have also written a lot about genre as a kind of elastic (though sometimes brittle) patterning of expectation that props up relational encounters, something I know you’ve related to the work of Fredric Jameson and, in a very different vein, Stanley Cavell. If we’re talking about form and not genre because of the genealogy you reference, is the difference between form and genre in your work mainly in the genealogy within which you’re working at any given moment, in who has written about each concept? Or do those genealogical differences track with something in ordinary practice, in scenes of encounter, alienation, in aesthetics, etc.? Is it a question of scale, the scale of the patternings?

I don’t know! I’m afraid this involves a simpler distinction, between form as an extended repetition that conscripts attention and genre as scene of elaborated and conventional expectation. It might be that genre therefore is always about modalities of practice that circulate norms while form can be noticed as an infrastructure of relation without a genre attached to it, to return to what I said earlier about an interest in how we induce planes of consistency within conceptual and subjective disturbances. Cavell and the Deleuzians confirmed and gave me some resonant language for describing form as rhythm and movement that need not be resolved into non-contradictory form and Jameson gave me ways to see the overdetermination of form at any moment, including in genre, such that it was possible to talk about history and figuration without making them mirrors or antinomies.

You’re in a different field than I am and are probably working out your questions in relation to different concepts of the object. Do you want to say something about that here so I can have a clearer understanding of why my interest in form as movement and disturbance in patterns that can take on all kinds of charge is relevant to your desire to shift things?

CR: I regard form in art history as traditionally being limited to two functions: 1. the recognition of good design (the parodic representation of what Clive Bell or Clement Greenberg did with form) or 2. the analysis of stylistic attributes that transcend historical specificity (the kind of formalism we associate with more historical figures like Heinrich Wölfflin). Art history as a discipline has opened itself to a variety of theoretical approaches to form that exceed these very limited accounts. As with any of the disciplines in the humanities, this means it can be very difficult to say what exactly form’s function is for art history any longer. I think Kris and I are not struggling against a pre-established approach to form so much as we are recognizing that form’s uses are radically interdisciplinary and diverse in the humanities in general. This has been, on the one hand, extremely productive for art history, but, on the other, has also led to a dissipation of the very concept form.

Keeping form in view and getting clear on what exactly it is and does helps me in particular to think in greater detail about two things: 1. how meaning arises in relation to works of art and, very much connected to this, 2. how works are themselves capable of disrupting, confirming or articulating already established meaningful relations. Looking outside art history, at scholars like Jameson and you, Lauren, has allowed me not only to think of the object in its various relations differently, but also to read form’s uses in the hands of historians and critics differently. So that, for example, an art historian like Rosalind Krauss, who has maintained a quite disciplinary attachment to form and medium, even while radicalizing the objects she looks at, seems to me to use form to consider investments that objects bring in their wake, and how something like the history of viewing (which includes the history of discerning meaning) can be revealed and critiqued through a formal reading of the object. Krauss wouldn’t call this formalism, but simply modernism. Reading her along with more contemporary approaches to form allows me to view her work as still interested in form, but of a kind very different from Greenberg and Michael Fried (against whom she positioned herself).

KC: From the art historical debates Christa sketches above, I take the idea that form is itself a kind of residue of encounters that have changed over time in and out of sync with history itself. Krauss and others call this “tradition” and tether it to medium specificity. But I read this in relation to Jameson’s thought that form is the distillate or trace of a cultural formation that sparks across disparate registers of meaning: the social, the cultural, the economic, the sexual, etc., and so while form is specific for me, it’s never only specific to artistic media. But I’m also thinking about the aesthetics of electronic networks and the problem of tracking a form’s various (or what Deleuzians would call virtual) extensions, how form there is itself potentialized and commoditized precisely as potential, while also being labile, while also happening in a context in which that lability might not come to matter as agency or acting on the world. If there’s a problem of form that I’m trying to throw resources at, it’s that.

LB: I think what we are discovering here is that your questions are really disciplinary ones: professional ones. I think it’s time in this discussion for you to talk to each other about what’s at stake—what changes—in landing at one or another place in relation to form. The art historical object, even when it is virtual or post-medium, is so much more specific an event than I take form to be. For you, “beyond the object” means beyond an object we would recognize floating in Formaldehyde. It seems as though form’s a drag or prior constraint in your field, but differently for you both, which haunts what you can do critically to put things in relation, to create form. By saying this I don’t mean to say that any of my fields are above fetishism, literalism, or conservatism.  Hardly! I mean that as an interest in scanning for form allows the three of us to meet trans-disciplinarily, as the aesthetic and political interest in infrastructures and generative proximity induce developments in formalism that resist drowning in tedious antitheses and allow for potentially magnetizing speculations beyond material or the object, the question is: what forms does propositional thought generate, and what do they hold in place at the same time as they disturb?

 

[1] John Forrester, “On Kuhn’s Case: Psychoanalysis and the Paradigm,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 33, No. 4, On the Case edited by Lauren Berlant (Summer 2007): 782-819.

[2] D.A. Miller, Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[3] Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, Or the Unbearable (Duke University Press, 2013).

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Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of several books including, Sex, or the Unbearable (with Lee Edelman, 2013), Cruel Optimism (2011), The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008) and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997).