The 2016 Goldstone Lecture: Professor Lauren Berlant on Dissociative Poetics and the Elliptical Life

unnamedBy Abby Kosisko

Professor Lauren Berlant delivered the 2016 Goldstone Lecture, “On Being in Life without Wanting the World (Living with Ellipsis),” on November 15 at the Jeffrey Horowitz Theater on campus. The Goldstone Lecture is an annual event sponsored by the Department of English in conjunction with the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Berlant is the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her numerous books and essays are renowned for their complex positions on the political other, queer theory, gender, intimacy, and belonging.

Inspired by her current book project, On the Inconvenience of Other People, Berlant defined a dissociative poetics through an analysis of Claudia Rankine’s 2004 Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man, and the 2009 film adaptation by the same name directed by Tom Ford.

For Berlant, dissociation is the loss of identity in connection with the world that individuals feel as a result of having been politically or socially “othered.” She centered her lecture on five types of dissociation: a state of disbelief that delays feeling the impact of loss; another state, similar to disbelief, which continues to interrupt the impact of loss but accepts that it has happened; a dispersed multi-awareness state after loss: a state in which one feels the contradiction of intimacy in a distant world; and the state of feeling dissociated when living displaced from the privileged.

Before delving into these five types, Berlant used a reading of Rankine and Isherwood to explain how suicide ideation—or the desire to leave the world without the will power to abandon it—is often seen by individuals as a solution to feeling socially othered. Berlant explained that Isherwood’s main character is a gay man in a predominantly homophobic society, and Rankine’s speaker is a black woman in a predominantly racist society, leaving both in a state of dissociation so severe they feel their only solution is suicide. But this ideation would and never should come to fruition, as Berlant remarked that suicide ideation is, for these authors, “a limit that can’t be reached,” something “unendurable being endured, like holding things together that are falling apart.” Berlant commented that suicide is never an answer to this state, but the ideation of it is a psychological relief to those who continue to live separated from the world around them.

Berlant supplemented her talk with slides featuring excerpts from Rankine’s lyrical poetry and Isherwood’s novel, as well as still photographs from Ford’s film adaptation. A particularly powerful moment occurred when she showed a still of George from A Single Man with a gun pointed to the roof of his mouth. Much like Berlant’s lecture itself, the movie, she explained, flitted between emotional poles as this dramatic scene was quickly followed by a light-hearted, slapstick moment. This kind of comedy, which she defines as “falling apart without ceasing to exist,” kept resurfacing throughout the lecture as Berlant explored affective states, the place of marginalized groups in a capitalist, race-conscious, elitist world, and the condition of being part of something without belonging to it. Berlant’s difficult yet insightful lecture seamlessly wove together Rankine’s, Isherwood’s, and Ford’s artistic voices to bolster her own interpretation of dissociative poetics.

Berlant wrapped up her lecture with a discussion of life in what she calls the “ellipsis,” a state in which one is “left with a question instead of an answer.” She claimed that people of all ages across the social landscape are living in this state because of profound dissociation. Citing Gilles Deleuze’s Pure Immanence and Harryette Mullen’s “Elliptical” as examples, she concluded that life in the “ellipsis” of political existence is “giving out, not giving up.” Berlant tied this to the recent presidential election, after which many groups of people already feel themselves being pushed into the “ellipsis.” She underscored the importance of the academic community coming together to support and include all of those that feel othered, and to talk and understand the changing political landscape.

Her lecture was followed by a long Q&A in which Berlant enthusiastically answered several interesting questions on subjects ranging from the weaponization of mindfulness to the relationship between refusal and world building. The active participation of the crowd spoke volumes to Berlant’s ability to engage a large, diverse audience.