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Holding Up the World, Part III: In the Event of Precarity … A Conversation


Elizabeth Povinelli: I don’t know about you but my colleagues often remark on the deep conversational possibilities of our recent work, especially where my thinking about the endurance and exhaustion of alternative social projects through the quasi-event overlaps with your thinking about cruel optimism around non-event-like events. I am not surprised, of course. We began talking in Chicago almost a decade ago about the social and affective forms that characterize Late Liberalism. And it’s probably not surprising that I would end up focusing more on what I would call energetic aspects, and you on feelings. I always err on the side of what I think about as the problem of the “endurant” and its social antonym, exhaustion and the problem of the tensile nature of substantialized power. Internal to the concept of endurance is the tense, substance, and eventfulness of Late Liberalism: the problem of strength, hardiness, callousness; continuity through space; an ability to suffer and persist. The endurant allows me to absent the question of feeling-affect. But that’s what I love about your work. You don’t.

Lauren Berlant: A decade ago! More like fifteen years. In 1999 you stole the manuscript of “Love, a Queer Feeling” from my study and sent it to Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis. (Thanks for that!) The previous year, we did a word-by-word edit of your “The State of Shame” for my Critical Inquiry special issue, “Intimacy.” My computer tells me that in this same year we invented the concept of Late Liberalism for our working group at the University of Chicago, which grew out of conversations between you, me, and Candace Vogler about starting a project called “Monster Studies” (that was its nickname, from Jackie Stacey’s Teratologies). The aim of the project was to conceive of the world beyond models of liberal intentionalist subjectivity, and its refractions in a monocultural nation-state. That project eventuated in the conference we ran, Violence and Redemption, which became a Public Culture special issue edited by Vogler and Patchen Markell. (So it’s funny and lovely to hear the return of the word “monster” in your current work on the anthropocene: we can’t get away from it, the staging of a tragicomic alterity.) Then, in 2007, you heard about my article “Slow Death” from Michael Warner, and wrote to me to get it for inclusion in what became your article “The Child in the Basement: States of Killing and Letting Die,” and from there we entered phase two of our collaboration.

So it’s not surprising to me that resonances are heard in our work: we’ve been working together, in and out of conversation, for a long time; many of your now thickly and beautifully developed rubrics emerge from those working group days. What interests me so much is in your ever more explicit insistence on the ethnographic test for theory: what you, in your recent keynote at an anthropocene conference, called a toggle between “on the table” and “on the ground,” as in: “when immanent critique occupies the world it claims its own ground.” I would love to hear you talk about that test—what constitutes the ground, what it means for you to say that, especially since you also, unlike many anthropologists, also mobilize the aesthetic.

But to get to your framing question. You and I share, for sure, an interest in “the endurant” and the exhausted: “Slow Death” was the first place I worked it out, but I’d long talked about politics as a war of attrition, riffing off Gramsci’s “War of Position” and “War of Manoeuvre” as well as his keen sense of how hypervigilance and compulsive strategizing can wear a body out. Even in your first book, your interest in exhaustion emerged from structural and symbolic notions of economy that crossed the structural and collective sensual life.

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