Lauren Berlant

On the Inconvenience of Other People

Duke University Press, 2022

256 pages

$25.95 paperback, $99.95 cloth

Reviewed by Weston Leo Richey

Most days everything overwhelms me. So much demands my attention: my daily tasks, my commute to work, my friends, even the act of typing out this review. I begin this review with a personal confession because it is this very sense of overwhelm that animates Lauren Berlant’s final, posthumous book, On the Inconvenience of Other People, and it is among our personal frictions with the world where Berlant’s thesis has the deepest resonance. As they put it in the very first pages of their book, “Mostly, people are inconvenient, which is to say that they have to be dealt with. ‘They’ includes you.” Berlant’s book spirals out from this impishly simple claim along several lines, confidently blending affect studies, queer theory, and media criticism to present a nuanced portrait of all the myriad possibilities our inconvenient attachments to the world and everything in it bear. The result is a book that appeals to literary scholars, critical theorists, and social critics alike that, in a style characteristic of the late Berlant, mingles play and considered thoughtfulness.

Berlant defines inconvenience, in the book’s Introduction, as “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.” Their deployment of imagery of movement–friction, shifting–aptly predicts their emphasis on inconvenience as an affect inextricably linked to instability and contradiction. Indeed, the most compelling theoretical upshot of inconvenience, and its modality Berlant finds most vivid, is “when one wants the world but resists some of the costs of wanting.” Berlant thus orients their project as an intervention that insists on theoretical and affective uncleanliness. Moreover, Berlant laces their Introduction and the book that follows with “assays,” excursions of varying lengths into branching ideas along the path of their argument. The upshot of Berlant’s style and method, and of inconvenience, is to provide a space for “loosening” our relations with the objects to which we attach ourselves. Inconvenience directs our attention to “the contradictions [an] object prompts” and allows us to “reconfigure” such an object for a better world. What follows from their Introduction are several such attempts at loosening.

Chapter One, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” is the chapter most squarely of interest to the reader of queer theory. On the most explicitly political-material level, Berlant closely reads the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris alongside shorter readings of two other films, Happiness (1998) and Half Nelson (2006), to chart the decoupling of sexual freedom from radical political change. Where Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tango deploys “a sexual explicitness that seemed to express the spirit of [ . . . ] the global revolution of youth against imperialism, capitalism, war, and sexual repression,” Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson grapple with “the failure” of the sexual revolution to keep its political promises. But a still more basic concern lurks throughout this chapter: the violent potential sex bears. Berlant suggests that one of the theoretical dramas in queer discourse has circled around the “problem of sex as a scene of disturbance that smudges the differences among care, pleasure, control focus, and harm.” In other words, sex is a vivid staging of inconvenience: the threat of sex to one’s sovereignty countervails the desire for sex and vice versa, and queer and feminist scholarship squirms under these twin affective forces. The turn to which Berlant gestures in the face of the choice between sex positivity and what they call “erotophobia” is at once maddeningly simple and seemingly impossible: to embrace ambivalence as a tool to “to make better forms of life […] [and] not to be defeated by the disorganized affects and effects of a demanding and ungiving world.”

Following on their discussion of sex’s relationship to politics, Berlant considers democracy more directly in Chapter Two, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times.” Here, Berlant’s expressive archive wanders more than in the previous or subsequent chapters as they consider several works of visual art, film, and poetry alongside the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and and the very space of Boston Common itself. The inconvenient fantasy Berlant “holds in suspicion [is] the prestige that the commons concept has attained in the United States and the theory-cosmopolitan context.” Importantly, the suspicion Berlant holds for the commons fantasy projects outward not just toward the commons of the dominative status quo that “flatten[s] the frictional encounter of different interests” but also toward the mobilization of collective first-person identity by well-meaning progressives that “is always local but often masked for the general. The same goes for the universal, which always ends up being specific, a failed abstraction.” Here, as in Chapter One, Berlant’s thinking arcs toward ambivalence and its possibilities. Berlant thus jockeys for a move away from desiring the commons as rigid, capacious structure and towards the commons as “affective infrastructures,” flexible forms of being-with that can toggle between separateness and togetherness. The fantasy of the commons, then, is a fantasy of a frictionless commons, a convenient democracy.

Berlant’s ideas alight most brightly in Chapter Three, “On Being in Life without Wanting the World: No World,” in which Berlant considers dissociation as an inconvenient affect. Closely reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964), Tom Ford’s 2009 movie adaptation of that novel, and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Berlant argues that “dissociation is a predictable effect and nonexceptional experience of living with, in, and under biopower’s structural disciplines and historical aggressions.” Ambivalence rumbles within dissociation, too, but its tenor is deeply moving. The protagonist of Isherwood’s novel and Ford’s movie and Rankine’s lyric “I” must retreat from a world that does violence to them, but the trick of dissociation is it is not a wholesale break from that world. Instead, the dissociated self exists in a holding pattern, not “wanting the world,” but nonetheless “being in life.” Where Chapters One and Two are more eager to find movement by embracing the friction of inconvenience, dissociation is a site of stuckness for Berlant. But such stuckness is what makes dissociation feel like the most fertile theoretical ground for inconvenience. Moreover, such stuckness is the point of dissociation, for, as Berlant contends, dissociation does not have utility as such, but instead it produces through its friction “a clarifying resource for thinking about what to do with a life that is defined by what is out of joint with it.”

I end, as Berlant does, with their Coda, “My Dark Places,” which takes the place of a traditional conclusion. Here Berlant revisits, through reading two books, a topic in an earlier work co-written with Lee Edelman (2013): the unbearable. The unbearable object is perhaps the only place one can go from sojourning in an aporetic affect like dissociation. What can we do with the object we cannot bear but still want? What can we do with the inconvenient object that “breaks into you,” and which lodges itself there? In response to the unbearable, the “limit case of the inconvenience of other people,” Berlant offers the most startling and fruitful turn in the last pages of their last book: if inconvenience gives us the chance to loosen our relations to the world, the unbearably inconvenient prompts us to “become the loosened object[s].” So loosened by inconvenience, we perhaps have no clear protocol, no political program or utopia. But nothing is the gift of inconvenience. Where there is nothing there is space.