Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant discusses “reading with” and her recent work

Left: Cover of Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or The Unbearable (2013). Right: View of William Pope.L’s Forlesen, 2013.

Duke University Press recently published Sex, or The Unbearable, a long-form critical dialogue between theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. Through a series of close readings addressing the work of Larry Johnson, Miranda July, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, the book examines the often unbearable pressures and cleavages sex can produce—for good and for ill. Berlant and Edelman variously mitigate and amplify the theoretical, structural, and vernacular ambivalencies of intimacy, collaboration, and collective life. Berlant states in the book’s coda: “I do not read things: I read with things.” Indeed, she is known for producing readings with texts, objects, and events that are as incisively surprising as they are politically alive. Berlant here considers what “reading with” would look like if theorized as a methodology.

PERHAPS I SHOULD BEGIN BY SAYING THAT MY THOUGHT IS ELLIPTICAL; that is to say, it both tracks concepts and allows for unfinishedness, inducing itself to become misshapen in the hope that by the time you return to the point of departure, so many things will have come into contact that the contours of the concept and the forms associated with its movement will have changed. How can our encounter with something become a scene of unlearning and engendering from within the very intensity of that encounter?

If I were to theorize “reading with” as a method, I might begin with something about which I’ve recently written, William Pope.L’s Forlesen, an installation that was on view last year at the Renaissance Society.¹ The title sounds a lot like the German word vorlesen, which means “to read out.” In that piece of writing, I describe ekphrastically the process of learning to read with Pope.L’s work. When I walked into Forlesen, the first thing I saw was a peeling wall, and then I looked around and I realized: It’s a cock and it’s an architecture at the same time. I understood that the cock was providing the infrastructure for my encounter. Covered in a dark ketchup, the walls were racialized and also about surfacing. The architecture was undoing itself, drying out. The room was scattered with glasses of water, too, so the work is also about evaporation, the hunger of the world for your juices, for what animates you and the earth, holding it all together. Liquid is liveness, but it’s a medium for loss, too. At the same time, we are drying out together, though not identically. What’s the force of the overpresence of the cock?

The first time I entered the room I felt a little defensive or grumpy, like, “Oh, I have to enter into this cock now and follow out its journey…” And then I thought, “Well, I am kind of defending myself from the encounter before I get in there.” Whenever I encounter my own resistance to learning the thing that I have gone out of my way to take in, I have to laugh and try again. I have to reboot the relation so that my encounter with it is not mainly a defense against it. Forlesen is a multiple complex architecture. On one side of the room is a sculpture of the bottom half of W. E. B. Du Bois—upside down, legs flailing in the air—and on the other side of the room is a picture of the artist’s son. We move through the cock from Du Bois to the son. Inside the cock there are literary and pornographic archives, and the room is saturated with the noise of a little girl’s speech about the artist and Martin Luther King mixed with droning sounds of sexual arousal sourced from the porn loops playing there. At some level, moving through all that felt like moving from the political to the private.

That immediate defensive response was less negative than exhausted. The wish, of course, is that reading with, like being with, is a natural process that unfolds. Over time, the bad defenses will peel away. Over time, you will lose your terrible attachments to likeness and alterity. Over time, the right things will end up on the floor while the rest is taken in. There is a reason we call that wish fantasy.

Oh yes, the ellipsis! I’ve been working on ellipses as infrastructures of relation. When I saw the black balloons in Forlesen, I had to laugh, because they appear as a kind of exploded ellipsis, and Ellipsis turned out to be their title. Pope.L was playing with the flesh’s thingly temporality. At the opening, all of the black balloons were inflated, and by the end the helium had gone out of them and they were all on the ground—shriveled, sexual, uncanny and more, but not identical. That’s part of the show’s orchestration of negativity too. The balloons look like afterthoughts, the way they are scattered, because they don’t take up the same kind of concentrated monumental space as the big wooden cock. And yet…

The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.

An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because…I don’t know how to.

An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because…you know what I mean.

An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.

Ellipses might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words.


1. The observations that follow derive from the essay that will be included in the volume Hinge, ed. William Pope.L and Karen Reimer (Chicago: The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago Press, 2014).