This week: conversations with Maggie Doherty, Anahid Nersessian, and Zachary Samalin about the American mood and the legacy of Lauren Berlant. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

After the scholar Lauren Berlant died this summer, remembrances made clear that we’d lost an epoch-making mind, who prompted new ways to think and feel about both history and private life. A professor of English who studied affect and mood in politics and culture, Berlant propelled a major turn in American thought, and on this week’s show, we learn about that turn.

Among Berlant’s landmark achievements are Cruel Optimism and The Female Complaint. Both focus on how individual sentiments are immersed in political currents. Zachary Samalin, professor of English at NYU who was a colleague of Berlant’s at the University of Chicago, says:

One of the most exciting things to me about Lauren’s work is the sort of historical dimension. There’s this sense in which our desires and our fantasies and our attachments are historically rooted.

Zachary Samalin.

Maggie Doherty, who teaches writing at Harvard and is the author of The Equivalents, describes Berlant’s “cruel optimism” in particular American sectors:

One of the ways that we develop our fantasies or our visions of the good life, you know, comes from history. And there were moments in the United States when working in various industries, intellectual industries, literary industries like journalism, media, academia, could result in what we tend to think of as a good life. And that might mean security, economic security, a home, stability, a community. And this was kind of facilitated by some of the policies of the mid-century, the ways that the state, the welfare state was available for more people in more ways.

Those conditions no longer obtain. We don’t have a robust welfare state. We don’t have protections for people in their workplaces. The labor movement has decreased in power. Venture capital now owns a ton of media organizations and is selling them whenever it’s convenient. And so these routes toward a kind of American good life, an American style of good life, are really closed off to us.

But that often doesn’t prevent people from working in media, from becoming journalists or becoming writers, from making podcasts, from doing this kind of work that we feel attached to or we feel compelled to do. And I guess the question is: how much of our attachment ends up really, really destroying us or hurting us?

Berlant thus illuminated public life, but also our private and individual lives. Anahid Nersessian, a professor of English at UCLA, who was mentored by Berlant, says:

One of the things that I learned from Lauren on a personal level is the necessity of trying to get beyond knee-jerk judgments of people with whom we come into conflict. Lauren was quite interested in Buddhism, and the sort of paradigmatic program of Buddhist thought is the suspension and removal of judgment. I think that’s a very, very important lesson that I learned from Lauren, that you could end a relationship with somebody without deciding that they were the worst person in the world.

You don’t have to produce a kind of dissertation about why this person was horrible and toxic and vicious. You could simply remove yourself, and you could simply reorient yourself toward a better kind of relationship or better kind of life. That’s something that I’ve taken with me and that has enabled me, again, just personally, to leave open space for relationships to change, relationships to to end, but also relationships to take a new form.

Anahid Nersessian.

Read: Eduardo Berti

Thinking about feeling can elucidate the most daunting problems. In An Ideal Presence, Eduardo Berti’s novel out soon in a translation by Daniel Levin Becker, nurses and doctors working in palliative care reflect on their experiences of care, or on care itself. In one section, we find this, from a doctor:

Relations between doctors and caregiving personnel can be tense. Doctors criticize nurses and nursing aides for being too emotional; they criticize us, on the other hand, for being too impersonal. it’s true that some doctors will say “I’ll be back, I’ve got to go see a pancreas.”

Berti’s book contemplates that which breaks us apart, but also the care that continues through it all. In An Ideal Presence, as in the medical profession itself, as in maybe every human interaction that gets you thinking about the biggest questions, care brings you further into the ultimate human mysteries.

This week’s ephemeral library

Gawker vs. n+1. On New York’s next governor. On neoliberalism and neofascism. The Messiest Phase of the Pandemic Yet. What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.

That’s all for this week, folks.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.