I Don’t Understand the God Part

By Dorothea Lasky and Lauren Berlant


via e-mail May, 2009 | This conversation originally appeared in MAKE #8, “This Everyday.”

In 2007 University of Chicago’s George M. Pullman Professor Lauren Berlant guest edited an issue of Critical Inquiry entitled On the Case. In the issue, Berlant and others explored the phenomena of the case study, or the study of a group, community, or incident. A case study, Berlant contends, can be anything from “a symptom, a crime, a causal variable, a situation, a stranger.”  Each case elicits a judgment, perhaps also an expert, and a narrative leap from the singular to the general. The case study inquiry allows for “the sociality of knowledge, the circulation of discourse as its condition, and the clarifying obligation of analytic narrative.” It is a strategy of investigation, the creation of an allegory that offers “an account of the event and of the world.”

If we read the following interview between Berlant and New York poet, Dorothea Lasky as a case study, what might we learn?  Perhaps that while Berlant examines in her scholarship the flourishing of affects, attachments, and even love (the general), Lasky performs these themes in her poems and in her live readings (the singular). Both women share an interest in pedagogy, since they identify first and foremost as teachers. And while Lasky and Berlant diverge wildly on the topic of God and spirituality (a marked disjunction of the case), both urgently and forcefully study the way we operate and live in the world. Berlant states in a recent blog post, “I have never felt what people describe as nostalgia for themselves in their leavings. But that may be because I am more interested in floating, scanning, and becoming than having been.” Lasky concludes a poem: “It is a cut-out world/ This one we live in/ But birds are not the answer/ No birds are not the answer/ They never are.”  -Katie Geha


Dorothea Lasky:  I am very interested in how you combine the individual with the social world in your work, so that the two become constantly intertwined and concern one another. Your recent work on cases really fascinates me and I’d love to know more about it from you.  How do you view a case’s (as a social unit) relationship to individual love and spirituality in the 21st century?  That is to say, what is love and God through the lens of a case or object in 2009, and how does this relate to how the individual and the social world relate to each other in this particular moment in history?

Lauren Berlant: I have absolutely nothing to say about God, or gods, or love and spirituality.   Zero.  I was raised in a religion, but all I cared about were how people treated each other, how they imagined value in the world, what it was that got in their way and enabled them. Of course God/spirituality comes in on both sides of that equation, as enabling and disabling happiness and connection.  But I don’t much resonate to these concepts nor do I have sensual memories of being visited by anything in the least mystical in the least, even while my senses are often enraptured in the immaterial, take in the world intensely, and read the dynamics that make atmospheres and environments.

I am a person of the world.   I am interested in the flourishing of beings in the context of lives that they are hammering out in the present.  I am interested in the ways people find sustenance and make survival happen in worlds that are not organized for them. I am interested in why people stay attached to lives that don’t work, as though people would not survive the wholesale transformation of those attachments and the lives built around them, as though they would rather be miserable, stuck, or numb than tipped over in the middle of invention.  Making worlds is very hard and losing them is devastating.  In the middle, one has to build confidence or just habits that allow rest and coasting amidst the labor of making.  So much of what we do demands inattention (our current emphasis on mindfulness neglects the mind’s need for incoherence, to rest, coast, spread out, incohere).

My work on cases, therefore, has nothing to do with individual love and spirituality, at least not that I know of!  Although maybe you could tell me how you think it does or why it would be a good development to turn the study of how singularity becomes general when something becomes a case into the a question of the spirit. But love is one of those phenomena that makes people feel general, feel that something very specific and singular in them is tapping into a sensually known atmosphere.   Is that the kind of thing you mean?

You know, I work on affect, on the ways that people sense transactions with the world and work out life in terms of reciprocal dynamics.  The aesthetic is the scene where the training of those senses becomes a topic and a project, and so my training in proximity to art and language and as well as other forms of mediation has helped me see the ways people create their own gestural ways of mediating (finding a form for materializing and inhabiting) the world.

Does this view of art have anything to do with what you do?   I was noting how very different your work reads on the page and manifests in performance.

DL: I really like your answer to my question.   I especially like how you called yourself “a person of the world,” because I think I am one too.  Maybe that’s why we were paired together for this interview.  I’m glad how you noticed that the way I read poems seems different than what they look like in print.  I think that there is a difference because, like I said, I am a person of the world, and my concern with the world has to do primarily with education primarily. I am (and feel it is my ethical duty to be) really fascinated by and concerned with (and feel it is my ethical duty to be) with how people learn.  I think I read a certain way so as to help people take in my poems better.  I try to create a certain kind of flatness when I read, and it is with a certain educative purpose that I do this.  I think by creating a flatness in performance poems are makes it  easier for readers to understand as they are listening.

I especially liked this part of your response to my first question:

“God/spirituality comes in on both sides of that equation, as enabling and disabling happiness and connection.  But I don’t much resonate much to these concepts or have sensual memories of being visited by anything in the least mystical in the least, even while my senses are often enraptured in the immaterial, take in the world intensely, and read the dynamics that make atmospheres and environments.”

I don’t always think of God/spirituality as being something necessarily mystical or as being something that visits you in an undefined, immaterial way. Nor do I think God is sensual (at least in the way I think of sensual, like an individual body’s sensuality).   I think the entire world is God.  Thus, your work on cases connects to God for me, although this probably doesn’t make obvious sense.

To me a lot of your work concerns a kind of ethics (I know, duh, right?).   But it is a collective ethics, an ethics of the world.  And to me, in 2009, this is a kind of concern with God.

I won’t put this opinion on you or force you to contend with it, as this is more my belief.   (I am a strong believer in the theory of connectionism as a kind of meta-spirituality that the 21st century will be forced to consider as the Internet has put upon us a willingness to the panopticon.) But, to me, your work on social systems and the lens of a case as a way to both enable and disable an individual from its life in our society to me is a kind of spirituality of the individual, of the real person, of the real emotional being in the world.  Through your work, you give the real its voice back, I think.

I guess, in connection with these thoughts, I wonder how you might define your own ethics (if you want to define them, and I don’t mean to force you).  What does being good to others mean to you in 2009?

LB:   Fantastic. I have a few responses to what you’ve said here. It’s so interesting that you think of yourself primarily as an educator.  So do I. Indeed, not only have I always known I would teach (and have taught since I was very young), but one of the ways I describe human connectedness is to talk about pedagogy-–, in modes of exchange that are not always equal and, don’t involve “deep recognition” or even any genuine knowledge of the other. Lovers, friends, people in an elevator: they’re all engaging in pedagogy that locates others in proximity to their aims.

This relates to the other thing you said that resonates with me, which is about flatness. I’m actually writing either a long essay or a little book on flatness now (Matter of Flatness), a mode of affective splitting between internal intensities and understated bodily performance. I think it’s really interesting for you to say that you say your reading mode is flat, and that it’s flat so that a kind of pedagogy can happen, that which you’re trying to enable by simultaneously projecting and getting out of the way.  Sometime I’ll tell you a longer story about that: But I do have to tell you that I don’t think your reading style is flat at all.  You should get a hold of that CD where Dorothy Parker reads her poems.  Now that’s flat.  I’m a very voice-intense teacher, in contrast—quiet, but focused—because I want my students to pay attention to building the skills for sustaining an observation, for paying attention.  Sometimes another person’s voice gives you an idea about your own; sometimes an absence just leaves you with the thing you already had.

DL: Here’s a short, and perhaps silly, question: What are your five favorite books?

LB: I don’t have favorite books., I think, that’s not my way. I have favorite authors: David Foster Wallace, Herman Melville, Charles Johnson, Chris Ware, and Freud; and I’m a big fan of the contemporary women writers of the appetites like Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Miranda July, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison, and Chris Krauss. … But now you have to tell me yours.

DL: Ok!  My favorite authors are Flaubert, Catullus, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Bernadette Mayer, Yasunari Kawabata, Lev Vygotsky, James Marshall, William Blake, Maurice Sendak, Lydia Davis, Maxine Greene, Wallace Stevens, and the list goes on.

LB:  Oh, Lydia Davis!  Yes I said yes!

DL: Here’s another question.   In your response to my first question, you talked about love being something that makes people feel something “general . . . …very specific . . . …and singular.”  I love that.  Do you think that when people feel love they feel these things that these feelings happen simultaneously? And I am referring to all kinds of love or maybe there is only one kind: and that is affection, —or affect as you might say.

Or do these qualities of love happen in stages?   Or can one part happen and love still happen?   And do you think that the love that happens in the beginning of a person’s life (and I don’t mean romantic love necessarily) is the same sort of love that happens in the end of a person’s life?

LB: I think attachment is what happens fast, first, and hard. Then you find out what happened, and tell yourself stories about what you want to happen that are full of lies and truth—about yourself and your object. It doesn’t matter when in your life that impact happens;: it just requires a sense of being tethered to something that’s enigmatic and then finding out what it stands for, what you want from it, and how loose and tight you want the tethering to be, which is where lots of the incoherence or craziness emerges.

All amour is amour fou. We know that it involves risk. We know that staying reliable to it involves work. The relation between the risk and the work of fidelity is fundamentally affective and, at the same time, ethical: What’s political about this relation—why we need feminist, queer, and intimacy politics generally—is that we are trained so badly and so unimaginatively for normative skills at negotiating love, at recognizing attachments, at cultivating capaciousness and patience where our own impossibility meets the impossibility of others, and where our own needs encounter ridiculously atrophied understandings of what a good life fantasy could be.  I could go on…  . . . I see the wasted life of confused and blocked attachment and exhausted optimism everywhere.

And you?  Because you see God as love and then, presumably, love as something that circulates among humans, you must have a less aggression- and politics- laden view of it than I do. But I don’t understand the God part, as I said.

DL: I love what you said that all love is mad love and that attachment happens first, and that love is a negotiation between fidelity and attachment.  (I think you said this, correct me if I am wrong.) I wonder: How does the madness relate? What makes all love mad love?

Mad love reminds me of an ad I saw (for a bank or something, maybe HSBC) where there is a picture of a moon and the earth duplicated, and one set says “madness” on the moon and “love” on the earth and then the next set says the words in reverse (madness for the earth and love on the moon).  It is true that love and madness can be interchanged.  But I think they fraternal rather than identical twins.

I’ve been thinking a lot about madness this Spring, how madness relates to affect.  Like the affect we were talking about in terms of flatness and a flat affect in presentation.  And how the two relate in art is something that interests me a great deal.  Especially in so much that I believe the presentation of art is part of an educative process and a furthering of humanity.  Which I think that you might think as well.

And in terms of God, I see this as a kind of tension/negotiation too between flatness and affect.  That God is the humanity contained within all humanity, all together, as one large thing.  It is a different kind of politics maybe.  But I think all love is mad love, too.   And I think the love of a God is mad love, albeit contained within the fact that God is all of humanity, in itself contained.

I might make more sense with an example.  I was a Classics major in college and in a Greek mythology class I remember my professor was trying to example to me the root of the word enthusiasm.  He was explaining it to me by myself, because I was writing my term paper on connections of Dionysus with contemporary ideas of God.  And he said that many people think of enthusiasm as a state of ebullience or a large, sweeping emotion, but that enthusiasm was actually a state of zeroing in towards a point of understanding something.  He said that what we as contemporary thinkers tend to think of the enthusiasm of Dionysian cult members as wide, and not narrowing, but that instead we should realize that faith in deities is sometimes about a narrowed focus.  I always took this to mean that in understanding the meta-level of humanity (what I might argue is God), we tend to refine our ideas down to a point.  This refining is enthusiasm.

So, I can’t help think that this idea of all love being mad love relates to this.  And maybe I am forcing too much out of this statement.  As I have been thinking about madness this Spring, I have been thinking about how when we don’t understand something that is happening that we think of it as mad in general sense.  Take the classic example/archetype of town genius/crazy person (eek, which annoyingly still persists as our contemporary view of the artist, especially in ideas of Outsider Art) who spouts the truth of a culture in a nonlinear fashion.  What seems mad is really brilliance given a refined view of what the person is saying and a way of looking at it that allows for a gentle understanding of what is being said.

I tend to think of understanding society and God in this way—that both seem chaotic until we put units of understanding on them. And tell me if I am wrong, but is part of your exploration into cases as units of social understanding, in order to understand the relationships of society therein–a way too of refining our understanding?  And so I might ask you: What are other ways that we might make sense of our social world that are like the case?

LB:  Actually, and not to buzzkill your enthusiasm over your professor’s enthusiasm for making things up, enthusiasm means originally to be possessed (by a god). That pretty much sums up mad love–or love–for me.  The word in psychology is limerance. Limerance is the unwanted ideation that happens to a person when a crush happens. When a crush happens, what’s crushed is your intentionality. You are visited by desire. You are visited by non-sovereignty.  You are visited by an inclination, a tendency, a saturation by a thing that’s both concrete and enigmatic. You then begin to manage or negotiate it, or you decide not to, which is still a calculation about the relation between the pleasure/craziness of being visited by a desire, an attachment, or a focus (to take up your conclusion about love as enthusiasm, although it’s a focus that’s also a fog) and your desire to be reliable to some version of your personality.

Anyway, we don’t have the space here to spell out the many ways love’s madness converts into its promise to provide a ballast. Love is mad because it projects onto a relation with something in the world the responsibility to secure your capacity to flourish in the world, and relations are unstable, at least as unstable as you are.  You hold your objects to a standard much higher than the one to which you hold yourself:  Their job is to be reliable (but not entirely dead) so that you can be alive richly.  But there are the stories of arranged marriages “where the love grows,” and that’s a different thing, but not entirely unrelated, where people calculate the family or a scene as that which they will love, and then they’re good at doing it or not, and then they love the other for being kind and competent there, and make no psychological claim about fulfillment or fantasy.  It is a practice-based love that sutures the affects to what happens rather than to the careening of internal states.  That kind of love probably isn’t mad.  But the other kind, based in fantasy and projection, is a kind of mad non-sovereignty onto which worlds of sovereignty are built.  I don’t ultimately think that things are chaotic until we find ways of making them seem meaningful (in love or in madness-related art, as you describe it): I think things are chaotic and incoherent, but that, when we can, which isn’t usually, we find ways to remain loose with them, to proceed generously by finding some hook in them that we can value. But then let’s think of abusive relationships, where people’s love destroys them the way high fructose fatty food destroys the people who are enjoying it.  There’s a moment of optimism in love, as in one’s attachment to anything that can be idealized as a source for one’s durable flourishing. Sometimes people hold on to that feeling as the real, and see all the complexities as noise around the real.  Then they’re frogs in the slowly boiling water, not feeling their destruction because they’re focusing on that first feeling of fabulous appropriate wetness.

DL: Ok, I will go back to flatness now for another question.  First of all, I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker and I am fascinated in general how people make wit into flat ways of presenting information.  I must get my hands on that CD!  I am really excited to hear about your Matter of Flatness book and its work on affective splitting. (Love the double meaning of matter!!) I sort of think that this inquiry is one of the most important of our time and can be seen in what I think is a very key part of aesthetics over the last 30 years (what I might term an overly polite, Art Deco, Native American-infused flatness, which can be seen most especially I think in Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick films, especially in a visual form, or in Futura font, for another example).

It is extremely exciting too, as with another poet, Thom Donovan, I have been engaging in a project for about a year and a half (although the idea persists with me for a long time) entitled Deadpan, which seems to be almost something similar.  He and I have been talking about hosting a Deadpan symposium at some point and I’d love to talk to you more about it.  Basically, we feel that a uniquely American version of the sublime can be found in a deadpan beauty, whether it be tone in writing, visual or musical composition, flatness of performance affect and so on and so forth.

I love this, that you said, below:

“Sometimes another person’s voice gives you an idea about your own; sometimes an absence just leaves you with the thing you already had.”

Can you talk more about this?

LB:  No.  (hahahaha).

This too requires a longer discussion.  You had said that reticent reading produces a chance for people to find their own transformation in the atmosphere you provide for new knowledge or experience. I said, sometimes it does: All of classical psychoanalysis is based on the kind of thought you’re having, after all, insofar as in the scene of it the reticent therapist listens silently so that you can tell your story until it crumbles.

In contrast, it might be better, sometimes, to model living richly beyond survival, to help people develop better skills for not being worn out by life or passively saturated. This is an affective and political project. Mostly unconsciously in ordinary time, people borrow ways of being from each other:  Let me try that form of seductivity or freedom or aggression, maybe that will give me a practice that produces the whatever sense of satisfaction I desire. Pedagogy as a performative modeling asks people to try on versions of the better good life that hasn’t yet found a world, Along with new knowledges, it can provide voice, embodiment, and desire modes to try on and speak from that are unwarranted by history, unsanctioned by norms, unprotected by institutions, but amazing to experience in life as something that life should sustain. From experiences like this, lived utopias emerge.


Lauren Berlant works on the production of legal and affective public spheres in the United States from the 19th century to the present; in particular, formal and informal modes of social belonging or citizenship. These might be organized according to political, racial, sexual, or economic status; they might be forged in everyday life. She also works on the public circulation of emotions like trauma, love, optimism, and political depression. She is the author of Our Monica, Ourselves: Clinton and the Affairs of State (2001), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997) and The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia and Everyday Life(1991), as well as the upcoming The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture.


Dorothea Lasky is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: Thunderbird (Wave Books, 2012), Black Life (Wave Books, 2010), and AWE (Wave Books, 2007). She is also the author of six chapbooks: Matter: A Picturebook (Argos Books, 2012), The Blue Teratorn (Yes Yes Books, 2012), Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), Tourmaline (Transmission Press, 2008), The Hatmaker’s Wife (2006), Art (H_NGM_N Press, 2005), and Alphabets and Portraits (Anchorite Press, 2004). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, The Laurel Review, MAKE magazine, Phoebe, Poets & Writers Magazine, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, and 6×6, among other places. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and is a 2013 Bagley Wright Lecturer on Poetry. She holds a doctorate in creativity and education from the University of Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and has been educated at Harvard University and Washington University. She has taught poetry at New York University, Wesleyan University, and Bennington College. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in New York City.

Photographs by Johnathan Crawford.

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