Berlant, Academic Stardom, and Devotional Publics

Devotional Publics


“We grew up with Berlant,” comments a sobbing student in Andrzejewski’s Chronicle article “The Combover Subject: What Lauren Berlant taught me about the Academy.”[1]When news spread of Lauren Berlant’s passing, remembrances flooded online in waves of grief redolent of a celebrity lost before their time. Senior scholars joined distraught graduate students in eulogizing the monumental impact of Berlant’s decades-spanning body of work. The outpouring revealed a devoted following and a shared sense of profound personal connection to someone most had never met.

Through meticulous analysis of often overlooked cultural texts and mundane experiences, Berlant illuminated the complexities of how shared fantasies, attachments, and affects emerge and resonate in the contemporary moment. Yet rather than offering neat explanatory notes, Berlant complicated—troubling fixed binaries, mixing high and low culture irreverently as they engaged a vast range of cultural materials with equal intellectual rigor. This theoretical complexity came alive through their stylistic renderings: winding sentences that take time before arriving at their point; the use of ellipses, regularly, to dissolve the promise of coherence, and circuitous metaphors that mimetically enact the indeterminate experience of the precarity they describe. In attuning readers to the ambiguities of the present, Berlant upended conventions of clarity prized in academia. And yet, far from hindering their resonance, this signature complexity became constitutive of their work’s remarkable success with readers.

I remember my university crush who, over cheap wine, got me onto Berlant. When I (nervously) asked if she were single, she replied with a satisfying monologue on how love functions as a technology of nation-building and power…it took me a couple of days to recognize how sexy that reply was. My own dog-eared copies of The Female Complaint and Desire/Love now resemble dense subway maps, their pages filled with multicolored underlined passages and commentary-laden margins. When excerpted, what proves so impressive about these fragments—and temporarily gratifying—is precisely what they performatively display: language that conveys the most difficult realities in the most straightforward of manners. Any collection of underlining reminds me of artist Kajsa Dahlberg’s A Room of One’s Own / A Thousand Libraries (2006), in which Dahlberg visited every public library in Sweden, studying and copying the comments and underlining that readers made in the public copies. The result is an artist’s book with manually transcribed comments, in total 121 original pages, which are printed and bound in one thousand copies. In Catherine Grant’s work on feminism and fandom, she notes how through Dahlberg’s piece the “invisible and cross temporal communities of readers are brought to life through the residue of their interaction.”[2] Like the readers convened across time by Dahlberg’s traces, my own accumulating marginalia in Berlant’s texts chronicles a recursive interaction. Each underline or asterisk stands as a message across time—“remember how this moved you?” And, in turn, my present reconsiderations speak back—questioning, affirming, complicating those earlier moments of clarity.

In what follows, I consider the tension between Berlant’s institutional stardom and their compelling interrogations of the conditions of possibility for their own acclaim. By examining Berlant’s theoretical concepts and composition, as well as the devoted following these have cultivated, this essay unpacks the paradox of prestige that Berlant embodies. During a renewed wave of assaults on the arts and humanities, grappling with the contradictions and insights intertwined in Berlant’s celebrity offers vital perspectives on the institutional frameworks governing knowledge production and disciplinary sustainability. At the same time, the devotional attachment to Berlant’s work surfaces urgent questions about radicalism and canonization within academia’s star system. Academic stars are a selective group that Berlant once described in an interview as “people, who tautologically, get a reputation that makes their appearance in print or at conferences an event.”[3] In describing academic stardom as “tautological,” Berlant critiques the self-reinforcing logics that perpetuate celebrity status and how celebrity becomes an end in itself rather than a marker of scholarly merit. A theorist’s writing generates disproportionate attention because of its association with an esteemed name, detaching the reception of the work from rigorous assessments grounded in the text’s intellectual value. Berlant unveils the linked cruelties of both conceptual and individual fetishism within the contemporary university’s regime of knowledge production and disciplinary value.

In the spirit of being honest I feel I must admit that I procrastinated with this essay, which was delivered to the patient editorial team a couple of weeks late. The writing process was marked by uncertainty and hesitation. As a trans graduate student, occupying a position both precarious and privileged, I am left with the implications of critiquing academia’s construction from an increasingly tenuous vantage point. I question how my writings that are included in academic collections position me as someone who critiques rather than disrupts the prestige system, simply becoming reabsorbed into its workings. While my institutional footing as a term time, hourly paid teacher differs substantially from employed academics with contracts, holiday accrual, sick pay and pension contributions, my labor upholds the status quo in incremental ways, even if these are difficult to discern. This speaks not to anomalies in an otherwise equitable structure, but to interlocking systemic forces functioning precisely as designed to consolidate power along familiar hierarchies.


Academic Stardom


The academic “star system” as outlined by Mark Bauerlein “shifts the focus from the objects in a discipline, the artworks and such, to the subjects, the practitioners of it.”[4] When the focus becomes trained on “who is who” and “who is where” within prestige hierarchies, the actual quality of ideas and advancements fades into the background. The star system, itself affiliated historically with literary studies, prizes the subjects. The contributions get subsumed into the identity of the scholar behind them. This problematically shifts emphasis onto the projection of individual greatness rather than recognizing the collective labor and incremental developments that generated the ideas. It inflates the myth of the brilliant scholar conjuring breakthrough concepts in isolation, rather than acknowledging the communal foundation of knowledge production. The system thereby magnifies inequities by concentrating attention and resources onto those deemed exceptional while sidelining others who make comparable contributions without similar recognition.

As Piper and Wellmon found in their study of four leading humanities journals over a fourty-five-year period, publication patterns reflect and reinforce the stark inequalities of the academic star system.[5]Analyzing over five thousand articles across a diverse set of over three hundred PhD-granting institutions, they discovered highly disproportionate representation skewed toward elite programs. The top 25% of doctoral institutions accounted for a staggering 89% of publications, while graduates of the top ten prestigious universities (including Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford and others) which represent less than 3% of the total number of PhD granting institutions in the data set, made up over half of all articles published. Remarkably, Yale and Harvard PhDs alone were responsible for fully one-fifth of the scholarship published across nearly half a century and hundreds of journals. As Piper and Wellmon’s data reveals, academic production concentrates at a handful of “superstar” institutions whose graduates come to dominate scholarly discourse, and grants them an “outsized influence on what counts as knowledge.”[6] A system that confers such disproportionate clout upon legacy institutions magnifies the impact of those deemed “star” scholars simply by virtue of their institutional affiliation.

The academic star system, as Maxmillian Alvarez incisively argues, forcefully constrains scholarly creativity and thought by consolidating prestige, cultural authority, material resources, and influence disproportionately among a limited elite, while rendering the professional lives of those at the margins “not only invisible but economically unbearable.”[7] With troubling regularity, exposés surface that detail the precarious existences of contingent academic faculty, as those inhabiting temporary dwellings like vehicles and tents recount the harrowing impacts of employment insecurity and inadequate remuneration endemic to the academic underclass. Every few years, this cycle of grim firsthand testimonies emerges, highlighting the stark material consequences wrought by the adjunctification of higher education—consequences felt both in the US and UK. Despite the periodic public outrage provoked by such accounts, the star system’s structural inequities continue unabated, normalizing expendable academic lives while accelerating concentration of resources and security among prestigious elites. These cyclical revelations underscore not only the moral indictment of individuals’ basic needs going unmet, but more profoundly, the indictment of an entire political economy that systematically devalues the labor sustaining the academic system as a whole.

This inequality is not merely epistemic, Alvarez contends, but interlaced with racialized, gendered, and socioeconomic exclusions. Marginalized identities remain conspicuously absent from the idealized image of the academy, as Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), disabled, queer, and trans scholars continue to be excluded from institutional life broadly. The problems highlighted by marginalized scholars persist unabated, with the same criticisms posed repeatedly over decades. In response, universities introduce new diversity committees, superficial declarations, and tokenistic reading lists while leaving unchanged exclusionary hiring practices, inaccessible infrastructure, underfunded mental health services, and deeply embedded historic cultures of oppression. This uncritical logic is evident, perhaps most recently, in the rapid digitization of Higher Education during the (continuing) Covid-19 pandemic. Despite extensive existing frameworks and “best practices” created by Feminist and Disabled communities, Universities globally implemented online teaching and learning without meaningfully engaging these communities or recognizing their labour. Subsequently, the breakneck speed return to in-person activities, declaring the pandemic is over, once again devalued disabled and immunocompromised academics and students for whom online modules remain preferable—or from my vantage in the UK, the long running assaults on the arts and humanities at which thirty-five universities (at the last count) have announced redundancy plans and in some case entire course or department closures. The UCU Queen Mary’s University of London branch initiated a live document to track the developments.[8] Though a harrowing document to bookmark, this resource is essential for grasping the scope of retrenchment and threats to disciplines already marginalized within the administration’s priorities. During the process of writing this essay, my University, Goldsmiths University of London, has announced a proposal to cut 130 posts University-wide, amounting to 25% of total staff, with some departments—English and Sociology—taking hits of 50%, what Zoe Williams referred in a Guardian piece as “a death spiral.”[9] Retreating from public life into vanishing academic shelters will not resolve these crises nor will clinging to the fading promise that more individual effort will bring security. As Berlant diagnosed, precarious subjects attach to unraveling institutions despite being presented with their hollowness. As Alex Traub observed in a New York Times article at the time of their passing, Lauren Berlant’s work incisively named the cruel optimism that entraps subjects even when the fantasy of guaranteed social mobility though conformity unravels.[10] Berlant’s framework of cruel optimism accounts for how we nevertheless cling to fraying meritocratic promises, unable to relinquish hope in the norms that have betrayed them. It is experienced by marginalized scholars as a “weakened environment,”[11] for even as academic infrastructures persist, they fail to “maintain the world openly and robustly”[12] for all.

Centering this paradox, Berlant’s critical voice resonated widely amidst intensifying precarity of the 2008 financial crash. This framing gave language to the affective trap of clinging to social and institutional myths that can no longer facilitate thriving and is, arguably, what sent Berlant’s work from a niche readership in the academy to New York Times editorials. Their stardom ironically attests to the aspirational attachments and flawed refuge sought in status hierarchies, despite those refuges falling down around us. A co-authored piece for The Nation, one of many high-profile homages to Berlant after their passing, included a section by Judith Butler subtitled “The Era of Lauren Berlant.” In it they noted that Cruel Optimism has been hailed as one the most widely read humanities book by the American Comparative Literature Association and been the center of several panels at the Modern Language Association.[13] A fact that I read quite differently after reading Andrew Kay’s gossip-y essay with the MLA as the arena for witnessing both the Humanities and his own academic career “in the midst of an extinction event.”[14]


Unfinished Style


The very precarity Berlant insightfully outlined fueled their own meteoric rise to academic celebrity. Their concepts gave language to shared dilemmas, dilemmas they had already seen building. In the article “What Does Queer Theory teach us about X?”[15] Berlant and Warner highlighted the distorting effect of excessive focus on a select few academic stars, arguing that a few names overshadow evolving disciplinary dialogues. Their call to shift critical emphasis from “queer theory” to “queer commentary” anticipated critiques of queer and trans theory and their institutional trajectories—including Robyn Weigman and Claire Hemming’s incisive analysis of how certain critical approaches calcify into “bad objects” over time and the “end” of certain disciplines. While noting “queer is hot,” their cautionary commentary underscored the distortions produced by faddish yet fleeting preoccupations of queer theory, warning that even substantial scholarly development can fall prey to the transitory allure of disciplinary celebrity and the privileging of buzzworthy “hot topics.” This cycle of intrigue and displacement impedes the cultivation of  robust foundations as fields move from one framework to another, whether it be “feminist,” “decolonial,” or “queer” (to offer a few), chasing a scholarly edge. Much as in the pursuit of novel theories, this trend-chasing goes on in relation to the “stars” themselves. Berlant’s paradoxical status critiques the conditions of their work’s possibility, prompting deeper reflection on the academy’s selective canonization of “cutting edge” critical theory.

Similarly, “Cruel Optimism” offers a fitting framework for analyzing the persistent fantasy of individual academic stardom. To understand cruel optimism “one must embark on an analysis of indirection, which provides a way to think about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling.” The fantasy of the all-powerful academic star who in taking the graduate student under their wing can promise them greatness, as well as be the imagined future possibility for the student ascending to such prestige themselves, constitute twin illusions emanating from the same mirage that obscures the material conditions of the neoliberal University system that has steadily undercut any individual scholars’ singular influence over professional trajectories within increasingly bureaucratic and precarious institutional structures. The idea of the singular scholarly “star” capable of making or breaking careers has always relied on exaggerated mythmaking. As Lee Konstantinou incisively argued following the Avital Ronell controversy, the notion that elite academics wield immense power over their students’ fortunes is largely an illusion.[16] Though senior scholars can certainly influence departmental decisions, Konstantinou contends that the belief in their “superpower” to single-handedly determine careers remains mere “fantasy.” This mirage only grows more absurd in a post-2008 environment of perpetual hiring freezes and adjunctification. Yet the dream persists, against all evidence. Like Ronell and her accuser, many still cling to an inflated notion of the star’s magic, hoping the right patronage or recommendation letter will conjure up a perfect academic post. For Konstantinou, this reveals the occupational hazard for humanities scholars and their belief in rhetorical precision that “finding the right method, the right combination of words, the right plea”[17] might invite us into the inner circle. Rather than conceding that the mythologized vision of a “good” academic life defined by intellectual renown and institutional prestige constitutes not only an endangered species but a fundamentally flawed paradigm, the academic subject persists in what Hannah Zeavin describes in Bookforum as a cruelly optimist “perpetual state of seek and never find.”[18] To acknowledge defeat would necessitate reckoning with the hollowness at the core of this quest for institutional validation, an admission so destabilizing it “would tear us apart, because we are so identified with our search for it.”

Lauren’s Berlant’s distinctive writerly style, like their theorizing, enacted a form of critical resistance to the conventions of academic culture. Just as their concepts delineate the psychic toll of clinging to fantasies that can no longer materialize under contemporary capitalism, Berlant’s patiently untangling sentences unravel the compositional logic of resolution. They capture the suspended striving and blocked momentum that they outlined as hallmarks of cruel attachment. “This chapter has an indefinite number of sections”[19] is the opening line of Chapter 3, “On Being in Life without Wanting the World,” posthumously published in The Inconvenience of Other People (2022). Inconvenience is Berlant’s attempt to understand inconvenience as an affective friction of being in relation, “a feeling state that registers one’s implication in the pressure of coexistence.”[20] The chapter, fragmented, mirrors the disruptions of an ellipsis. Just as an ellipsis strategically dismantles syntactical coherence, Berlant’s form disorientates presumptions of straightforward narrative or orderly conceptual progression. In his short piece, “The Berlant Opening,” Caleb Smith considers the starting points of Berlant’s writing “at once an invitation and a provocation, [that] is by design disorientating.”[21] Smith cites their assertion in Cruel Optimism that “the problem of detaching from the normal applies to writing criticism.”[22] The act of defamiliarizing ingrained thinking patterns present twin difficulties—of intellect and craft. Their fragmented style invents disruptive syntax that compels the reader to inhabit unfamiliar modes of irresolution.

Berlant’s style, which my colleague Rebecca Coleman and myself have called “thinking-writing,” plays with blended words like “object/scene”—which Berlant refers to as a “portmanteau”—to serve as “performative reminders” that analysis emerges not from linearity but rather the “convergence space of questions and interests that can be recognized, walked around in, made incoherent….”[23] This writing style enacts what Gregg Seigworth calls the “hum”[24] of shared resonance within Berlant’s writing. As they explain, our labor as readers involves attempting to “hem the hum”[25] into imperfect yet capacious frameworks that can determine how events gesture towards collective feeling without over-smoothing the relations between unfurling conditions and affects. Berlant describes in their article “Starved” how the intensity of their theorizing stems from collaborative “archive gathering, phrasemaking, conversing, reading around, rephrasing, listening, nitpicking— spreading out into the lateral spaces often drowned out by the demands of argument and of interlocutors who want “ways out” while I’m still looking for “ways in.”[26] In Yasmin Gunaratnam’s recent piece ‘Dragging the University,’’she points to how Berlant “never really finished a piece of writing. The coda invariably comes with a seemingly new or oblique swerve of thought.”[27] The fragmented poetics simultaneously reveal the communal foundations and what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney refer to as “mutual debt”[28] of knowledge production, a debt that the star system’s spotlight on standalone thinkers obscures. At the same time, the intentional incompleteness of Berlant writing, which always invites more questions than answers, bucks academic trends of pristine “finished” theories or academic narratives.

In thinking with Berlant’s scholarship, and its challenges to critical theory and academic conventions, how should we understand an academic “superstar” whose critical work challenges the frameworks that conferred such prestige? The adulation surrounding Berlant highlights the mechanisms of stardom that lionize particular theorists while occluding the systemic issues pervading academia, including but not limited to the inequity, precarity, exclusion, and harm embedded in research culture and the University administration. The conscious success of stars like Berlant risks eclipsing recognition of the very issues their theories attempt to expose and prompts deeper reflection on academia’s selective canonization of “cutting edge” critical theory. However well-intentioned memorials to Berlant may be, they risk ossifying Berlant’s concepts into frozen moments in time rather than living instruments attuned to the urgency of the present. A subsequent question emerges regarding how to orient those of us who now comprise a devotional public invested in advancing “Berlant Studies,” or “Berlant phraseology”[29] as Ojeda-Sagué considers it, as an intellectual project. In conversation with Rebecca Coleman while revising gnarly drafts of our recent essay “Genre Trouble”[30] for a Media Theory Special Issue on Lauren Berlant, we observed how the proliferation of Lauren Berlant anthologies following their passing has become a way for scholars to signal their affiliation with Berlant. We noted the irony of how this memorial impulse reifies Berlant into neatly delineated “special issues” when their concepts resist tidy boundaries. At the same time, the proliferating anthologies and journal issues dedicated to Berlant’s work epitomize the paradoxical valorization of academic celebrity. While such forums offer valuable engagement with their ideas, they also risk, once more, mythologizing individual brilliance and a researcher’s proximity to it. While Berlant’s rise was enabled by the very systems their work complicates, their resonance also reminds us that other ways of doing things are within reach. Even as we death spiral.





Thank you to the wonderful editorial team at Dilettante Army whose diligent and generous editing has benefited the essay tremendously.



[1] Alicia Andrzejewski, “The ‘Combover Subject’: What Lauren Berlant Taught Me About the Academy” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July, 7 2021

[2] Catherine Grant. A Time of One’s Own: Histories of Feminism in Contemporary Art, (Durham NC, Duke University Press, 2022), 80.

[3] Andrew Hoberek, “Citizen Berlant: An Interview with Lauren Berlant” Minnesota Review, Number 52-54, Fall 2001, 127.

[4] Mark Bauerlein, “Trouble with the Academic Star System,” Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities, September 26, 2018.

[5] Andrew Piper & Chad Wellmon “How the Academic Elite Reproduces Itself,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 2017.

[6] ibid.

[7] Maximilian Alvarez, “Academe’s Prestige Problem,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 12, 2017,

[8] UCU Queen Mary’s London, “UKHE redundancies”

[9] Zoe Williams, “The Goldsmiths Crisis: How Cuts and Cultura Wars sent Universities into a Death Spiral” The Guardian, April 11, 2024.

[10] Alex Traub. “Lauren Berlant, Critic of American Dream, Is Dead at 63.” The New York Times, July 3, 2021,

[11] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 168.

[12] ibid.

[13] Judith Butler, Maggie Doherty, Ajay Singh Chaudhary & Gabriel Winnot,  “‘What Would It Mean to Think That Thought?’ The Era of Lauren Berlant,” The Nation, July, 8 2018.

[14] Andrew Kay, “Academe’s Extinction Event: Failure, Whiskey and Professional Collapse at the MLA,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2019.

[15] Lauren Berlant and Micheal Warner, “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?”, PMLA, Volume 110, Issue 3: Special Millennium Issue, May 1995.

[16] Lee Konstantinou, “Avital Ronell and the End of the Academic Star,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 August 2018.

[17] ibid.

[18] Hannah Zeavin,  “In Theory, Anyway: Lauren Berlant’s posthumous work on life as it could be,” Book Forum, Sep/Oct/Nov 2022.

[19] Lauren Berlant, The Inconvenience of Other People, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 117.

[20] Berlant, The Inconvenience of Other People, 3

[21] Caleb Smith, “The Berlant Opening”, Critical Inquiry, July 20, 2021.

[22] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 21.

[23] Berlant, The Inconvenience of Other People, 150.

[24] Gregg Seigworth, “Reading Lauren Berlant Writing” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Number 9, Issue 4, 347.

[25] Seigworth, “Reading Lauren Berlant Writing,” 350

[26] Lauren Berlant, “Starved”, South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 106, Issue 3, (Summer 2007), 435.

[27] Yasmin Gunaratnam, “Dragging the University”, Media Theory, Volume 7, No. 2, (2023), 312.

[28] Harney, Stefano & Moten, Fred. The Undercommons:Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions: New York), 67

[29] Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué “Berlant’s Phraseology: An Impression,” Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, February 15, 2022

[30] Chloe Turner and Rebecca Coleman, “Genre Trouble, Feel Tanks and Memetic Flailing,” Media Theory, Volume 7, No 2, (2023), 329-352.