Lauren Berlant, an influential scholar best known for exploring the effects on people of declining economic prospects and fraying social bonds in the 2011 book “Cruel Optimism,” which spoke to the frustrations of Americans reeling from the financial crisis of the late 2000s, died on Monday at 63 in a hospice facility in Chicago.
Professor Berlant’s partner, Ian Horswill, said the cause was cancer.
Professor Berlant (pronounced burr-LANT) — who used the pronoun she in her personal life but they professionally, Mr. Horswill said — taught in the English department of the University of Chicago and wrote books and essays that focused on a grab bag of Americana, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Anita Hill, seeking in history and current events broader lessons about nationalism, sexuality and power.
The professor’s signature phrase, “cruel optimism,” referred to “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” That state of being is widespread in the United States, Professor Berlant argued, where the tools we depend on to achieve “the good life” — a safety net, job security, the meritocracy, even “durable intimacy” in our romantic lives — have degenerated into “fantasies” that bear “less and less relation to how people can live.”
In a profile in The New Yorker, the staff writer Hua Hsu said that Professor Berlant’s thought illustrated how despite “a gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules” no longer “guarantee a happy ending,” many people “keep on hoping.”
The dating-app addict seeking love and the adjunct academic striving for tenure might be deluding themselves, harboring an outdated American dream of personal stability and expanding possibilities. Yet they form an attachment to their pursuits, however unrealistic, and that attachment might wind up constituting for the person “what it means to keep on living and to look forward to being in the world,” Professor Berlant wrote — “cruel” though the underlying optimism may be.
“Cruel optimism” broke out of the confines of academic theory and became a device for understanding a colorful array of disappointments. Writers have used it to describe everything from a compulsion to follow Instagram “Momfluencers” to the assumption that technology will solve climate change.
Professor Berlant’s writing could be abstruse — it included phrases like “the juxtapolitical domain of social immediacy” and “the becoming historical of the affective event” — but that did not stop the work from resonating with people in their 20s and 30s. Professor Berlant’s death was mourned on Twitter by many young writers, including the critics Tobi Haslett and Jane Hu.
Moira Donegan, a columnist for The Guardian, recalled talking “furiously” with her friends about “Cruel Optimism” after she read it in her early 20s, around the time the book was published. She was surveying economic prospects grimmer than she had expected, but she found that she had the same aspirations anyway.
That apparent contradiction “felt not merely personal or psychological; it felt like a social phenomenon,” Ms. Donegan said. “‘Cruel Optimism’ was the absolute perfect book to read at that time.”
Professor Berlant’s philosophical approach to investigating the effect of social conditions on individual psychology, inspired by the scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, helped create a whole field in academia known as “affect theory.” The New Yorker profile and an essay in the magazine n+1 cast Professor Berlant as the discipline’s central figure.
Professor Berlant is “one of the leading intellectuals in the English-speaking world,” Judith Butler, the eminent theorist of gender, said in an email. “She redefines ‘brilliant’ for our times, and hers is a brilliance that attends closely to our times, its sufferings and potentials for affirmation.”
Lauren Gail Berlant was born on Oct. 31, 1957, in Philadelphia to Nathan Berlant, a negligence lawyer, and Joanne (Bauer) Berlant, an interior decorator. The family owned racehorses. Lauren grew up in Penn Valley, Pa., an affluent suburb.
Nathan and Joanne Berlant split up and declared bankruptcy when Lauren was attending Oberlin College, leaving Lauren on the hook for college tuition.
“She had a whole lot of disappointment early on in her life, including a broken family,” said Valerie Davis, Professor Berlant’s sister.
Supported by scholarships, jobs and loans, Lauren graduated from Oberlin with a degree in English in 1979 received a Ph.D. in English from Cornell in 1985, and began teaching lesbian and feminist theory at the University of Chicago.
Kimberly Peirce, the filmmaker known for “Boys Don’t Cry,” a celebrated chronicle of transgender identity, took one of those courses in the 1980s.
“She opened up in a world, within and without myself, that I would explore from that point forward, including my own sexual identity,” Ms. Peirce said of Professor Berlant. “She provided a safe space to become radical, and that radicalness, I believe, is inherent in ‘Boys.’”
In addition to Mr. Horswill and Ms. Davis, Professor Berlant is survived by a brother, Jeffrey.
In the years after Ms. Peirce took Professor Berlant’s feminist theory course, the two of them remained close. It was Professor Berlant who first suggested to Ms. Peirce that she become a filmmaker. If a topic of conversation engaged Professor Berlant, the two friends might stay up all night texting.
When she visited her father while he was dying, Ms. Peirce turned to Professor Berlant for support.
“She said, ‘Don’t worry, the relationship with him will continue,’” Ms. Peirce recalled. “‘You just may not hear from him.’”