Detachment Theory: Lauren Berlant and the Impersonal
Facilitated by Charlie Markbreiter

March 13, 20, 27, April 3, 10, 17, May 1, 2022, 6–7:30pm

An image of a butt with indentations of two people playing tennis

About the reading group

This is a reading group that will take place both online and in person at Wendy's Subway.

Date: Sundays, March 13-May 1, 2022 (except April 24, 2022)
Time: 6-7:30 pm EST (1 1/2 hours)
Capacity: 15 in-person participants, 10 online participants
Cost: $15 [If this expense presents a hardship for you, please reach out to]
Register here.

Closed captions in English are available.

This reading group is on Lauren Berlant, who died in 2021. Berlant’s major works began in the first term of Clinton’s presidency. History had just ended; neoliberalism was ascending. To say history came back with the 2008 financial crash would imply that it ever left. Cruel Optimism (2011), perhaps Berlant’s best known book, theorized the Recession-era US; the title refers to a continued national commitment to the American Dream, even as the means of producing it glitched. As Trumpism emerged in the wake of austerity, Berlant theorized fascism via its mirror image: comedy.

Our class will focus on the impersonal, a concept that appears throughout Berlant’s work under different names. On their blog, Supervalent Thought, these posts are tagged as “detachment theory”; elsewhere, Berlant describes “flat affect,” zoning out, and dissociation. What does the impersonal mean for Berlant, and how does that change throughout their life? How can we read the impersonal alongside other famously Berlantian concepts such as the “intimate public sphere,” and amidst the increasing commodification of our personal lives? How do other frameworks such as Trans Studies and Health Justice theorize the impersonal via e.g. dysphoria and tone indicators respectively? 

You never have to do the reading. To quote health justice scholar Beatrice Adler-Bolton, “The reading is just a jumping off point, not least because everyone’s experiences are just as valuable as whatever we read.” The most important thing isn’t the reification of expertise, but the time we have together. 

The readings for each week are divided into three categories: easy mode, hard mode, and sicko mode. Easy mode denotes the main reading for that week; the last two are supplementary. I will begin each class with a brief summary of the texts and the historical contexts in which they were produced. 

While our class will run in-person, we will also use Discord to supplement and archive our conversations. Please feel free to post in the discord in between classes, which will also be streamed on the server so that people can also participate virtually. 

I’m not a Berlant expert, if such a thing even exists. What would Berlant think of Berlant studies? By which I mean: our syllabus is of course extremely partial. You are welcome to add to it :-)

About the instructor

Charlie Markbreiter is a PhD student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught at CUNY’s Queens College campus since fall 2020. His first fiction book, Gossip Girl Fanfic Novella, is out from Kenning Editions fall 2022; his criticism has been featured in publications such as Art in AmericaBookforumArtforum and The New Inquiry, where he is also the Managing Editor. Charlie also helps run the Death Panel discord, an online free school which is free to join here


This reading group is sponsored by Humanities New York, a private, non-profit state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, receiving federal, state, city, and private funding. It provides leadership and support across the state’s intellectual and cultural sectors through grants, programs, networking, and advocacy, in order to encourage critical thinking and cultural understanding in the public arena.


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