Losing the Plot: On Lauren Berlant's Desire/Love

Christina McCausland

May 13, 2022

Beyond Lauren Berlant series >>

In the preface to their book Desire/Love, Lauren Berlant writes, “I am confused to say that, when I read this book, I still learn from it.” The text this preface frames was originally written between 1998 and 2000 as an entry for a gender-studies encyclopedia, but was republished as its own novella-length book in 2012. When I encountered that line, in the late summer of 2019, I was moved by its simultaneous confidence and wonder, the relinquishing of self-knowledge that it asserted. I wrote something over a decade ago that I still don’t totally understand, it seemed to say, raising the question, Which “I” has the authority here? That September, I’d pulled the book from its unread position on my bookshelf because my own self-knowledge suddenly seemed unbearably fragile—I had discovered something new about myself and thus had a very earnest and specific question related to desire/love: How should I understand my own queer longing?

Despite my need for guidance at the time, Berlant’s book is not a self-help book and, in fact, Berlant explicitly critiques self-help discourse. Their stated goal is instead to identify and critique the theories—including self-help—that have shaped the ways we, as Berlant puts it, “live sexuality and intimacy.” In the book’s first section on desire, Berlant provides an intellectual history of psychoanalytic conceptions of desire via Freud and Lacan, and concludes that these theories, which all place the origin of desire in our impossible urge to return to an infantile state of illusory oneness with our environments, have left us with an understanding of it as aggressive, unstable, restless, always exceeding the objects it chooses, and, above all else, inevitably ambivalent.

In the book’s entry on love, Berlant introduces the idea of the “love plot,” the story that promises that our desire can be made coherent, that its unresolvable ambivalence can be stabilized, that its aggression can be smoothed over, and that its objects can be known. This plot is perpetuated by what Berlant calls “therapy culture,” made up of advice columns, self-help books, “didactic short stories,” etc., that seek to “help people … adjust their desires and their self-relations to the norms and forms of everyday life.” But in its emphasis on the promise of love as the thing that will stabilize and soothe desire’s tumult, therapy culture creates a problem that it then simultaneously offers itself as the solution for—as Berlant puts it, in one of their characteristically aphoristic turns of phrase, “love is therapy for what ails you; love is the cause of what ails you.” So instead of the self-help exhortations that Berlant critiques, their writing offered me insight in a form of self-theorization. At the beginning of the book, Berlant admits that “there is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disputed by someone with a theory”—fortunately, what I wanted was alienation, some distance from my current situation.

That July, I’d attended a writers’ workshop for the first time and, over the course of the week of the workshop, I fell for a new friend who didn’t identify as a man. We’d make eye contact at the lunch table we were sharing with the rest of our workshop group and I’d feel the impact in my gut; I’d sit next to them in a lecture and think only about the charged inches between our shoulders. I texted my group chats to gossip about my new crush. I even told my boyfriend, because it seemed so novel, so unlikely to result in anything. But one night, at dinner, they tapped my knee in response to a joke in a certain way and an hour or so later we were making out. Within the next few days we would fuck, which was in itself a revelation. This new lover lived abroad and after they’d left the country we maintained a nonstop correspondence, texting and emailing and messaging on every available social-media platform. I went from being someone who almost never posted on Instagram to a manic poster, sharing side-boob selfies and screenshots of whatever I was reading, creating content to give one specific audience member an excuse to reach out. I barely slept; instead I woke up early to spend more hours overlapping with their time zone.

Most of this was impossible to hide from my boyfriend, with whom I lived and, with whom, before this incident, I had been perfectly happy. By September I was stuck in a cycle of feverish, elated conversations with this lover, and stalled, tearful arguments with my partner in which I begged for time to figure out what I wanted. This was the problem: I had no idea what I wanted or what kind of person I was. The cheating surprised me, but not as much as the possibility of queerness. My romantic relationships, all apparently straight until that summer, had been the primary chapters by which I’d organized and understood my life and, more to the point, myself. I’d felt I could turn my head and count them. I’d relied on the pattern they created—my types, my kinks, my relationship neuroses, how I’d grown in each, the aggregate leading to … what? Not self-knowledge. Once I’d had this affair, that apparent narrative seemed not orderly but random; the decisions I was making not opportunities but foreclosures. The worst part of it was that I was 30 years old and only just realizing things that plenty of people understand as teenagers. I felt this betrayed a humiliating lack of imagination, and perhaps also explained why I couldn’t see a way around the mutually exclusive and convoluted options of: Am I straight or not? And if not, does that mean I should leave my boyfriend?

The friends who sat across from me in bar booths as I recounted the latest argument with my partner or heartbreaking conversation with my lover told me that they were sorry I was having such a hard time. I sought out a therapist, which necessitated telling the story of my affair over and over again in intake sessions for different practitioners, but decided against sticking with any one of them because I didn’t feel like any of them really got it. Even once I managed to accept that there was no future with this lover and resolved, with them, to be just friends, I remained confused about what I should do next. During this time I got in the habit of conducting some targeted Google searches: When did you know you were bi; queer awakening when you’re old; how do you know if you’re gay; I was straight now I don’t know. I opened each promising result—usually clickbait—in a new tab and skimmed for mentions of feelings, thoughts, or experiences that matched my own circumstances. One friend noted, “I’m hearing a lot of concern with finding the right label.” And it was true, I was spending a lot of time weighing the monikers—bi, queer, pan, “straight except for this one instance”—trying to figure out how to describe myself and my experience in a way that felt satisfying and accurate, and, in turn, to figure out what to do. I assumed that once I had a label, how to move forward would be clear from the new identity I’d adopted.

In their entry on love, Berlant writes that we tend to (mistakenly) use the objects our desire attaches to in order to assume an identity— “you know who you ‘are’ only by interpreting where your desire has already taken you.” A lot of the queer-awakening clickbait that I read that summer was doing just that, i.e. I first knew I was queer when x, or I should have known I was queer when y. This genre of article points to something, such as a particular fondness for a certain character in a childhood television show, and frames those details of the writer’s past as evidence for the inevitability of their present self. For a while, when I read articles like this every day, I would return to experiences from my own life and play a game. I’d try to switch back and forth between understanding these experiences as details in my previously familiar life story, and as events in my newly-conceived-of potentially-queerer life. For example: In high school, I had a best girl friend. We spent a year or so constantly together. We sometimes competed over boys and working out and our schoolwork, but we also made each other laugh all the time to the extent that we were not allowed to sit next to each other in class. I admired how beautiful and funny and smart she was. We shared clothes, books, beds. I can still remember how she smelled. One morning, I woke up filled with an inexplicable anger at her. I suddenly couldn’t stand her, the quiet noises she made to herself when we were hanging out doing homework, the presence of her things among mine, the very idea that people would think of us as a pair, and I told her so. She joked, “Are you breaking up with me?” and I said that I was. We stopped being friends after that. This incident has always been mysterious to me, but, playing this new game, I could cast it as a typical female-friendship drama wherein the combination of jealousy and self-consciousness overflowed into something I wasn’t mature enough to process without taking it out on my friend; or, I could say that this was a friendship that, in its emotional and physical intimacy, risked leaking into something beyond platonic friendship and, in my then-unconscious queer repression, I had to put a stop to it. There was something disturbingly apopheniac about the gesture the clickbait was modeling to me, like if I just picked which story I was telling—the relevant label, the key players—the significance of all the other details of my life would fall in line. As Berlant put it, the “love plot is at its most ideological when it produces subjects who believe that their love story expresses their true, nuanced, and unique feelings, their own personal destiny.”

I now recognize that, in my clickbait search, I was holding out for coherence in a situation defined by a lack of it. I was also punishing myself for cheating on my boyfriend by not letting myself accept what had happened. Reading Desire/Love, though, I began to be able to think of this problem as one of narrative crisis, rather than of something essentially wrong in me. What had I wanted—in my desperate Googling (an SEO editor’s wet dream) and repetitive accounting to friends and therapists and trying on of labels—was to find something that would show me what my experience would look like from the other end of a few years. This kind of vision—the conviction that you should or can know what a life looks like before you live it—could also be called convention, the path we can recognize as possible because it’s repeated everywhere. I couldn’t see that path anymore, but was unfortunately still attached to it. I had, in other words, lost the (love) plot.

Berlant, in a discussion of whether or not it’s possible to know that love is “real” (by which I think they mean reciprocated and actually intimate, as opposed to desire’s illusions and ambivalences), points out that “norms produce attachments to living through certain fantasies.” They ask, “What does it mean about love that its expressions tend to be so conventional, so bound up in institutions like marriage and family, property relations, and stock phrases and plots?” and propose that the conventionality of the love plot “suggests … that love can be at once genuine and counterfeit.” In other words, the love plot’s ubiquity belies its actual fragility.

Reading this text, I came to recognize the irony of trying to trace my desire’s paths in order to figure out what my story should be. As Berlant’s accounting of psychoanalytic theories of desire demonstrates, desire is a fundamentally unstable force that constantly misrecognizes its objects. The thing we really desire (to return to our imagined infantile cohesion with our environments) is impossible and maybe even never existed in the first place. Instead, we are doomed to simply repeat these misfires endlessly. The objects of your desire are merely “things and scenes that you have converted into propping up your world”—they are “shaky anchors,” certainly not enough to build a whole identity on.

That is not to say that sexual identity is meaningless. This kind of categorization via, say, labels that allow for visibility for non-normative identities or relationships (sexual and otherwise) is of course useful, in that it gives people a context in which to understand themselves and each other. It’s also politically important, in that it allows us all to build alliances through our shared investment in imagining and protecting possibilities beyond existing norms, which are “white, Western, heterosexual, and schooled to the protocols of ‘bourgeois’ privacy” (as Berlant puts it) and thus actively harmful to many people. But reading Desire/Love, I was able to see that who I fuck, their particular understandings of their genders or sexualities at that time, and my particular understandings of those things, is not in and of itself a path toward answering that existential question “Who am I?” or even “What should my life be?” even as the conventional cultural pairing between desire and self can make me think that it is.      

Following their devastating critique of love, Berlant ends their text allowing for the potential of a “happy ending in which desire melds with the love that speaks its conventional name”—acknowledging that, despite the ways that desire and love escape our ability to explain them, and perpetuate destabilizing and actively harmful ideas of themselves, “desire/love continues to exert a utopian promise to discover a form that is elastic enough to manage what living throws at lovers.” Berlant seems to say that this utopian promise is worth leaning into, even if their text doesn’t quite explore that: The book’s very last line states that its project is “to reopen the utopian to more promises than have yet been imagined and sustained.” Certainly, the personal anecdote I’ve shared here—ending as it does with the fact that I stayed with my boyfriend, a form of desire/love that (I can’t overstate this) has definitely been both imagined and sustained—is not representative of the potential that Berlant ends by inviting their reader to imagine or expand on. But they note early in the book that “the example is always the problem for desire/love.” An example is supposed to play out the theory in practice; there will never be a perfect one, just as we will never find the perfect object to resolve “the irreparable contradictions of desire.” So this is just one attempt to put some of Berlant’s ideas about desire/love into contact with life, one story about desire/love, and nowhere near an ideal one.

 Christina McCausland is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.