Fantasising about Lauren Berlant and her fatphobia

Dear Lauren Berlant,

I awoke this morning to a beautiful fantasy all about you, but before I can go into that I'd like to fill you in on the backsnark.

A while ago I met this hot woman and told her that I was interested in fat and queer theory. She mentioned your name, so I went and read some of your work because I wanted to impress this woman enough so that she would have sex with me. Unfortunately, this is when things began to unravel.

I came across your paper Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency). Boy oh boy, did I ever feel like I was experiencing a slow death of my own whilst I was reading it. It's four years since this work was published, by you, and about two since I read it for the first time, and that feeling of metal atrophy I get when I think about it persists. I knew there were ideas in there, but I couldn't get to them because of the way you set them out on a page or a screen. Some people think that reading something so impenetrably academic is illuminating, but I just call it bad writing. I struggled on regardless, wondering if I was reading something of value, or the ramblings of someone who had lost their grip on things.

Your arguments about embodied sovreignity have been better expressed elsewhere, particularly in disability theory, which you don't mention. It is your thoughts on fat that really have me scratching my head. There is nothing in what you write that reflects any of my experience as a fat queer. I'm there going: "Does she really mean people like me?". I know I'll never get the time back that I've wasted in reading what you have to say but that hasn't stopped me going back and back again to try and make sense of what you've written. This work is well-cited, I reason, there must be something in it that I'm not getting. There comes a time when you just have to give up hoping.

It's not that you don't know about critical perspectives on obesity epidemiology, you cite the big men of the movement, Paul Campos and Eric Oliver, and you have a soft spot for Richard Klein's terrible book too, you just choose not to engage. If you bothered to think about the queerness of bodies, of what it is to have a body that isn't like yours, that is non-normative, you would have the opportunity to engage with a richness of material beyond your wildest dreams.

Instead, you choose to side with The Man. Slow Death reiterates the abjection of fatness. Fat is attrition, it is the pathological and literal representation of slow death. Your work reproduces fat people as Othered, anonymous, an abstraction; 'The Obese'. You fail to question the existence of fat people as anything but a crisis brought about by a mismanagement of energy balance and you see nothing of value in fatness other than as a symbol for your theorising. Given the paltriness of critical literature on fat and race, and the problem of racism within some fat activisms, it's especially dismaying to see you applying reductive obesity discourse to people of colour in this work. There is nothing radical here.

There are other queer feminist academics who have also failed to address their own fatphobia; Elspeth Probyn thinks that fat activism is a pathetic excuse and that obesity really is a terrible problem; Susie Orbach, well, the less said about her the better. I am not the first to point out the failings of those who theorise the body, including feminists, who conveniently ignore fat or reproduce the problematic terms of obesity discourse. It's painful to witness one's abjection in this work, again and again, especially by people who should know better, people like you who are paid to think and write, people who are lauded as intellectuals, tenured professors, those who enjoy tremendous intellectual freedom and privilege and cultural capital, people who are products of privilege misusing their power, circumscribing people who have less power. Surely you have the time and resources to dig a bit deeper, think a bit harder, be a bit more critical (your journal is called Critical Inquiry after all). What would happen if you spoke to some fat activists? It's not like you have to agree but at least engage for a moment.

I wonder if you think about fat people reading your work. Fat people are so abstracted in Slow Death as newspaper reports or policy objects that it's hard to imagine an actual fat person living a life, going about their business, thinking, or having any material presence or agency at all. Can you imagine a fat dyke throwing a brick through the window of a diet clinic? Fat lovers whipping and fisting? A fat genderqueer subverting death drive theory? It must be tragic to live in a context where these people, who are real and part of my life, don't exist.

It's time to return to my fantasy. So I woke up this morning and looked at my computer and saw that two of my favourite performers, David Hoyle and Bird la Bird are appearing on a panel with you at the Trashing Performance project here in London. It's on 26 October, which also happens to be my 43rd birthday. I drifted off into a reverie, imagining David and Bird turning on you in the panel and asking you pointed questions about the fatphobia in your work. I imagined you squirming. And then I thought of Scottee and Amy Lamé, who produced the sublime Burger Queen this year, who would surely be in the audience, and Vikki Chalklin, whose performance work considers femme fatness, and maybe there would be other rad fatties in the crowd too, and I imagined a bag of rotten tomatoes in there somewhere, and flesh, teeth, mess, and your disbelief of it all. And I imagined you picking up your bags and running to the airport to return to your little burrow in academia-land, shaken and aghast.



PS The expression on the woman behind you in this picture makes me laugh a lot. It's the top result for your name in Google Images.

Selected References

Berlant, L. (2007) 'Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)', Critical Inquiry, 33 754-780.

Probyn, E. (2008) 'Silences behind the Mantra: Critiquing Feminist Fat', Feminism & Psychology, 18:3, 401-404.

Performance Matters: Under- and Overwhelmed: Emotion and Performance

Please also see:

Kirkland, Anna (2011) 'The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism,' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 36:2, 411-436.