Thursday, July 19, 2012

Theory Review: Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness (2010)

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

In The Promise of Happiness Sara Ahmed examines the connection between our conception of happiness and what constitutes the “good life.” She argues that certain ideas and objects, for instance, marriage, family, and heterosexual intimacy, are perceived as “happy objects” that contain the promise of future happiness. These objects, Ahmed reveals, exist even in “the absence of happiness by filling a certain gap; we anticipate that the object will cause happiness, such that it becomes a prop that sustains the fantasy that happiness is what would follow if only we could have ‘it’” (32). For her, these happy objects embody the good life; they demarcate the kind of life we should strive for, such that happiness becomes tied to acquiring the right or proper objects and unhappiness to anything that deviates from this norm. Ahmed’s research deals precisely with those individuals and groups that are figured as deviant because they are already perceived as unhappy and/or attempt to seek happiness in unexpected objects; by concentrating her study around figures such as the “feminist killjoy, unhappy queer, and melancholic migrant,” she conveys the necessity of dissociating our conception of happiness from what is unquestionably “good” and examines the “‘unhappy archives’” each figure embodies as a way of illuminating alternative modes of living (17).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Theory Review: Berlant's Cruel Optimism (2011)

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.

In Cruel Optimism Lauren Berlant reveals that despite deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions, people still remain attached to fantasies of the "good life"; her research examines how such fantasies have survived even when conditions for survival are increasingly compromised under postwar neoliberal restructuring. She posits “cruel optimism” as a relational dynamic whereby individuals remain attached to “compromised conditions of possibility” or “clusters of promises” embedded in desired object-ideas even when they inhibit the conditions for flourishing and fulfilling such promises (24, 23). For Berlant, optimism is a formal or structural feeling, such that an “optimistic attachment is invested in one’s own or the world’s continuity, but might feel any number of ways,” including not optimistic at all (13). In other words, maintaining attachments that sustain the good life fantasy, no matter how injurious or cruel these attachments may be, allows people to make it through day-to-day life when the day-to-day has become unlivable. Berlant is essentially concerned with conditions of living or the state of the “present,” which she describes as structured through “crisis ordinariness,” and turns to affect and aesthetics as a way of apprehending these crises; by tracking the various impasses we face today, she suggests that it becomes possible to recognize that certain “genres” are no longer sustainable in the present and that new emergent aesthetic forms are taking hold, alternative genres that allow us to recognize modes of living not rooted in normative good life fantasies.