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.

Text at a glimpse:
  • Main argument: Berlant theorizes “cruel optimism” as a way of understanding the injurious attachments we have formed to fantasies of the good life that are no longer sustainable in the present. She claims that perceiving the present as a “mediated affect” will allow us to better apprehend the conditions of “crisis ordinariness” in which we live today; in other words, only by recognizing and understanding the various impasses we face can we strive to create alternative conditions for living otherwise (4).
  • Exigency: Berlant's work responds to crises in our conceptions of the "good life," namely, to the way in which the lives and livelihoods we have taken for granted have become impossible to attain; she suggests that only by recognizing that these fantasies are fraying can we develop alternative ways of living in the present.
  • Methodology: Berlant asserts, "My method is to read patterns of adjustment in specific aesthetic and social contexts to derive what's collective about specific modes of sensual activity toward and beyond survival" (9). In other words, she focuses on the particular as a way of theorizing a collective sense of the historical present: "I am extremely interested in generalization... This is part of my method, to track the becoming general of singular things, and to give those things materiality by tracking their resonances across many scenes, including the ones made by nonverbal but still linguistic activities, like gestures (12).  
    • Berlant critiques "everyday life theory" because she argues that it "no longer describes how most people live" (8). She situates her work alongside Nigel Thrift's Non-Representational Theory, Marc Auge's Non-Places: Essays on Supermodernity, Michael Taussig's The Nervous System, and Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects because it "turns towards thinking about the ordinary as an impasse shaped by crisis in which people find themselves developing skills for adjusting to newly proliferating pressures to scramble for modes of living on" (8). 
    • Berlant produces an archive of the "impasse or transitional moment" that illustrates "exemplary cases of adjustment to the loss of this fantasy" of the good life (11).  
  • Key terms: 
    • "Cruel optimism"- A "relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility" (24). For Berlant, it is not the "experience of optimism," but rather its "affective structure" that is especially important for explicating the nature of our attachments to fantasies of the "good life" because optimism becomes cruel when "the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation" (2, emphasis mine).
    • "Precarious public sphere"- "[A]n intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency and trade paradigms for how best to live on, considering" (3).
    • "The (historical) present"-Berlant’s concern with deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions in the contemporary moment leads her to theorize the “present” as a “mediated affect,” “a temporal genre whose conventions emerge from the personal and public filtering of the situations and events that are happening in an extended now whose very parameters... are also always there for debate" (4). In arguing for an investigation of the "shared historical present," she is not advocating a "shallow presentism" but rather asking us to recognize how debates about the "contours and contents" of the present are "always profoundly political" because they determine what "forces should be considered responsible and what crises [demand] urgent" attention (4)
    • "Crisis ordinariness"- Berlant argues for a shift away from the language of trauma as a means of registering profound and even catastrophic social, economic, and political change. She describes the present as structured through “crisis ordinariness,” which reframes the exceptionalist logic of trauma because crisis operates in the ordinary through embedded conditions of precariousness (10).
    • "Impasse"- the "book's main genre for tracking the sense of the present." The impasse, for Berlant, refers to "a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things" (4). [Her conception of impasse is also connected to "impassivity," the attempt to maintain "composure" amidst crisis; it relates to “gestural economies that register norms of self-management that differ according to what kinds of confidence people have enjoyed about the entitlements of their social location” as well as to the body more specifically, “[t]he way the body slows down… to clarify the relation of living on to ongoing crisis and loss” (5).]
    • "Genre"- Instead of tracking the "'waning of affect'" Berlant "track[s] the waning of genre," especially "older realist genres... whose conventions of relating fantasy to ordinary life and whose depictions of the good life now appear to mark archaic expectations about having and building a life" (6). In her perspective, "[g]enres provide an affective experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art" and, more importantly for Berlant, the "waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates" (6-7).
    • “Object of desire”- “a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (24)
    • “Object of cruel optimism”- it is the “thing within any object to which one passes one’s fantasy of sovereignty for safe-keeping” (43). Berlant asserts that “[i]n a relation of cruel optimism our activity is revealed as a vehicle for attaining a kind of passivity,” which helps us “sustain a coasting sentience” in order to avoid recognizing the enormity of our own sovereignty (43).


Berlant writes, "[e]ach chapter tells a story about the dissolution of optimistic objects/scenarios that had once held the space open for the good-life fantasy, and tracks dramas of adjustment to the transformation of what had seemed foundational into those binding kinds of optimistic relations we call 'cruel'" (3).

  • “Cruel Optimism"
    • In this chapter Berlant elaborates on her theorization of “cruel optimism,” claiming that it is an analytic that will help us “track the affective attachment to what we call the ‘good life,’ which is for so many a bad life that wears out the subject who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their conditions of possibility within it” (27). She argues that this attachment is not “just a psychological state,” but rather results from ordinary conditions of living in the present, which “are conditions of the attrition or wearing out of the subject”; cruel optimism for her consequently allows us to perceive why “people are not Bartleby,” why they choose not to resist but instead “ride the wave of the system of attachment they are used to” even when this system fails them (28). Berlant analyzes an untitled poem by John Ashberry, Charles Johnson’s story “Exchange Value,” and Geoff Ryman’s novel Was, works that stage various impasses that suspend “the rules and norms of the world,” and force us to “pay attention to the built and affective infrastructure of the ordinary,” and question the strategies of survival and adjustment we have developed for living in the present (49).
  • “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event”
  • “Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency)”
  • “Two Girls, Fat and Thin”
  • “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promese and Rosetta”/li>
  • “After the Good Life, an Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and the Precarious Present"
  • “On the Desire for the Political”

  • How does Berlant define "cruel optimism"? 
    • See book summary and "cruel optimism" under key terms. 
  • Why is it important for Berlant to work through the rubric of "crisis" rather than "trauma"?
    • See "crisis ordinariness" under key terms.
  • Why is the notion or “genre” of the “impasse” so important to Berlant for re-conceiving the good life?
    • Berlant turns to affect and aesthetics as a way of apprehending “crisis ordinariness” and offers the “impasse” as a transitional moment in which we realize that existing “genres” are no longer enough to make sense of the present. Each chapter of Cruel Optimism examines a particular situation of impasse and demonstrates how individuals are not impassive, but rather developing strategies for survival and modes of adjustment for getting by when our good life fantasies are no longer sustainable. The impasse also reveals that new emergent aesthetic forms are taking hold and, thus, signal crucial sites for understanding how people are developing alternative genres for navigating situations of overwhelming incoherence and precariousness.
    • Also see “impasse” and “genre” under key terms.
  • Why is aesthetics central to Berlant’s method for understanding the historical present?
    • Berlant turns to aesthetics not to suggest that the lives of characters are “equivalent to what happens to people but [rather] to see that in the affective scenarios of these works and discourses we can discern claims about the situation of contemporary life” (9)
    • Berlant also claims that the attrition of the good life fantasy “manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival,” i.e. the dissolution of certain “genres” and the creation of new ones (11). Aesthetics for her is therefore deeply connected to our experience of the world; it allows us “to rehabituate our sensorium by taking in new material” and “provides metrics for understanding how we pace and space our encounters with things” (12).
  • How is Berlant’s work in conversation with other theories of affect and the “good life”? (i.e. Sara Ahmed, José Muñoz, and others) Where does she situate herself critically?
    • Berlant distinguishes her work from Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness through its formalist concerns; in other words, rather than the feeling or experience of optimism, her research focuses on optimistic attachment as a “structure of relationality” (13). She asserts, “I am seeking out the conditions under which certain attachments to what counts as life come to make sense or no longer make sense, yet remain powerful as they work against the flourishing of particular and collective beings” (13). Furthermore, Berlant attempts to “produce a materialist context for affect theory” by analyzing various fantasies that permeate the ordinary and demonstrating how such fantasies exert a material impact on people’s lives (14). She also argues, following a Lacanian tradition as Brian Massumi and Teresa Brennan do, “that affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary, and that bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves” (15). 
    • Berlant situates Cruel Optimism alongside José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (even though he concentrates on the future whereas her interest is in the present) and Ghassan Hage’s Against Paranoid Nationalism (although his work focuses on people’s relationship to the State while her research tracks “zones of labor, neighborhood, and intimacy” (14)). 
  • How does Berlant structure her archive?
    • Berlant puts Cruel Optimism in conversation with her “national sentimentality trilogy—The Anatomy of National Fantasy, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City,” which are works “focusing in particular on how intimate publics work in proximity to normative modes of love and the law” (2-3). She claims that this book extends the concerns of her earlier work into the present and that the “archive of this project, straddling the United States and contemporary Europe, looks at precarious bodies, subjectivity, and fantasy in terms of citizenship, race, labor, class, (dis)location, sexuality, and health” (3). Historically, the “cases” she explores in the text are “linked in relation to the retraction, during the last three decades, of the social democratic promise of the post-Second World War period in the United States and Europe” (3). Berlant does not go into detail on how she selects the specific works she discusses in each chapter of the book, which also makes for an incredibly eclectic if at times disorienting archive.
    • See brief note on archive under methodology.

Credits: This theory review was co-authored with Christopher Eng (CUNY Graduate Center). 


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