Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Cruel Optimism

Cruel Optimism

by Lauren Berlant, Lauren Gail Berlant

View All Available Formats & Editions

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Offering bold new ways of conceiving the present, Lauren Berlant describes the cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted. People have remained attached


A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Offering bold new ways of conceiving the present, Lauren Berlant describes the cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life—with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy—despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives “add up to something.”

Arguing that the historical present is perceived affectively before it is understood in any other way, Berlant traces affective and aesthetic responses to the dramas of adjustment that unfold amid talk of precarity, contingency, and crisis. She suggests that our stretched-out present is characterized by new modes of temporality, and she explains why trauma theory—with its focus on reactions to the exceptional event that shatters the ordinary—is not useful for understanding the ways that people adjust over time, once crisis itself has become ordinary. Cruel Optimism is a remarkable affective history of the present.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant’s brilliant new book, lays bare the price of our habitual ways of thinking about subjectivity, temporality, affect, attachment, and political investment. Exploring the condition of precarity that mocks the good life (or at least the better life) that hard work and good behavior are supposed to make possible within liberal democracy, Berlant’s bold analyses of the impasse of the present and her unflinching determination to follow a thought to its necessary end make clear why this is a crucial, indeed a necessary, book at this moment—and also why it will inform our critical discourse for years to come.”—Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

“Lauren Berlant elegantly weaves together readings of contemporary art, literature, and film to reveal how our persistent aspirations for the good life are continually thwarted. Reading this book is an exciting theoretical experience but it also has a very practical, immediate, everyday quality. Berlant gives us something like a how-to guide for living in the impasse, that is, the affective and political conditions of our present.”—Michael Hardt, co-author of Commonwealth

“This brilliant book will be much read and much cited. Lauren Berlant is widely regarded as one of the most important and original critics of contemporary cultural logics. Here she offers a genuinely new angle on familiar processes through her subtle yet forceful reading of cruel optimism, the psychic and structural dynamics that keep people proximate to objects, fantasies, and worlds that seem to diminish them.”—Sara Ahmed, author of The Promise of Happiness

Bitch - Caitlin Hu
“Lauren Berlant is not shitting on you or your dream. OK, yes, her latest book is called Cruel Optimism. . . . . Yes, the University of Chicago professor will break down everything you hold dear: food, love, politics, family, virtuous New Year’s resolutions. And yes, within a few pages, there’s that creeping sensation that, whatever makes you tick, it’s got you on the fast track to ruin and disappointment. . . . Nevertheless . . . Cruel Optimism is less brutal analysis than a dark, lush still-life of American fantasies and our Quixotic lunges toward them. An affective portrait of the 99%.”
Lambda Literary Review - Chase Dimock
“This is Berlant at her most revolutionarily queer, questioning what would happen if we stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of identity categories, and instead reorganized our sense of self around the specific objects and ideas to which we are attached and the affects that they produce in us.”
New Formations - Anna E. Ward
Cruel Optimism is a must read for any scholar interested in exploring the affective dimensions of precarity. . . . Cruel Optimism does precisely what Berlant’s work always does - it changes the conversation in such a way that it makes you wonder why we weren’t talking about these things all along.”
The Progressive - Kate Clinton
“If you are looking for some new language to use to describe the current crisis of hope, read Cruel Optimism. . . . It is a wild, deeply witty examination of our attachments to food, love, politics, family, and pop culture.”

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt


By Lauren Berlant

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5111-5

Chapter One


I. Optimism and Its Objects

All attachments are optimistic. When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us. This cluster of promises could seem embedded in a person, a thing, an institution, a text, a norm, a bunch of cells, smells, a good idea—whatever. To phrase "the object of desire" as a cluster of promises is to allow us to encounter what's incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments, not as confirmation of our irrationality but as an explanation of our sense of our endurance in the object, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises, some of which may be clear to us and good for us while others, not so much. Thus attachments do not all feel optimistic: one might dread, for example, returning to a scene of hunger, or longing, or the slapstick reiteration of a lover's or parent's predictable distortions. But being drawn to return to the scene where the object hovers in its potentialities is the operation of optimism as an affective form. In optimism, the subject leans toward promises contained within the present moment of the encounter with her object.

In the introduction I described "cruel optimism" as a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What's cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject's sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. This phrase points to a condition different from that of melancholia, which is enacted in the subject's desire to temporize an experience of the loss of an object/ scene with which she has invested her ego continuity. Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object. One more thing: sometimes, the cruelty of an optimistic attachment is more easily perceived by an analyst who observes the cost of someone's or some group's attachment to x, since often persons and communities focus on some aspects of their relation to an object/world while disregarding others. But if the cruelty of an attachment is experienced by someone/some group, even in a subtle fashion, the fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything. Often this fear of loss of a scene of optimism as such is unstated and only experienced in a sudden incapacity to manage startling situations, as we will see throughout this book.

One might point out that all objects/scenes of desire are problematic, in that investments in them and projections onto them are less about them than about what cluster of desires and affects we can manage to keep magnetized to them. I have indeed wondered whether all optimism is cruel, because the experience of loss of the conditions of its reproduction can be so breathtakingly bad, just as the threat of the loss of x in the scope of one's attachment drives can feel like a threat to living on itself. But some scenes of optimism are clearly crueler than others: where cruel optimism operates, the very vitalizing or animating potency of an object/scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place. This might point to something as banal as a scouring love, but it also opens out to obsessive appetites, working for a living, patriotism, all kinds of things. One makes affective bargains about the costliness of one's attachments, usually unconscious ones, most of which keep one in proximity to the scene of desire/attrition.

This means that a poetics of attachment always involves some splitting off of the story I can tell about wanting to be near x (as though x has autonomous qualities) from the activity of the emotional habitus I have constructed, as a function of having x in my life, in order to be able to project out my endurance in proximity to the complex of what x seems to offer and proffer. To understand cruel optimism, therefore, one must embark on an analysis of indirection, which provides a way to think about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling. I learned how to do this from reading Barbara Johnson's work on apostrophe and free indirect discourse. In her poetics of indirection, each of these two rhetorical modes is shaped by the ways a writing subjectivity conjures other ones so that, in a performance of fantasmatic intersubjectivity, the writer gains superhuman observational authority, enabling a performance of being that is made possible by the proximity of the object. Because this aesthetic process is something like what I am describing in the optimism of attachment, I'll describe a bit the shape of my transference with her thought.

In "Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion," my key referent here, Johnson tracks the political consequences of apostrophe for what has become fetal personhood: a silent, affectively present but physically displaced interlocutor (a lover, a fetus) is animated in speech as distant enough for a conversation but close enough to be imaginable by the speaker in whose head the entire scene is happening. But the condition of projected possibility, of a hearing that cannot take place in the terms of its enunciation ("you" are not here, "you" are eternally belated to the conversation with you that I am imagining) creates a fake present moment of intersubjectivity in which, nonetheless, a performance of address can take place. The present moment is made possible by the fantasy of you, laden with the x qualities I can project onto you, given your convenient absence. Apostrophe therefore appears to be a reaching out to a you, a direct movement from place x to place y, but it is actually a turning back, an animating of a receiver on behalf of the desire to make something happen now that realizes something in the speaker, makes the speaker more or differently possible, because she has admitted, in a sense, the importance of speaking for, as, and to, two—but only under the condition, and illusion, that the two are really (in) one.

Apostrophe is thus an indirect, unstable, physically impossible but phenomenologically vitalizing movement of rhetorical animation that permits subjects to suspend themselves in the optimism of a potential occupation of the same psychic space of others, the objects of desire who make you possible (by having some promising qualities, but also by not being there). Later work, such as in "Muteness Envy," elaborates Johnson's description of the gendered rhetorical politics of this projection of voluble intersubjectivity. 5 The paradox remains that the lush submerging of one consciousness into another requires a double negation: of the speaker's boundaries, so s/he can grow bigger in rhetorical proximity to the object of desire; and of the spoken of, who is more or less a powerful mute placeholder providing an opportunity for the speaker's imagination of her/his/their flourishing.

Of course, existentially and psychoanalytically speaking, intersubjectivity is impossible. It is a wish, a desire, and a demand for an enduring sense of being with and in x and is related to that big knot that marks the indeterminate relation between a feeling of recognition and misrecognition. As chapter 4 argues at greater length, recognition is the misrecognition you can bear, a transaction that affirms you without, again, necessarily feeling good or being accurate (it might idealize, it might affirm your monstrosity, it might mirror your desire to be minimal enough to live under the radar, it might feel just right, and so on). To elaborate the tragicomedy of intersubjective misrecognition as a kind of realism, Johnson's work on projection mines the projective, boundary-dissolving spaces of attachment to the object of address, who must be absent in order for the desiring subject of intersubjectivity to get some traction, to stabilize her proximity to the object/ scene of promise.

When Johnson turns to free indirect discourse, with its circulation of merged and submerged observational subjectivity, the projection of the desire for intersubjectivity has even less pernicious outcomes. In a narrator's partial-merging with a character's consciousness, say, free indirect discourse performs the impossibility of locating an observational intelligence in one or any body, and therefore forces the reader to transact a different, more open relation of unfolding to what she is reading, judging, being, and thinking she understands. In Johnson's work such a transformative transCruel action through reading/speaking "unfolds" the subject in a good way, despite whatever desires she may have not to become significantly different. In this, her work predicted the aesthetics of subjective interpenetration more recently advanced by Tim Dean's Levinasian and Leo Bersani's psychoanalytic optimism about the cognitive-ethical decision to become transformed by a project of limited intersubjectivity, a letting in of the Other's being without any claim to knowledge of what the intimate Other is like. Like Johnson's work on projection, their focus is on the optimism of attachment, and is often itself optimistic about the negations and extensions of personhood that forms of suspended intersubjectivity demand from the lover/reader.

What follows is not so buoyant: this chapter elaborates on and politicizes Freud's observation that "people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them." Eve Sedgwick describes Melanie Klein's depressive position as an orientation toward inducing a circuit of repair for a broken relation to the world. The politically depressed position exacerbates the classic posture by raising a problem of attachment style in relation to a conflict of aims. The political depressive might be cool, cynical, shut off, searingly rational, or averse, and yet, having adopted a mode that might be called detachment, may not really be detached at all, but navigating an ongoing and sustaining relation to the scene and circuit of optimism and disappointment. (The seeming detachment of rationality, for example, is not a detachment at all, but an emotional style associated normatively with a rhetorical practice.)

Then, there remains the question of the direction of the repair toward or away from reestablishing a relation to the political object/scene that has structured one's relation to strangers, power, and the infrastructures of belonging. So, too, remains the question of who can bear to lose the world (the "libidinal position"), what happens when the loss of what's not working is more unbearable than the having of it, and vice versa. Cruel Optimism attends to practices of self-interruption, self-suspension, and self-abeyance that indicate people's struggles to change, but not traumatically, the terms of value in which their life-making activity has been cast.

Cruel optimism is, then, like all phrases, a deictic—a phrase that points to a proximate location. As an analytic lever, it is an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call "the good life," which is for so many a bad life that wears out the subjects who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their conditions of possibility within it. This is not just a psychological state. The conditions of ordinary life in the contemporary world even of relative wealth, as in the United States, are conditions of the attrition or the wearing out of the subject, and the irony that the labor of reproducing life in the contemporary world is also the activity of being worn out by it has specific implications for thinking about the ordinariness of suffering, the violence of normativity, and the "technologies of patience" that enable a concept of the later to suspend questions about the cruelty of the now. Cruel optimism is in this sense a concept pointing toward a mode of lived immanence, one that grows from a perception about the reasons people are not Bartleby, do not prefer to interfere with varieties of immiseration, but choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to, to syncopate with it, or to be held in a relation of reciprocity, reconciliation, or resignation that does not mean defeat by it. Or perhaps they move toward the normative form to get numb with the consensual promise, and to misrecognize that promise as an achievement. Working from pieces by John Ashbery, Charles Johnson, and Geoff Ryman, this chapter traverses three episodes in which what constitutes the cruel bindings of cruel optimism is surprising and induces diverse dramas of adjustment to being postgenre, postnormative, and not knowing entirely how to live. In the middle of all that, we discover in the impasse a rhythm that people can enter into while they're dithering, tottering, bargaining, testing, or otherwise being worn out by the promises that they have attached to in this world.

II. The Promise of the Object

A recent, untitled poem by John Ashbery stages the most promising version of this scene of promises for us, foregrounding the Doppler effect of knowledge, phrasing as a kind of spatial lag the political economy of disavowal we drag around like a shadow, and yet providing an experience of liveness in the object that's not only livable, but at once simplifying and revolutionary—that bourgeois dream couplet:

    We were warned about spiders, and the
      occasional famine.
    We drove downtown to see our
      neighbors. None of them were home.
    We nestled in yards the municipality had
    reminisced about other, different places—
    but were they? Hadn't we known it all

    In vineyards where the bee's hymn
      drowns the monotony,
    we slept for peace, joining in the great

    He came up to me.
    It was all as it had been,
    except for the weight of the present,
    that scuttled the pact we made with
    In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
    nor need to turn around, either.
    We were lost just by standing,
    listening to the hum of the wires overhead.

The opening frame is the scene of the American dream not realized, but almost—or as Ashbery says in a contiguous poem, "Mirage control has sealed the borders/with light and the endless diffidence light begets." Likewise, here, home and hymn almost rhyme; but we are restless, no one is home, nature threatens our sense of plenitude; and then there is what the speaker calls "the weight of the present" that makes our politics, therefore, quietist, involving sleeping for peace, deflating the symbolic into the somatic. How long have people thought about the present as having weight, as being a thing disconnected from other things, as an obstacle to living? Everything in this poem is very general, and yet we can derive some contexts from within it—imagining, for example, the weight of the default space of the poem, as it instantiates something of the American dream, suburb-style. The people who maintain the appearance of manicured space are not agents in the poem's "we"; they are actors, though, they make noise. Their sounds are the sounds of suburban leisure, not the workers' leisure. We know nothing of where they came from, the noises of their day beyond work, and their play. We know nothing about what any of the bodies look like, either: this is practical subjectivity manifesting personhood in action and rhetorical refraction. We can speculate, though, that the unmarked speaking people are probably white and American while their servants are probably not, but the poem's idiom is so general and demographic so suppressed that its location in the normative iconicity of the unmarked forces realism into speculation.


Excerpted from CRUEL OPTIMISM by Lauren Berlant Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. She the editor of the books Intimacy; Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion; and (with Lisa Duggan) Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >