Cruel Optimism

Gabriel Winant writes for N+1 in 2015:

Affect theory’s center of gravity is found near this question of happiness. If there is one contemporary scholar who looms over the field, it is Lauren Berlant, an English professor at the University of Chicago. Her central concept is also the title of her 2011 book, Cruel Optimism. It is a distinctively contemporary feeling, Berlant argues, the sticky affective residue left by the slow decay of once-stable forms of the good life: “‘Cruel optimism’ names a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” The result is a kind of purgatory. However harmful any individual attachment might be — to a relationship, or an ambition, or a way of life — giving up on it would shatter the personality that has been organized around it. “Whatever the content of the attachment is,” Berlant writes, “the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living and to look forward to being in the world.” Taking on an impossible debt load to buy a house or go to college, because you won’t have a stable or normative or meaningful adult life if you don’t — this is cruel optimism. The graduate student’s single-minded, misery-inducing pursuit of one of the few remaining tenure-track jobs — this, too, is cruel optimism. (It’s no coincidence that affect theory so precisely captures academic life; academia, just like the rest of the economy, is undergoing the process of the colonization of feeling.) Perhaps the grandest example of cruel optimism is found in our collective relationship to looming climate catastrophe. What we have done is surely terrible, but apparently we find it less terrible to keep on as before than to imagine other ways of living.

At a more general level, what “cruel optimism” describes is the way life under neoliberalism feels stuck in a stalled-out temporality. Theoretical advances are typically products of moments of great social change. Yet affect theory in general — and some of its sharpest political criticism in particular — emerges from inertia. Cruel optimism flowers in the shade cast by the overhang of an unresolved past over an absent future. We are, Berlant argues, picking over the ruins of a good life that we cannot restore and will not leave behind. It is as if the whole society were living in Grey Gardens.

Berlant’s best-known specific case is her reading of mass obesity, which she describes as a form of “slow death.” The poor and the working class, she notes, know that they will not live as long as their social superiors. The bourgeois imperative of self-care, the efficient reproduction of one’s own body, has become at this point a cruel joke. To eat unhealthily is not simply an act of direct resistance, for Berlant, but a form of “lateral agency.” Food is one of life’s few reliable pleasures, and its consumption offers a form of community and belonging. “Under a regime of crisis ordinariness, life feels truncated, more like desperate doggy-paddling than like a magnificent swim out to the horizon,” she writes. “Eating adds up to something, many things: maybe the good life, but usually a sense of well-being that spreads out for a moment, not a projection toward a future.” Berlant’s prose, always a bit slanted, seems to enact the kind of lateral agency she describes: “Paradoxically, of course, at least during this phase of capital, there is less of a future when one eats without an orientation toward it.”

Hua Tsu wrote for the New Yorker in 2019:

* In “Cruel Optimism,” Berlant moved from theorizing about genres of fiction to theorizing about “genres for life.” We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author. But often what we feel instead is a sense of precariousness—a gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won’t give us control over the story, much less guarantee a happy ending. For all that, we keep on hoping, and that persuades us to keep on living.

The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” We are accustomed to longing for things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes or cake. Perhaps your emotional state is calibrated around a sports team, like the New York Knicks, and despite hopes that next season will be better you vaguely understand that you’ll be let down anyway. But our Sisyphean pursuit of the good life has higher stakes, and its amalgam of fantasy and futility is something that we process as experience before we rationalize it in thought. These feelings, Berlant says, are the “body’s response to the world, something you’re always catching up to.”

* Shortly after the publication of “Cruel Optimism,” Berlant began to sense a subtle, atmospheric disturbance. In September of 2012, she offered a diagnosis on her blog:

“Many of you would say that Donald Trump was excluded from the Republican convention, has no traction as a political candidate, and is generally viewed as a clown whose spewing occasionally hits in the vicinity of an opinion that a reasonable person could defend. But I am here to tell you that he actually won the Republican nomination and is dominating the airwaves during this election season. He is not doing this with “dark money” or Koch-like influence peddling. He has done this the way the fabled butterfly does it, as its wing-flapping sets off revolutions.”

* …“affect theory.” Under its influence, critics attended to affective charge. They saw our world as shaped not simply by narratives and arguments but also by nonlinguistic effects—by mood, by atmosphere, by feelings.

…In sentimental fiction, we encounter righteous solutions to problems that feel unresolvable in real life. Berlant held that American popular culture had been built, layer by layer, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “The Simpsons,” upon the assumption that identifying with “someone else’s stress, pain, or humiliated identity” could change you. “Popular culture relies on keeping sacrosanct this aspect of sentimentality—that ‘underneath’ we are all alike,” she observed.

* As Berlant later wrote, in “Cruel Optimism,” “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 relationship to the scene and circuit of optimism and disappointment.”

* We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.” What stories do we tell ourselves in order to stay afloat?

* “All attachment is optimistic,” Berlant argued in “Cruel Optimism,” because it forces us out of ourselves. From there, we enter “into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, or scene.” The challenge is finding configurations that don’t simply reproduce the same old patterns of life.

Erin Maglaque writes for the May 18, 2023 LROB:

* ‘In academia,’ Lauren Berlant wrote, ‘reputation is gossip about who had the ideas.’

* Berlant was less concerned with traditional objects of literary critique – plot, narrative, character – than with the mood and atmosphere that pervaded a text: the more ordinary the feelings, the more seriously Berlant took them.

* Berlant reads Obama and Oprah as part of a shared national sentimentality: ‘Oprah’s sentimentality always abjures the political: always sees change as coming from within; always sees obstacles to change as internal wounds and not structural blockages.’ In a similar way, Obama ‘wanted to believe that through him we could dissolve affectively what’s antagonistic structurally’ – that is, the long history of American racism – ‘and then bring politics to make structural what had been achieved [first] in … “true feeling”.’

* In 2016, Berlant showed Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ advertisement to undergraduates who were too young to have followed the 2008 presidential campaign. They began to cry. Until that moment, Berlant writes, the students ‘didn’t know they had national sentimentality’. I once took my English boyfriend to a minor league baseball game, and he welled up at ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. That’s the power of American affect for you.

* Berlant’s most influential book, Cruel Optimism (2011), describes the ‘relation which exists when something you desire is an obstacle to your flourishing’. Romantic love. Fast food. The Democratic Party. Prestige TV. Each offers comforts and securities. Each diminishes us in large or small ways, makes false promises, prevents us from striving for something better. Yet we continue to strive, often blaming ourselves when things go wrong. Cruel optimism explains why you continue to accept casual contracts, hoping for a more secure position. It explains why you continue to ‘work’ on your marriage or save for a down payment on a house. It explains why you just spent £6 on a coffee. Cruel optimism might even explain why you decide to have children, or why you vote. Berlant’s critical theory serves not only as an explanatory paradigm for neoliberalism, say, but for your own little life.

Berlant’s central example is the so-called obesity pandemic in the US, which they argue has been framed in American policy and popular culture as a crisis of will. If only the obese person would diet, or exercise, or cook certain kinds of food, or eat at home; if only they would exercise sovereignty over their desires, they could become an ideal American citizen. For Berlant, obesity offers a way to think about agency. Individual sovereignty, they argue, is itself cruelly optimistic: the fantasy that we are in control of ourselves is a legacy of the Enlightenment ideal of the political subject. Obese people, in Berlant’s analysis, don’t act according to this fantasy and are therefore vilified and pathologised in American culture. Fatness is physical proof of the individual’s resistance to what, under neoliberal capitalism, is agency transformed into ‘an activity of maintenance, not making’. Obesity shows us an alternative view of agency, though it might not look like much. Sitting. Scrolling. Eating a nice meal. Having a nap.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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