Required Reading: Cruel Optimism
“Even Adorno, the great belittler of popular pleasures, can be aghast at the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold on to a dream.”
Lauren Berlant is not shitting on you or your dream. OK, yes, her latest book is called Cruel Optimism and begins with a damning introductory explanation, “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” 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, a trip to Bluestockings and a few Sunday afternoons of heavy reading will reveal a surprisingly tender survey of the things people do and the attachments they form to get themselves through life's inadequacies. 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%.
In Berlant’s account, the 99% or precariat, eats, buys and loves not to build the future, but to mark the present with holding patterns of predictability and security. This despite increasing evidence that contemporary life is precarious, tumbling along with a “pacing of death,” where the majority of workers are nothing more than fleshy machines, jobs are fleeting, and quick-stepping entrepreneurialism is a new moral imperative.
We cope in this century by looking forward, by creating attachments and desiring, mechanisms of optimism which Berlant traces through texts like The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and films Ressources humaines by Laurent Cantet, La Promesse, and Rosetta by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill is now on my required reading list. Berlant uses Gaitskill's novel to elaborate how food, sex, and intellect (smarts) permit a sense of agency despite crippling individual traumas for protagonists Justine and Dorothy. The girls self-harm in order to interfere with the female lives imposed upon them, but “even if one risks self-negation through such tendencies, not to be that [ordinary, failed person with that history] is an amazing thing” writes Berlant.
One of the few positive, programmatic initiatives of Cruel Optimism is to argue to “desubjectivize queerness and to see it in practices that feel out alternative routes for living” in opposition to the traumatic “heterofamilial, upwardly-mobile good-life fantasy.” But there is no larger, revolutionary call-to-action. Cruel Optimism’s work is mostly in its witnessing: “To admit your surprising attachments, to trace your transformation over the course of a long life sentence, is sentience.”
PS. Sara Ahmed calls it "brilliant".
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