On Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism”

The following is a summary/response I wrote regarding Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” chapter in The Affect Theory Reader:

This chapter blew my mind, so it is important to define some key terms from the outset. “Cruel optimism” for Berlant refers to emotionally charged attachments to fantasies that are either forever out of reach or, upon attainment, prove venomous. The actual content of the attachment is less relevant than the fact that the attachment itself acts as a structure or pillar upon which our lives depend. Optimism does not always feel optimistic; all that is required is that the present moment conveys a promise that we feel and feed on. While she acknowledges that all emotional investment in attachment could be considered cruel, she emphasizes our affective attachment to the so-called “good life” that in reality leaves us feeling disenchanted, alienated and, simultaneously, cognizant of what she calls “the ordinariness of suffering” and “the violence of normativity.” I will return to this cognizance in a bit, but I want to first emphasize the importance of the present moment and its inherent promises as part of “cruel optimism” because I see connections to Althusser’s writings on ideology and Williams’ writings on structures of feeling.

Althusser refers to ideology as seduction, providing us with a representation of their imaginary relationship to their real material conditions. If ideology is what informs how we view the world and link images to power, then cruel optimism refers to the causal mechanism by which we are made subjects beholden to the “good life” ideal that, as subjects, wears us out. Hence why the homosexual men in William Leap’s interviews concerning urban restructuring and the Navy Yard acknowledge the neighborhood as part of their geography of gay D.C. but do not consider it worth fighting for. They are witnessing the destruction of part of their community yet, in their striving toward the promises of urban renewal attached to the new baseball stadium, they display a form of “cruel optimism.”

Williams, meanwhile, describes “structures of feeling” as a particular lived experience defined by the quality of life at a certain time and place. The culture of a given historical moment, along with certain values and perceptions, are distinct from other social formations before and after it. The attachments and institutions in our lives are not fixed wholes but instead ongoing forming processes. As Voloshinov said, the form and content of social intercourse is defined by the jurisdiction of the epoch and society; ideology is accentualized in order to be attuned with the historic moment. So too for Berlant, the “cruel optimism” we experience is a direct consequence of living in the present moment, as are our confrontations with the subject position and our adjustments after those moments.

Berlant refers to such moments as “impasses.” Effectively, we reach a state of deadlock, a dead end, as the reproductions of our habituated life is suspended or interrupted. Berlant examines evidence of such impasses in three different texts, each associated with different forms of promises. The first is a poem by John Ashbery that gets at the promise of the 324px-THIS_IS_AMERICA..._YES,_SON_THIS_IS_AMERICA,_WHERE_YOU_CAN_DREAM_YOUR_DREAMS_AND_MAKE_THEM_COME_TRUE._-_NARA_-_515779object, or more concretely, the promise of private property, its accumulation and what is popularly conceived of the American Dream. The poem’s narrator drives downtown, nestles in yards and sleeps for peace, a deadened lifestyle dedicated to leisure as mandated by modern capitalist society. Berlant invokes Zizek and the notion that today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint: safe sex without consequences, war without casualties, humanitarian militarism, chocolate laxatives, and so on. The major event of Ashbery’s poem, however, is when the narrator is suddenly approached by an unidentified man. This could be another promise, an expected intimacy; the narrator is not just subject to promises of capital accumulation but to the promise of being “king in his castle,” “the master of his domain.” In the marketplace he is concerned with material transactions, while in the home he is nurtured by the promise of intimate transactions of feeling. However, Berlant takes a compassionate turn and notes that the narrator does not appear to have been approached inside the marketplace or the home, but in a “lost space” with the hum of the present moment all around, opening up opportunities to re-imagine the subject. Just as Voloshinov was telling Comrade Stalin that language cannot be controlled by one element of society, there is a struggle for meaning taking place within language and discourse. Berlant’s impasse thus means to be propelled into the space of that struggle. Despite her optimism, however. Berlant makes it clear that such a struggle would require dissolution of “the legitimacy of the optimisim embedded in the now displaced world” with all its accompanying “zones, scenes, scapes and institutions;” otherwise, it becomes just an episode, a brief encounter with valuation and commodification with no genuine resistance.

The next section of the chapter deals with cruel optimism surrounding a different promise, that of exchange value. As textual evidence, Berlant uses a 1994 short story by Charles Johnson about two poor African-American brothers living in Chicago. The elder brother, Lofthis, is ambitious and follows his parents in pursuing wealth and the trappings of326px-MOTHER_AND_DAUGHTER_RETURNING_HOME_AFTER_A_GROCERY_SHOPPING_EXPEDITION_IN_CHICAGO'S_WEST_SIDE_BLACK_COMMUNITY._IN..._-_NARA_-_556152 success in imitation of his parents, despite the fact that hard work and can-do attitudes did not improve their socioeconomic status. Rather than doggedly chasing the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” fantasy, the younger brother, Cooter, loses himself in the fantasy of comic books and watching television. The brothers decide to rob the residence of a seemingly destitute mad woman in their neighborhood, only to find that the woman was secretly wealthy and, in addition to piles of money, possessed very random and unusual objects, ranging from cigar boxes to pieces of a tree. Lofthis, like the woman they have robbed, ends up going mad as he becomes obsessed with protecting their new wealth because, as his logic goes, the purchasing power of their wealth loses that power once purchases are made. Cooter, in contrast, goes into the city to spend some of the money, but finds that money cannot buy him belonging in an environment that is foreign to him and rejects him due to his race and class. While Ashbery’s narrator is jolted from the hollow promise of the American Dream and the bourgeois lifestyle, Johnson’s brothers realize the promise of wealth but find the contradictions of capitalism too toxic to tolerate. When they were living in poverty, they had nothing to lose, and therefore the stresses of everyday life afforded the everyday escapism that constituted Cooter’s life. When they suddenly became rich through their robbery, they suddenly had everything to lose, so much so that Lofthis cannot stomach the thought of “losing” their wealth by spending it via the powers of transaction. The cruelty in monetary optimism is readily apparent.

The contrast between the two promises and the two texts also serve to illustrate the concept of voice. The voice of the narrator in Ashbery’s poem is that of the stereotypical suburban bourgeoisie, the sort we would imagine enjoys resting in vineyards and dropping in on the neighbors. The poem’s narrator is not part of any real community other than that which is sought out and may prove absent; it is the singular event of being approached by a man that jolts the narrator into the “lost space” outside the promise of the object. The experience of Johnson’s brothers take place within the moral geography of a particular narrative, the “rags to riches” story,” which is synonymous with the “bootstraps” promise that people who work hard and seize opportunities will in the end achieve financial success as well as happiness. The fact that the brothers are black is also important because they are not just seeking wealth in the general sense but because wealth has been iconized with the wealthy white people in good neighborhoods where the brothers’ mother used to work as a housecleaner. The elevation in valuation that they seek is not just about personal happiness but equality and recognition. The madness that befalls Lofthis and the woman they rob stems not just from twisted capitalist logic but that, as members of a repressed minority, there is the ever-present fear that devaluation can occur at any time; the wealth that they have come into so suddenly can just as easily be taken away from them. Thus, even as the characters realize the promise of exchange value, they are still living with the nightmare of racial discrimination and oppression.

The final section of Berlant’s chapter deals with the promise of being taught, of attachment to another living being. The textual evidence in this instance is Geoff Ryman’s 1992 novel Dorothy_and_Toto,_1900Was, specifically a section concerning Dorothy Gael, a 19th-century Kansas schoolgirl whose parents have abandoned her and who has been raped and shunned by her uncle. Large and ineloquent, Dorothy is shunned until she meets a substitute teacher named Frank Baum, the man behind the Wizard of Oz story. Dorothy reacts to his tenderness and kindness with a secret internal longing for some sort of connection with him, but the mere promise of relief from her tortured life tears at her soul, makes her more acutely aware of her perceived unworthiness. When she does let her guard down and writes an essay about her close connection with her dog, Toto, Frank Baum the substitute says that he is happy that she has Toto to love. Dorothy achieves her longed-for emotional connection with Baum, but it is predicated on a lie; Toto is dead, having starved because her aunt and uncle would spare no food for it. Just as Frank Baum is a substitute for a constant kindness in her life, respite from torment she is powerless to overcome, the essay is also a substitute, a falsehood that reveals that there can be no true, authentic connection to another human being. In her time of impasse, Dorothy goes insane, a wandering mad woman, and in so doing manages to preserve her cruel optimism rather than imagining a life outside of it.


Check Your Privilege, Nerd: Wesley Crusher & An Angry Black Woman

Be warned. This is a reaction thinkpiece, so if you’re in a “grand scheme of things” kind of mood, feel free to just skip this entry. I just have to vent, and this is my blog, so deal with it.

Earlier this week Twitter made me aware of an interaction on Tumblr between Wil Wheaton (TV’s Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) and K. Tempest Bradford, a science fiction and fantasy author. If you want to read what transpired in their own words, you can do so here. If you want the quick and dirty version, here is my summary of what took place:

Wheaton referred to another person as his “spirit animal.” Another Tumblr user very politely objected to the usage of the term in this way, as it denigrated and delegitimized the concept of “spirit animals” within certain cultures. Wheaton replied that he didn’t mean to denigrate or delegitimize anyone and he is aware and bothered by how indigenous peoples have had their cultures erased and destroyed due to colonialism and cultural imperialism. Bradford, who self-identifies as “Angry Black Woman,” jumps in and shreds Wheaton in a very acerbic post, accusing him of “whitesplaining” because his apology is about his own thought process and not about how his usage of “spirit animal” affected others. According to her, the correct way to apologize would have been to say “Sorry for doing that, I won’t do it again,” full stop. From that point on it degrades into both sides accusing the other of being rude and inconsiderate, with respective supporters dog piling.

An argument?! On the Internet?! I know, you’re shocked. But this sort of incident is hardly isolated on social media. Recently, Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece for The Nation about feminism’s “toxic Twitter wars,” about similar heated arguments on social media between feminists of differing backgrounds about what is “proper feminism” and what isn’t. I won’t go into that article here, but you should read it yourself if you haven’t already (and haven’t wrote a thinkpiece about it).

On the academic front, this has also become an issue, with the International Studies Association proposing last month to prohibit the editors of its scholarly journals from blogging so as to avoid such organizations from becoming mired in controversy arising from academics expressing contentious viewpoints. In August last year, for example, an academic came under heavy criticism for comparing professional working to being like a desperate and promiscuous woman desperately seeking company for the evening (in much more offensive terms than that) on the Duck of Minerva blog, a popular site for international relations scholars. I personally think the post in question was right to be pulled, but I am bothered by the reaction of the ISA to consider prematurely censoring its editors just because they might, consciously or consciously, say something objectionable.

Personally, I think people of privilege (including myself) should be called out when we do or say something that is intolerant to others, but such “calling out” should be aimed at education and understanding. I am sure some people do indeed act in bad faith, knowing better but behaving contrarian regardless, but there are people like me and Wesley Crusher who probably never stopped to think about how being flippant with a term like “spirit animal” could be problematic and part of a repressive discourse. We may be artless and clumsy about it, but at the end of the day we give diligence to the person at the other end of the conversation and consider fairly the morality of the argument being made.

Granted, I don’t think this means that people who do “calling out” should be effete and weak-willed about it, deferential to the point of Obama in his first debate with Romney. Sometimes outrage is justified, and if a person is angry because he or she has witnessed for the 100,000th time the omission of, say, how trans people of color contributed to the gay rights movement, a person can hardly fault that frustration and exasperation. Still, it also has to be accepted, fairly or unfairly, that if such anger and frustration is expressed without context, the person on the other end of the conversation and even people standing by will not have learned anything in the end. Venting anger can make a person feel better, and social media provides instant support through like-minded friends and comrades, but there is ultimately some value in remembering that cornerstone of equality, the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. If you were to say something offensive without meaning to do so, would you want to be told to “shut up and listen” and then berated like a naughty child, or would you like to be told in uncertain but still patient and understanding terms why what you said or did should not have been said or done?

If you think I am tilting at windmills, there is already ample evidence of this online. James Heartfield at The Charnel House documents how Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour, two British left-wingers whose work I like, have voiced support for the “calling out” of repressive discourse — only to be raked across the coals for mistakenly engaging in such discourse themselves. In Penny’s case, she wrote about short hair being sort of feminist without addressing the hair issues of women in color, while Seymour denounced a chair made to look like a submissive black woman as racist, but also noted that some kinky sex play involved racial acting-out. James Walsh at Economia uses these incidents of evidence that this sort of “calling out” behavior will eventually eat itself, but not before doing huge damage to the humanities and the media in the long-run. He writes off the left as already beyond saving, and while there is some truth to that, I think that “calling out” as it is currently done will still do major harm to the left, especially among young people who are turned off by what they see as representations of the left in places like Wesley Crusher’s Tumblr page.

There is a time and a place for “moralistic browbeating” as Heartfield calls it, but it cannot be the state of progressives online 24/7. It allows reactionaries to lampoon us as having a pathetic parody of the Cultural Revolution amongst ourselves, giving needless credence to the “political correctness gone mad” narrative they love to sell in response to the very real need to acknowledge that repressive discourse exists and should be addressed. It also makes it likely that people who fancy themselves an ally of feminism, gay rights and other social causes will continue to do so from the comfort of their Facebook status update than in actual concrete ways because they will be crippled by anxiety of making the wrong step or uttering the wrong phrase. By all means, let us identify domination where it exists and be bold enough to point it out, but let us not become like Saturn eating our own children. Let us direct our anger first and foremost at the vested interests that promulgate ideologies of division and delegitimization rather than falling into division and delegitimization of ourselves.

Terror, Terror Everywhere: Games in the Time of Al-Qaeda

Yesterday marked the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and while the event invited criticism of Russia’s draconian mass surveillance and poor human rights record, there was also plenty of pot-stirring over the possibility of the games being marred by a terrorist attack. Some credence was given to that fear when an individual attempted to hijack a plane and divert to Sochi, but whether this was part of a coordinated terrorist operation is not yet known. In doing some reading for my international relations class, however, the academic literature seems to suggest that an attack at the Games is fairly unlikely, regardless of its location or the militancy of the groups involved. From the perspective of the terrorists, they are better off attacking a less prominent target than one which will unquestionably be heavily monitored and controlled.

Yes, believe it or not, terrorists are rational. I will be the first to acknowledge the limits of rationality to explain everything; no doubt that many people, perhaps especially terrorists, are motivated by things not grounded in cold logic, like political ideals and religious zeal. That does not mean, however, that in picking their goals and developing their plans that they are blind to reality. Their target is generally what is directly offending them, and if they hope to obtain and retain public support, they are better off keeping their targets near and immediate.

Robert Pape’s work on the logic of suicide bombings is particularly illustrative of this. In his research, he found that what drove political violence was not religious or ethnic differences but the immediate presence of foreign forces occupying another nation’s land. Terrorists tended to pick targets that had operational rather than normative value. Accordingly, it makes more sense that, if terrorist groups in the North Caucasus want to lash out at Russia, they would likely do so whether Chechnya or Dagestan rather than expending their resources on a relatively far-off location, regardless of how embarrassing it might be for the Russian government.

Does this sound counter-intuitive? In the years since 9/11, how many attacks did al-Qaeda make on big events in the U.S., like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve gatherings in Time Square? To our knowledge, zero. Yes, the Boston Marathon was bombed, but that was not so much an attack orchestrated by a terrorist network than two brothers acting independent of a larger movement. By and large, al-Qaeda has kept its operations focused on U.S. forces overseas, in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. You might point to the attacks of 9/11 as another exception, but as Pape points out, those two were premised on widespread resentment in the Arabian Peninsula to the forces we had stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere.

It has become popular as of late to assume that religious fundamentalists, specifically Islamic fundamentalists, are simply hard-wired to blow themselves up. That is why people who react with alarm and suspicion when they see men and women in “Muslim dress” on their airplanes, and why such individuals can be kicked off flights for other reason than their overt religiosity. But as Pape explains, what is remarkable is how the most Islamic fundamentalist states in the world fail to produce any terrorists at all:

“If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people—three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia—with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the United States.

However, there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.

Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist. The ideology of Sudan was so congenial to Osama bin Laden that he spent three years in Sudan in the 1990s. Yet there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Sudan.

I have the first complete set of data on every al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from 1995 to early 2004, and they are not from some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world. Two thirds are from the countries where the United States has stationed heavy combat troops since 1990.”

In our popular discourse, “religious” and especially “religious Muslim” has become shorthand for “crazy.” Yet, in our irrational fear that a crazed terrorist lurks behind every counter and within every major event, perhaps it is us who have become bedeviled by paranoia.