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.

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