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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The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

One of the risks one runs in romance is seeing very bad movies enjoyed predominantly by members of the opposite sex, and this weekend I endured over two hours of The Hunger Games, the latest set of books intended for teenage girls but inexplicably favored by a much larger crowd. I knew very little details about the story going into the film, save for someone describing it as “Running Man meets Degrassi High,” and that it was mildly notorious for its fundamental premise of “kids killing kids.” Ultimately, however, while the movie did achieve some mildly suspenseful “hunger” in the lead-up to the “games,” a combination of undeveloped characters, zero chemistry between protagonists and no real moral ambiguity despite the controversial subject matter meant I came away underwhelmed. Still, I was grateful I had not relived the nausea that accompanied date-induced viewings of Eat, Pray Love and Sex and the City 2.

Critics have pointed to political commentary within The Hunger Games as a redeeming quality, although taken at face value this commentary is facile: totalitarian regimes are not fun to live under, reality TV can be exploitative, etc. In other words, critics acknowledge that this cinematic cupcake is mostly empty calories, yet there is just enough substance beneath the frosting for adults to savor it as well as kids. These same critics bemoan this fact, arguing that the writers (including the book’s author, Suzanne Collins) and the director could have taken advantage of some relatively open goals to do incisive observations on gritty political and social phenomena instead of just gently treading the surface of an admittedly very pretty pool.

In truth, I thought that the movie did manage to convey some subconscious interpretations of the world we live in, probably unintentionally. The movie, purposefully written to be shallow and unchallenging, is so shallow that the shallowness gives way to accidental depth, although it requires you to “stand outside” from the film to perceive it. I do not know for sure, but I assume Collins, the other screenwriters and Ross are not anti-capitalists, yet there is an unmistakable yet ethereal Marxian (if not Marxist) theme running throughout the movie. Admittedly, I have not read The Hunger Games, so there may be some departure between what comes across in the movie and what may be found in the book, but of the things I noticed and mentioned to my date, I have been assured that these things feature even more prominently in the book than on the screen.

WARNING: Spoilers below.

The Hunger Games As Class Warfare

The main protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the eldest daughter of a working class family in District 12 of Panem. We are told quite clearly that Katniss is a strong character, as she becomes the “rock” of her family when her father dies in a coal mining accident and later serves as a breadwinner by hunting birds and squirrels and selling them. It is obvious from the outset that Katniss is the by-the-numbers feminist hero, possessing the most positive qualities associated with her sex — beautiful, reserved, concerned with authenticity – yet adopting traditionally male characteristics as well – courage, pragmatism, an assertiveness in the face of appearing weak.

The film, however, also denotes a certain purity and simplicity to her proletarian background, evidenced by the clothes she and the other residents of her district wear when summoned for “The Reaping” – the ceremony where the children who will fight in the Hunger Games are selected. In this scene particularly, District 12 invokes a portrayal of West Virginia coal country, the people plainspoken and uniformly Caucasian, the wardrobes suitable for church and unassuming, the attitudes darkly humorous in their practicality. After Katniss volunteers and Peeta Mellark is conscripted as “tributes,” their fellow district dwellers are encouraged by a state representative to applaud their sacrifice, but instead collectively make a motion of remembrance and honor – a comical device that shows blatant rejection of state propaganda, but expresses a consciousness of what is truly appropriate for the situation. Although certainly not a happy place (as no place is, in this dystopia), District 12 has a rustic, salt-of-the-earth honesty that portrays working class community as glum and hopeless, yet simultaneously natural, virtuous and even innocent.

When Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capitol, however, the contrast is evident. The people wear outlandish, garish costumes, and are so willing to embrace falsity that they dye their hair fluorescent blues, greens and reds. What especially struck me is how male fashion in the Capitol is incredibly mincing and unreservedly effeminate, a stark antithesis to the rugged, overalls-wearing miners in District 12. The Capitol population is soft and spoilt, and it is no coincidence that the movie depicts none of the Capitol population engaged in any sort of manual labor. Indeed, the only “work” we see “average” Capitol people do is operate the murder machinery that makes the Games possible. Also tellingly, despite their desperate need to be entertained by the spectacle of the Games (see below), the Capitol residents do not come across as creative, save for devising new ways of possibly murdering the Games’ contestants.

(Sidenote: It is interesting that the one person expected to be dressed the most bizarrely, the fashion designer Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, wears simple black garments and only a modicum of eyeliner. At first glance, this contradicts the stereotype that fashion designers are prone to the most radical fashion choices. Yet is it more probable that Cinna is in fact making a statement, that by eschewing flamboyance in favor of modesty he is being rebellious?)

In Panem, the mode of production is organized almost exactly like that of late capitalism. The dominant class (the Capitol residents) enjoys easy living and decadence, although their leisure is dependent on workers exchanging labor power for monetary compensation (the District dwellers). One might note that, while it is not fully elaborated, Panem’s economy is more about a monolithic state controlling the means of production than a society built around property rights and private enterprise. One should recall, however, that Engels predicted that capitalism, at its penultimate stage, would essentially be state-controlled capitalism:

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.”

Lenin also called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism, and Panem is clearly an imperialist state. In fact, Collins’ literal description of a series of outlying districts providing raw materials to a central powerbase runs parallel with Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System, in which countries in the periphery – the Third World – supply vital resources to the core – the First World – who in turn keep the periphery underdeveloped and repressed. This anti-imperialist undertone within Collins’ work is highlighted by the major characters from the Capitol having the name of ancient Romans (Cinna, Seneca, Caesar, Claudius, Coriolanus) in addition to the use of chariots when introducing the Games’ contenders and the gladiatorial nature of the Games themselves. It is likely Collins employed these references out of laziness and unoriginality, but the negative connotations she was tapping into run deeper than even she could realize.

Unconscious as it is, Collins’ inadvertent step into Marxian class analysis and even dependency theory is imperfect. Most strikingly, the image of the working class is idealized, almost dreamlike, and when it comes to actual autonomy, the workers of Panem have none. Their dalliance with rebellion comes through as riots, self-inflicted wounds that suggest the “mob” can only act in spurts of emotion. Must Panem’s workers only be galvanized to insurgency by the acts of teenagers? Where are the underground councils and secret communes that surely must have been in place well before the confrontation with authority spearheaded by Katniss’ largely symbolic gestures?

Collins paints a convincing picture of inequality, indolence and exploitation, because it is portrait of our actually existing conditions. Observations from the corner of her eye in this life have no doubt influenced the corruption of Panem as it comes across in her books and the movie. Yet the idea that her characters, so woefully undeveloped compared to their environment, are able to inspire revolution lacks plausibility, and Collins has clearly fallen victim to the popular vilification of the masses as irrational and hysterical, even if she does accept the romantic, almost pastoral notion of their “pure and simple” lifestyles.

The Spectacle: The Opiate of the Masses

In the essays he wrote while in prison, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci commented on “cultural hegemony” – how the dominant class imposes certain value systems and traditions on to other classes, creating the illusion of shared beliefs and symbols when in actuality the classes are opposed to one another in genuine interests. The Games can be seen as a stand-in for this hegemony rather than just an example of it, both because of their origin and their intended effects upon the people of Panem. The competition is the brainchild of the state, designed and managed by state actors, and it succeeds in dividing the Panem proletariat while at the same time instilling in them a false consciousness centered on hope and aspiration.

In the film, the Games are explained through a patriotic film-within-the-film. The districts rose up against the centralized state, lost, and subsequently agreed to allow their numbers to be culled every year by sending two of their young people to compete in the Games. (Interestingly, the film-within-the-film portrays the peace treaty as identical to the U.S. Constitution.) We, the audience, may obtain some amusement from this naked propaganda, presenting as it does a horrifying prospect (that children will be taken from their families and most likely killed) as a noble and worthwhile thing (shedding blood as a sign of fidelity to an oppressive, autocratic state). We laugh because the absurdity is obvious, as it always is in jokes about fascism or pseudo-fascism, e.g. “the beatings will stop when morale improves.” Strangely, we are not moved to be so flippant about the autocracy we see in our daily lives. When TV ads urge young people “to be all they can be” by joining the military and potentially dying in conflicts that are generally pointless and without strategized exists, we treat it very seriously. When politicians call for the poor and vulnerable to follow the Protestant ethic of working hard and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, not everyone laughs in their faces. The values we associate with military service and atomized individual accomplishment do not derive from our own natures, but are placed there as means of control, just as surely as Panem’s dictator wants the districts to give up their children to die and also be happy about it.

What exactly does the state instill in its audience with the Games, however? It is interesting that, while the event it commemorates was the districts being collectively crushed by the state, the Games are “every man and woman for himself,” with the districts fighting one another and between themselves. The objective here is to crush feelings of solidarity and independence. Much as how modern states use religious, ethnic and other cleavages to divide the working class and hinder their organization, the state of Panem uses the Games to foster competition rather than cooperation between the districts, although they have more in common with one another than anyone in the Capitol.

Katniss rebels against this by allying with another “tribute” from District 11, a young black girl named Rue. When Rue is later killed by a boy from District 1 (a district of jewelers, possibly an accidental reference to the petty bourgeoisie), Katniss exposes herself and performs an elaborate death ritual for her comrade. Watching this on screen, District 11’s black workers honor Katniss with the same hand gesture seen earlier in the film at the Reaping and then riot. Katniss transcends the “divide and rule” tactics utilized by the state and achieves a cross-district camaraderie, which in turn motivates District 11 to make a frenzied lunge for freedom. Later, when Katniss is about to be killed by a knife-throwing girl from District 2, she is saved by Rue’s counterpart from District 11, who somehow knew about Katniss’ taking Rue under her care.

Unfortunately, this is done in a very patronizing way, and Collins actually undermines the superficial anti-imperialism noted earlier. The heroic white girl saving the helpless black girl and consequently being thanked for this protection reeks of the sort of condescending neo-“white man’s burden” we encounter in the form of Kony 2012 or the Save Darfur campaign. Rue, the visionary, devises good ideas, but is unable to execute them on their own, relying on Katniss to do the actual “heavy lifting” with her superior skills and knowledge. At no point is it suggested that Rue could win the Games on her own as an independent actor, and by saving Katniss, Rue’s fellow District 11 inhabitant actually worsens his own prospects by allowing Katniss to survive. Somehow, he is obligated to put aside his own individual desire to maximize his situation to celebrate/save the “white savior” in his midst.

In a very telling scene, President Snow reproaches Seneca, the state official overseeing everything, that he is allowing the Games to give the people too much hope. The message is that the people of Panem might be allowed to believe that they could overcome the odds of the Games to succeed, but they can never overcome the odds of overthrowing the state. This is the same message we get from all cultural sources today concerning liberal democracy. In actual reality TV shows, we indulge in “rags to riches” fantasies, in which “regular” people achieve fame and fortune through their own talents. In fiction, we thrive on depictions of struggles against injustice, where the hero triumphs over stock characters that are generally obvious in their evil, be they fascists, communists or evil wizards who cannot be named. We consume the American Dream and American Exceptionalism: that we are a place where anyone can make it if they try and where we are specially chosen for a unique and incomparable existence. For all that, however, a struggle against the status quo itself would be fruitless, as we have reached the “End of History,” and it is more conceivable to imagine the end of the world than it is the market-oriented democratic republic. People are given the ability to “hope a little” – to buy wristbands that say a certain thing, to buy organic food instead of processed food, to perhaps even march around with signs – but cannot “hope too much” – to disrupt the system, either through civil or unlawful disobedience, in the name of ideologies that have no place in the time of post-ideology.

Katniss, however, never has to get her hands dirty in urging people to “hope too much.” In the course of the movie, she only really kills one person directly, and this is in the process of defending herself, and this itself is only a contrived set-up for Rue’s death. Even when it comes to the finale of the Games, she only uses her weapon to free her lover so that he might push their enemy from a height to be devoured by crazed dog-like creatures. Like the modern liberal who seeks to overturn the status quo, Katniss does not find herself required to stray into morally questionable territory. She wants to win without paying a high cost, and she essentially does so. When the Slovenian social critic Slavoj Zizek talks about Coke without caffeine or war without casualties, he is also talking about Katniss winning without having to truly murder. Of course, she lives in the world of fiction. For the progressive who wants social revolution without the revolution, obtaining the benefits without having “done the work” is fanciful.

The Hunger Games and Social Alienation: The Complete Lack of Chemistry

Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, have zero chemistry throughout the movie, despite the rather critical plot point they are supposed to be in love with one another. While this did hurt the film overall, it did add to the point that their romance begins in a false fashion, as a means to get the public to like them and cheer for them – in other words, to make them more marketable. Ironically, Lawrence and Hutcherson are playing the same game but in real life, attempting to sell us the suspended disbelief that they are in love, but in failing so miserably, expose to us how, in reality, we have been conditioned only to believe in something when the appearance of sincere emotional connection is present. We are so alienated from one another that a fiction only becomes appealing when it offers the passion we lack in our daily lives.

For the characters in the movie, event after event denies self-actualization. The clothes one wears to the state’s mandated rally are chosen for you. Lenny Kravitz dresses you when you arrive at the Capitol in the run-up to the Games. In a highly scripted interview process with Stanley Tucci’s character, you pretend to be charismatic and confident even when you are shy and facing certain death. When the Games themselves begin, although you are under constant observation, there are only a handful of characters that make any kind of connection, and these are neither believable nor meaningful. Rue comes and goes, but it is her young age that makes her passing poignant, not because we get to know her. Similarly, because Lawrence and Hutcherson have feelings for each other like tepid tap water, we do not know if their mutual professions of love are heartfelt or manipulative ploys to get the other to let his or her guard down. When, near the end of the movie, Katniss and Peeta swear to eat poisonous berries so they will both die rather than having to kill one another, this moving scene becomes an exercise in suspicion. Will the other person really eat the berries if I eat them first? Dare I ask them to eat first? How do I know she will not spit them out after I have eaten mine? What if this is just a teenage crush and I am about to die for a fleeting, hormonal impulse? We are not supposed to think these last few questions, but because we do not know for sure how the characters feel in the movie – as devoid of feeling for one another as they are – we stare into the reflection of our own self-denial, our own self-doubt. We come away with no resolution, but because we do not actually care about the characters, it seems proper – very similar to our own detached, indifferent interactions with most people and objects.

This apathy is reflected in the very shocking and daring premise of the movie (children killing children), which certainly has been done in the arts before, and echoes the school shootings in this country’s recent past. This movie would have been unthinkable in the wake of the Columbine massacre or 9/11, when we were held in the grips of social concern. In this day and age, however, where Afghani and Iraqi children are regularly shot down in the name of “just war,” we are so disconnected from the death of children in and of itself that it only becomes objectionable when it is our own children. The death of fictional children – be they the children of Panem who exist only in Collins’ novels, or the death of Middle Eastern children who exist only in headlines – do not resonate; they fall flat with us.  The fact that there has not been more objection to the “kids killing kids” plot, or even that it is being used as a vehicle for a very uninspiring film, speaks volumes about how ambivalent we have become as a society toward social cohesion.

These have just been my own personal ruminations, and I think they would be bolstered with an inclusion of a feminist critique about The Hunger Games as possibly feminist cinema. Since I am not equipped for that sort of analysis, however, I will conclude here.

It is plain on the face of it that The Hunger Games is an utterly forgettable movie, much like the franchise it is based on – entertainment for population consumption, to be digested and then passed over once the novelty fades. In the meantime, however, if we cannot get amusement from taking this stuff seriously, perhaps we might get some amusement from taking it a bit tongue-in-cheek.