“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. 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 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 and Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin, using Gaitskill’s novel to examine (but not condone) self-harm as a means of self-realization. And since it’s not always useful to judge coping behaviors, Cruel Optimism concludes by proposing few positive, programmatic changes, and no revolutionary call to action. The gift of Berlant’s work here is 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”.