Review: Cruel Optimism

Cruel Optimism. Lauren Berlant. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Pp. vii + 342.

Cruel Optimism ends with neither pure cynicism nor hope; instead, Lauren Berlant offers ambient citizenship as a mode of “political action as the action of not being worn out by politics,” specifically, politics in an era that she describes as being in constant crisis (262). Berlant gets to this conclusion through an argument that describes the current living environment as ultimately cruel. Defining cruel optimism as desiring what actually hinders one’s flourishing, Berlant charts the way that culture circulates and transmits affects that call us to associate in intimate public relationships that do not produce fair dividends. A Marxist-Feminist stance informs the central critique in Berlant’s readings of these relationships, which focus on the inevitably failed reciprocity between citizens and their interlocutors in neoliberal cultures. Cruel Optimism is a fitting successor to The Queen of America Goes to Washington City and its argument that engaging with the nation and its monuments will offer insight or understanding is ultimately delusional. In both works, Berlant points to the effort subjects expend to be good citizens and to pursue “the good life” as well as the failure of meaningful reciprocation from political or economic structures. Berlant’s latest book develops this theme through a systematic study of desire and performativity, examining the links they provide to public and private (but still shared) affects. Cruel Optimism, while incredibly dense and complicated, is a productive marriage of three textual approaches: affect-oriented re-description, Marxist and biopolitical critique, and formalist aesthetic analysis. Berlant’s delicate balance throughout is itself an argument for the trifecta of affect studies, theoretical critique, and aesthetic appreciation. For these reasons, Cruel Optimism deserves praise beyond its general acclaim as a study of affect, for providing an affective methodology that engages with aesthetics and formal conventions.

Central to Berlant’s argument is her claim that genre organizes historical moments and makes these moments more understandable and therefore easier to attach to. Referring emphatically to Fredric Jameson, Berlant views genre as ordering and making tangible the utter disorganization produced by capitalism. Aesthetics plays a large part in this process. In outlining her interest in generalization, Berlant claims that aesthetics calibrate us for our relation to the world. She writes that “it provides metrics for understanding how we pace and space our encounter with things, how we manage the too closeness of the world and also the desire to have an impact on it that has some relation to its impact on us” (12). This impulse to “manage,” as well as the “success” in doing so, grounds Berlant’s critique: what is cruel about contemporary life is our ability to slog through it hoping that as long as we do everything right things will get better. As an alternative, Berlant offers the “impasse” as a moment of temporal slowness. Relating this notion to genre, Berlant explains that “Genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold … The waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates” (6-7). In Marxian fashion, Berlant suggests that the fragmentation of genre and the rise of the impasse offer moments for individuals to recognize the ordinariness of crisis in neoliberal times as well as their own patterns of constant readjustment.

While chapters one and two serve as extensions of Berlant’s introduction, they are highly textured in their readings and moments of clarity. For example, in her critique of capitalism’s method of evaluating people based on productivity and success, Berlant clarifies that “Our cruel objects don’t feel threatening, just tiring” (31). Berlant reads a poem by John Ashbery and suggests that we are exhausted by our inescapable need to calculate; here, “it matters how much an instance of sentimental abstraction or emotional saturation costs” (35). In Chapter Two, Berlant, further advancing her marriage of Marxist and affect theory, makes surprising claims about how affect works. Berlant argues that “visceral response is a trained thing, not just autonomic activity. Intuition is where affect meets history, in all of its chaos, normative ideology, and embodied practices of discipline and invention” (52). Berlant suggests that what we feel and what we know about the world are fundamentally linked: “The story of how attachment to reproducing the intelligibility of the world nudges affective forces into line with normative realism is also the story of liberal subjectivity’s fantasies of individual and collective sovereignty, the public and the private, the past’s relation to the future, and the distribution of sensibilities that discipline the imaginary about what the good life is and how proper people act” (52-53). Berlant suggests that affect theory is the natural inheritor of ideology critique. While tying affective and Marxist analysis together could be seen as stripping basic emotional freedom from subjects (even our bodily responses are predetermined by capitalism), Berlant’s argument makes sense and is strengthened through her specific claims about genre and aesthetics. That is, genre is a form that embodies affective contracts. She explains how we understand the contemporary moment based on its genres (reminiscent of arguments about “scripts”) and participate in “affect management” to coordinate our responses appropriately (93).

Chapters three and four further develop Berlant’s framework, providing exemplary readingsof cruel optimism through the notion of the “slow death.” Chapter Three, perhaps the most invested in biopolitics in a book that consistently invokes Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, unpacks arguments on agency to claim that sovereignty “is a fantasy misrecognized as an objective state” and that we generally understand this ideal mimetically through our understandings of the sovereign state (97). Berlant offers “slow death” as a method for theorizing how capitalism circumvents agency and perpetuates non-living by creating subjects too busy with re-producing life. In Chapter Four, she suggests that neoliberal interpellation is not just a one-stop process: “It’s not just ‘Hey, you!’ but ‘Wait up!’” (125). Slow death produces feelings of lagging that verge on panic, which we deal with by engaging with optimistic attachments, only slowing us further. As Berlant explains, one might eat to feel a sense of control over one’s life and to sustain life, but obesity becomes a cruel consequence of such an attachment.

Chapters five, six, and seven engage more directly with readings of public spaces than the previous chapters. Still focusing on desire, Chapter Five and Chapter Six outline how normativity is aspirational, but that this goal is for an affect of normalcy that is never actually attainable (176). Additionally, these chapters link the previous chapters’ interest in failed reciprocity to questions of ethics and justice. Since these chapters explore the breakdown of a putatively clear system of investment and return, Berlant can further explore the impasse as a genre of the historical present that absorbs other genres without having any defining characteristics of its own. Mapping this genre by re-describing aesthetics and their affects shows the “glitches” or “hiccups” of aspiring to the good life. Chapter Seven then offers ambient citizenship, “a mode of belonging … that circulates through and around the political in gotml and informal ways, with affective, emotional, economic, and juridical force that is at once clarifying and diffuse” (230). Berlant begins this chapter by quoting George W. Bush’s on his desire to speak to the American public without a “filter” (223). Ambient citizenship takes seriously the idea of de-filtering the political space. Berlant sees ambient citizenship and ambient art as a powerful force with the ability to refuse the reproduction of political, social, and economic exhaustion. She suggests that attention to the affectsphere – the ways in which affect circulates and influences those within the sphere of relationality – of the historical moment has the possibility to inhibit the generalizing of the contemporary moment into a perpetual genre of crisis. Berlant critiques this type of crisis because it creates rationales wherein the good life can be understandably postponed, and suggests that the new method of political engage should be a “lateral politics” because such a posture has the ability to slow down the process of political engagement as to better see its cruel and coercive tendencies.

Cruel Optimism is a difficult work that is technically complicated and extremely self-referential. However, unlike Berlant’s ungiving neoliberalism, investment here does produce a return. In order to grasp the project of Cruel Optimism, one must be prepared to add to Berlant’s framework with each chapter, depending on mastering and remembers the preceding writing. In other words, Cruel Optimism is itself incredibly exhausting. However, Berlant’s methods – particularly her ability to bring together affect-oriented re-description, Marxist and biopolitical critique, and formalist analysis – make the text a valuable resource for thinking about the relationship between these distinct approaches. Ultimately, Berlant’s bold claims on affect’s subordination to cultural structures of knowledge are not to be underestimated and are sure to provoke productive reactions and conversations.

Jill Fennell