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Lauren Berlant's 2011 book Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press) seeks to understand how people survive neoliberal postwar restructuring. In spite of deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions in present-day Europe and the United States, Berlant finds that people still remain attached to fantasies of the good life. It is in this dichotomy that she frames her theory of cruel optimism, the "relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic."[1] Cruel optimism comes about when individuals remain attached to "conditions of possibility" or "clusters of promises" which are embedded in desired objects or ideas, even when those same objects or ideas inhibit people from acquiring or fulfilling such items or promises.[2] Berlant groups unachievable fantasies of the good life into four categories: promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy.[3] These four criteria constitute what liberal-capitalist societies claim people must possess in order to make life add up to something. Yet, society can no longer provide opportunities for individuals to achieve such flourishing. Berlant's primary inquiry is into these fantasies of the good life, and she spends much of the book grappling to understand how and why individuals cling to false promise.

The process of survival is a bedrock interest of this book. To understand how survival is possible, Berlant pits the relational dynamic of striving against the structural feeling of optimism. Here, optimism is a type of attachment which serves to invest oneself into the plausibility of one's own survival or the world's continuity. Perhaps counterintuitively, Berlant does not require that optimism feel good, positive, or even optimistic; instead she suggests that this dynamic "...might feel any number of ways."[4] This opens the door to people holding attachments which may be injurious or cruel, whether to themselves and others. Although it may be tempting to frame her argument as a kind of masochism, Berlant's analysis does not support this interpretation. She does not necessarily find people receiving joy or pleasure from cruel optimism; she simply perceives it as a mode of survival. The affective structure sustains cruel optimism, or, as Berlant puts it: "the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation."[5] Ultimately, Berlant is not concerned with the feeling's saliency, but, instead, with what people do with this optimism. Maintaining attachments to fantasies of the good life, no matter how harsh reality might be, enables people to get through or endure life on a day-to-day basis, especially when day-to-day lifestyles would be unlivable without some kind of larger fantasy framework.

In this book, aesthetics is central to Berlant's method of understanding the present. Berlant does not equate the lives of the aesthetic characters she examines in her art, film, or literary analysis with actual individual lives, but offers them as a model through which to understand the lives of real people. As she puts it, aesthetics is not "equivalent to what happens to people but [rather] to see that in the affective scenarios of these works and discourses we can discern claims about the situation of contemporary life."[6]  Berlant employs aesthetics as a relationship between the rhythms of genre art and the tempos of society. In other words, the destruction of the good life "manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival."[7] Berlant not only ties our experience of the world to aesthetics, but she endows aesthetics with the ability to "...habituate our sensorium by taking in new material" and "provide metrics for understanding how we pace and space our encounters with things."[8] As the book progresses, however, Berlant's general reliance on aesthetics comes to be insufficient for connecting her allusive examples to wider political discourse, effectually and inadvertently sidelining the critical political practices this cultural studies book contends to care about so deeply. Berlant does not provide a detailed explanation for why she selects particular works in the chapters of her book, making her range of selections both eclectic and disorienting. Although Berlant notes that Cruel Optimism continues an exploration of common themes in her work, she appears to assume readers will naturally place this work alongside her "national sentimentality trilogy," which is comprised of The Anatomy of National Fantasy, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City.[9] Her writing is highly self-referential and she engages in ample self-citation throughout the book. This tone sometimes feels exhausting and could be awkward for new readers who may not draw the connections her references imply. Even for those familiar with her other work, Berlant suggests that Cruel Optimism moves beyond the "normative modes of love and the law" that characterized her prior works, arguably making the references to her earlier works a questionable marker to preface her writing with in the first place.[10]

Despite this stylistic liability, Berlant's use of aesthetics is vital to how she understands shifts in conceptions of the good life. She uses aesthetics to capture the present moment, a time she characterizes as "crisis ordinariness," and then to suggest the status quo's "impasse" as a transitional opportunity where we come to appreciate the shortcomings of genre to convey the present.[11] Each chapter examines a different type of impasse and showcases ways individuals are developing strategies for survival or adjusting ways of getting by in response to fantasies of the good life which are no longer sustainable. Berlant documents how individuals contribute to the creation of new emergency aesthetic forms which navigate situations of incoherence and precariousness. While Cruel Optimism does not identify queer studies as a lodestone for itself, the book's argument is clearly influenced by queer theory's tradition of challenging normative categories of gender, bodies, and desire. Berlant's descriptive focus on aesthetics and identity threaten to overwhelm her sincere interest in agency, but as I will stress in my conclusion, there is no mistaking this book as a call for action.

In discussing her methodological approach, Berlant asserts "my method is to read patterns of adjustment in specific aesthetic and social contexts to derive what's collective about specific modes of sensual activity toward and beyond survival."[12] She theorizes about the collective historical present by first focusing on the particular. Yet, Berlant is also interested in generalization. "Generalization is part of my method, to track the becoming general of singular things, and to give those things materiality by tracking their resonances across many scenes, including the ones made by nonverbal but still linguistic activities, like gestures."[13] Given her focus on particular day-to-day actions, Berlant perhaps surprisingly critiques everyday life theory because she argues that it "no longer describes how most people live."[14] Instead, she places her work alongside Nigel Thrift's Non-Representational Theory, Marc Augé's Non-Places: Essays on Supermodernity, Michael Taussig's The Nervous System, and Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects because she feels they "turn towards thinking about the ordinary as an impasse shaped by crisis in which people find themselves developing skills for adjusting to newly proliferating pressures to scramble for modes of living on."[15] Ultimately, Berlant uses specific examples to compile an archive of the "impasse or transitional moment" to illustrate "exemplary cases of adjustment to the loss of this fantasy" of the good life.[16] The role of institutions is implicitly woven throughout Berlant's book. Most directly, she uses the phrase "precarious public sphere" to delimit the site upon which cruel optimism is played out. In this space, we see "an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency and trade paradigms for how best to live on."[17] Berlant presents a politically-motivated concept of the historical present as a means to understand what forces are responsible for whatever urgent crises have taken hold. She does not fully develop objections to specific institutions that she deems culpable for the calamities she examines; instead, she broadly hangs her argument on liberal-capitalist societies in Europe and the United States. For this reason, it seems Berlant agrees with Bourdieu's claim that the state has a monopoly of power to carry out both legitimate and symbolic violence. Bourdieu observes that "state bureaucracies and their representatives are great producers of 'social problems,'"[18] and such "social problems" are reflected in Berlant's examination of "precarious bodies, subjectivity, and fantasy in terms of citizenship, race, labor, class (dis)location, sexuality, and health."[19] Bourdieu, drawing on Weber, argues that "the state is an X (to be determined) which successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical and symbolic violence over a definite territory and over the totality of the corresponding population."[20] While Berlant does not make the connection to Bourdieu that is being drawn here, and thus never declares these allusions to state control directly, she nevertheless ensconces Bourdieu's logic by placing total blame on the state for the "retraction of the social democratic promise of the post-Second World War period in the United States and Europe."[21] Bourdieu and Berlant go hand-in-hand; Cruel Optimism provides an in impactful, heartbreaking illustration of fractured state policies and state violence practiced on its population in the context of social norms of optimism.

Berlant provides a myriad of fascinating individual stories and genre examples as a pathway to discussing collective, or mass, identity and ideology in liberal-capitalist societies. She considers intuition to be the place where affect meets history, claiming that "affect theory is another phase in the history of ideology theory."[22] In what sounds like a 21st c. update to psychoanalysis, Berlant expands Freud's assertion that "there is no negative in the unconscious"[23] in observing that "the training of intuition...enables us to formulate the investments and incoherence of political subjectivity and subjectification in relation to the world's disheveled but predictable dynamics."[24] Berlant seeks to move beyond structure, agency, and disruption into a new mode of analysis which examines "adjudication, adaptation, and improvisation" amid the status quo, what she dubs "a crisis-defined and continuing now."[25] Although Berlant does not extrapolate universally, she does seem to suggest that no one can escape an affective mediation with the historical present: "there is no place sufficiently under the radar to avoid the insult that the world is not organized around your sovereignty."[26] Individuality, anonymity and trauma are at play here with each other. In one of the most sublime and powerful remarks in Cruel Optimism, Berlant writes that "one has only been loaned a name and biography and personality and meaningfulness, and that that loan could be recalled not just by death but by the cruel forces of life, which include randomness but which are much more predictable, systemic, and world-saturating than that too."[27] This serves as a reminder that modern personal identity is always intimately associated with sovereignty.

Berlant adds great value to contemporary social and psychological thought, by accentuating the role that slow death, "the condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life,"[28] plays in maintaining personal agency in everyday living. Employing a summary of Marx's discussion of the body under regimes of production, Berlant offers the example of the obesity epidemic to display the confluence of concerns over personal health as not "just a 'crisis' of judgement in the affective present but an ethico-political condition...."[29] Moreover, she suggests that "impassivity and other politically depressed relations of alienation, coolness, detachment, or distraction, especially in subordinated populations, can be read as affective forms of engagement with the environment of slow death...."[30] This results in her vivid portrayal of citizens as "...survivalists, scavengers bargaining to maintain the paradox of entrepreneurial optimism against defeat by the capitalist destruction of life."[31] Berlant's uses psychological and physical health to demonstrate pathways of personal endurance as well as social resistance.

Berlant writes extensively about how people in everyday life survive and relate to cruel optimism, but hardly deliberates on the other half of the equation: how government action creates such a situation. Berlant assumes capitalist destruction is understood by her readers. Berlant writes "capitalist activity always induces destabilizing scenes of productive destruction," but offers no specific proof.[32] Although one might agree that people are probably aware of things reported on in the mainstream media such as unemployment or outsourcing, one may question if most people connect the dots on a deeper level, as Berlant does, to these problems being symptoms indicating the fragility of the capitalist system. Moreover, she makes a mistake to presume the experience of or reaction to destruction can always be shared, consistent, or mutually identified. Another way the reader can observe that Berlant is on a different level of analysis, and further justification for why her assumptions ought to be stated more directly, can be found in her understanding of political terms. Take "hegemony," for example. It is reasonable to presume most people conceive of hegemony as broadly having to do with power. Yet, in Berlant's discussion of hegemony, she rejects this common conception, claiming that "to see hegemony as domination and subordination is to disavow how much of a dependable life relies on the sheerly optimistic formalism of attachment."[33] Moreover, when she writes that the hardest problem is "understanding the difficulty of unlearning attachments to regimes of injustice," she seems to conflate personal attachments with formal systems of (in)justice.[34] A few more background claims about her understanding of what capitalism and neoliberalism have done to the world might have meant the book would be de-cloistered a bit, helping it speak to a larger audience.

Cruel Optimism is a valuable, provocative book about the future of institutions, intimacy, obligation, and responsibility. Berlant seeks alternatives for remaking the fantasmatic/material infrastructure of collective life, concluding that "no form of being in the political or politics—including withdrawing from them—will solve the problem of shaping the impasse of the historical present."[35] When Berlant provocatively asks "Why should you be spared?" she is of course referring to literal aging and death, but also to our shared experience of "living amid the breakup of modernity's secure institutions" —the state, the corporation, the family, and politics.[36] Berlant wants the reader to disabuse one's "freedom from the obligation to pay attention to much, whether personal or political".[37] In Cruel Optimism, Berlant places the reader at the center of a crisis for social change which she considers to be the new ordinary: despite ideas of better good lives ahead, we know it is awkward and threatening to break away, even from something we know is not working. As this visceral and intimate book shows, Berlant does not wish to spare you from the painful work of cultivating a better society.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 24 (italics original).

[2] Ibid., 23, 24.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 9.

[13] Ibid., 12.

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Ibid., 8.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Ibid., 3.

[18] Pierre Bourdieu, "Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field," Sociological Theory 12 no. 1 (1994): 1-18 (2), accessed on 7 September 2015, DOI 10.2307/202032.

[19] Berlant, 3.

[20] Bourdieu, 3.

[21] Berlant, 3.

[22] Ibid., 53.

[23] Ibid., 123.

[24] Ibid., 53.

[25] Ibid., 54.

[26] Ibid., 85.

[27] Ibid., 91.

[28] Ibid., 100.

[29] Ibid., 108.

[30] Ibid., 117.

[31] Ibid., 172.

[32] Ibid., 192.

[33] Ibid., 185.

[34] Ibid., 184.

[35] Ibid., 259.

[36] Ibid., 222.

[37] Ibid., 227.