On Cruel Optimism

by vinnyhaddad

“We can learn a lot from listening to the increasing demands on love to deliver the good life it promises… Maybe we would learn too much.”

-Lauren Berlant, “Sex in Public” (556)

Cruel Optimism, published in 2011, serves as a departure from Berlant’s earlier work, namely her national sentimentality trilogy, because of its “notably intensified focus on contexts in which normality is aspirational rather than hegemonic” (Ngai). As Berlant states in the introduction of Cruel Optimism, much of the work in this book is one of periodicity, locating, through a study on minor affects, an intensification of, perhaps, the key symptom of heteronormativity: what she terms, as ‘cruel optimism.[1] As Sianne Ngai points out, one of Berlant’s finest accomplishments in this work depends on her methodological usage of affect and intersecting it with queer social theory. By understanding affect “not as a sign of ahistoricism but as the very material of historical embeddedness,” Ngai states, “what Berlant does is strengthen the theoretical connection between affect and the present.” Affect, for Berlant, is keyed in well in terms of understanding or diagnosing the present because it is felt before it is known, particularly in the way that she is looking at the present as structured by the impasse, rather than movements towards any futures.

In this sense, Cruel Optimism, while different from Berlant’s earlier work, can be read as a direct extension of the queer-social theoretical manifesto that she and Michael Warner espouse in their classic article, “Sex in Public.” In that article, the political stakes of their argument are made clear; “Heterosexuality involves so many practices that are not sex that a world in which this hegemonic cluster would not be dominant is, at this point, unimaginable. We are trying to bring that world into being” (557). The premise of “Sex in Public” is that our (read contemporary American) attachment to privacy has contributed to the establishment and institutionalization of a national heterosexuality; a space of pure citizenship in fact relies on our subscription to a hegemonic national public around sex (549-550). Berlant poses the problem as follows:

People feel that the price they must pay for social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the heterosexual narrative; that they are individually responsible for the rages, instabilities, ambivalences, and failures they experience in their intimate lives, while the fractures of the contemporary United States shame and sabotage them everywhere.

They are breaking open, here, an intersection Habermas’s theory of the public sphere and Foucault’s personalization of sex through a will to public exposure. This intersection becomes fruitful because, in spite of what Berlant sees as specific neglects by each, because “both identify the conditions in which sexuality seems like a property of subjectivity rather than a publicly or counterpublicly accessible culture” (559). The solution for Warner and Berlant, articulated via their experience at a performance of erotic vomiting, relies on creating making overt queer counterpublics. The experience enlightens them to recognize that possibility exists in publicizing “these scenes where sex appears more sublime than narration itself, neither redemptive nor transgressive, moral nor immoral, hetero nor homo, nor sutured to any axis of social legitimation” (565). These scenes intend nonheternormative bodily contexts, thereby multiplying the possibilities of intimacy or potentialities of what we consider the “good life.”

“Sex in Public” lays the groundwork for Cruel Optimsim, then, in a fundamental way. Berlant defines cruel optimism as,

A relation of attachment to comprised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. (24)[2]

The paradoxical relationship between private/public, particularly the way in which this relationship infiltrates and pervades our attachments to non-sexual objects, accounts for, what Sianne Ngai calls, Berlant’s impressive “stereo vision.” In diagnosing how these attachments that create moments of cruel optimism cut across our understanding of the “good life” in the present (upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacies), Berlant effectively furthers the agenda she and Warner set forth in “Sex in Public.” While her emphasis on queer social theory appears to be less frequent in Cruel Optimism, the effectiveness of her argument relies on a presupposition that a national heterosexuality as institutionalized heternormativity into each of these domains of our understanding of “the good life.” It also establishes affect, in Berlant’s theoretical usage of the term, as something that is situated and trained: “Affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary, and that bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves” (15). This is most clear in her development of our understanding of intuition, that pre-cognitive favoritism towards an action with a real effect, as tied directly to our situatedness in time and place.

As Berlant establishes a defense for this, a brief point can be made here about methodology in this book, which consists of a series of close readings of texts (primarily novels and films). She states in her introduction that, “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” (9). In “Sex in Public,” she elaborates that, “Every cultural form, be it a novel or an after-hours club or an academic lecture, indexes a virtual social world, in ways that range from a repertoire of styles and speech genres to referential metaculture” (558). Yet, it is also important to point out that her attentiveness in these close readings is towards minor affects that are repeated and repeated, those that are then able to contribute to the cruelty of that optimism because our investment in the optimism is based on trained notions of what the “good life” will entail. This not only stands in contrast to her earlier work on melodrama and trauma, but also supports to a trend in affect theory itself to focus on the local rather than the global in close reading, one mirrored in recent work by Sianne Ngai, Anne-Lise François, and Alex Woloch to name a few.

After what I have said about the limits of her analysis thus far, I still think it may be helpful in this class for me to close read or expand on a moment when she is specifically dealing with promises of intimacy and sex (although one could make the argument on a week dedicated to what is queer theory and what it can do, it would equally make sense to look at her close reading of some cultural norm superficially unrelated to sex). In her chapter, “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” Berlant close reads a novel of the same name by Mary Gaitskill in the mode of and in response to Eve Sedgwick’s reparative criticism to highlight the “stupid optimism” based in “misrecognition.” Berlant identifies the ways in which the two main characters of the novel, Dorothy and Justine (one fat, one thin) create attachments with food, knowledge and sex, each of which cannot deliver precisely what is promised to its subject and in the interim savagely harms their ability to move forward out of a feeling of “stuckness” or impassivity.

In Berlant’s examination of the sexual lives of Dorothy and Justine, there is a point in the novel when each appears to achieve the sexual ideal that they had set out early on. For Dorothy, she is seen as an ideal of beauty and appreciated, for Justine she encoutners S/M sex in a way that is not so much perverse desire as possible (an encounter that opens her up to “new and destabilizing practices” (151). Yet, as Berlant unpacks the conclusion of the novel as not so much a fulfillment of this promise as hopeful, it ends in exhaustion at the impasse: “This is what we come to: the exhaustion of a repetition, and an impasse. What does it mean to turn an exhausted something into something other than itself, or anything? A lesson learned?” (152). As she moves through the conclusion of this chapter, she posits a number of ways to read this ending, none of which embody our own optimism as readers (in spite of our willingness to create such a reading through the pseudo-lesbian union of the two main characters). What Berlant shows, instead, is the following:

Pleasure does not always feel good, and that understanding the binding of subjects to both their negation and incoherence is key to rewiring the ways we think about what binds people to harmful conventions of personhood. Second, affects have content and form…They are not species of preideological clarity, but quite opposite: they are taught (Hey, you!), barely known (“Wait up!”), and often more sense than event (159).

What this type of close reading shows is that in our haste to identify the larger, unambiguous affects that constitute an event, a shift in the way things were to the way they will be, Berlant actually shows that it is the culmination of a series of recessive affects that can “best index of how subjects of the historical present register the presence of systemic or structural crisis in the ordinary” (Ngai). While the payoff appears to not be abundantly optimistic in and of itself (how do we detach ourselves from our attachments of the good life? How do we avoid the seriality of all these recessive affects that constitute our very subjectivity, our intuition, our feeling?), we can read this type of work as the “bringing about of a world” that Berlant and Warner cite in “Sex in Public.” This new world depends on the possibility for attachments that are not cruel in their very becoming, not based in the incoherence of heteronormativity. Establishing that this possibility does not exist in the historical present, Berlant models through Cruel Optimism a corrective procedure for our misrecognitions by first simply being able to recognize them as such.


[1] Berlant’s definition of heteronormativity is helpful in this context: “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientation that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is organized as a sexuality—but also privileged” (n548).

[2] This phrase points to a condition different from melancholia, which is enacted in the subject’s desire to temporize an experience of the loss of an object/scene with which she has invested her ego continuity. Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object. (24)

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