Cruel Optimism by Lauren Beralant, Duke University Press (2011) Lauren Berlant wants you to break your New Year’s resolutions. Or at least she wholly understands your impending failure to keep them. So go ahead, smoke another cigarette. Smoke whatever you can find. Down a few more 100-calorie snack packs. Eat a whole goddamn box of 100-calorie snack packs. Fuck 100-calorie snack packs, find some actual cookies and eat all of them. Eat whatever you can find. Don’t give up caffeine. Don’t work harder. Slack off. Don’t get a promotion. Keep drinking. Drink more. Ignore your new gym membership. Pick up new bad habits. Hone your bad habits into an art form. Master the art of sustaining your bad habits, because your bad habits are what sustain you.
After all, bad habits are lifesavers we cling to in the face of the fraying and always already toxic “good-life fantasies” we wallow in, in the face of becoming totally unmoored. Are you really that guilty about your guilty pleasures? What exactly were you hoping for anyway?
In her new book Cruel Optimism, University of Chicago English professor Lauren Berlant describes the titular phrase as “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” We cling to the fantasy that “this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.” This time she’ll really love you. This time you’ll lose the weight. This time you’ll make enough money. This time the candidate’s promises will last after election night. This time the mission will really be accomplished. This time, you will be happy. Except, you know, you won’t. At least not for long.
Happy fucking New Year.
Apropos to the purportedly apocalyptic year stretched out in front of what is apparently the last vestiges of humanity, Cruel Optimism heralds an existing age of swelling precarity. Although the experience is different across economic and social situations, we are, at least the 99 percent of us, the new precariat class. We are frantically digging to keep the tunnel from caving in — digging for air, not treasure. And what’s really hemming us in is an unwillingness to eat dirt, to embrace precarity “as the condition of being and belonging,” instead of clinging desperately to the paradox of predictability and security — “buy this car to go to work, go to work to pay for this car.”
Berlant locates the reader, you and I and herself, in the impasse of the present, the cul-de-sac in which we continue to strive for the “conventional good-life fantasies — say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work.” We circle ever more desperately, with an increasing awareness of the good life’s farcical nature. Berlant tracks the pain of everyday life — not clock-stopping trauma or crisis that denotes a shift in paradigm but the vague sense of doom we walk around with, the crisis ordinary. This is not apocalypse, more like slow-moving quicksand.
While other temporal interventions in queer theory have primarily focused on futurity — such as the optimistic focus on queerness as aspirational, a yearning for a not-yet-present utopia in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, or the darker argument against the cult of the child in Lee Edelman’s canonical No Future — Berlant’s Cruel Optimism argues for the centrality of the affective experience of the present. Before being codified as a historical event, she writes, the present is felt as such, even if an “incoherent mash.”
Whatever else it is, and however one enters it, the historical present… is a middle without boundaries, edges, a shape. It is experienced in transitions and transactions. It is the name for the space where the urgencies of livelihood are worked out all over again, without assurances of futurity, but nevertheless proceeding via durable norms of adaptation. People are destroyed in it, or discouraged but maintaining, or happily managing things, or playful and enthralled.
This time-space is the habitat for the precariat as an “affective class” that includes both the lastingly and newly insecure, a group that finds commonality in their inability to believe in social democratic good-life fantasies. Her construction will no doubt draw some scoffs from a few of her less-imaginative fellow professional Marxists, but Berlant’s class construction is in line with the concession that we won’t be getting what we want anyway. Almost none of it, including and especially not an industrial proletariat, robust trade unions, or progressive wealth redistribution.
Berlant thickly describes her close readings of texts that deal with “how best to live on, considering”: such novels as Was by Geoff Ryman, Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, art films like Gregg Bordowitz’s Habit, Laurent Cantet’s Ressources humaines and L’emploi du temps, and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s La Promesse and Rosetta. Out of these diverse texts about precarious living, of consumptive dissatisfaction, economic desperation, of the slow death of obesity and the slowing death of HIV — all the things that sustain and destroy us — comes a mirror-like portrait of the precariat. There is a fine and hazy line between occupations and Air Jordan riots. Whether you’re camped out at Zuccotti Park or outside H&M for the new Versace collaboration, here we are, with every present moment slipping into the next, trying not to lose hold. Each adaptation to precarity a foothold in some epic metaphor.
Berlant doesn’t leave us with the instructive “Life sucks, eat some snacks,” but rather urges us to find our way out of the psychological burrow. How do we extricate ourselves from the irreparable and “cramped” fantasy of the good life, toward a “better good life?” How do we get out of relationships of cruel optimism, out of this prolonged sense of crisis, this sustained and boring code red? It is not a cul-de-sac of excess fat, blackened lungs, or wandering eyes but rather the structural impasse of capitalism we must fantasize our way out of. Berlant explicitly fails to offer a revolutionary program, opting instead to examine the habit of living in spite of everything that suggests one ought not. Potentiality is expressed in these times “in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.” If we stop projecting toward the future, then we can plan for the present that is already here and still coming tomorrow, even if we can’t quite make sense of it except in ways we can say.