‘Cruel Optimism’ by Lauren Berlant
Judged solely by its title, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press) could easily be dismissed by some as just another cynical work of cultural critique. Instead, Berlant strives to distance herself from “the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold to a dream.” It would be easy for Berlant to join the in tradition of satirizing optimists as fools and simpletons like Voltaire’s Candide or 30 Rock’s Kenneth. However, her goal is not to ridicule the optimist, but instead to trace the psychological disposition toward attaching optimistically to an ideal and the social and political impact that results when the entire public pursues their version of “the good life.”
Although the book does not specifically name queer studies as its main subject, it nonetheless bears the hallmark of queer theory’s challenging of normative categories of gender, bodies, and desire. Borrowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on affect and attachment theory, Berlant asserts that all attachments we have to ideals, objects of desire, and our dreams are inherently optimistic because we pin our hopes to them, believing they can satisfy our desire and recognize in us the identity we wish to inhabit.
Yet, not every form of optimism is naturally cruel. In the introduction, Berlant elaborates:
A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.
Optimism is not the delusion of dupes, but as Berlant elaborates, it is “a scene of negotiated sustenance that makes life bearable as it presents itself ambivalently, unevenly, incoherently.” In short, optimism is a conceptual glue that binds together haphazardly a chaotic world into a space made livable by hope, even if that hope never materializes.
In charting out the various strains of cruel optimism that color our national imaginary, Berlant calls upon a wide archive of literary texts, films, and even a comparison of President Bush’s intimate but vague “ambient noise” and President Obama’s sloganeering of “Yes We Can!” that substitute positive affects and future optimism for specific ideology and policy. Coupled with Berlant’s chapter on the precarity of the middle class and how basic domestic needs have become aspirational and uncertain in a global recession, Cruel Optimism will make for an illuminating commentary on the campaign rhetoric of the upcoming election.
Two of Berlant’s most accessible and compelling chapters address the obesity epidemic in America. Berlant investigates the paradox that food is both a necessary sustenance for life yet simultaneously an addictive comfort through which we numb ourselves to our poor body images in an act that only further distances ourselves from the thin ideal. Berlant uses the failed American food policy that contributes to the starvation of some and the obesity of others to challenge the American ideal of sovereign individualism and the conservative ideology of personal responsibility that ignores how poverty, governmental policy, and nutritional disorders render many unable to achieve the norm.
In essence Berlant uses food to “queer” our basic ideals of individualism. Our norm for the body is the ideal of thin, but the statistical average (the real norm) is fat—a cruel position that anyone struggling with body issues has faced. “Normal” is not the really existing average, but our optimistic ideal of what the average should be. Berlant uses this as a jumping off point to “desubjectivize queerness and to see it in practices that feel out alternative routes for living without requiring personhood to be expressive of an internal orientation or part of a political program advocating how to live.” This is Berlant at her most revolutionarily queer, questioning what would happen if we stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of identity categories, and instead reorganized our sense of self around the specific objects and ideas to which we are attached and the affects that they produce in us.
While Cruel Optimism presumes an academic audience versed in critical theory and philosophy, it contains many crucial points of consideration for the entire LGBT community. Thirty years ago, the thought of marriage, adoption, and serving openly in the military was the dream of the boldest of optimistic LGBT activists. Now that this dream is becoming an approachable reality for some, will they find that this aspiration toward a domestic norm is a form of cruel optimism rife with the same disappointments that ushered in the feminist movement when women realized the cruelty of having been trained to accept the housewife as their ideal model of “the good life”?
By Lauren Berlant
Duke University Press
Paperback,9780822351115, 352 pp.