Annotation: Lauren Berlant’s “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture” (2004)
Berlant, Lauren. “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture.” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004): 445-451. Print.
In this article Berlant asks us to consider the advantages of relying on “critical optimism” as a mode of critique at a time when political indifference, stagnating economy, environmental degradation, and increasing social violence seem to be catapulting us towards apocalypse (446). But while she makes “emotion” her critical point of entry, Berlant nevertheless works against what Herbert Marcuse terms “affirmative culture,” namely, our tendency to perceive emotion as universal and immediately recognizable (448). Her definition of optimism as “collective attachment” consequently seeks to remind us that ties between the individual and the object of desire do not always “feel good” (449). By forcing us to recognize the nuanced nature of optimism, how even as it draws communities together, there exists a kind of negativity based on a deferral of happiness for future hope, she provides us with a means for grappling with other emotions that are similarly incoherent and difficult to classify. In Berlant’s perspective, a study of “negative emotion” becomes especially useful for challenging the assumptions of affirmative culture and the idea of “cultivating consciousness as a good in itself”(450). She asks us to interrogate, for instance, how contemporary political participation is performed with a slew of ambiguous feelings of negativity, including “detachment, numbness, vagueness, confusion, bravado, exhaustion, [and] apathy” (450). Yet, rather than perceiving these negative emotions as the opposite of optimism, Berlant troubles such easy binary divides by posing the question of what happens if we perceive this negativity as a form of attachment? Is it possible to organize a political consciousness or collective around negative emotion?