Berlant, Lauren. “Cruel Optimism.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.3 (2006): 20-36. Print.
In this article Berlant attempts to explicate the critical value of “cruel optimism” (21). She begins her discussion by defining the “object of desire” as a “cluster of promises” that could be embodied in a number of things, from the tangibility of an individual or place to abstract ideas, sounds, or smells (20). Berlant argues that this figuration of the desired object as inextricably linked to promise or hope allows us to interrogate our “endurance in the object” as well as recognize that our attachments to these objects are inherently “optimistic” though they may not always “feel optimistic” (20). This significant distinction ultimately provides Berlant with a foundation for explicating the nature of cruel optimism, which she defines as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility” (21). In other words, while an individual’s relation to a specific object of desire may be self-destructive, harmful, or cruel, so intimately is it connected to the way this individual perceives and negotiates the world that its loss may irreparably destroy any further reason for life. Cruel optimism for Berlant then becomes an important lens from which to analyze why people today continue to ignore the deeply injurious and destructive nature of their attachments in favor of optimism. In light of social upheaval and growing economic and environmental distress, she asserts that cruel optimism provides a way for us to recognize the “centrality of optimistic fantasy to reproducing and surviving in zones of compromised ordinariness” (35). Maintaining our attachments to objects of desire or promise, no matter how detrimental they may be, allows us to make it through day-to-day life.