Annotation: Lauren Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism” (2006)

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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.

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Annotation: Lauren Berlant’s “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture” (2004)

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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?

Annotation: Sianne Ngai’s “Animatedness” (2005)

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Ngai, Sianne. “Animatedness.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. 89-125. Print.

In this essay Ngai asserts that stop-motion animation technology captures the ambiguous nature of human agency in the Fordist era, which she describes as “animatedness.” She particularly explores how animatedness, as a “seemingly neutral state of ‘being moved’” has been ‘twisted into the image of the overemotional racialized subject, abetting his or her construction as unusually receptive to external control” (91). Ngai argues, “to be ‘animated’ in American culture is to be racialized in some way” (95). She notes how African Americans have been popularly represented in literature and various forms of media as overly, excessively emotional. Ngai particularly calls attention to how “animatedness” as an emotional or physical response becomes racialized, corporeally attached to the visual stereotype of the African American body. She asserts that while Asian Americans seem to fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, popularly depicted as unfeeling and excessively unemotional, they are still clearly racialized for their lack of animation.

Ngai discusses the productivity of “animatedness” as a theoretical frame because the term recalls the “definitions of ‘animate’ and ‘animated’” ranging from “biological existence (‘endowed with life or the qualities of life: ALIVE”), to socially positive emotional qualities (‘lively,’ ‘full of vigor and spirit,’ ‘zest’), and finally to the historically specific mode of screen representation (‘made in the form of an animated cartoon’)” (94-95). Ngai therefore demonstrates how “animatedness” links organic life to emotional states and machine technologies.

She suggests that these connections are made even more explicit through the concept of automaziation Rey Chow presents in her essay “Postmodern Automatons.” Chow describes automatization as a condition where “one’s body and voice [is] controlled by an invisible other,” particularly reveals itself “the moment the body is made into the object of a gaze; being animated thus entails ‘becoming a spectacle whose ‘aesthetic’ power increases with one’s increasing awkwardness and helplessness’” (99). In her own essay Ngai attempts to answer Chow’s “question of how to turn automatization into autonomy and independence” (99). She asserts that while “animatedness” connotes the emotional and physical constrictions of mechanical, automatic assembly line labor, it also alludes to the potential for spontaneous, unrestricted and unexpected affective and bodily movement.

In her essay Ngai goes on to analyze a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the “narrator suddenly finds himself part of a larger audience watching a black doll puppeteered by Tod Clifton, a Harlem community leader and activist he has admired” (111). Ngai asserts that in this scene Clifton’s ventriloquism and manipulation of the doll forces his body and voice to perform unnatural actions, thereby highlighting his own automatization. Even as he animates the black doll, he is also animated by invisible, external forces. Ngai therefore suggests that one ambiguous means through which automatized human beings can exert their agency in the Fordist era is to call attention to and essentially make a spectacle of their own automatization.

She finally concludes her essay with a discussion of The PJs, “the first prime-time program in American television history to feature a completely non-white, non-middle-class, and non-live-action cast, as well as the first to depict its characters in foamation, a three-dimensional, stop-motion animation technique” (102-103). Ngai asserts that The PJs foamation dolls are automatized by technicians who physically manipulate them into appropriate positions for camera shots and by the human actors who ventriloquize their voices. Despite their illusion of wholeness on the television screen, the dolls are dissected and pieced together. Yet Ngai notes that as different mouths are continually put on and taken off of the dolls, the mouth sometimes “slides a bit from its initial position,” which the directors refer to as “‘slippery mouth’ syndrome” (116). Ngai reads this effect as uncanny movements, where the mouths “assum[e] a liveliness that is distinct from the ‘life’ given to them by the animators and that exceeds their design and control” (117). She asserts that this “unaccounted-for autonomy” is representative of the ways in which agency operates in the Fordist era and should not be overlooked or trivialized.

Annotation: Sianne Ngai’s “Introduction” (2005)

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Ngai, Sianne. “Introduction.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. 1-37. Print.

In her “Introduction” Ngai asserts that her book will explore the “negative affects” that emerge from situations of “obstructed agency” (3). She offers Bartleby, whose illegible feelings and disconcertingly passive resistance bewilders critics about his actual degree of agency, as a kind of framing example for the rest of her discussion. Ngai argues that our increasingly globalized world with transnational movements of peoples and capital has contributed to the emergence of a more complex set of feelings that cannot be described as simply “anger” or fear.” Unlike the emotions that have been analyzed by classical philosophers such as Aristotle, Ngai determines to specifically examine the historically marginalized “amoral and noncathartic” feelings and consequently study “a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release…and does so as a kind of politics” that is very Bartlebyan (9). She challenges, for example, the critical tendency in film analyses to focus on the most dramatic and emotionally provocative scenes, asserting that those scenes that are more indeterminate, where viewers feel confused about what they are or should be feeling also deserves more urgent scholarly attention. Ngai emphasizes that they should be analyzed for the loss of control they inspire, where either the character or the viewer remains caught in a state of “suspended agency” (1).

She further notes that feelings have been historically marginalized as topic of study because of their supposed subjectivity. Ngai asserts, however, that her project, in conjunction with those of other contemporary affect scholars, is to demonstrate how feelings are socially and institutionally shaped. She also offers some helpful theoretical background on the difference between emotion and affect. Ngai cites Massumi and Grossberg who assert that emotion requires a subject while affect does not and while emotion “designates feeling given ‘function and meaning…the later remains ‘unformed and unstructured’” (25).

In her book, however, Ngai does not attempt to offer formal distinctions between affect and emotion, only recognizing their difference in terms of degree. She writes, for example, “affects are less formed and structured than emotions, but not lacking form or structure altogether” (27). Ngai explains that the “minor affects,” she explores in her book: tone, animatedness, envy, irritation, anxiety, stuplimity, paranoia, and disgust, are “far less intentional or object-oriented, than the passions in the philosophical canon” (20). While she admits that the “weakly intentional feelings” she explores is probably less adequate than more forceful feelings such as anger and fear to advance political movements, they are ideal for “diagnos[ing] situations, and situations marked by blocked or thwarted action in particular” (27).