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

Peer-Review: 0

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)

Peer-Review: 0

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?