- Love in a Hopeless Place (review)
Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism analyzes our continued attachment to unattainable fantasies of "the good life": promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy, and "scenes of conventional desire that stand manifestly in the way of the subject's thriving" (45). Evidence of her compelling thesis kept showing up in everyday life while I was reading her book. With the title "Americans are freakishly optimistic," the website io9 linked to a recent Pew Research Center report showing that "only 36 percent of Americans polled said that they thought their economic fortunes were determined by forces beyond their control" compared to "70 percent of Germans who believe their financial fates are beyond their personal control." Yet the irony is that "Americans actually have far less control over their economic destinies than their European counterparts."1 A fake-news article in The Onion, "4-Year-Old's Optimism Just Making Things Worse for Area Family," explained that, "Though intended to cheer up family members, the unflagging optimism of 4-year-old Shelby Cooper has served only to exacerbate the financial stress her parents have experienced since her father lost his job two years ago." This is very dark humor, but these ironies are at the heart of what Berlant calls "cruel optimism."
While Berlant identifies a debate within queer theory over the problem of future-orientation as a trap or an opening that is "being fought out, tacitly" (274 n.3), between Lee Edelman's No Future (2004) and José Esteban Muñoz's Cruising Utopia (2009), Cruel Optimism can itself be contrasted with Michael D. Snediker's Queer Optimism (2008). [End Page 195] Snediker notes that Berlant's previous essays invoke "hegemonic optimism" and "dubious optimism," and suggests that "as epithets, 'dubious' and 'hegemonic' construe optimism as a tease, a seduction that queer theory might expose . . . as that which cozens liberals (queer and nonqueer) into complacency, the extensiveness and lure of which would all the more require optimism's debunking" (1). While Berlant's brief discussion of Snediker's Queer Optimism in Cruel Optimism's "Introduction: Affect in the Present" is slightly dismissive (and she deemphasizes shame and queerness in her text [287 n. 30]), she notes that "we are also both interested in affective activity that makes beings bound to the present rather than to futures" (12). In her book's second chapter, "Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event," Berlant emphasizes an ongoing present that has to be navigated and taken in, but not rehabituated or turned into a new normativity in an attempt to work "through and beyond trauma" (17). This chapter features readings of Gregg Bordowitz's film Habit and Susan Sontag's polyvocal "The Way We Live Now," about the AIDS endemic as "a crisis in the historical sensorium of the present" (17), and two historical novels featuring female protagonists with supersensitive intuition—Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and William Gibson's Pattern Recognition— which "put catastrophe back into the ordinary" (77).
Drawing on Raymond Williams's idea of "structures of feeling," Berlant insists on the centrality of affect to the mediation of the present in any historical moment (she deals primarily with "affective traces" in the aesthetic: literature and film ). She also distances herself from the dominant lens of trauma theory, which in the past few decades has provided "the main way of periodizing any crisis-shaped historical present" (54). Instead, Berlant prefers "tracking the work of affect as it shapes new ordinaries" to the logic of exception that necessarily accompanies the work of trauma, and explaining "crisis-shaped subjectivity amid the ongoingness of adjudication, adaptation, and im provisation," or what she terms "crisis-ordinariness" (54, 10, 81-82). A small difference in word choice exemplified, for me, Berlant's shift away from the dominant model of trauma theory: rather than a subject who "survives" a traumatic event understood as a break with the historical present, she describes the "living on" of the subject in the ongoing present shaped by crisis. While she does use the...