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Precarious Attachments
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2011, 352pp; £16.99 paperback

In a much anticipated follow-up to her sentimentality trilogy, Lauren Berlant’s newest book, Cruel Optimism, focuses on our desire for things that are not good for us. She defines cruel optimism as ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’; it’s not just that something you desire is unattainable, but also that the wanting of that something actually impedes you getting what you seek. ‘Why’, Berlant asks, ‘do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies - say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work - when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear costs abounds?’ (p2). The reason why we hold on to unrealizable visions of the good life is because ‘the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it’ (p27). These visions, as cruel as they are, are also ‘profoundly confirming’ (p2).

Through meticulous readings of contemporary literature, film, and art, Berlant seeks to ‘track the becoming general of singular things’ (p12). Berlant trains her critical eye on both the historical present and the ordinary. ‘The present is perceived, first, affectively’ and the affective register most pertinent to Berlant is that of the impasse, ‘a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic’ (p4). One of Berlant’s fundamental arguments threaded throughout the book is that we must think less in terms of grand notions of trauma, crisis, epidemic, and event, and more through ‘the diffusion of trauma through the ordinary’, ‘crisis-ordinariness’, the endemic, and the episode. ‘Survival in the present of an ordinary collective life suffused with a historic and historical crisis to which we are always catching up’, Berlant argues, ‘is the way we live now’ (p59). Laced throughout the book are descriptions of ways of being that call up this sense of an enigmatic present to which we are always catching up - stuttering, drifting, holding on, treading water, floating, doggy paddling, improvising, coasting, tottering, wandering, maintaining, surviving, struggling, just to name a few.

Berlant’s elaboration of the dynamic of cruel optimism in Chapter 1 and 2 focuses on these habits and repetitions around cruel objects that seem to ‘guarantee the endurance of something, the survival of something, the flourishing of something’ (p48) and what happens when those objects seem to recede. ‘What constitutes continuity amid the pressure of structural inconstancy?’, Berlant asks, and how is this informed by the privileges, racial, sexual, and otherwise, with which one encounters shifting parameters of living and living on? (p69) In Gregg Bordowitz’s film Habit (2001), the rituals and habits of living with AIDS, Berlant argues, are a means of ‘staying tethered to life’ (p57), a way of ‘preserving banality, turning care of the self into a mode of ordinariness’ (p62). ‘Embodied, affective rhythms of survival’ (p11) also take the form of what Berlant calls intuition, particularly as evidenced in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist and William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. [End Page 151]

In her Chapter 4 discussion of Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Berlant invokes the image of ‘a small animal that, when picked up, never stops moving its legs’ (p127); it is this image that best conveys her desire to articulate what she terms ‘lateral agency’, or agency that is ‘consciously and unconsciously not toward imagining the long haul’ (p117), not ‘transformative or transcendent’ (p137). Lateral agency isn’t grand or heroic, nor does it really accomplish much of anything. This comes through well in Berlant’s discussion of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s films La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999) in Chapter 5 and her description of situation tragedy as ‘a generic hybrid … where people are fated to express their flaws episodically, over and over, without learning, changing, being relieved, becoming better, or dying’ (p176).

Berlant’s initial introduction of lateral agency in Chapter 3, however, is less successful in its application than in later deployments. Notably, this is the only chapter in which...