- Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
Moments of uncertainty can make us feel as though situations that evoke dreadful anxiety can be quelled by embracing optimism. Yet, as Lauren Berlant argues in her recent work, attachments to optimistic fantasies can often become, well, cruel. Cruel Optimism turns its attention to scenes of everyday life and traces affective modes of adjustment and attenuation as a way of coping with the radical contingency of neoliberal crisis in hopes of creating new modes of habit or relation to the world. By situating a study of aesthetic forms and generic conventions within the context of post-Cold War Europe and United States, Berlant continues her inquiry into the ways in which affective relations mediate citizenship and national public cultures. In this case, Cruel Optimism imagines a complex nexus of fantasy, cultural production, and differential relations of precarity that have emerged in response to continued fantasies of “the good life” even as we witness the gradual undoing of reciprocal social structures in the wake of processes of neoliberal restructuring. In effect, the realization of the good life feels further and further out of reach, necessitating ways of making do moment to moment. Over the course of an introduction and seven chapters, Berlant engages a broad archive of “mass media, literature, television, film, and video” and boldly contributes to contemporary studies of affect by tracing the “emergence of a precarious public sphere, an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency and trade paradigms for how best to live on, considering” (3). [End Page 371]
Public address scholars have long been concerned with the attendant modes of political engagement that work to negotiate the relationship between risk, probability, and knowledge in contingent situations. Although the problem of rhetorical judgment has focused primarily on modes of reasoning within more exceptional contexts rather than the affective, ordinary, and everyday, Cruel Optimism perhaps demonstrates why rhetorical critics in particular are well-positioned to intervene in a burgeoning interdisciplinary interest in affective politics. This is particularly the case given a disciplinary history engaging aesthetic forms emerging from particular contexts. Although Berlant does not explicitly foreground rhetorical theory to understand the relationship between “affective scenarios” and contingent styles of response to an everyday “disorganized by capitalism” (8), she operates with an implicit rhetorical sensibility and addresses a number of themes relevant to the readers of this journal.
As one of its central aims, Cruel Optimism turns to theories of “the event” as a way of making sense of the production of the “historical present” (4). Berlant contends that the production of the present, which hinges on a variety of temporal genres such as “the situation, the episode, the interruption, the aside, the conversation, the travelogue, and the happening,” constitutes the ways in which subjects reflexively experience an elongated present (5). Berlant makes sense of the present through the “impasse,” or what rhetorical critics would point to as a moment of radical contingency in which one must manage by engaging in creative activity (4). Rhetorical critics will find the relation between the impasse and genre particularly compelling. The temporal structure of the impasse enables the anxious assessment of information and possibility. For Berlant, the “activity of being historical” or making sense of the present becomes an event when that activity “finds its genre” (20). More so, Berlant argues that one’s response to the crisis of ordinary life can be “powerfully related to the expectations of the world they had to reconfigure in the face of tattering formal and informal norms of social and institutional reciprocity” (20). What Berlant does not make so explicit here, but are of concern to this journal, are the ways these expectations operate as rhetorical norms. By attending to generic conventions, Berlant is able to bridge the particular to the general and create an understanding of affective cultures as they are collectively shared.
The introduction outlines the three major conceptual aims and contributions of the book, which include the emerging and historical present, [End Page 372] reorienting theories of...