Cruel Optimism for the Neurologically Queer

Cruel optimism is the provocative concept Lauren Berlant has given to a phenomenon endemic to the present political and affective moment: the holding up of hope as a means of stifling dissent, forestalling change, and ultimately rendering any array of longed-for outcomes, whatever they may be, unattainable. The paradox Berlant has named is that what we seek eludes us precisely because the mechanisms by which we seek our objectives (whether personal happiness or political change) are irredeemably flawed in that they preclude the very outcomes that are desired.
Examples of cruel optimism abound, but nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than in the self-help books that promise health, wealth, and happiness just as long as the reader is willing to work at it, visualize it, believe it. Consider the typical American diet book that advocates a restricted caloric consumption that in turn alters the dieter’s metabolism, slowing calorie expenditure, thus rendering long-term, sustained weight reduction all but impossible. Or take the job seeker’s handbook, where networking advice reduces friends and families to “contacts” to be worked, attenuating the very sense of community that makes finding one’s work, and place in the world, possible. Or glance at a newsstand display of fashion magazines: one finds style guides that leave readers submerged in unattainable airbrushed perfection, their self-images sunk by the very vehicle that promised a “new you.”
The very exhortations to “be all you can be” or “live your best life” hold open the nagging possibility that one can be yet more, that life can be somehow always better, and thus one should always be striving, seeking, and searching. Limitless possibility forestalls satisfaction; Tocqueville nailed that American paradox way back in the 19th century.[1]  And as I argue elsewhere, contemporary self-help readers find themselves not improved, but belabored: constantly at work on themselves in some endless quest for self-development.
Belabored Parenting and “Special” Needs
Much as we are urged to “be all we can be,” we also operate under the polite fiction that any child can grow up to be anything they want to be, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. As my research turns from the topic of individual makeover culture to a consideration of parenting (and the discourses that circulate around the emergence of the next generation) I’ve found that Berlant’s construct can be a particularly useful framework for analysis.
Cruel optimism hits particularly hard in the world that is euphemistically known as special needs parenting. Indeed, research on parents of children on the autism spectrum has long suggested that one of the greatest stressors for this group comes from the ambiguity of the prognosis that comes with such a diagnosis (Wolf et al 1989).  Paradoxically, what can be most difficult for parents of autistic children is the possibility that particular bio-medical, nutritional, behavioral, or psychopharmacological interventions will help their child (or children) conform or adapt to the demands of the neurotypical world. Because there is little uniformity in the ways that autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed (or, even, for that matter, in the ways these “disorders” present themselves), and because of occasional stories of children who have “recovered” from ASD, or lost their diagnoses, the quest for interventions can become all-consuming, imbued with that particular desperation that comes of fighting for the future itself.[2]
And in these quests for “cures” or “recovery” – in the search for a transformation from the “before” of the supposedly (and sometimes palpably) debilitated autistic child into the “after” of the supposedly “normal” child – parents are transformed into consumers and purveyors of all sorts of untested, unproven treatments as they cede the child before them for the imaginary child of their hopes and dreams. The pursuit of these hopes typically involves what Berlant calls “conventional good life fantasies,” which, in this case, might include the everyday dreams that one’s child might someday be gainfully employed (or somehow provided for), integrated into their community, and satisfied in their intimate relationships.  The pursuit of this vision – the usual metaphor is of combat, of laying siege to the fortress that has locked the “real child” inside – all but banishes the actually existing child who lives among us.[3]  The melancholia of autism parenting rests in the figure of the changeling, the stolen child, the lost child of neuro-normative fantasy.
This particular cruel optimism is born of medical, psychiatric and educational narratives and practices provided by professionals to parents and their children, and imposed by parents on themselves, each other, and their children. The implications in the discourses are clear:  if you don’t try X, Y, or Z new therapy, then you are negligent, a parent who has abandoned your child (and thus the future) to the disorder that is their anomalous neurology. The message to the autistic child is simpler still: “we love you so much we’d do anything for you, it’s just your autism that we hate.” While it is increasingly unacceptable to say to young gays, lesbians and transgender persons that “you’re fine, it’s just your queerness we hate,” somehow, even with the advent of the neurodiversity movement, it remains acceptable in so many polite spheres to say that we love the child but distain their unique neurology. The future of our neuro-queer children is a site of panicked — indeed, epidemic — contestation.[4]
As in the presumptive obesity epidemic,[5] the panic around a possible “autism epidemic” coincides neatly with anxieties about personhood: about species chauvinism (autistics are famously, and stereotypically, good with animals), and about our ever more affectionate relationships to objects and technology (autistics are said to be with great with things, especially computers and computing, but not so great with people). Just as the epic bigotry against fat people that is medicalized in the notion of an obesity epidemic betrays cultural anxiety around excess, consumption, and appetite, so the staggering statistics of increased autism prevalence reveal panic around the possible attainment of a conventional “good life”, along with fears of a future of attenuated, machine-mediated, and potentially disordered, social connection.
Cruel Optimism as Cost Control
If the cruelty of abandoning the actually existing young human in front of you for the child of your neuro-normative projections of some future good life weren’t bad enough, there is another crueler form of optimism that confronts parents who seek access to government-mandated services and supports for developmentally different offspring. Although each and every child is entitled, under the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to a “free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting,” as with so many federal mandates, this requirement is unfunded. Thus the delivery of such services is rationed at the state and local level, based on a crushing calculus where the perceived need or degree of debility is balanced against the promise of future capacity.
The Individual Education Plan meeting (or the IEP meeting, as it is known amongst those who participate) is an annual ritual of hope versus despair, imagined potential and apparent impairment. In the hope corner of the ring (to use a pugilistic metaphor), one might be surprised to find school board personnel whose goal (however marvelous and loving they might be as individuals) must be to operate within ever more austere budgetary frameworks. And on the despair side of the ring, one will typically find the parents, assuming the parents understand that this is not the setting where their child will be best served by cheerful stories of recent progress towards normality.
This annual ritual requires that parents and caregivers put aside the normative social discourse of bragging about a child’s accomplishments (or in this case, “therapeutic gains”) and instead profess little hope for the child’s future unless immediate, specific, and usually costly labor-intensive investments are made. In a world where debility is a key to accessing limited resources, many parents know how important it can be to “aim low,” to see the glass all but empty. And on the other side of the ring, the representatives of the state occupy the seat of those who see the glass half full, or even overflowing, so that no additional investment on the part of the commonwealth is required. (One of these most cruel of optimists once told me that there must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t see my child’s promise. Perhaps I was depressed, she offered, with what appeared to be genuine solicitude. The flavor of hope she offered was that a 5-year-old with significant language and auditory processing impairments would be just fine without an aide or assistive technology in a mainstream classroom where the ambient sound level was 80 decibels or more at any given time.)
The IEP meeting is an occasion that most special needs parents dread: it’s the site of a performance where an argument is made not only about the need for investment, but also about the promise of some sort of return on this investment. Overstate the debility, and your child will wind up with what’s widely understood as a dubious future (consigned to a non-academic vocational and life skills curriculum, as failing to meet the conventional benchmarks of the good life). Understate the debility, and you’ll be assigned to a not-at-all-special, not even appropriate, education: that is, without the services that could make something like a fulfilling adult life possible. The very precariousness of future outcomes renders the pursuit of resources in support of neurologically different or impaired persons crucial. But in this space of uncertain outcomes, an especially clever and cruel optimism provides cost control for the very ambitions that it fosters.
A Kinder Pessimism
Of course a normative vision of the good life of adult independence is the fundamental problem in this version of cruel optimism. If the contemporary parents of typically developing children are plagued by doubts that they’re doing enough to maximize their offspring’s futures – and dubbed “helicopter parents” in the process – parents of autistic children navigate this world of hopes at a somewhat different altitude. Although some may worry about what college their child will attend, for most there is one simple question that keeps them awake at night: if my child can’t manage some sort of independence, who will care for him or her when I’m gone?
Such moments are those in which Berlant’s work, as well as the queer theory that debunks the trope of the precious child, can serve as bracing correctives. Berlant argues that we must abandon the fantasy of any future that rests on a normative narrative of success (and even on normative counter-narratives of success) and open ourselves to something we have yet to imagine. She imagines this radical potentiality as a longing for the otherwise-ness of Adorno’s aesthetics, where a new vision of the good and beautiful life manages to emerge parallel to and unaffected by the old constructs in which most people find themselves mired.
Without invoking Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism (1989), and despite the incompatibility of much of their thinking, Berlant seems to be urging that we operate as “strong poets” of everyday life:  that we shake off the forms and narratives that have caught us in the web of cruel optimism, and invent something we haven’t yet dared to dream.
Such futures that are yet to be imagined, let alone formed, cannot be crafted at the expense of the lived present moment and those with whom we share this time. Instead, they call for something new: perhaps a sort of “kind pessimism” where the future is neither desired nor dreaded, but teased out, coaxed, and unfolding before us, no longer wielded as bludgeon to rob us of the present.


  • [1] Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1835.Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter XIII, online at (Last accessed: September 8, 2012.)
  • [2] Here, I am invoking Lee Edelman’s argument in No Future : Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) that the figure of the Child stands in for pure and unlimited potential, as the promise of the future. Edelman’s argument regarding Child as future is prefigured in an earlier work by Berlant, The Queen of American Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), p.6.
  • [3] For a valuable accounts of the many representational issues in narratives of autism, see Lorna Wing (1997), “The History of Ideas on Autism Legends, Myths and Reality,” Autism 1(1): 13–23; Mitzi Waltz (2009), “From Changelings to Crystal Children: An Examination of ‘New Age’ Ideas About Autism”Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 13(2): 114–128; Mitzi Waltz, (2005) “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation,” Disability & Society 20(4):421–435; and, Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).
  • [4] Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006) charts the intersectionality of queerness and disability most fruitfully, as does the work of many autism bloggers too numerous to name here.
  • [5] Despite problematicizing the notion of epidemics – and the moral panics and fear-mongering that swirl around them – surprisingly, Berlant seems to take obesity as an actually existing public health problem when she casts fat people as the embodiment of “slow death” and debility (in Chapter 3 of Cruel Optimism). This is troubling, and one wishes she might have considered some of the substantive cultural histories around fat and body size, particularly Hillel Schwartz’s Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat (New York; London: Free Press, 1986) and more recently Sander L. Gilman’s Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA, USA: Polity, 2008).

Micki McGee