As someone who has been writing about food and eating for a long time, I am most intrigued with Cruel Optimism‘s engagement with eating in the third chapter, “Slow Death: Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency.” My sense is that food exists as something of an exceptional material in this piece, an object of both wonder and ambivalence, whose importance is perhaps indicated in the fact that the word first appears as an object of desire immediately following the superb opening sentence of the book: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food…” I’m cutting in here, of course: other objects of desire include, as the text continues a few pages later, love, class mobility, intimacy, the “good life,”and even politics itself. My questions about food and eating have to do with how the “Slow Death” chapter does and does not bridge the gap between “something you desire,” “the desire for the political,” and the important — the crucial — observation put forward in Cruel Optimism that “affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary.”
Cruel Optimism harbors a deep aesthetic and political ambivalence about both food and fat — or perhaps, an ambivalence about pleasure, which finds expression in its analysis of the so-called obesity epidemic, whose existence, and whose racially loaded politics, food studies scholars such as John Campos have debated for quite a while. The obesity epidemic emerges most usefully in Cruel Optimism as a temporal problem, as the apotheosis of inadequate historiographic and critical response to the problem of the present: people live on in extended states of debility, suffering, and disease, the chapter’s most poignantly generous and empathetic moments tell us, not in the moments of high drama and transformation that theories of sovereignty have crafted for us as objects of desire in and of themselves. Hence: Berlant’s theory of slow death, the wearing out of the organs and skeletons of those whose food choices are limited to the most calorically-loaded and least nutritionally-sound substances ever made available in human history. This rethinking of crisis, event, and agency in Cruel Optimism, and the linking of food insecurity to the wearing-out of populations who are dispensable under capitalism’s labour regimes will be of critical use to a new generation of food studies, and of course feminist, queer and critical race, scholars.
Food is poison here, but it is also something of a magic substance, enabling — along with sex — the experience of “self-abeyance, of floating sideways… [an] activity releasing the subject into self-suspension.” Eating in this chapter is thus a non-willful yet somewhat agential response to the affectively perceived present, defined as a collective exhaustion and wearing-out from the effects of neoliberal, capitalist governmentality.
Who are the obese? Largely it is the poor, wage- and low-salaried workers, people living in inner cities: largely it is people of color. Given how these demographics are historically subjected to politically shaming language — the failure to self-discipline, the inability to work hard enough — we must ask: why is it, in chapter three, which asks questions about these”sub-proletarian” populations, that slow suicide via lateral agency, via the cruel pleasures of sub-standard food, is the central reading of eating? Would “owning the means of production…produce more overfeeding, more exercise of agency toward death and not health, and certainly not against power”?
Perhaps. However, beyond the real suffering and larger structural issues that accompany obesity — poverty, exhaustion, lack of accessible food choices, urban food deserts, in short, a lack of food security, all of which Berlant acknowledges — it does seem important to note that in this third chapter the question of obesity is marked by a deep suspicion of pleasure, and even more certainly, an enormous gap between politics and pleasure.
The emphasis on the suffering brought about by overeating and food insecurity is of course central to the argument in Cruel Optimism, about people’s attachments to that which saps, or at least disappoints, their wellbeing, and the small spaces of will that make that slow leaching of life under late capitalism bearable. It is a deeply compassionate rethinking of will and agency, and I’m not sure that my own questions about the gap between politics and pleasure in the third chapter run counter to the larger project of the book, which is interested in “not shitting on people’s dreams.” And in fact, the book’s reading of eating as an act itself, something I’ve written about myself, seems richest in possibility because it works in opposition to most thinking about eating and food in the field of food studies, where eating is almost inevitably understood as being about the affirmation — definitively not the abeyance — of self and identity.
But are these the only two modes of being available to us? I recently came across an anecdote in a GQ interview with the artist D’Angelo that has harassed and chased me into rethinking the oscillation between self and negation, plenitude and emptiness that seems to define thinking about eating in our field.
In the interview the author takes up D’Angelo’s reputation-making, and apparently soul-killing, video for (Untitled) How Does It Feel. The video famously scrutinizes, lingers over and adores D’Angelo’s then-buff and worked-out, sculpted and sweating body as he sings portions of the song, off the 2000 Voodoo album. In the article, the director says that while the video — which turned D’Angelo into an overnight sex symbol, much to his distaste and horror as an artist — seems to be about sex, in fact while filming it he asked D’Angelo to think about his grandmother’s kitchen — about the connections between food, sex and spirituality, and about the ways in which these all come together in the Pentecostal experience: “It’s so true [, says D’Angelo.] We talked about the Holy Ghost and the church before that take. The veil is the nudity and the sexuality. But what they’re really getting is the spirit.”
There’s too much in the article and interview to take up here, not the least of which is the wretched enumerating of D’Angelo’s own weight fluctuations, or the horrible way in which the record company shunted D’Angelo’s former girlfriend neo-soul artist Angie Stone, herself a big woman, aside. Body hatred — fat hatred — directs itself even at geniuses like these.
But there does seem to be another universe of meaning at play here, one that deserves its own space within the lexicon of the obesity conversation. I think my obsession with this anecdote comes from my having registered that “Slow Death” is the one chapter in Cruel Optimism without a close reading of a text. Perhaps this move is part of a larger move away from representation, in conversation with geographer Nigel Thrift’s work. Certainly this is because for the purposes of the book, “the image of obesity seen as a biopolitical event needs to be separated from eating as a phenomenological act, and from food as a space of expressivity as well as nourishment.”But it does seem of crucial importance to also know: where does eating take you? Into what, not only away from what, do I (we?) float sideways?
If we believe the director’s gloss, Untitled (How Does It Feel?) itself develops a theme that Cruel Optimism gestures to: that eating (like love, as Badiou argues, like sex, as many have argued) is, as Berlant agrees, “an exercise that violates any definition of sovereign identity.”The title of the song is, after all, a question, one whose openness allows for a blurring of perspectives: How does it feel? How do you feel? How do I feel to you? In you? And indeed, the very non-title of the song — Untitled — with its parenthetical and ultimately unanswered question plays out the Cruel Optimism‘s analysis of the affective present — of the aesthetic event — as something felt by more than one person, as a collective feeling, before it can be fully articulated.
I want to take the walls down, sings D’Angelo: with you.
The layering of food memory onto this somewhat melancholy eros — an eros invoked by D’Angelo and his director (arguably to distance themselves from the sexuality of the video) as public, shared, communal,”spiritual” — not only reveals the history that eating shares with sex as points of biopolitical intervention but also, as the book notes, as sociality, conviviality and yearning for the sensory fullness of self and others, self with others, past and present. Is it not possible that even those most interiorized of sensual pleasures — taste, desire, fullness, the temporary slowing down of the crisis ordinary — might not also take us towards others, bridging, through pleasure, if not desire and the political then at least the self and the other? Or others?
The bodily costs of food insecurity are high: eating too much, or eating nutritionally thin food produces an ongoing and painful magnification of the body which results in its being further bound by gravity to wear down, to be denied political gravitas and also to be relegated to a cultural signifier for levity and unschooled appetite. But if the pleasure promised by our food culture is in fact only a prelude to the diminishment of the future, what can we also do with the joy associated with food culture, a joy bound up, it seems to me, not only in relief from the everyday but in the practice of eating together, of feeding each other, of remembering each other. Eating, in short, is not always a lonely experience. And fat, thickness, “back,” sabor, flavor, jelly — these are languages of everyday embodiment and desire whose signifying work does more than simply hold the self at bay, as though that selfhood were not something to be abandoned or suspended but rather found in a communion in which we access an undramatic and lateral agency, but we also put our arms around each other. Eating, in other words, is social.
It is to the mechanics of the book’s argumentation that I now wish to turn with the deepest of appreciation for Lauren’s prose. It is worth paying attention to the particular qualities of the writing in a book that is so invested in genre, one that describes itself as interested in a formalism that counters the modernist investment in the melodramas of shock and trauma. The writing in Cruel Optimism works to defamiliarize the everyday via a muscular, descriptive wryness that seems aphoristic but in fact offers a satisfyingly literary rhetorical plasticity, performing something of the rhythm generated via the indefinable and still-emergent dramas of the ordinary as they merge with and emerge from ongoing crisis.
Berlant’s poetics of repetition and rephrasing works on the reader by returning her to the central terms and objects of the book without letting them crystallize with any finality. We might think of the rhetorical, even phenomenological, work of Cruel Optimism as aligned with that of what Berlant calls the “new model of anarchist/DIY performativity” – the loose, viral strategies of the Seattle protests or the Occupy movement, for instance – which in deferring unity, agreement, and sound-bite agendas, “locates politics in a commitment to the present activity of the senses” and, in an even more delicious phrase,” ‘does’ politics to be in the political with others, in a becoming-democratic that involves sentience, focus, and a comic sense of the pleasure of coming together once again.” That lyric sense of the aesthetic possibilities of the horrible present threads through the book making it very hard to resist quoting the book at length, as I have here. We need a new word for the comedy engendered by that coming together, for the kinds of laughing – again, the pleasure – that happens when we join together in our shared distance from the everyday.
The best work in theory has always surprised me, not with the shock of the new but with the shock of re-encountering what I already knew but didn’t know that I understood. Here for me is the fundamental question of Cruel Optimism, its contribution to the shape of theory and the future of politics: how do we find ways to speak to the felt present, in such a way as to dispense with the idea of false consciousness – that is, to acknowledge the productive value of fantasy – and instead to deepen our understanding of how and what we know already. Is there any way to make these modes of apprehension more delicious, sweeter, more filling, in such a way as to open up the future? (Or do we need to make do with less pleasure, certainly less sweetness, less attachment to being full?) And will we do it in the time that the planet has left? And can we do it together? Cruel Optimism‘s proposal is that for now the present has to be enough, that attention to the displeasures of the now might produce something of an imaginative leap to new sensory regimes in which we find beauty in being attentive together.
How would that feel?