On Cruel Optimism

Teaching “Sex in Public” (1998) a few months ago while in the middle of reading Cruel Optimism, I was struck anew by the moment when Berlant and Warner confront Biddy Martin’s critique of an aversion to the ordinary in the queer theory of the early nineties.  Martin writes: “In some queer work, the very fact of attachment has been cast as only punitive and constraining because already socially constructed.  Radical anti-normativity throws a lot of babies out with a lot of bathwater.  An enormous fear of ordinariness or normalcy results in superficial accounts of the complex imbrication of sexuality with other aspects of social and psychic life, and in far too little attention to the dilemmas of the average people we also are” (“Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary” [1994]).
Berlant and Warner respond, “We think our friend Biddy might be referring to us, although in this segment she cites no one in particular.”  They proceed to clarify their stance in resisting the alignment of sex with privacy: “To be against the processes of normalization is not be afraid of ordinariness.  Nor is to advocate the ‘existence without limit’ [Martin] sees as produced by bad Foucauldians.  Nor is it to decide that sentimental identifications with family and children are waste or garbage, or make people into waste or garbage” (557).  An investment in norms of intimacy/reciprocity or in the idea of the normal, Berlant and Warner acknowledge, can be “an expression of a utopian desire for unconflicted personhood” or for social belonging, not just a succumbing to an oppressive ideology.  Yet as they go on firmly to argue, “This desire cannot be satisfied in the current conditions of privacy.  People feel the price they must pay for social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the heterosexual life narrative; that they are individually responsible for the rages, instabilities, ambivalences, and failures they experience in their intimate lives, while the fractures of the contemporary United States shame and sabotage them everywhere” (557).
 “Sex in Public” is a queer theory classic: fourteen years old and still contemporary. Cruel Optimism is an analysis of the contemporary informed by queer theory but whose relation to its discourse is also more aslant: while all seven chapters address the rise of an economic and political precarity that cuts across categories of social difference, only one addresses sexual practices or sexual counterpublics.  Yet, intensified by a further decade and a half of neoliberal assaults on “modernity’s secure institutions of intimacy and reciprocity” (222), the problem sketched out in “Sex and Public” — the political ambiguity of people’s attachment to normative fantasy, or the price they “must pay for social membership and a relation to the future” — returns to become the central problem of Cruel Optimism.  For this is a book explicitly concerned with what happens when normative fantasy itself — the promise of the good life tethered not only to the family but also to the state and to the liberal public sphere — begins slowly but quite visibly to erode in tandem with the destruction of the social institutions that once seemed to make it achievable, while nonetheless remaining an object from which people across social divisions cannot detach easily or without pain.  My point in tracing this aspect of Cruel Optimism back to the moment in “Sex in Public” is to hold it up as an example of how queer theory, still regarded by many as a minoritizing-only discourse whose “proper object” must be limited to sex and issues related to sexual object choice, can directly contribute to debates about the universalizing concept of “precarity” and whether it can actually fulfill its mission to “furnish a common cause for subjects arrayed across different industries, jurisdictions and digital divides” (as Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter put it).
Thus, while this is hardly Berlant’s first examination of the affective and political complexity of people’s attachments to convention (as mediated by and reflected in popular culture), in Cruel Optimism the problem assumes a new and especially urgent inflection.  This is in part because of its refraction through the lens of genres quite different from those featured in Berlant’s national sentimentality trilogy.  It is mainly because of the book’s noticeably intensified focus on contexts in which normality is aspirational rather than hegemonic and also because of its explicit engagement with precarity — a slogan whose universalizing ethos Cruel Optimism ends up sharing. This is the case even as Berlant, crucially, remains skeptical about whether the rise of an economic and political fragility that increasingly cuts across social and geographical boundaries in itself constitutes “proof” of the emergence of a new “globalized or mass-homogenous class” (196).  Is the concept or slogan of “precarity” strong enough (or weak enough) to organize contingent or flexible workers into a global political subject?  “That remains to be seen,” says Berlant.  But regardless of whether a global precariat can provide the foundation of a new radical politics, a rising social and economic insecurity undoubtedly exists, to which contemporary art and culture has also begun to register and respond.
Cruel Optimism suggests that when the institutional supports of a fantasy or attachment start to break down, slowly (for Berlant this emphasis on tempo is crucial), the genres that a culture uses to make sense of its present also undergo a similar diffusion, fraying, and unraveling.  These verbs are in many ways the key words of Cruel Optimism.  Diffusion, fraying, unraveling — slow processes of attrition or wearing-out or exhaustion — are not, for all their slowness and negativity, non-happenings; they are particular forms and not the antithesis of change.  But these non-event-like events do call for modes of narrative representation that are formally and aesthetically opposed to what Berlant calls the “genre of the dramatic event,” whether in the form of melodrama or tragedy.  Berlant is interested in “stuckness” or the impasse as a structural feature of the contemporary or present — one of the most important points in the book is that unlike the past or the future, the present is what is always affectively felt before it can be conceptually known — as well as in the non-sublime, non-dramatic affects and aesthetic forms that index that impasse.  More so than in previous works, the focus turns to slow violence (Rob Nixon) or what Berlant calls “crisis ordinariness” and its impact on existing forms of realism in particular.  Again, it seems significant that the genres previously at the center of Berlant’s work on the affects of social belonging — sentimental narrative and melodrama — are no longer the focus here.  The archive Cruel Optimism draws from is noticeably more expansive and heterogeneous, now encompassing avant-garde poetry, sound, and video art, though a kind of “numbed realism” still dominates the book as the main aesthetic form examined.
In his recent essay “The Official World” (2011), Mark Seltzer describes what he refers to as a “incrementalist turn across a range of recent literary and cultural studies”: a “turn toward the minor and the scaled-down (in professional fields — the humanities and the social sciences- that are institutionally doing the same). Hence, for example, with respect to the novel, there is a turn to the study of minor characters; with respect to affect, minor feelings; with respect to political forms, little resistances, infantile subjects, minute, therapeutic adjustments; with respect to perception, the decelerated gaze and a prolonged attentiveness; and so on” (727). Describing these works as “forms of one-downmanship — a turn from large events to small (non)events — [which] are reverse side of the one-upmanship of recent academic acclimatizations to globalization,” Seltzer suggests that the “incrementalist turn” might also be seen “in terms of what has recently been described as a sort of ‘epistemological therapeutics’ by which one parries a ‘given’ world, a world that is too much with us,” noting also that “the distinction between an alternative to the official world and an acclimatization or adjustment to it is a bit hard to locate” (though as he also says, not necessarily a point worth belaboring) [727].
I know my friend Mark is referring at least partly to me, since in this segment he cites Ugly Feelings as an example, along with Alex Woloch’s The One Versus the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, Anne-Lise François’s Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience, and Rei Terada’s Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno.  Seltzer also obliquely associates the critical trend he describes with his own recent work on microsociologist Erving Goffman and the “geometry of [the] smaller world” of social life to which Goffman famously attends.  His take on this trend is thus finally not unsympathetic: “There is good deal to be said for the opening to small moments of unaccountability and even perhaps for the uses of such an epistemological therapeutics — and the political minimalism that goes with it in this incrementalist turn. It is, for one thing, more attuned to the institutional situation of literary and cultural forms and their way of acting in the world than the maximalist claims of transnational and transchronological turns, which seem at times to assume the literalism of a direct political, or emancipatory, impact on the world or even past worlds” (728).
With its focus on the “hesitant and recessive affects” that underpin “crisis ordinariness,” isn’t Cruel Optimism also an example of the turn Seltzer describes?  On the basis of the very last characterization above, it seems fitting that it isn’t finally included in Seltzer’s list of exemplars (there is, unfortunately, no space here to talk about the other works he mentions).  For while Cruel Optimism does pointedly shift its focus to the noticeably recessive, scaled-down affects and forms that emerge in response to the “new crisis ordinary,” this gesture is clearly not one being made for the sake of disciplinary modesty or as a gesture of political retraction (“political minimalism”). It is rather an ambitious attempt to examine how subjects respond to continuing losses in an unambiguously political domain: the liberal-democratic state’s continuing breaking of its promises of job security, upward mobility, and political and social equality.  Scaled-down affects are the ones that best register this only seemingly paradoxical becoming-ordinary of social, political, and environmental crisis. Cruel Optimism‘s focus on the “minor” works founded on these “more ambient [and] diffused” feelings (228, 233) is also metapolitical, in a Rancièrean sense, insofar as the “buzzy tone” of these artworks reflects an effort to reject politics as it is predominantly defined, as a realm of easily discernable “actions” performed by “sovereign” subjects, or of action understood primarily on the basis of an autonomous account of subjectivity. Significant here is Berlant’s distinction between politics and the political, where the foundation of the latter is not antagonism-based action but belonging (252).  Or, perhaps, action or agency understood less in a “vertical” sense, but in a “lateral” kind of way.
Let me end by simply singling out some of the other things Cruel Optimism does that seem worth talking about further:
The way Berlant transforms a “merely” affective stance into an intellectual lever or tool.  This is simply the refusal to be contemptuous of people’s desire for the normal, even or especially as that desire complicatedly persists at a “postnormative” moment “in which fantasmatic clarities about the conditions for enduring collectivity, historical continuity, and infrastructural stability have melted away” (225).  Declining to “turn the objects of cruel optimism into bad and oppressive things” while also managing to maintain a space between non-contempt and her endorsement of these objects, Berlant is able to even more sharply articulate the conditions that make the normative fantasy increasingly visible as non-working (15). In this manner, Berlant shows how anti-contempt for the normal can be mobilized to continue and strengthen a queer project of critiquing normative fantasy rather than becoming an alibi for the perpetuation of normative fantasy. This is a great example of how one might “defetishiz[e] negation while remaining critical” (123). It also points to how radically a shift in affect can totally transform an argument.
The theoretical link between affect and the present (mentioned above). The present often seems “virtually ahistorical, fleeting, fantasmatic, or a space of symptomatic pseudoactivity” in part because affect is the critic’s primary key to reading it (66).  Berlant shows that this is the case because this is what the present is: exactly that which comes to us as a felt phenomenon rather than as a contoured event. “What’s personal, local, and sensual about the perception of the historical present often produces skepticism about its historical actuality and exemplarity” (64). Affect continues to produce an identical skepticism about its historical actuality and exemplarity, in spite of a longstanding tradition in Marxist thought of regarding the “feeling” or “tone” of a work of culture as the key to its historical meaning (Lukács, Williams, Anderson, Jameson); a tradition foregrounding “affect not as the sign of ahistoricism, but as the very material of historical embeddedness” (66).  What Berlant does is strengthen the theoretical connection between affect and the present.  Raymond Williams on structures of feeling as “social experiences in solution” also gets us very near the point, but I’ve never seen it put as strongly or clearly as Berlant does in this book.
The point about how recessive or ambient affects—as opposed to powerful, unambiguous, or cathartic ones — might be the best index of how subjects of the historical present register the presence of systemic or structural crisis in the ordinary.  What is structural is by definition enduring and therefore unlikely to be experienced as dramatic rupture or shock; certain affects or combinations of affects (“banality and shock” together, for example) are therefore better at capturing this historical reality — the becoming-structural of crisis — than others.
The point about how there is a distinction between a “structure of affect” (like trauma or optimism) and how one affectively responds to it (my response to trauma may not necessarily be a traumatized one; optimism may not feel optimistic, but rather melancholy, anxious, etc.).  This distinction is suggestively parallel or analogous to (if not quite the same thing as) the distinction between the tone of a text and the feelings it engenders in its readers/viewers.
If I had to isolate a single sentence from the book as the one that has preoccupied me most since reading it, it would be this question asked in “Slow Death”: “How do we think about labor and consumer-related subjectivities in the same moment, since, in my view, one cannot talk about the scandals of the appetite — along with food, there’s sex, smoking, self-medication — without talking about the temporality of the workday, the debt cycle, and consumer practice and fantasy?” This has proven to be a surprisingly difficult thing for left cultural criticism to do. Berlant is one of the few thinkers of our contemporary moment who seems able to maintain this stereo vision all the time.
Top image: “A Week’s Shopping” — crochet coral form made from plastic bags acquired on a trip to the supermarket during a single week in March 2008 by artists Margaret and Christine Wertheim.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 547-566.
Biddy Martin, “Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary.”  Differences 6.2-3 (1994): 101-25.
Mark Seltzer, “The Official World.” Critical Inquiry 37.4 (2011): 724-753.
Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, “Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception.” Theory, Culture & Society 25: 51-72.

sianne ngai