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On Lauren Berlant

I used to work with literary theory a lot more than I do now: my own trajectory and the disciplinary boundaries of Romantic Studies have led me away from it. However, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, the most exciting stuff happening in theory in recent years has tended to come from the sites of 'queer theory': e.g. late Butler, Halberstam and, above all, Lauren Berlant. So it was good to get down to Cruel Optimism. As with all these theory blogs, I'm coming at this from a decent level of expertise in deconstruction, phenomenology and bits of post-Marxism, but not necessarily for other schools: so all errors and misconstruals will hopefully be excused!

1. Temporality. Above all, Berlant is investigating a particular kind of contemporary present. Her scene is set, largely in the West, in a late capitalist epoch: post-globalisation, post 9/11, post-financial crash. The citizens of this moment are a precariat, subject to a 'neoliberal feedback loop, with its efficiency at distributing and shaping the experience of insecurity throughout the class structure and across the globe' (pp. 192-3).* Such insecurity is manifested in multiple ways, be it the falling away of old social-democratic pillars (welfare state, unions, pensions) or greater 'flexibility' in cultures and regimes of work/employment; and across multiple identities, be they the old working-classes, the management cadre, students, or the youth unemployed.

The present moment analysed, we might say, is characterised by a sense of permanent crisis, sited not in trauma but in ordinariness: 'crisis is not exceptional...but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what's the impasse induced by crisis, being treads water' (p. 10). The fact that ordinariness takes over from trauma signals the first of several alterations in the temporalities at stake. Throughout the study, several forms of dislocated temporality which are not the singular, stunning breach of trauma but unfold at different velocities become the key motifs. These include slowness (particularly in her analysis of the 'slow death' of the obesity epidemic); 'the long middle' (p. 63); impasse (unresolved, uncertain, 'a space of time lived without a narrative genre', p.199); and various forms of 'catching up' with one's own time. Above all, the need to negotiate the precarity of an ongoing present of 'crisis ordinariness' suggests temporalities of, as cited above, treading water, finding space, resting places, transits, circulating and circling.

2. Affect. How these temporalities (and their associated spatialities and motions) feel is very important to Berlant. The theoretical underpinnings of her debt to affect theory are most fully elaborated in the second chapter, 'Intuitionists'. Like all affect theorists, Berlant is interested in 'our visceral intuition about how to manage living' (p. 52): that is, how felt experience (the senses, proprioception, habits, rhythms, moods, fantasies, desires, attachments, gestures, as well as more structured and focused emotions) both register and respond to the political condition in which the subject finds themselves (in that sense Berlant claims that affect theory is a turn in the longer philosophy of ideology). And to some extent, the 'deeper' plane of affect is lent some privilege (explanatory? ethical? political?) over the more compromised plane of discourse: both I think, for philosophical reasons, but also because Berlant ascribes broadly to a biopolitical definition of power which accepts that intimacy is one of the most profound political sites. Affect will continually shape Berlant's analyses of survival, as well as the strategies of avant-garde aesthetic resistance (which I discuss below).

Three further things to note, which again become leitmotifs. Firstly, Berlant tends to think in terms of genre and narrativity, associated certain modes of affectivity with certain genres which become critical in the precarious present (e.g. the fate of realism, melodrama, the genre-less). Secondly, it is frequently the affective experience of subaltern subjects (in terms of race, sexuality, gender; as well as migrants, prisoners etc.) that is at stake: the contrast between the quasi-epiphanic structure of an John Ashbery lyric with a short story by African-American writer Charles R. Johnson is emblematic here (see chapter 1). Thirdly, the focus on intimacies and affect should not be taken to imply a valorisation of the 'personal': indeed, precisely the opposite. For me, one of the most interesting sections was the biographical prelude to chapter 4, from which I'll just cite a fragment here:
I salvaged my capacity to attach to persons by reconceiving of both their violence and their love as impersonal. This isn't about me....Selves seemed like ruthless personalizers. In contrast, to think of the world as organized around the impersonality of the structures and practices that conventionalize desire, intimacy, and even one's own personhood was to realize how uninevitable the experience of being personal, of having personality is (p.125).
3. Survival. Cruel Optimism is dominated by the sense that the best we can hope for is to survive - to live through, to cope with - the precarious political present. Such living through is, however, complicated by the double-bind of the book's title: cruel optimism itself. In the present, Berlant argues, the old fantasies of the 'good life' are fading. These includes fantasies of stable and lasting romantic relationships; narratives of work, value and progress; ideas of the family; ideals embedded in the public sphere and its liberal institutions; various forms of subject-hood; and so forth. In the last instance (the subject of the final chapter), the political itself (as a site in which we act towards human flourishing) is an object-attachment of 'cruel optimism'. Nevertheless, we continue to hold on to these fantasies of the good life (perhaps simply because no alternative has yet become visible) as objects even if holding on to them actually damages us. This is the cruelty of the paradox: our attachment to certain notions of flourishing can depress us; our attachment to the 'good life' can become tragically attritional.

However, it is not as simple as saying 'well, let's abandon these fantasies'. The key thing - and the subject of the study's central chapters - is that although the attachments of cruel optimism may damage us, they are also some of our only resources to cope. We are stuck in a kind of feedback loop: negative but necessary. Berlant is interested in the way that fantasies of human flourishing and the good life continue to be integral to the way people live out their lives and cope with 'crisis ordinariness'. Moving through the chapters 3-6, these include:

  • the uses of eating and food to cope with the speed and demand of capitalist life
  • the cultivation of habits (as pure form, pure repetition, almost regardless of content) and controlled/limited 'discomposure' as a way of creating structures to protect the self from contingency and chaos
  • continued faith in forms of care, family and romance that become mingled with anger and rage but nonetheless create 'tiny folds of moral peace' (p. 189).
  • continued if hopeless binding to the forms of belonging which are supposedly still embedded in state, work and corporation    
Across the book, then, Berlant traces a 'minor' archive of 'deflation, distraction, and aleatory wavering' (pp.259-60) - an archive of treading water, traversing a present of precarity, living on/surviving. Is there anything further? As already mentioned, Berlant generally positions our adherence to (classical?) politics as itself a form of cruel optimism, alluring but destructive. The final chapter concludes by turning to avant-garde art of various stripes, which still exists within this 'deflationary/depressed' contemporary moment, but maybe hold out some hope of 'magnetizing' (a trope of this final chapter) people around a new future: one which could open out on to unimagined solidarity perhaps, or at least not reproduce the full severity of each passing 'present' of the contemporary.

These include comic subversion (holding up Dylanesque sign boards in front of CCTV cameras) and the creation of an emotional archive (interviewing activists, isolating their 'affective' statements, and turning it into a sound collage). But perhaps the most powerful aesthetic that Berlant credits is that of video art that silently observes: 'flat screen, flat affect' (p. 254), on the edges of the political or 'juxta-political' but crucially quiet. In the quietness (associated with the tradition of silent protest), there is a conspicuous withdrawal from, or negation of, political speech, but also (in the quietness) the articulation of subpolitical 'noise':
that circulating, transpersonal, permeating, viscerally connective affective atmosphere that feels as those it has escaped "the filter" to indicate, for good or for ill, a sensorium for a potential social world now lived as collective affect, or a revitalised political one (p. 231).
From my deconstructive background, this seems like an attempt at 'arche-politics' or 'politics without politics' (although I think Berlant might herself resist these terms). At any rate, as is explicit, we are back to affect. As throughout the study, then, affect (senses, bodies, attachments, gestures, noises) is the most profound element through which to define and maybe untie the political present: the site of our deepest binding to power structures, perhaps also the site through which we may re-imagine them, certainly the site where, day by day, we invent ways of living on within them.

* Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011)

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