Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago and for the past three decades has generated a trailblazing body of scholarship on issues of intimacy and affective belonging in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship. Her work includes a ‘national sentimentality trilogy’, including The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1993) and The Female Complaint (2008), as well as the award-winning Cruel Optimism (2011), and (with Lee Edelman) Sex, or the Unbearable (2014). She blogs on these topics, among others, at Supervalent Thought. She spoke to Maria Dimitrova about the political dimensions of cruel optimism, or the relation in which “one depends on objects that block the very thriving that motivates our attachment in the first place”, and why it is so hard to detach from forms of life that don't work.
Maria Dimitrova How did you first come up with the concept of “cruel optimism”?
Lauren Berlant I had been thinking about how many films of the historical present I’d seen and books I’d read in which the major dramatic event was negative. That is to say it was about people giving up on a dream or on their sense of what a life is, and experiencing that relinquishment as devastating, even though they hadn’t been happy in the space of dreaming either. Because the space of dreaming is such an anxious space, one where you experience how little you control the conditions of your life and how much you need other humans to move through the world. It can be incredibly rich, but also a space of misery--especially if you have a desire for a heroic event or powerful experience, as of love, to change everything, to revolutionize your existence and yet make you and things simple. What I kept seeing in European film especially, and later in American film, was a sense that the thing people had wanted had actually poisoned them and their prospects, but that it wasn’t so easy to give up that thing. And it interested me as feminist and a queer and a socialist too, why it was that people stayed attached to lives that made them more grim than happy. It was in that space that I thought, I’m always on the side of people’s optimism: but ideologies of the good life, like classic novelistic narrative and Hollywood film, train you to be on the side of people wanting their objects, even if they are inadequate or ridiculous objects. To be on the side of their desire also often means being on the side of a form of harm and exposure that they are attached to, and that seemed wrong to me. That is a political problem and, it seems to me that at some level, it is the political problem.
MD While it seems to be rooted in American and European cultural and political history, what would you say is the concept’s scope?
LB The cases that the book uses converge around the economic crisis of 2008, but really stretch across the 1990s through the present, and the claim that organizes the evidence of the book is that neoliberalism, the strategic subtraction of the value of publicness itself from the world, the privatization of everything on behalf of capital, tightened up the variety of the world into a refracted affective resonance. I’m not claiming that a relation of cruel optimism only derives from such a structural crisis, but rather that the problem of reshaping life within the ongoing present gives us access to the problem of being in the kind of double bind that a cruel-optimistic relation entails, which is not necessarily attached to the problem of reproducing the “good life” fantasy. The political and affective economy that the book engages is global but varies according to locale in the shapes that it takes. But 20 years after the collapse of capitalism we could still be talking about how people are throwing their lot in with other political and social imaginaries that we think have great costs, which wouldn’t necessarily be capitalist imaginaries but, for example, xenophobic or fascist ones. It doesn’t require capitalism to be the site of the good-life fantasy for wrenchingly mixed objects to structure people’s imaginaries.
MD You have also talked about the waning of older forms of realism as inadequate for articulating our contemporary situation and the necessity of creating new genres. What would some of these new genres be?
LB I don’t think that genres are going to solve the problem of how to live, but I’m writing a book right now on the aesthetics of recessive action (in life and art), and what emerges there is of interest. In this style universe, what we see as the event has diffused and what constitutes the scene is more palpable than what constitutes the event. Much contemporary cinema and literature takes up this orientation toward wandering and wondering now, like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be or Tao Lin’s work, or the standup of Hannibal Burress--all of which some people would think of as apolitical but I disagree: a shifting relation to the encounter within the social (with persons and structures) emerges when what constitutes an event changes from the melodramatic mode. The problem of distinguishing tragedy from comedy does too, not unrelatedly. Others who could be included in an archive of recessive action, which kind of starts with Stein, Warhol, Buster Keaton and Jackson Pollock, would be people like Ramin Bahrani who made Man Push Cart, Abbas Kiarostami, Kevin Smith, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater; people who imagine that the problem of relation is not only individual, but is also structural and about labour and art and the potential atmosphere. There is a kind of scene of underperformance or recession where the question of rebooting the dynamics of the world is raised in very diffused terms. I think what makes The Broad City, Louis C.K. or Dennis Leary comic is particularly this excruciating interest in how you live on when you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s extended, distended slapstick but without recovery right away.
MD Public discourse, for example, especially when it comes to politics, is conditioned by optimism and the necessity to offer a vision of progress or repair, which only widens the gap between what our lives are meant to be and what they are. How is that reconcilable?
LB I had to deal with that question for many years in a slightly different form, which is: is it possible to have politics without sentimentality? My first three books were about national sentimentality and how we’ve been trained to attach all sorts of hopes for continuity and life-building onto kinds of love that bind people to each other and to the nation. I’ve never been against sentimentality – I don’t think you could have mass politics without its promise of emotional resonance, and you have to make people want something that they would be willing to imagine change for, since change includes loss. That’s what Obama’s promise was. He was very clear that he was going to be passive and conservative. He wanted to be fought over and pushed to be courageous. He thought that struggle would remind people that they're in it together. So he unleashed this huge wave of optimism about the political, which was a good thing in the sense that more people are excited about self-organization, and less willing to delegate the political to the oligarchs and the conventional hegemons, and at the same time produced much more active fragmentation within the social. So I’m not interested in moving beyond optimism but what I always say is, what I want are better objects to project onto. What I always wanted to say to Obama was – if you’re going to lose anyway to Republican obstructionism, lose magnificently, fail big, stand up for things that really matter because that creates the precedent for vision within the political. The fear of losing beautifully made him conservative, valuing security over peace and capital over a healthy lifeworld – and that's been a terrible thing.
MD Do you feel that cities offer a space for such infrastructures, considering that the rise of urban populations is often parallel to spiralling inequality?
LB Cruel Optimism argues for a new phase of thinking about everyday life theory. Originally its great theorists, Lefebvre, de Certeau, and Simmel, focused on the first wave of people moving into cities in the early and mid 20th century. Now the vast majority of global subjects are born in cities or in proximity to them, so the focus on shock and trauma in everyday life doesn’t feel adequate. The ordinary is a space of over-closeness and the logic of the affective, physical and environmental problem of the world's over-closeness is telegraphed in the city every day. Different cities have different ways of dealing with class inequality: Californian cities and London and Singapore, for example, are barely accessible to proletarians, although in London public housing is in every neighbourhood. (Chicago is one of the few great places you can live in while poor, for the time being.) This means that cities are places for the wealthy to play (as well as tourist destinations where visitors play at being wealthy), and at the same time they’re places where, because of that over-closeness, people who live and work there can figure out how to be resources for each other, while maintaining some autonomy. That latter part matters: amid overcrowding and over-closeness, there is also a lot of anonymity that's both freeing and lonely. So the big political questions involve how people make spaces where they matter, and what does it mean to matter? Can you only matter as a subordinate to other people, or as kin, or are there other kinds of sustaining relation that people can contrive? Nigel Thrift has characterized cities as founts of “light-touch intimacy.” In a similar vein, Samuel R. Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue insists on the importance for mental and affective health of inter-class contact in the city street. And so the political question of what David Harvey calls the right to the city is how much apartheid do the rich get to enforce on the zoning of the city; how much of the public budget must they enjoy. I feel very strongly that zoning is a problem that affects everybody. Gentrification is one way of putting it but there are all kinds of zoning, formal and informal. A city is as a laboratory for inventing life, for being a regular who's known in all different ways, an infrastructure for showing up and being welcomed in the everyday. Everyone needs that. §