Lauren Berlant


On her book Cruel Optimism

Cover Interview of June 04, 2012

In a nutshell

Cruel Optimismis a book about living within crisis, and about the destruction of our collective genres of what a “life” is; it is about dramas of adjustment to the pressures that wear people out in the everyday and the longue durée; it is about the blow of discovering that the world can no longer sustain one’s organizing fantasies of the good life.

I’ll focus here on three matters.  The first is the concept of cruel optimism (what’s optimism, what’s cruel about it).  The second is on a particular scene—the end of the postwar good life fantasy and the rise of neoliberalism in the U.S. and Europe—in which the consequences of cruel optimism are lived collectively.  The third is about the need for a realism that embeds trauma and suffering in the ordinary rather than in a space of exception, given that the crises of exhaustion and knowing how to live are problems saturating ordinary life.

I define “cruel optimism” as a kind of relation in which one depends on objects that block the very thriving that motivates our attachment in the first place.

All attachment is optimistic.  But what makes it cruel is different than what makes something merely disappointing. When your pen breaks, you don’t think, “This is the end of writing.”  But if a relation in which you’ve invested fantasies of your own coherence and potential breaks down, the world itself feels endangered.

A destructive love affair is my favorite example: if I leave you I am not only leaving you (which would be a good thing if your love destroys my confidence) but also I leaving an anchor for my optimism about life (which is why I want to stay with you even though I’m unhappy, because I am afraid of losing the scene of my fantasy itself).

So this double bind produces conflicts in how to proceed, because massive loss is inevitable if you stay or if you go.

Cruel Optimism asks: Why is it so hard to leave those forms of life that don’t work?  Why is it that, when precariousness is spread throughout the world, people fear giving up on the institutions that have worn out their confidence in living?

This is why I am interested in seeing optimism operate in all kinds of attachment: from intimacy and sexuality to things like voting, or the belief that capitalism is a meritocracy that rewards active competence.

In all of these scenes of “the good life,” the object that you thought would bring happiness becomes an object that deteriorates the conditions for happiness.  But its presence represents the possibility of happiness as such.  And so losing the bad object might be deemed worse than being destroyed by it.  That’s a relation of cruel optimism.