Lauren Berlant


On her book Cruel Optimism

Cover Interview of June 05, 2012

The wide angle

My big question is: Why do people stay with lives, forms, and fantasies of life that don’t work?

How do we learn to associate certain things with our fantasies of the good life?  Shouldn’t there be more and better forms of life to attach to?  What makes so many people desperate to live conventionally rather than experimentally, when the prevailing norms generate so much noise and evidence of their failure to sustain life? How do conventional ideas of the good life get implanted in our viscera, and how do we go about enabling changes in our visceral understanding of our objects and our potential flourishing?

So I think of Cruel Optimism fundamentally as a book about affect and unconscious fantasies in relation to ideologies of the good life that were made available for optimism in the post-war economic bubble.  I am therefore interested in practices of democracy, labor, love and intimacy that sustain and diminish us at the same time.

A number of kinds of studying provide the context for this work.  I’ll focus on three here:  Marxist critical theory, queer theory, and critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition that, to explain personal and collective desire, uses resources from psychoanalysis, philosophy, and mass society theory and phenomenologies of embodied existence via feminism, trauma studies, etc.

Elliptically, then:  my training as an affect theorist really derived from Marxist critical theory, from Raymond Williams through Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson, especially: and then reading Frantz Fanon blew my mind.

Most people think of Marxism as antithetical to any sensitivity to affect, as a mode of analysis focusing on capitalist processes of value extraction and exploitation.  At the same time, though, Marxist thought has also provided a powerful account of fantasy:  of how our senses and intuitions are transformed in relation to property, to labor, to presumptions about being deserving, and to enjoying the world.

The theorists I responded to see art as a place that clarifies the subjective and visceral aspects of structural social relations.  We read artworks as a space where a variety of forces converge and become visible, including the fantasy resolutions we make to be able to live within contradiction. Fanon wrote about the ways bodies and minds under colonialism were “colonized”—broken and formed by having to find their ways in life amidst negating images and potentially defeating contradictions of power.

So I learned from the start to think that distinctions like public/private, impersonal/personal, structure/agency were false representations of how the world works.  Feminism’s “personal is political” helped too, to develop a way of thinking that sees power infusing our very gestures and fantasies, our attachments to others as well as to our labor and our connection to the world.

Queer theory was a crucial development in this process.  For those readers who are unfamiliar, queer theory is not a program for claiming that non-heterosexual identities are cooler, better, richer, or deserve special accommodations.

The point is double: to seek to open up understanding the relation between conventional patterns of desire and the way they are managed by norms, and to focus on patterns of attachment we hadn’t even yet known to notice, patterns in which sexuality and intimacy are enacted in a broad field of social relations that anchor us to life.  Being a friend, a regular, a neighbor, a part-time lover, an ex-lover, an intimate; being gender dysphoric, or just plain gay or straight—all of it is seen as an effect of many causes and a complex, intimate practice of world-building. Its theorists include Judith Butler, Michael Warner, Eve Sedgwick, Gayle Rubin, Jack Halberstam, Elspeth Probyn, Jose Muñoz, Jasbir Puar, and many others.

Another way to encapsulate this is that queer theory sees sexuality as a process rather than a foreclosing identity.  This meant that one constantly has to be attending to the action and development of one’s patterns of attachment.  What is this object of desire standing for?  A straight woman, for example, doesn’t want all men, just some:  so why not rethink sexuality as the history of a patterning or style that develops over time, in relation to law, norms, and the accidents and incidents of ordinary life?

I came to all this working interdisciplinarily: across fields from anthropology, European sociology, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and aesthetics; and also from feminist and queer activism.

All of this is background knowledge in Cruel Optimism: elaborating it is not its focus.