Lauren Berlant


On her book Cruel Optimism

Cover Interview of June 04, 2012

A close-up

Sometimes a book like mine makes people feel that, if they don’t know the films or novels or cases written about, they can’t read a given chapter or judge its claims.

This is a theoretical book, but it floats its ideas by way of processes that are everywhere around us—processes of dependency, labor, fantasy, and intimacy—and then it uses political and aesthetic cases to exemplify their impacts.

I hope my storytelling is good enough that you can imagine the scene or situation that compels thought: often people read my work slowly and dreamily and puzzle over things.

I aim for the scene I’m describing to open up a question for you.  If the questions become more vital and interesting in the reading, then I’ve done my job.  If readers then encounter these questions in the world, they might have a different way to think and act in relation to them.

Changing the dynamic within relation might actually change things significantly, that’s my hope about the impact of a way of seeing world-building.  We live in an emotionally charged time:  seeing how the work of relational emotion shapes our very sinews might clarify a lot about what’s going on, what’s stuck, and what’s possible.

One example of the book’s challenge is its discussion of “normativity.”  Some people think of norms and conventions as the unfair discipline of free people’s desires or as unimaginative clichés.  Often norms are, and often conventions reduce complexity to simplicity.  At the same time, though, norms and conventions are not maps toward an easy way of life:  they’re aspirational anchors: especially for so many people whose tethers to the world are loose or unreliable.

Plus, the book argues that objects of desire are placeholders for a desire to more-than-survive.  Being hooked to a norm or a convention is also an attempt to maintain a stable enough orientation so that life might be moved through flourishingly.  See pp. 166-169, for example, the Rosetta chapter, although the whole chapter is about this, as are many others.

How to interrupt one’s reliance on toxic norms?  The Two Girls, Fat and Thin chapter and the Intuitionists chapter engage how habits are formed and relied on and interrupted (through food, through conversation, through cruising, and so on).

Another thing I learned from the book is to think about optimism as noisy and often unbearable.  The intro, the title chapter, and the final chapter on “Desire for the Political” are about art and political techniques of bearing optimism, and also about the racial, sexual, and economic distribution of affects of belonging.

For people not so art-inclined, the “Slow Death” chapter works through the obesity epidemic in terms of sovereignty and responsibility.  How much does the pressure of contemporary capitalist working life put pressure on the small pleasures to sustain our survival?  What is the relation between physical health and mental health in the process of moving through life?