Lauren Berlant


On her book Cruel Optimism

Cover Interview of June 04, 2012


Many people read my books to find a language for the affective dimensions of structural inequality: in Cruel Optimism this is performed as a crisis in optimism about the prospects of living on.

I am actually pretty lame at imagining a repaired world.  What I provide best are depictions of what makes people stuck in the face of the ordinary pulsations of a fraying crisis.  People have called the book the affective register of the 99%:  and I think there’s something to that, as I am looking for what Raymond Williams called the “structure of feeling” of the historical present that that moves across individual, collective, and political life.

So Cruel Optimism tracks the rise of a precarious public sphere.  It sees the world as in an impasse and a situation beyond the normative good life structures, where people have a hard time imagining a genre that makes sense of life while they’re in the middle of it.  I’m saying that intense personal emotions about the shape and fraying of life are also collective, and have to do with an economic crisis meeting up with a crisis in the reproduction of fantasy.  I talk about this as a waning of the “good life” genres.

These concepts matter to me because I want better objects for better optimism (there’s a slogan!).  But to achieve this we need to move our analyses of the historical present into the exploratory mode that crisis, regardless, forces us to occupy.  This is not a time for assurance but for experiment—to have patience with failure, with trying things out, to try new forms of life that also might not work—which doesn’t make them worse than what’s there now.  It is a time for using the impasse that we’re in to learn something about how to imagine better economies of intimacy and labor.

Capitalist crisis has tightened up the time of the world: all over, people are in sync in their sense of contingency and social fragility, even if they might have wildly different accounts of it.  Sometimes this recognition is unbearable and produces violence: because we know the change and the loss has already happened,and yet it is unbelievable and unbearable, while being borneCruel Optimism attempts to chronicle the dramas of adjustment—the dramas of consciousness and of mediated life—that force into being new recognitions of what a life is and ought to be.