In October, 2011, the literary scholar and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant published “Cruel Optimism,” a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed…We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author. But often what we feel instead is a sense of precariousness—a gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won’t give us control over the story, much less guarantee a happy ending. For all that, we keep on hoping, and that persuades us to keep on living…The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.”
…our Sisyphean pursuit of the good life has high stakes, and its amalgam of fantasy and futility is something that we process as experience before we rationalize it in thought. These feelings, Berlant says, are the “body’s response to the world, something you’re always catching up to.”…We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.” What stories do we tell ourselves in order to stay afloat?
“The Hundreds” (Duke), Berlant’s latest book, co-written with Kathleen Stewart, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, grows out of … short writing exercises. Each entry is an experiment in “following out the impact of things” in a hundred words, or a multiple of a hundred words…The result is a strange and captivating book.
In Berlant and Stewart’s hands, affect theory provides a way of understanding the sensations and resignations of the present, the normalized exhaustion that comes with life in the new economy. It is a way of framing uniquely modern questions: Where did the seeming surplus of emotionality that we see on the Internet come from, and what might it become? What new political feelings were being produced by the rudderless drift of life in the gig economy? What if millennials were unintelligible to their parents simply because they have resigned themselves to precariousness as life’s defining feature?
Berlant’s work can feel strangely and kindly optimistic…Maybe relinquishing or recalibrating our fantasies of the good life doesn’t lead to absolute darkness. It can simply be a matter of coming to grips with different possibilities of communion, figuring out who benefits from our collective weariness…But attentiveness to affect encourages us to imagine ourselves beyond the present: even if feelings of exhaustion, indifference, or disillusionment may have been naturalized, that doesn’t mean they’re natural…
“No one wants to be a bad or compromised kind of force in the world, but the latter is just inevitable,” Berlant once wrote in a short essay on her personal credos. “The question is how to develop ways to accentuate those contradictions, to interrupt their banality and to move them somewhere.” We can build worlds out of these small ambitions. We continue to write, even if it occasionally feels as though we were spinning our wheels, and we continue to live, even if it means giving up the certainty that our story is going to end the way we want it to. Writing on her blog a few years ago, Berlant issued what she described as her collective’s secret motto: “We refuse to be worn out.”
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