Cruel Optimism

Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant 

  • object of desire = cluster of promises -> a person, a thing, a situation, a norm, an institution, a text
  • all attachments are optimistic -> not all feel optimistic: one might dread returning to a scene of hunger or longing or the slapstick reiteration of a lover or parent’s typical misrecognition – the surrender to the return to the scene where the object hovers in its potentialities is the operation of optimism as an affective form.
  • “cruel optimism”= a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility
  • cruel – the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object or scene of desire, even though it’s presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment, the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and look forward to being in the world.

  • cruel optimism -> something as banal as a scouring love, obsessive appetites, patriotism, a career;
  • “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion” – Barbara Johnson
  • Johnsonian projection is about the often ruthless optimism in attachment and is often itself optimistic about transferential openness that rhetorical forms of suspended intersubjectivity demand from the reader.
  • Berlant – my assumption is that the conditions of ordinary life in the contemporary world, even of relative wealth as in the U.S., are conditions of the attribution of the wearing out of the subject and that the irony – that the labour of reproducing life in the contemporary world is also the activity of being worn out by it – has specific implications of thinking about the ordinariness of suffering, the violence of normativity, and the “technologies of patience” or lag that keep these processes in place.

The Promise of Object – untitled poem by John Ashbery

  • “We” live with a sense of looking forward to something, but not too much, composing ourselves patiently toward fulfilling the promise of living a version of the good life that Zizek might call decaffeinated (“Passion”).

The Promise of Exchange Value –  Exchange Value, Charles Johnson

  • if riches change history, they also make it possible for history to be something other than a zone of barely or badly imagined possibility.
  • exchange value is not identical to the price of things, but marks a determination of what else a thin can get exchanged for, as though money were not involved, exactly, in the mediations. Your coat for a piano. Your money for your life.
  • the scene of shocking wealth changes the terms of the meaning of life, of the reprouction of life, and of exchange itself.
  • “As long as you buy something you lose the power to buy something”
  • “Exchange Value” demonstrates the proximity of bearing the history of a racial disinheritance from the norms of white supremacy, you work yourself to death or coast to nonexistence; or with the ballast of capital, you hoard against death, deferring life, until you die

The Promise of being Taught –  Was, Geoff Ryaman 

  • this essay focuses on artworks that explicitly remediate singularities into cases of nonuniversal but general abstraction, providing narrative scenarios of their attachment to being x and having x, given that their attachments were promises and not possessions after all.
  • 3 stories – all of the stories are about the cruelty of optimism for people without control over the material conditions of their lives and whose relation to fantasy is all that protects them from being destroyed by other people and the nation.
  • for Dorothy Gael, in Was, the optimism of attachment to another living being is itself the cruelest slap of all


The Personal is still Political: Heterosexuality, Feminism and Monogamy, Stevi Jackon and Sue Scott

  • The feminist critique of monogamy was initially closely related to the critique of marriage. In western societies monogamy was central to the marriage contract although, as feminists recognized, this had always been more binding on women than on men. Depending on one’s political point of view marriage was seen variously as a patriarchal institution that granted men rights to the sexual, reproductive and domestic services of a wife, and a bourgeois institution founded on a hypocritical morality and the protection of ruling class men’s property and inheritance rights.
  • feminists generally agreed that the privatized monogamous couple and nuclear family diverted attention away from wider political issues and struggles and broader social relationships. This is why the critique of monogamy was never concerned only with sexual exclusivity, but with the institutionalization of coupledom and the presumed ‘ownership’ of another individual
  • Lee Comer: . . . monogamy has come to be the definition of love, the yardstick by which we measure the rest of our emotions . . .
  • Most acknowledged, then, that feelings of jealousy and insecurity ‘could not be wished away through political analysis’ (Cartledge,1983: 173). Our own experience however, is that these feelings are not automatic consequences of non-monogamy itself, but are related to one’s positioning within non-monogamous relations and to the ways in which non-monogamy is practised. The first instance we can demonstrate by the one situation in which neither of us has ever felt jealous or insecure as a result of sharing a lover with another – entering into a relationship with someone who already has another relationship. Even when a lover has been deeply committed to their existing relationship(s), and even when we have been absolutely besotted with him, jealousy simply hasn’t happened. Why? Because the pre-existing relationship was a known quantity, part of the parameters of the new relationships we were entering into; it represented no threat; we had nothing to lose. So jealousy, for us, is not about unwillingness to share a sexual partner – it is about feeling threatened with loss.
  • The centrality of monogamous sexual-romantic relationships not only encourages us to de-prioritize our friendships, but also structures how we socialize with friends. Couples tend to socialize with other couples and the dominant ideals of ‘togetherness’ lead to the assumption that friends should be friends of the couple, not of one or other of the partners.
  • y, why should monogamy be equated with security? We talk a great deal about the importance of trust in relationships, but if everything important is circumscribed then there is no need for trust. Trust is necessary in a context of risk. Forbidding something and then ‘trusting’ someone not to break the rules somehow misses the point. In a social climate where serial monogamy prevails, promising monogamy and assuming that the relationship will end if the promise is broken surely creates conditions for the ultimate insecurity.


Why We Don’t Celebrate Friendship With the Same Fervor as Love, Eva Illouz 

  • Friendship is free of the indignities, suffering and drama that characterize romantic love; it doesn’t have an expiration date; we rarely suspect it to be a figment of our imagination. But love is what fuels our economy.
  • Anyone with eyes in his head can see that the road to romantic love is paved with an unfathomable amount of indignities: disappointing first dates; empty and demeaning one-night stands; broken promises, unenthusiastic commitments; princes turned into angry frogs; shared lives that end in lies and betrayal. Worse than these indignities are the shared lives that never end at all, and keep on staging their own tired exhaustion and powerless rage.
  • If in love and friendship we make the same promise – to cling to someone else forever – friendship is usually the one that fulfills it.
  • The essence of friendship, however, is far more mysterious: It radiates from the center of the self rather than from the narrow impulse to possess another person sexually.
  • While we almost always recognize the feeling of falling in love, it can take us quite a long time to realize we have found a friend in someone. Friendship, then, has no dramatic, foundational beginning, nor does it entail clear social ritual or “rules of engagement” (as courtship does), nor the urgency of love. It goes along with the movements and flow of our life, and lacks the dramatic, theatrical trappings of love.
  • Friendship, does not invent or hallucinate over its object, because it is not caused by the heat and inflammation of our desire. It derives from seeing and knowing the soul of another, as it is.
  • We often desire someone sexually who is far, unable to see or understand who we are. Love is therefore arbitrary, almost accidental. But friendship feels necessary, because it happens between two people who see and know each other, who share a deep understanding of the world, thus making the attraction of their souls feel inevitable.
  • Love is democratic – good and bad people can feel it (almost everyone has felt love in their lives). But real friendship is aristocratic: It is the feeling of those who can keep their promises (the ethos of the aristocrat is of keeping one’s word)
  • To take a wife is a social and religious imperative. Love and marriage belong to the biological realm of reproduction, to the economic need to increase wealth. Only friendship is located in the realm of freedom, and does not obey the logic of biological reproduction, or bow to the pressure to accumulate wealth, or of social norms.
  • Friendship, in contrast, does not make us suffer. We have few artistic portraits of possessiveness and jealousy in friendship, because friendship is not about the possession of another, in soul and body. Friendship is a feeling experienced in freedom.
  • All of these components of sexual-romantic encounters are a central, essential axis of consumer culture. Take love and sex out of our culture, and the economy collapses, wiping out in a second the fashion-cosmetics industry, the leisure industry, the tourist industry, the cosmetic-surgery industry, the entertainment industry, the pornography and sex industry, the sex-marriage-intimacy advice-therapy industry – and last but not least, the multi-million-dollar Valentine’s Day industry, which has become an international consumer day. Love is the invisible oil that endlessly fuels the engines of the consumer market.

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