Academic journal article American Studies

Cruel Optimism

Academic journal article American Studies

Cruel Optimism

Article excerpt

CRUEL OPTIMISM. By Lauren Berlant. Durham: Duke University Press. 2011.

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant asks why workers stay attached to the fantasy of the good life when the costs of this illusion are unambiguous. Why, in short, is the bad life not repudiated by those it has so clearly failed? Berlant writes during a recession that she sees not as a temporary phase, but as the culmination of decades of class bifurcation, downward mobility and political, social, and environmental brittleness indicating the crisis of late capitalism. Yet so many workers in the West remain steadfastly attached to what she calls the "fantasy bribe" of the good life (7). What explains this "cruel optimism"?

After an unnecessarily difficult and jargon-laced introduction, Berlant provides a series of case studies to prove her thesis that many workers are cruelly optimistic for upward mobility, and this desire is an obstacle to their flourishing. In seven loosely connected and uneven chapters, the book is maddening, occasionally enlightening, and often plain confusing. Her insightful scrutiny of the culture of freelancing, for instance, deftly shows how some white-collar workers disdain the job security of their parents' generation. However, these free agents, who venerate individuality, then make unreciprocated demands on the state for a safety net without wanting to give up their flexible ways. As they age, though, they too find themselves participating in "zombie managerial enthusiasm" only for "the right to be associated with the shell of an institution" (221).

While Berlant puts a new twist on the Marxist theory of false consciousness (which, curiously, she never mentions), her choice to examine this phenomenon through bourgeois forms such as art-house cinema, obscure fiction, poetry, and aca- demic theory distances the author from her supposed subjects. …

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