Cruel Optimism as Bastardised Hope: An Afterthought from Years of Reading Lauren Berlant


By Atreyee Majumder

I heard of Lauren Berlant’s death on the anthropologist Dominic Boyer’s Twitterfeed. Death by tweet, I thought. Berlant would probably have theorized this sharply. The author of Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011) and the doyen of affect theory is no more. It takes a day to sink in. Twitter pours in its tributes and condolences. Many fragments from her books, especially Cruel Optimism, and her essays in Critical Inquiry float on my social media newsfeeds. This is what Berlant would have seen as a key symptom – one of excess emotion on the digital platform – and a trigger for diagnosis of the late capitalist condition. Berlant’s diagnosis of America’s routine peddling of optimism as a way of shaping its subjects, loyal to the peculiar American genre of possibility. She encapsulates this diagnosis in the phrase “never enough money, never enough love”, this condition that America lends to its subjects and aspirant-subjects almost as a disease.

I read Cruel Optimism vaguely when it was first published; I was in graduate school then. And then, I read it in greater detail, with a more careful eye, in 2016, as I wrote my own book. I found that Berlant’s diagnosis of ‘cruel optimism’ lay as a tragedy of triumph, located as it was in the heart of capital’s wins. America. Where else would citizen-subjects be routinely peddled with an oppressive optimism? Where else would citizen-subjects be forced to bathe in the bright lights of gain constantly, in the measure of money, in the measure of love? It is not so, if you turn off the bright lights of the heart of empire, thought I. In the back-alleys of waste and disgust, perhaps also in the abandoned factory shopfloors of America, optimism is not an easy pill to swallow. Persons living in these nooks and crannies where the bright lights do not reach, they develop an insistent cynicism, while watching the lives of others in the circle of bright lights from a ringside view. It is the ringside view of such cruel optimism that became the life-force behind my book. I argued with and against Berlant. I thought about Berlant and the nature of America’s routine peddling of helpless hope, while walking aimlessly the streets of Toronto, while daydreaming, and in my writing. I was too shy to write to the doyen of affect theory – Lauren Berlant. I watched them speak on YouTube videos. I sensed their kindness and warmth in social media traces, they were friends with some of my friends on FB. I read their comments – frank and forthright – sometimes, on these threads. I felt like Berlant was a friend. More like, the book Cruel Optimism was a friend.

Hope is an important resource for survival at the margins of capital, we learn from Ernst Bloch, the philosopher of hope. Cruel Optimism (of the American kind) is a sweet pill, we learn from Berlant, that is administered to us as ideological training. Here, Optimism becomes the pivot of subjectivity that is driven to unthinkable levels of productivity, loyalty to the ideology of gain, both at the level of the self and the nation-state. Cruel Optimism in many ways is theoretical bastardisation of its pristine antecedent – Hope. The desirable assurance of hope turned into an unbearable bright light, with no shadow in sight. And its participants are told to dance to its macabre rhythms. This dance is a mad celebration of being included into the discotheque of late capitalism, not knowing why one craves this inclusion, not knowing how one can get out, and dancing and perspiring relentlessly all the while. Berlant gives eloquent language to this madness of the late capitalist condition. Where factory shopfloors are abandoned. Capital takes the form of fictional stock-market numbers of financial speculation. Post-Fordism ensures that there is coffee on one’s table from a faraway country, but one won’t call it imperialism. I want to spend my last paragraph in this tribute, dwelling on a book that had become a key interlocutor for my intellectual journey, a key argumentative opponent, and a friend.

I did not know Lauren Berlant, I have never met them or had any correspondence with them. But their writing and her provocations gave me the audacity to disagree with them. I slowly wove an argument, initially with apology, and later with some confidence, that not all subjects across the world are susceptible to the Cruel Optimism that Berlant was unpacking. It was not only a ‘things happen differently in the postcolony’ kind of disagreement, which postcolonial scholars, myself included are routinely wont to make. It was an argument that made me think the world with the tools Berlant had given me, while they themselves worked with America. In the end, I feel Lauren Berlant’s death left me feeling not only sadness but the considerable weight of the book Cruel Optimism that not only provoked readers to think about America, but gave the reader an unthinkable audacity. And for that, I am thankful to Lauren Berlant.

Atreyee Majumder 
is an anthropologist. She teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.


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