Lauren Berlant: The Subtle Art of Cruel Optimism

Intensely political seasons spawn reveries of a different immediacy. People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face. In these times, even politicians imagine occupying a post-public sphere public where they might just somehow make an unmediated transmission to the body politic.

– Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism

A filter, after all, separates out noise from communication and, in so doing, makes communication possible. Jacques Attali and Michel Serres have both argued that there is no communication without noise, as noise interferes from within any utterance, threatening its tractability. The performance of distortion that constitutes communication therefore demands discernment, or filtering. However steadfast one’s commitment to truth, there is no avoiding the noise.

The transmission of noise performs political attachment as a sustaining intimate relation, without which great dramas of betrayal are felt and staged. In The Ethical Soundscape, Charles Hirschkind talks about the role of “maieutic listening” in constructing the intimate political publics of Egypt. There, the feeling tones of the affective soundscape produce attachments to and investments in a sense of political and social mutuality that is performed in moments of collective audition. This process involves taking on listening together as itself an of desire. The attainment of that attunement produces a sense of shared worldness, apart from whatever aim or claim the listening public might later bring to a particular political world because of what they have heard.

– Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism

Public spheres are always affect worlds, worlds to which people are bound, when they are, by affective projections of a constantly negotiated common interestedness. But an intimate public is more specific. In an intimate public one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” An intimate public promises the sense of being held in its penumbra. You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral You might have been drawn to it because of a curiosity about something minor, unassociated with catastrophe, like knitting or collecting something, or having a certain kind of sexuality, only after which it became a community of support, offering tones of suffering, humor, and cheerleading. Perhaps an illness led to seeking out a community of survival tacticians. In either case, any person can contribute to an intimate public a personal story about not being defeated by what is overwhelming. More likely, though, participants take things in and sometimes circulate what they hear, captioning them with opinion or wonder. But they do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.1

This is why an intimate attachment to the political can amount to a relation of cruel optimism. She argues throughout this book that an optimistic attachment is cruel when the of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it: but its life-organizing status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes. It may be a relation of cruel optimism, when, despite an awareness that the normative political sphere appears as a shrunken, broken, or distant place of activity among elites, members of the body politic return periodically to its recommitment ceremonies and scenes. Voting is one thing; collective caring, listening, and scanning the airwaves, are others. All of these modes of orientation and having a feeling about it confirm our attachment to the system and thereby confirm the system and the legitimacy of the affects that make one feel bound to it, even if the manifest content of the binding has the negative force of cynicism or the dark attenuation of political depression.

She tells us that all politically performative acts of vocal negation are pedagogical, singular moments inflated to embody something generally awry in the social. But what kinds of things might it reveal about politics and the political to be driven to negate one’s own political voice? Silent protest can be a tactic for withering the reigning terms of fidelity to publicness. Refusing publicness itself can also be the same thing as starving the ideal of a general public, or detaching from a desire for the political as such. Alternatively, it can be the opposite, the reassertion of a commitment to civil society, but aimed at a different generality than imagined by the reigning terms. Silence, too, can protect antinomies. It can preserve a political on what goes without saying and therefore making a cynical, defeated, or aspirational bargain with normativity. When is public withdrawal a gesture seeking to sustain attachment and attain repair, and what does that have to do with trying to incite conscience in others, forcing them to experience effectively the political condition of being out of control in the middle of managing the world?(ibid.)

Performative silence is therefore not simply political speech that might as well be spoken. It is also really silence, by which I mean noise: that circulating, transpersonal, permeating, viscerally connective affective atmosphere that feels as though it has escaped “the filter” to indicate, for good or for ill, a sensorium for a potential social world now lived as collective affect, or a revitalized political one. My claim will be that contemporary instances of this aesthetic pattern partly point to modes of mainstream political power so corrupted as to defy optimism about political speech as such. They provide actively recessive commentary on the overdetermined conditions of the current transition, where basic presumptions about reciprocity are up in the air, clouding up the conditions of social intimacy. Questions of injustice meet crises of infrastructural health and belonging that striate emotional, political, economic, natural, and built environments. Noise interferes, makes interference. Interference made loud within political communication makes time for adjustment and counter-thought. The question to which the artists return repeatedly, in different ways, is how to turn the noise of attachment to the political into interference with the parts of it that have made politics as such seem to so many like a ridiculously bad object choice.(Kindle Locations 3103-3111)

1. Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism (Kindle Locations 3027-3036). Kindle Edition.Duke University Press Books (October 27, 2011)

6 thoughts on “Lauren Berlant: The Subtle Art of Cruel Optimism

  1. I was wondering if you could speak more to “discernment” in filtering out noise, which I think is especially important. Also “silence” too is an affective response (a prime candidate for my own response when negotiation isn’t warranted). Is discernment rational or affective? Good post. Quick quote, Emerson the best education isn’t instruction, it’s provocation.


    • I think silence and discernment could as well be thought of as epistemic or cognitive as well. In the legal sense two kinds of silence caused by testimonial injustice could be identified: that of pre-emptive testimonial injustice, where the prejudice against the speaker’s social type operates in advance to prevent their view even being solicited; and that particular kind of silence associated with forms of objectification — ‘silencing’. The wrong of testimonial injustice is further explored, exploiting certain cues from the work of Edward Craig to reveal it as a morally bad form of epistemic objectification. And, further, as an exclusion from the practice (that of pooling information) which dramatizes the very core of the concept of knowledge.

      Discernment in the sense of marking out, or making a cut, a suture between two things, view, etc. In this sense Hegel’s and Zizek’s notion of the parallax would be holding in view the discernment between two opposing events, etc. without letting go of either. I’m sure you could come up with other telling examples…


  2. Pingback: On experiencing myself as an unhealthy person | Self, Soul and Writer

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