Cruel Optimism

Lately, I’ve been stuck in my dissertation/career writing. I’m working on finishing an article, but progress has been slow going, and I feel like I’ve been slogging away at it forever. I’ve also been stuck in my preparation for my second chapter, which is on Julie Doucet’s My Most Secret Desire. It’s an important chapter, partially because I need it to be able to frame my work as about “North American,” rather than “American” texts. Yesterday, I think I finally hit on some of my trouble: in my outline, I basically say “I’m going to read this text as a representation of abjection and trauma.” Spoiler: after two years of thinking and reading, I don’t really think I want to read the text through the lens of trauma.


This is where Berlant’s work is helpful to me, as Berlant’s Cruel Optimism is about thinking through something beyond trauma. Rather than focusing in on texts that respond to interruptions (traumas), Berlant focuses on the persistence, in text and in life, of attachments known to “actively impede the aim that brough you to it initially,” or that prevent you from flourishing. Though she avoids casting blame in any direction, she does suggest that neoliberalism is one factor that aids in the production of relations that make cruel optimism more proable for some subjects, which is something that I’m really interested in (this is an interest that I discovered while writing my first chapter).


The usefulness of pairing these texts is twofold: she provides me with a framework to begin writing through, and my project thinks through cruel optimism in a Canadian context (Berlant focuses only on America and Europe). In any case, my half-baked notes after the cut.


*Cruel Optimism: “a relation of attachment to comprimised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” …” the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24).

*Apostrophe: an indirection, an exchange in which a “you” is imagined (close enough to be real, but nonetheless distance, or perhaps imaginary- an unborn fetus, a lover), is held out as possible, but also held away from the subject. Something like an imagined fight or discussion with a lover. Allows the subject “to stabilize her proximity to the scene/object” (25).

*”Technologies of patience”- “enable a concept of later to suspend questions of the cruelty of now” (28).


Section 1 (the promise of the object) looks at a poem that takes up the emptiness of suburban American life. Berlant’s reading suggests that the narrator clings (in boredom, frustration, because she knows nothing else) to the promise of the suburban, leisurely life, even as she details the lack that it represents. The promise itself is orienting. Section 2 (the promise of exchange value) looks at a short story about two impoverished African American brothers from inter-city Chicago who come into a massive fortune, but are paralyzed by it. They opt to hoard, rather than spend the money, reflecting the catch-22 that defines capitalism: the power to purchase is lost as soon as one purchases. The story reflects the lack of space for certain subjects within a capitalist system, and Berlant meditates on the power of fantasy (one brother opts to live a passive life in which he gives in to fantastizing near constantly) in making (unattainable) space for those subjects to live.

Questions: 1.) Berlant’s project focuses on America and Europe. Are both of these spaces where “urban” is code for “racialized?” How, in either case, does an analysis of a Canadian text according to Berlant’s theories fit?

Cruel Optimism

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