Cruel optimism is the provocative concept Lauren Berlant has given to a phenomenon endemic to the present political and affective moment: the holding up of hope as a means of stifling dissent, forestalling change, and ultimately rendering any array of longed-for outcomes, whatever they may be, unattainable.
The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” We are accustomed to longing for things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes or cake. The paradox Berlant has named is that what we seek eludes us precisely because the mechanisms by which we seek our objectives (whether personal happiness or political change) are irredeemably flawed in that they preclude the very outcomes that are desired.
Examples of cruel optimism abound, but nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than in the self-help books that promise health, wealth, and happiness just as long as the reader is willing to work at it, visualize it, believe it. Consider the typical American diet book that advocates a restricted caloric consumption that in turn alters the dieter’s metabolism, slowing calorie expenditure, thus rendering long-term, sustained weight reduction all but impossible. Or take the job seeker’s handbook, where networking advice reduces friends and families to “contacts” to be worked, attenuating the very sense of community that makes finding one’s work, and place in the world, possible. Or glance at a newsstand display of fashion magazines: one finds style guides that leave readers submerged in unattainable airbrushed perfection, their self-images sunk by the very vehicle that promised a “new you.”
WE&P by: EZorrilla.