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Cruel Optimism


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Lauren Berlant explores individual and collective affective responses to the unraveling of the U.S. and European economies by analzying mass media, literature, television, film, and video

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction. Affect in the Present 1
1. Cruel Optimism 23
2. Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event 51
3. Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency) 95
4. Two Girls, Fat and Thin 121
5. Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promese and Rosetta 161
6. After the Good Life, an Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and the Precrious Present 191
7. On the Desire for the Political 223
Note on the Cover Image: If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age 265
Notes 269
Bibliography 303
Index 327

About the Author

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. She the editor of the books Intimacy; Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion; and (with Lisa Duggan) Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest.


"While Cruel Optimism presumes an academic audience versed in critical theory and philosophy, it contains many crucial points of consideration for the entire LGBT community. Thirty years ago, the thought of marriage, adoption, and serving openly in the military was the dream of the boldest of optimistic LGBT activists." Chase Dimock, Lambda Literary, July 30th 2012 "This brilliant book will be much read, much loved, and much cited. Lauren Berlant is widely regarded as one of the most important and original critics of contemporary cultural logics. Here she offers a genuinely new angle on familiar processes through her subtle yet forceful reading of Cruel Optimism, the psychic and structural dynamics that keep people proximate to objects, fantasies, and worlds that seem to diminish them." Sara Ahmed, Goldsmiths', University of London and author of The Promise of Happiness and On Being Included "Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant's brilliant new book, lays bare the price of our habitual ways of thinking about subjectivity, temporality, affect, attachment, and political investment. Exploring the condition of precarity that mocks the good life (or at least the better life) that hard work and good behavior are supposed to make possible within liberal democracy, Cruel Optimism's bold analyses of the impasse of the present and its unflinching determination to follow a thought to its necessary end make clear why this is a crucial, indeed a necessary, book at this moment--and also why it will inform our critical discourse for years to come."--Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive "Lauren Berlant elegantly weaves together readings of contemporary art, literature, and film to reveal how our persistent aspirations for the good life are continually thwarted. Reading this book is an exciting theoretical experience but it also has a very practical, immediate, everyday quality. Berlant gives us something like a how-to guide for living in the impasse, that is, the affective and political conditions of our present."--Michael Hardt, co-author of Commonwealth "Berlant is an astute articulator of the forms at use in the work of speculative theory such as affective structures. In particular she makes explicit the importance of thinking through genre in exposing fantasies of the normative life... One of the most rewarding aspects of Berlant's work and of Cruel Optimism in particular is the sheer transformative force within the field of the political that the analysis of chosen texts offers." Alex Lockwood, Culture Machine, September 2012 "Lauren Berlant is not shitting on you or your dream. OK, yes, her latest book is called Cruel Optimism... Yes, the University of Chicago professor will break down everything you hold dear: food, love, politics, family, virtuous New Year's resolutions. And yes, within a few pages, there's that creeping sensation that, whatever makes you tick, it's got you on the fast track to ruin and disappointment... Nevertheless ... Cruel Optimism is less brutal analysis than a dark, lush still-life of American fantasies and our Quixotic lunges toward them. An affective portrait of the 99%."--Caitlin Hu, Bitch "If you are looking for some new language to use to describe the current crisis of hope, read Cruel Optimism... It is a wild, deeply witty examination of our attachments to food, love, politics, family, and pop culture." - Kate Clinton, The Progresssive "Berlant's writing can be quite stunning, specifically her immediate rephrasing of somewhat dense ideology critique, affect theory, and theories of the event in surprisingly plain language... Berlant's attention to forms of "lateral agency" that challenge notions of will and sovereignty shed new light on [the] media genres of everyday life in the impasse."--Nicholas de Villiers, Cultural Critique "The reader of her book is enabled to reach salutary resolutions about living in the 'One-Third World' where the goodies accumulate. Reading the book helped me to stop smoking." --Simone Roberts, Common Knowledge [Reviewed with Sara Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness] "These books are profoundly important contributions advancing the still-new and in some ways still-tentative field of affect theory. They open up two distinct but interrelated methodological templates for thinking through issues of globalization, race, gender and sexuality, media, philosophy, and religion: the thematics of frustration and of addiction in the moving affectsphere of the political. What both Ahmed and Berlant demonstrate is that affect theory offers a crucial set of resources for thinking through the relationship between bodies and discourses. The enterprise of thinking politics, of mapping the enfolding of bodies by power, cannot move forward without affect."--Donovan Schaefer, Theory & Event "Cruel Optimism is a must read for any scholar interested in exploring the affective dimensions of precarity... Cruel Optimism does precisely what Berlant's work always does - it changes the conversation in such a way that it makes you wonder why we weren't talking about these things all along." - Anna E. Ward, New Formations

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