Cruel Optimism about the Left in Power

Among people who have been supporting the Greek Left this year two major affective adjustments to the dissolution of hope prevail, tender melancholy and cruel optimism. Much has been written about the former, which is not surprising, given its merciless predicament, especially since the last electoral victory in Sepember. However, very little has been written about those honest leftists who in the second half of 2015 continue to support the party in power. The “Introduction: Affect in the Present” to Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism (2011) suggests a poignant way to begin an inquiry into the cruel attachments to the loss of Left governance which impede the aims that inspired them to work towards such a goal. Here are some representative passages from it.

“[A]cross diverse geopolitical and biopolitical locations the present moment increasingly imposes itself on consciousness as a moment in extended crisis, with one happening piling on another. The genre of crisis is itself a heightening interpretive genre, rhetorically turning an ongoing condition into an intensifying situation in which extensive threats to survival are said to dominate the reproduction of life” (p. 7). “This book’s main genre for tracking the sense of the present is the ‘impasse’” (4). “Cruel Optimism turns toward thinking about the ordinary as an impasse shaped by crisis in which people find themselves developing skills for adjusting to newly proliferating pressures to scramble for modes of living on” (8).

“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. […] These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially” (1). “I am seeking out the conditions under which certain attachments to what counts as life come to make sense or no longer make sense, yet remain powerful as they work against the flourishing of particular and collective beings” (13).

“Whatever the experience of optimism is in particular, then, the affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; […] This book considers relations of cruel optimism ranging from objects or scenes of romantic love and upward mobility to the desire for the political itself. At the center of the project, though, is that moral-intimate-economic thing called ‘the good life’” (2). “This book is about what happens to fantasies of the good life when the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation […]. Each chapter tells a story about the dissolution of optimistic objects/scenarios that had once held the space open for the good-life fantasy, and tracks dramas of adjustment to the transformation of what had seemed foundational into those binding kinds of optimistic relation we call ‘cruel’” (3).

“It is a book about the attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life. […] I generate exemplary cases of adjustment to the loss of this fantasy of sustenance through the engaged construction of an archive of the impasse or transitional moment, and inquire into what thriving might entail amid a mounting sense of contingency” (11). The book analyzes “scenes where object loss appears to entail the loss of an entire world and therefore a loss of confidence about how to live on” (16) and looks at “impediments to personal and social change from some attachments that become foundations for optimism even when they are damaging” (16). It focuses on the dissolution of fantasies and the affective adjustments that structure survival in the present impasse.

Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” would remind me of Verdi’s Don Carlos, that grand tragedy of cruel attachments. In his tremendous aria in Act IV, Ella giammai m’amò, King Philip of Spain, alone in his cabinet, realizes that his wife has never loved him and never will. He wishes that he could read the minds of others but the crown does not allow him this power, and he will only find peace when he dies. Even before his voice enters, the cello sings about the damaged faith in both love and rule.

October 19, 2015

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