Cruel optimism and the possibility of renewal

I first came across Laurent Berlant’s concept of Cruel Optimism in an LRB essay by Marina Warner about the ‘disfiguring of higher education‘. Warner invoked the concept to explain the self-exploitation she saw in academics around her who “open themselves to exploitation when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless”. At this point in 2015 I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that I had no desire for a traditional academic career and this essay helped that dawning realisation condense into a plan of action, driven by the sense that what Filip Vostal and I had started to call the accelerated academy was incompatible with a good life.

The realisation that an academic career was not, as Richard Rorty had suggested, an opportunity “to read books and report what one thinks about them, and get paid for”, made it easier to see the things it was: prone to a continual escalation of occupational demands, generative of toxic workplace cultures and liable to produce a cultural insularity as one becomes ever more ensconced within this peculiar professional micro-climate. I became preoccupied by what this meant for writing, the proliferation of ‘unread’ and ‘unloved’ books’ by people for whom the idea of writing books which might be read had been a passion which could carry them through difficult times.

It was increasingly clear to me the machinery of contemporary academia leveraged the passions expressed in the idea of scholarship as a calling while simultaneously eroding the possibility they might find sustained and satisfying expression in a good life. In other words: cruel optimism. This is the striking definition which Berlant offers on pg 1 of their book. It illustrates how appropriate Warner’s use of the concept was to identify how the attachment to being an academic was something which blocked the flourishing of actually existing academics:

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. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. 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.

It’s interesting to return to this years later, as someone who is happily employed as an academic. I say this without illusions. I spent this weekend afternoon working on spreadsheets. Inflation is rapidly cutting my pay while my administrative responsibilities rapidly grow. I don’t have the amount of time I need for writing, let alone the reading and thinking upon which it depends. But I’m not performing the role of the academic out of a sense of vocation. Frankly, it’s a job to me which is more desirable than the other roles I’m qualified to perform. The realisation I hadn’t wanted to be an academic after my PhD led me through years of work as a digital communications practitioner which, in either its in house or consultancy guises, I realised wouldn’t satisfy me in the long term. This I think made it easier to return to the idea of an academic career without the lofty aims which previously rendered my optimistic attachment a cruel one.

This trajectory has created the space in which new commitments can emerge. There are lots of things I’m doing which I’m excited about. In some cases this is because they challenge me, leading me to develop new ways of being and doing with other people which feel inherently positive. In other cases this is because I can see concrete impacts of my work, both in the immediate and longer term. The diffuse expectations which I brought to academia made it difficult to think in concrete terms about what I do and what effect it has.

The reason I’m sharing this is because it suggests something interesting about Berlant’s framing in which the object itself acts as the barrier towards flourishing, by impeding the aim which brought you to it in the first place. The point they are making is that “whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world” (pg 24). We are anchored by these attachments which is what makes it cruel when the nature of our object can’t help but repudiate the eudaemonic expectations we invested in it.

What interests me is the possibility of renewal, with its simultaneous connotation of returning and rebuilding. Renewal involves a relationship to our attachments which is reflexive, recognising the contingency of how we came to the object and how we (and sometimes it) have been shaped by this trajectory. How do we respond to cruel optimism? If it’s simply a matter of repudiating the object to which we are (cruelly) attached then the possibility for change is foreclosed. If our attachments are liable to become ever more frequently cruel in a precarious and dying world, the courage to move through this cruelty to see what other modes of relating lie on the other side becomes a central existential challenge.

I worry that the popular mood which Ian Craib describes in the Importance of Disappointment creates a tendency to blame the object rather than reflecting on the relationality at work i.e. how we came to relate to the object, the nature of that relation and the nature of the object itself. If the cruelty is felt to inhere solely in the object, it licenses a withdrawal in the hope the next object won’t prove so bitterly and painfully disappointing. If that’s the case then what happens to renewal? I’ve spent the last few years preoccupied by the accelerationist ethos: there’s no way around, only through. In keen to explore how we move through cruel optimism and what we find on the other side of it. This is how Nick Cave describes renewal in response to grief, a theme I first heard him talk about in This Much I Know To Be True:

We want to say that allowing this process of renewal to occur is the greatest gift we can give to those who have left us. We become the living vessels that carry their spirits, out of that dark and shuttered place, and release them into the heavens.

The king in time died, the queen's heart broke like a vow
And the tree returned to the earth with the nest and the bird
But the feather spun upward, upward and upward
Spinning all the weather vanes
And you're sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio

These ideas are still sketchy but I’m conceiving of renewal as a coping strategy for cruel optimism. Recognising the contingency of our cruel attachments, how we came to be kind of person who relates to them in the way we did, as well as how we might relate otherwise. This doesn’t suggest a protean self able to redefine itself at will but rather a reflexivity which enables us to move through our post modes of attachment and falteringly meander towards alternatives.

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