Cruel optimism and living for the present

Over the last few days a number of theoretical issues have fallen into place for me as I (belatedly) read Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. The book explores objects of attachments which are self defeating because the nature of the object frustrates the inclination which led us to it in the first place. For example the passion of scholars whose lives become miserable within a university system in which that passion inevitably leads to the acceleration of academic labour. It can be difficult to surrender these commitments because the sense a state of flourishing lies just over the horizon links our present moment to our potential future. Cruel attachments constitute our futurity at the same time as they hurt us, inciting us to imagine that this cruelty might be something we can move through, if we are suitably astute. It’s this relation to futurity which reminds me of something the sociological and psychoanalyst Ian Craib writes in the early pages of his Importance of Disappointment. This is what he writes on pg 5 of that (wonderful) book:

Another way of putting all this is that we might change our desires, hopes, ideals, into intentions and expectations, things we actually set out to achieve in their fullness, rather than see them as distant goals that we will never achieve, yet still have to work towards, or as pleasant dreams that are, in reality, simply not on. It is a paradox of our existence that we have to be in both of these positions at the same time. Some part of us wants immediate satisfaction, wants it all and wants it now, and whilst we might try to rationalise this away with our knowledge that it is unreasonable, our gut reactions belie our heads. To occupy the second position as well, to make the compromises with reality, involves an ongoing, painful process that is rather like giving up part of ourselves.

To the extent we see the future as a blank canvas waiting to be painted, we are prone to a fantasy about all the things we can make of it. This is what Giddens describes as the reflexive colonisation of the future, rightly identified by Craib as a fantasy of a powerful self. However these fantasies condition what we do and how are in the present moment, as we take action which we imagine might lead us to our desired outcome. I understand Berlant to be (amongst many other things) seeking to understand how those fantasies can be self-defeating, by leading us to pursue something which continually injures us in spite of the optimism we feel about it. But letting go of our cruel optimism would mean suspending the first position described by Craib, in which we imagine a future without disappointment in which our hopes are realised. In its absence we would be left with a cold and inert reality with which we must continually compromise.

What I find so compelling about Berlant’s approach here, even though they use a different conceptual vocabulary to me, is the present moment as a site in which this impasse can be negotiated. I wrote a couple of days ago about renewal as a reflexive orientation to our objects of attachment, in which we move through the cruelty which has defined our relationship to them in order to identify what alternative modes of relating can be found on the other side. This suggests to me a way of relating to our attachments in the present tense, immersed in the reality of the moment and the parameters of choices I can make within it. Renewal in this setting becomes a matter of conscious cultivation which sits between the two modes which Craib identifies, neither a fantasy of fulfilment nor a depressive compromise with reality; instead a recognition that our attachments provide the gravity for our lives, anchoring us in what Charles Taylor describes as moral space, but cannot underwrite our flourishing. This is a matter of the care we take in our lived relation with the object of attachment, our capacity to let this breath and grow rather than subordinating it to the expectations we have about the flourishing it will bring us.

It suggests that cruelty emerges from our relation to the object rather than being inherent to the object itself, a maladjustment in which we stride forward in the mistaken belief this is the only movement available to us. To avoid this means confronting what Craib describes as the “immense uncertainty” which makes giving up on our fantasies of fulfilment so profoundly difficult. His point is that a compromise with reality increasingly feels like giving up on a part of ourselves, to the extent we define ourselves through these future orientated fantasies. He continues the point on pg 5:

The tangles and confusions that we get ourselves into when trying to maintain these certainties come to seem preferable to the pain of disappointment and uncertainty. Alternatively we may try to give up our hopes, not in the despair that always lurks behind disappointment, but as a sort of abstention from areas of life where these difficulties most often manifest themselves. We might decide that because we cannot be absolutely certain of everything, then we cannot be certain of anything. We might decide that because we cannot be absolutely sure of what is right or good or beautiful, then nothing in particular is right or good or beautiful, and we save the energy of expending serious thought on these things.

To talk about the present moment as a site of renewal means identifying how our attachments impinge upon the situation I am in and shape how I act within it. But they do not determine it and we can haphazardly carve out spaces of freedom in which we act in ways other than our deep seated inclinations. Renewal is the application of these hard won freedom to reengagement with the objects of our cruel optimism. Not as a matter of transvaluation as much as striving to find other ways of relating to them which avoid this cruelty, resting in the potency of real encounters in the present moment rather than project fantasies of future flourishing, affirming the value we find in them but relativising the fantasy which accompanies this.

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