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Cruel Optimism

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  514 Ratings  ·  33 Reviews
A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Offering bold new ways of conceiving the present, Lauren Berlant describes the cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted. People have remained attached to una ...more
Paperback, 342 pages
Published October 27th 2011 by Duke University Press Books (first published January 1st 2011)
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Eliot Fiend
Jan 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
as i've been reading this book over the past month, i've tried to share it with most everyone i am around--sentences, snippets, or general ideas. i would really only recommend it to folks who have a fetish for critical theory and are committed to dense, poetic, academic work...which is a bit of a shame since the ideas in it are pretty broadly resonant, useful, and important to a much larger community of folks than will read this book. berlant's discussions of the historical present and cruel opt ...more
i would totally give this a sixth star if i could. this i was allowed the honor of letting be my first book ever read together in a reading group! it was amazing sharing berlant's insights into political attachment as it thoroughly resonated with us as organizers who are well versed in the inalienable sense that what you're trying to work for is all but wrong, impossible, crazy. but you keep organizing anyway. that's more or less the affect of cruel optimism. i'm going to try to describe affect ...more
Emma Sea
faaaaaaaark *giant exhalation*

I finished it. It took a year. I wish I had not invested the time.

Ideas: some chapters, 5 stars. Some 3
Holy mother of god academia-speak rating: so many negatives light cannot escape their gravity

NTS: Buy this next payday
Brenden O'Donnell
Dec 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I think one of the biggest challenges of reading this book, beyond the complex points and the difficult and beautiful prose, is that, if you read it right, you're going to be faced with your own cruel optimistic relations. You're going to be distracted by thoughts of your own troubling attachments, which both give you the strength to live and prevent you from really living. I was faced with an additional challenge: I developed a cruel optimistic relation with the book itself and with my process ...more
Jul 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
To say that Cruel Optimism left me feeling bruised and exhausted is not necessarily bad; indeed, I think that was partially Berlant's intent. Her style is visceral and unflinching, "manifest[ing]" in her readers a sense of the "unbinding of subjects from their economic and intimate optimism" that is characteristic of the "situation of contemporary life" (7, 9). Berlant traces this "attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life" through an diverse assortment of nove ...more
Simone Roberts
Apr 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Will soon review this for Common Knowledge. V. Excited! ... Ok, got the rough draft of the review done. Turns out CK will let me publish that (though not the edited CK version), so you get a preview.

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism ( Duke University Press, 2011), 342pp.

Berlant's work synthesizes Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari, the Frankfurt School, affect theory, and the Situationists: the mixture is a useful one. (My grandmother told me, in a letter that later helped release her from permanent com
Asa Wilder
Jan 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read this over the summer, but it's probably more of a January thing. When it gets real rough just to do anything at all, this stuff can help.
Mar 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book’s strength comes from its examination of the points between, the artistic depictions of the impasse in our period of precarity and social fragmentation. Not only does Berlant write slowly staying with the moments between moments that happen in recent works of literature, she devotes a lot of insightful essays to movies that are entirely a moment always on it’s way to being another moment - the anxious underemployed and unloved present.

Also interesting is her recuperation of queerness,
Aug 29, 2011 rated it it was ok
2.5 stars? I tried to give this a fair/objective reading and approach it on its own terms, but affect theory and critical theory are still new and frequently confusing to me.

I may return with a full review once I've had time to digest/discuss this book (which took me nearly a year to finish, usually taking long breaks between chapters).

The idea at the core of this work is interesting and valuable, and the novels, films, and art-works Berlant examines are excellent, but I am put off by her writin
Ai Miller
Definitely thought-provoking, though some of the connections between chapters felt a little disparate? I really enjoyed chapter five, especially the thoughts related to slow death, but was less interested in other things? This just wasn't my greatest cup of tea, which is more about my feelings and less about the book itself. I liked it, I just wasn't thrilled and rarely felt like blown away. A good read nonetheless, and I recommend it to folks who want to engage with affect theory and see how it ...more
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
my old professor used to say "u kno maddy norms and the pursuit of the normative are a lot more complex than just a singular and negative disciplinary norm" and i was like "hmm" but now i know he meant "read cruel optimism"
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"A relation of cruel optimism," writes Lauren Berlant, "exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing." Using the language of anxiety, contingency, and precarity, Berlant sketches out the structural transformation that has been taking place over the second half of the twentieth century. She argues that our collection of fantasies about 'the good life' - fantasies that include upward mobility, job security, political equality, and durable intimacy - are fraying. As ...more
David Dinaburg
Aug 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Challenge is an odd concept because it is self-inflicted struggle, a non-lethal difficulty that is opt-in and can be called off at nearly any time. Running a marathon, landscaping your yard, redecorating your kitchen: these are modern challenges because there isn’t a penalty to fail. Cruel Optimism was not a struggle, because I did it to myself; it is absolutely the most challenging book I’ve picked up, though. Not only was it dense—“Cruel optimism is, then, like all phrases, a deictic — a phras ...more
Mesut Bostancı
Dec 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Every day we're onto a new crisis brought about by mass shootings. We can't help but post about them, or enact our sense of grief and outrage, and drum up our political explanation for it. We lock horns with the other side, as they parrot back at us their own drummed up political explanation. It goes on like this for a while until we run out of memes, and we're about to concede some empathy with the other side and admit it's all more complicated and human than this, but before we can more shots ...more
Oct 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a hard book to classify partly literary/film theory, but really more like political theory. I read the first chapter over a year ago, but couldn't quite make sense of it and didn't persevere. Then when I read Berlant's introduction to Compassion, I was inspired to try again.

This reading I was completely gripped. In particular, the middle chapters "Two Girls" and "Nearly Utopian" are brilliant. The diagnosis of our times (particularly the world of work) via a series of close readings of
May 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
this was an epic read, each chapter was exhausting in its own right. but, oh, apparently that's how she wanted it to feel...
her articulations of the historical present and lateral agency were especially compelling. and i'd say 'the promise of the object' made the meaning of cruel optimism clearest for me. basically there was some really satisfying moments and really frustrating ones too (the way she writes is beautiful and convoluted) though i'm left with the feeling that i really don't get the
I find Berlant's thesis compelling, and I enjoy reading her playful prose, but I can't bring myself to finish this one. Too many analyses of movies I've never seen and books I've never read. It would take hours and hours of supplementary viewing/reading to fully understand some of her arguments, and that's just time I don't have right now.

Tell you what though: if you've read Derrida's Dissemination (specifically Plato's Pharmacy) and didn't throw it at a wall, chances are you'll enjoy this.
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Really excellent in light of the global recession and diminished economic opportunities for already-marginalized people--the poor, the young, people of color, queer people, disabled people. Sometimes the wording is weirdly obscuring of Berlant's actual points (shades of Judith Butler) but overall this is a great book.
Aug 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
only read if you want to be reminded that everything is the worst and that even the things you think are improving your life are actually killing you. utterly hopeless and difficult to read (emotionally and intellectually), but way smart especially in its descriptions of how time feels and the nature of crisis these days.
Jan 27, 2013 rated it did not like it
With enthusiasm I approached and read the introduction of this book, and it pretty much died there with one of the most densely written, obscurely referenced, and convolutedly disasterous experiences.
Sep 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Read it twice.
Jun 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
maybe only 4.5 stars? i really enjoyed it, even being unfamiliar with almost all of the works she uses as an archive to explore her ideas. i've read other reviews complaining of her writing style/jargon... but i personally found it super poetic and's kinda typical academic critical theory stuff...but actually more funny and beautiful prose than most...

the content really resonated with me as i reflected on my surroundings of a terribly cruel world i find myself paradoxically optimis
Sean Donnelly
As always with Berlant, read the first and last chapter for the revelations, and wade into the middle sections depending on how invested you are in seeing her test out these ideas. Her writing is notoriously dense but her concepts are always revelatory, if you can find your way to them.
Jul 12, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-for-school
if this book was much shorter i would rate it higher. i love the theory of cruel optimism but the rest of the book bogs it down
Dr. Gardener
Aug 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
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Feb 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Lots of brilliant theory, though the readings of art weren't engaging so tended to skip them. Wished that the writing was less dense - having to read most sentences three times over makes for a difficult bus-reading experience.

I'll be using this A LOT in my own work.
Jan 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
good book. but like with all cultural studies texts, i'm left at the end scratching my head wondering what the point was. lots of fascinating thoughts in between though. berlant uses (somewhat obscure) films and books and art as mediums through which to analyze the world, and this didn't work with me so much because it was difficult to follow her summaries/references to the works. i understood for the most part the analysis, but not the connection to the films/novels. some of the theory escaped ...more
Ayanna Dozier
Apr 25, 2014 rated it liked it
The introduction has promise. Berlant's argument tends to become convoluted in the chapters, especially when she is not conducting object analysis. Personally I think that reading the introduction in conjunction with Berlant's The Female Complaint would provide a thorough insight as to how Berlant uses affect theory to mediate gender (genre) anxiety in society.
Mar 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Brilliant! Berlant explores the ways that contemporary desires for the "good life" are perverted byte strictures of capitalism.
Jun 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
one of the most challenging, gorgeous and gratifying books i've read in the last few years.
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  • The Affect Theory Reader
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  • The Promise of Happiness
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Lauren Berlant is an English Professor at the University of Chicago, where she has been teaching since 1984. Berlant received her Ph.D. from Cornell University. She writes and teaches on issues of intimacy and belonging in popular culture, in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship.

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“How long have people thought about the present as having weight, as being a thing disconnected from other things, as an obstacle to living?” 1 likes
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