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Cruel Optimism

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  684 ratings  ·  46 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
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
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
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
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.
Bayliss Camp
Aug 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Here’s an embarrassing set of admissions:

Once, early on in graduate school, I attended a guest lecture. The speaker was Lee Edelman, who blurbed this book. The topic, as it happened, later became one of the chapters in “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive.” I remember three things about the lecture: #1: that Lee Edelman was a not-unattractive man; #2: that very little of his lecture was clear (as in “erklaren”) to me, excepting perhaps, the “delicious double entendre” that a chiseled mi
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
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.
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"
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
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,
Alex Wexelman
Jun 26, 2019 rated it liked it
As the New Yorker article that prompted me to pick this sucker up stipulated, "'Cruel Optimism' [is] dense and academic." Having been out of the academy for some time now, I read for pleasure. Was this book a pleasure to read? Absolutely not. Had it not been a PDF, I would have thrown it across the room upon completion. Yet, like a masochistic marathon runner, I kept pace. The thesis, for sure, is relevant and all too real and I'm wiser for having absorbed whatever I absorbed, but the footnotes ...more
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
Daniel Allen
Apr 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
The book was beautifully written and offered so much in terms of theory and practice. But I’d advise against reading this if it’ll be your first taste in social theory or cultural philosophy. The amount of extra readings (thank you for the helpful list of books at the back, dear author) was enormous. I’d suggest an understanding on both critical theory as well as some of the feminist theory which sprouts in places.
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
Chloe Ducluzeau
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
so. so. so. good.
certainly dense but the moment you begin to grasp her ideas they take a stronghold. very compelling claims being put forth
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
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.
Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Cruel Optimism is a book about attachments. Berlant starts off saying as such: "A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing....[Relations] become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially" (1). However, while Cruel Optimism is, upon first glimpse, only about affects among and between people, Berlant makes an argument that expands the scope of Cruel Optimism beyond a ...more
Tyler Monsein
Oct 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely religious, full-body experience. 100% recommended. It's too far-reaching for a quick summary, but the book’s main drive is to make us FEEL the precariousness, the crisis, the insecurity and the absolutely endless imaginative and political possibility lodged deep inside every moment of the “ordinary” present. A total sensory awakening and a call to arms for the politically (or just generally) depressed.

Other reviewers here seem to be dwelling on the work's supposed pessimism (Berla
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
May 04, 2020 rated it liked it
While some of the concepts Berlant theorizes (e.g. cruel optimism, crisis ordinariness, market democracy) are part of a strong arsenal of her intellectual critique of neoliberal politics and the scope of its collateral damage, the text is otherwise too verbose and cluttered with tedious references to allow her readers to appreciate the points she is making. Set up as a linguistic obstacle, the book becomes an embodiment of its own title, locked in a conceptual relay of ambit, ambition, and ambie ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: thesis-fodder
I finished!! Really loved the thesis of Berlant's work on cruel optimism, and a lot of the theoretical and more political philosophy-style work was really good. The film analysis bored me because film analysis bores me, but as a whole this is a really transformative and informative work. Lots of aha moments about the nature of late capitalism and the precariat. Done at last.
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Clever. Organizes thoughts around interrupting optimism and fantasy lives that dictate precarious lives
Jessica Allen
Nov 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
this describes graduate school perfectly. graduate school is a blockade to happiness. and knowledge. and everything else.
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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?” 6 likes
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