Notes on Pride

Fantasies of the Good: Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism

June 28th, 2021

Lauren Berlant: 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 projects 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. (Berlant, 2011, p. 1)
Under a regime of crisis ordinariness, life feels truncated, more like desperate doggy paddling than like a magnificent swim out to the horizon. (Berlant, 2011, p.97)

I came to Lauren Berlant’s work early on in graduate school. There was something magnetic about the way that words spilled off the pages of their book Cruel Optimism. The book asks us to sit with the paradox of desire: that the things that we want can sometimes be obstacles to our flourishing. Whether it’s love, food, sex, faith in democracy, or a belief in capitalism, things that we intensely love can be the scenes of our undoing. And yet as Berlant also demonstrates, those desires cannot be abandoned because they sustain us and give shape to the most intimate senses of who we are. This impasse that Berlant weaves together so beautifully is perhaps most apparent in the fantasy of the good life. Our bodies fail us. Institutions fail us. The dreams of social and economic mobility fail us. And yet we remain attached to the idea that somewhere, someday the “good life” will be all ours. Cruel Optimism is one of those books I’m never sure I’ve completely understood. Every time I come back to it, it gives me something new. I’m grateful that this book, much like the rest of their scholarship has continued to shape and challenge what I think I know. I’m saddened to hear of their passing, but immensely grateful for all that they gave. May they rest easily. ✨”