cruel optimism – in a bookshop near you, as well as everywhere else

I’m very excited to learn that Lauren Berlant’s new book Cruel Optimism is now out.

Berlant’s work has for some time been interested the affect of the everyday, and she argues that most of everyday stuff now exists in a state of ‘cruel optimism’: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”.  This is a problematic that many sorts of feminism have grappled with, of course, for a long time, and Berlant focusses very precisely on how we might think about the politics of everyday affect.  Her writing is dense, sometimes, but that matches the paradoxicality of an optimism – about money, love, life – that’s also cruel.  Can’t wait to read her work on this theme gathered together.

I was looking again today at one of my favourite books on family photography (of a sort): Patrizia di Bello’s Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts.  Bello also explores how some Victorian women – highly constrained by their gender roles but, in this case, highly privileged by their wealth – used photographs as a way of picturing and performing their own desires, to be ladies, mothers and flirts.  Bello is grappling with the same sorts of issues as Berlant, then, although using a very different body of theory to do so.

What I’m looking forward to finding out in Berlant’s book is, I suppose, a contemporary version of Bello’s problematic: what to do with cruel optimism, and in particular how not to domesticate or privatise it.  I hope that a hundred and fifty years of feminist thought and action will mean that, unlike the women Bello discusses, Berlant is able to envision a strategy that’s more than just making things look different.

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