. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


Political Happiness–or Cruel Optimism?

This responds to a slew of emails and links I’ve received warning of left wing stupidity and complacence in the wake of Obama’s election. It revises and summarizes some previous thought in re the political season that I’ve been working through on this blog.  I’m posting it during an interval in the Brussels airport.

****

Dear Friends, Please do not allow your political optimism about Obama’s election to make you stupid! Here’s how to stay sharp and smart…

If mainstream politics significantly shapes your mood, this week has been a blow to normalcy.  For the moment, Obama is the President of our emotional Infrastructure as well as the economic and physical ones. As a result, if you’re like me, you have been inundated by condescending and vitalizing exhortations not to become naive or stupid where political happiness also is.

This bolus of anxiety expresses the fear that political happiness will lead to a flatlined complacent brain, diminished political judgment, and the revelation of your bad taste. The claim that anxiety makes you smart makes me laugh. But solidaristically, not condescendingly.

We’ve all been in bad love affairs before, where our attachments made us stupid. Once you attach to an object, after all, you become aware that the object isn’t in your control. Suddenly the prospect of having the object and losing the object, of getting more and less than you want from it, rule you. You become aware that the intensity of your attachment is not unconditional, even as you demand unconditional fidelity from the other person. When the pulses that brought you to the person subside you ask, “What did I want when I wanted that?” Then your affect and intelligence shift around, trying to make new sense of things. If the object is a political figure, perhaps you start circulating screeds to your friends, reminding them not to be stupid where there is desire.

But these efforts to manage the anxiety of political attachment and of optimism about it are actually oversimple about how (political) emotion can work. I don’t have the space here to make the long argument. Here’s a bit of it. Attachments are intrinsically optimistic. The event of attachment does not make us stupid but releases a slew of smart but often overwhelming thoughts about how complicated attachment is.

We are ambivalent about what we want, for lots of reasons. Attachment reveals our dependency on something, our need for reciprocity and recognition, and the place of fantasy in managing life. One strategy of managing this is sometimes to pretend that our feelings aren’t mixed. Then when the world disappoints us we can say that we were true while the other was false. Another way to manage this is to claim that we are complex while the other people are disappointing, limited, and deserving of critique and complaint. But presuming a self-interested distinction between complexity and simplicity where attachment is concerned itself performs a fantasy that there are unmixed feelings and that people are ever simple. Even your grandmother wasn’t that simple, trust me. But you knew that. You just wanted someone to be simple so that you could reliably rest in proximity to the scene of the love.

So can we think about political emotion differently, and be less afraid of optimism? The process of managing the ambivalent feelings that come from active political commitment is fundamentally optimistic, and no one needs to be protected against that. Optimism is what keeps you in the scene as it veers between being joyful, stressful, and tedious. Indeed, David Graeber argues that solidarity amounts to a comic commitment to practicing expressing political desire and finding pleasure and sustenance in disagreement, along with all the other political emotions (such as, boredom, aversion, outrage, betrayal). Not that there’s anything wrong with a rigorous fear of one’s own stupidity–after all, fear can be a teacher of sorts. But let’s not equate a sense of happiness with shallowness and emotional darkness with truth and profundity.

Oh yes, about Obama, the neoliberal, gay-marriage compromised, “market guy…” Here’s what makes me politically happy about the event of Obama. He is the first mainstream politician in decades who loves the political process. He does not confuse “Washington” with politics. His organization’s practice of training other organizers demonstrates his commitment to producing skills for political world-building beyond his campaign.

In this way the event of Obama has already massively advanced the skills for democracy in the United States. In other ways he seems committed to constraining and even undermining what that might entail concretely. Protesting and appreciating, though, are some of what we do to maintain the optimism of any attachment. They keep you bound to the (political) scene, to the cognitive and affective difficulties of remaining critically present to desire.


25 Comments so far
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Ah, that’s better, thank you. I feel less anxious now about my optimism. His team’s ground-game is indeed amazing. What a sad irony that his opponents mocked him for it.

Comment by macon d

This is fantastic. I love it. I just want to reverse the first sentence for my own affective reasons: You write: “Please do not allow your political optimism about Obama’s election to make you stupid! Here’s how to stay sharp and smart…” I would just want to say “Please do not allow your smarts and your sharpness at political critique to make you depressed about the biggest MAINSTREAM victory we will ever achieve in our f’in lives.”

Comment by Cathy Davidson

This is so wonderful, Lauren: “The process of managing the ambivalent feelings that come from active political commitment is fundamentally optimistic, and no one needs to be protected against that. Optimism is what keeps you in the scene as it veers between being joyful, stressful, and tedious. Indeed, David Graeber argues that solidarity amounts to a comic commitment to practicing expressing political desire and finding pleasure and sustenance in disagreement, along with all the other political emotions (such as, boredom, aversion, outrage, betrayal). Not that there’s anything wrong with a rigorous fear of one’s own stupidity–after all, fear can be a teacher of sorts. But let’s not equate a sense of happiness with shallowness and emotional darkness with truth and profundity.”

Comment by Cathy Davidson

Oh, I understand better why there’s so much emphasis on optimism having read your post, Lauren (which, I suppose, was the attachment that drove me to your blog — i.e., in search of help). And I find very generative the ways in which you’re effectively theorizing the positive (optimism, love), and I rather think that’s the harder intellectual project. What I’m trying to figure out is how it is possible that I am happy about the election, but not at all optimistic — rather, to what extent can (political) happiness and optimism be disarticulated? I think I was more optimistic (maybe deliberately so) before the election (when one had to be) than now. Perhaps conceiving the affective structure of optimism as emergent begins to answer — i.e., if emergent conditions have disallowed the possibility of attachment to a political object (I’m thinking here of the history of U.S. racialization), perhaps part of understanding an ambivalent relationship to optimism is recognizing the irregular inheritance of the structure of attachment that it seems to require. All of which is in some way to say, thanks for your blog/your help.

Comment by Kandice

Kandace, I am on the way to a meeting but I have a first response (and thanks to you and to everyone for being such great collaborators!). Which is that my whole point, in a way, is that optimism is a practice of staying proximate to the object/scene of attachment, so that optimism doesn’t alway *feel* optimistic. Sometimes it feels the reverse and sometimes there’s numbness while paying attention. The structure of optimism is *interest*, you might say, and the practice of not giving up. This was what Gramsci was pushing at in the distinction between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, I think, or at least, that’s how I distort it. The practice toward interfering with the reproduction of unjust or infelicitous normativity is optimistic, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Does that help? I love your second to last sentence and yes, that’s what I mean. Ambivalence is also a structure that’s quite different than the sense of the vernacular
term. Bye for now! On leave, but in meetings! Sucks!LB

Comment by supervalentthought

Yes, it helps entirely — and I went back to Female Complaint yesterday as well (it’s not a book to be read in pieces, and yet that’s all I’ve been able to manage unfortunately), as I was remembering something from the intro that was along these lines of thought — “To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them” — the convention (conventional politics) *needs* to be worked, which is to say (in my head), it is the condition that creates the exigence for optimism (which would be unnecessary if the ideal state of justice already existed). This works as a way of getting “after idealism” (in Chow’s terms), doesn’t it, which is something I’m hoping to work through vis-a-vis something I’m calling the “incommensurate subject” — I want to call it the work-in-progress, but it’s really the work-in-waiting…Hope the meetings were short, if nothing else! Thanks much, Lauren; what a brief but intense and generative (for me) exchange!

Comment by Kandice Chuh

I have lots to respond here but to readers who don’t get my irony, *I’m* not saying what’s in italics in the beginning of this post: it summarizes the left “don’t be too emotional” embrace of rationality, clearheaded realism, and affective boundary-drawing that I’m arguing against!!

Comment by supervalentthought

(Is “arguing against” quite right? Isn’t it more like “inciting” or even “instigating” which seems less rational and more affective? incitement toward (incitement to?) feeling? love?!!)

Comment by Kandice

[...] I discover that Lauren Berlant also engages much more constructively with Butler’s piece over here than I have, taking the time to think about the kind of work that critically engaging with our [...]

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You’re right, but probably “playing with” or “teasing out” would be better still. Big Hair Theory. More soon. xx

Comment by supervalentthought

Thank you, Prof. Berlant, for this invigorating piece. It feels good to be taught something, which is what reading this blog, and this post in particular, resembles. Feeling good about being taught makes me think about another possible dimension to “optimism” which is, optimism as an attachment to something that feels good enough most of the time to relieve you of the burden of defensiveness/self-protectiveness you otherwise bear. In which case, optimism is so closely related to naivety in that feeling hopeful/understood/met is, at least momentarily, permission to relax, isn’t it? This link between stupidity and optimism on the one hand vs. vigilance and skepticism on the other seemed to characterize much of the obama vs. clinton primary season. Don’t we need optimism as a place to vacation from anxious skepticism/pessimism (which raises the question of how pessimism is any less naive or stupid than optimism since structurally, it is equally a commitment to feeling a certain way that circumvents what is potentially overwhelming, ambivalent and vague about an attachment). For me sometimes, and this sensation came alive when reading this post, optimism can be what it feels like to be taken care of, emotionally, intellectually, pedagogically, politically, whatever. Optimism then is something to be concerned about as outlined at this post’s beginning precisely because it gives us something that we need (a vacation from skepticism and its burdens) and being thus provided for necessarily lets us pause. Is it really dangerous to let stupidity be a teacher, as you say that fear can be. I ask because I only know about how fear teaches but I do wonder whether another response to the exhortation against stupid optimism is to wonder what, after all, we *could* do/feel when we are being whatever it is being optimistic means?

Comment by ashtor

Excellent piece, helped me make more sense of certain questions that had been bothering me. Thank you.

Comment by Robert

In this way the event of Obama has already massively advanced the skills for democracy in the United States.

But not in Israel, where he is perfectly happy supporting their religious theocracy and their system of Apartheid.

This is the overriding problem with Obama, one which most people seem to be putting to the aside in their assessment of this man. It is irreconcilable.

Comment by abraham

Well as I said in the *following sentence*, he is limited and destructive in lots of ways too. His hawkishness about some things, like this one, perturbs me, and seems inconsistent with his liberal internationalism. But this doesn’t negate the kinds of political skills his campaign’s helped to develop–it’s an estranged mix.

Comment by supervalentthought

So then what happens when the folks who took the lesson of involvement and activism observe how Obama turns on his promises of hope and change? Do they then become cynical in their application of activism to do and say what it takes to be elected and then fall back on their own personal desires and wants? Or do they see beyond this and keep their idealism? Or is their idealism dashed, and do they then effectively become “enemies of the State” in their new found disillusionment?

For all the good one might argue he did in getting people involved in the process, his open and blatant reneging on his promises may well do more harm than any good it might have promised to deliver.

Comment by abraham

I just read an article by Fink called, “Desire in Analysis” about techniques of Lacanian psychoanalysis, that conceptualizes the analyst’s desire in ways that helped me think about the unique shape of political optimism.
Fink writes: “Lacan’s expression, “the analyst’s desire” refers to the analyst’s countertransferential feelings but rather to a kind of “purified desire” that is specific to the analyst – to the analyst not as a human being with feelings but as a function a role, a part to be played and one that *can* be played by many different extreme individuals…The analyst’s desire is not for the patient to get better, to succeed in life, to be happy, to understand him- or herself, to go back to school…it is a kind of pure desiring that does not alight on any particular object.”
I think what makes the “analyst’s desire” an interesting concept is its impersonality; similarly, I am curious about the structure of a political optimism that is structured as fundamentally proximate to the object of desire but also indifferent/impervious to it. When you ask, “So can we think about political emotion differently, and be less afraid of optimism? The process of managing the ambivalent feelings that come from active political commitment is fundamentally optimistic, and no one needs to be protected against that” I wonder about how what makes optimism possible is also what makes it so hard. On the one hand, our optimism keeps us cathected and yet on the other hand, for it to be optimism and not another affective experience like excitement or joy it also needs to keep us somewhat estranged from the object in order to maintain the simultaneity of critical analysis and longing, does it not? I think this is how I understand the function of emotional ambivalence in maintaining the potency of optimism as both a commitment to experiencing conflicting feelings and a state of relating that is structured as necessarily impassioned while impersonal. I wonder to what extent impersonality (or in this case, desire that is indifferent to a specific policy/agenda) and its contingency upon particularized political attachment makes optimism a complicated emotion to have or maintain?
Again, thank you for vitalizing and provoking post!

Comment by ashtor

Let’s see: to refer to “Abraham’s” comment–sure, lots of people will be disappointed and disaffected when they are forced to de-idealize Obama, but it doesn’t mean that deidealization will de-skill them if they’ve become invested as actors in the political as such. A lot depends on other kinds of organizing and not just presidentialism as the name for politics.

Ashtor is manifesting some of the difficulty of managing the difference between affect as structure and as experience when she talks about optimism as a structure being hard to maintain in the face of pressures to want emotion to fall in line with attachment. Yup! But I think you’re melodramatizing “estrangement”, since desire always crosses distance. I also think that you must always write counter-transference into the story of the shrink’s impersonality (which is threatened if not obviated by counter-transferential forces). It may be similar to the political subject’s necessary internal intension (necessary for the health of democratic potentiality) between fidelity to the political and the fortune of particular aims and claims. LB

Comment by supervalentthought

The silence around Israel on the left is deafening. Or rather the pro-Israel noise
is enormously deafening.

I wonder, Lauren, if you might talk a bit more about the notion of political silence that you are developing, that you talked about at the ASA. What struck me at the time was they way that your idea of silence as effectively political, or as affectively political, rewrites the Audre Lorde feminist chestnut: Your Silence Will Not Protect You. Instead the point seems to me to: exactly right, your silence will not protect you: that’s why you deploy it instead of inhabiting
it.

On the issue of Obama, it seems to me that when it comes to the left he has been especially deft at constructing a virtual-left Obama. That is, he doesn’t support gay marriage but we assume that that’s a tactical choice, or I did anyway. He supports Israel but we assume that’s because the centrist path to the White house leaves him no choice. It has to do with his rhetorical strategy of always naming the excluded middle, I think, which allows him to inhabit every political position. That’s just initial undigested thoughts.

Comment by Kyla Wazana Tompkins

[...] diskussioner av Butlers artikel här och [...]

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Prof. Berlant, I tried emailing your UChigaco email but it returned as an error. I was hoping to discuss the possibility of you writing a piece for an ‘enthuse’ themed special issue of a journal that formalised some of the ideas expressed in this post and in your comments. You seemed to be best positioned to critically interogate the political dimension of ‘enthusiasm’. Here is the link to information about the issue: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/information/authors#enthuse

I particularly liked your comments in reply to Kandace:

“The structure of optimism is *interest*, you might say, and the practice of not giving up. This was what Gramsci was pushing at in the distinction between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, I think, or at least, that’s how I distort it. The practice toward interfering with the reproduction of unjust or infelicitous normativity is optimistic, even if it doesn’t feel that way.”

I think a reworked version of your blog post and comments would be excellent and suitable for the journal.

I am also asking in part because your blog post is congruent with at least how I think of (post-Kantian) enthusiasm. I argue that enthusiasm is defined by the challenges faced by the enthusiast in my research on enthusiasm in subcultural scenes. Basically I argue that enthusiasm is an incorporeal event that is differentially repeated each time an enthusiast translates the open multiplicity at the heart of a problem (the unknowingness), and the negative affects through which a problem is in part defined, into the positive apprehension of contingency as a site of affirmation. This translates the contingency of a problem into the contingency of a challenge. Challenges are essentially a resource of enthusiasm. I go off on much more complex lines of argument regarding the continuum of active to passive affections of enthusiasm.

To bring it back to your post, politics becomes a problem of the ‘visibility’ or apprehension of challenges. This is a defining quality (and, hopefully, efficacy) of Obama’s inspirational discourse of hope and affirmation: “Yes we can…”

The danger on the left is to disavow the potentiality of the discourse in both its ‘hope’ — as a positive relation of futurity (optimism) — and its affirmation — as an combination of will and positive affections. The ‘left’ of which you are critical seems to want to hold on to something like a Kantian position to ward off the popularist stupidity of perhaps what is perceived to be the charismatic (in the Weberian sense) qualities of Obama’s visage. Charisma here mobilises bodies into action but it is a passive enthusiasm, one which does not take part in (re)defining the challenges literally at hand. The problem with assuming this is the only quality of the event of ‘Obama’ is a retreat into a space and time of reflection, which in the context of politics must not (always) remain subservient to action, even if the necessary action is simply to apprehend things otherwise; to once again believe it is possible to…

Comment by glen

So pleased to have stumbled upon this thread. It has tapped some thoughts I’ve been trying to knot and unknot about current developments on the South African scene: the affective intensities president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma incites and mobilises rely upon the exhaustion of hope and optimism while the group of disaffected ANC cadres who have just launched a new opposition party – COPE (congress of the people) – in the following terms (paraphrasing here): we are the “real” ANC – we represent, and seek to revivify, the ideas inscribed in the Freedom Charter (the ANC has reproduced itself outside of itself). COPE package this fantasy in a logo that echoes the one used by the Obama campaign (as does the increasingly irrelevant DA) as they invoke, and attempt to conduct and channel, the optimism generated by the Obama event. It is worth noting that COPE is to be led by “Terror” Lekota, the former ANC cabinet minister with very close ties to Mbeki. He is joined by Sam Shilowa, another Mbeki-ite, and former trade unionist, who has leveraged his political position to become extremely wealthy through a number of “black economic empowerment (BEE)” deals negotiated while he was the premier of the province in which I live. In full agreement with Lauren’s comments about injunctions against hope and optimism. Trying to think about how the Obama moment reverberates “here”.

Comment by kit kat

[...] this is a drastic understatement; here, I’d like to echo Lauren Berlant’s post-election characterization of Obama as “the neoliberal, gay-marriage compromised, ‘market [...]

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[...] I take such a question to have been behind Tony Cokes’s decision to conclude his joint presentation with Andrew Perchuk with passages taken from Thomas Frank’s “Bush, The Working Class Hero” (http://www.newstatesman.com/200408300012). Frank asks in his essay, which tries to explain the irrational choice made by Kansans to vote George W. Bush into office, “How could so many people get it so wrong?” Frank distinguishes a “we” in his text—a group of rational thinkers capable of properly making decisions based on “our” best interests—from another, less rational group, i.e. Kansans—I’ll admit to being among this class of people—whose decisions often work against their best interests (i.e. in their supporting a party that regularly organizes against working-class interests). Cokes’s inclusion of the Frank text in his presentation acted—in my reading of it anyway—as a reflection on how we treat our “objects” of study, as well as how we figure or define the rational versus the irrational in political (as well as cultural) decision-making (http://supervalentthought.com/2008/11/09/political-happiness-or-cruel-optimism/). [...]

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Hi Prof Berlant,

I’m particularly interested in your use of the notion of stupidity here. I’m wondering what you mean by it and whether or not a certain amount of stupidity is necessary to form attachments. Is stupidity, like optimism or desire, necessary for staying close to one’s object whatever other feelings of ambivalence come along?

Comment by Paul Clinton

[...] and for whom the years since November 2008 have been like a punishing (re)education in the cruelty of that optimism and a reminder of all the reasons why the liberatory change needed is not going to come from [...]

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