Not considered like feelings or sensations, optimism is a structure as precarity is a structure. During a time of crisis, one must hold onto the structure to survive, but when the structures are so nebulous as optimism and precarity themselves, then we need to hold onto something else—the ordinary. Optimism and precarity end up being not competing structures, but the same encompassing structure. Here, I am intrigued by the notions of “catching up” and “hitting a wall.” The scene in Rosetta showed during lecture encapsulates both of these actions. Rosetta is both running away from those chasing her, and running toward her boss to punch him, to catch up to whatever caused the crisis. Berlant defines this state of continuous grasping: “To be in crisis is not to have the privilege of the taken-for-granted: it is to bear an extended burden of vulnerability for an undetermined duration.” (62) At the same time, we the viewers are trying to catch up to Rosetta, joining her pursuers. Rosetta has hit a wall (the locker) and at the same time tries to hide in it, to grab hold of it, to pull it down. In this crisis state, it is not “fight or flight,” but both: continuous motion without getting anywhere, treading water, moving in a cul-de-sac, an impasse.
Where these two structures, optimism and precarity, seem to break down is with the question of consent. “The hegemonic,” writes Berlant, “is, after all, not merely domination dressed more becomingly—it is a metastructure of consent.” (185) Thus, a belief in cruel optimism is to some degree an informed decision and not a blind one. If power is running to catch up with us, is it an act of consent to keep running away? To engage in the chase? Or perhaps the running away is an indicator of our “situation,” our increasing awareness of our own precarity and a “mass dissolution of a disavowal.” (196) If “The promise of a good life no longer masks the living precarity of this historical present,” if optimism and precarity cannot work in tandem, Berlant sees the emergence of a grimace, which “produces another layer of face to create a space of delay while the subject and world adjust to how profoundly fantasmatic the good-life dreams were, after all.” (196) Why is it that, after the realization of reality, or of the unreality of the fantasy, we are caught in a delay? Why can we not break out of this delay, break the surface of the treading water? In refusing our consent in this relationship, we are depriving ourselves of the power to fight against the structure. In that case, what would be, if any, the burst of momentum to break out of the impasse? We see that good-life dreams are spectral, but must not there always be good life dreams? Or else, what would be the point of paddling?
There is, then, a difference between the singular and the collective. One person . Berlant asks the question, “what does it threaten to protest precarity to our heart’s content?” (222) If there is no getting out of the impasse, treading water would not create a big enough wave. She then identifies “the tension between the affective sense of solidarity that might come through a collective detachment from the normative world and the divergent imaginaries of the better good life that its subjects would wish to bring into being…” Solidarity, while a comfort and a hope, might become cruel in that it prevents forward motion amid an impossible reconciliation of imaginaries that are no longer collective, but divergent, and thus just as fantasmatic as the ones that came before.
I still have trouble conceptualizing this impasse in relation to history. Berlant talks about current economic difficulties being the impetus for a taking hold of consciousness, but I wonder what the start date to this continuous middle would be. Within the present, there is a disjuncture in time. If the present is mediated through affect, is the reaction time this delay? Or the lag between a knee-jerk and a considered response? This lag time is in some sense a relief, a break from the constant motion, but also what prevents real repair or release. Maybe this is what we are holding on to, in order to survive the crisis.