One of the central thrusts of Berlant’s Cruel Optimism seems to be that that daily life is daily survival and that both are in fact a form of ongoing persistent crisis. Precarity becomes the affect of this historical present. In Time Out, Vincent’s driving, which he describes as his favorite part of his former job, reminds me of the character Rabbit’s running in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. In the novel, whether or not he acknowledges the futility of his action, the character Rabbit decides to run, a form of agency with no goal, an action with constant deferred fulfillment, an equivalent to the wandering driving of Vincent. Rabbit was attempting to defy his middle class existence, the act of running is a physical manifestation of that defiance, but could we characterize Vincent’s actions as defiant?
Berlant identifies the cruelty of cruel optimism in it’s convincing of the subject that “one might not endure the loss of the object/scene of desire”(24) In an intimate discussion with Muriel, Vincent confesses, “Sometime I don’t even know what to do, what’s expected of me.. so I start to panic.” He faces both his fear of inconsequentiality (“not mattering to the conditions of one’s existence”)(56) and the potential loss of the object of his cruel optimism in recognizing its invalidity. During a visit to the mall, a former colleague states explicitly that Vincent could have easily been hired by other consulting companies following his firing, marking his façade as not merely the desire to ‘save face’ but an inability to give up the desired object of his cruel optimism. His being employed is what mobilizes him, organizes his life, and gives his domestic life coherency, but ultimately gives him no meaning.
Using Habermas’ division bourgeois life between intimate private spheres and the successful self-possessed sphere of public life, throughout Time Out Vincent’s coasting is evident in both. The gestures of closeness that Vincent enacts with his family are merely a form of going through the motions of interpersonal intimacy, equivalent to going through the motions of being an employee, a clear demonstration of the way in which “the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation.”(2) Even the affected congeniality between himself and his former colleague who he repudiates in one scene, all speak to a pervasive simulation of legitimacy, a “circulation of familiarity” that allows Vincent to endure.
The early scenes of Vincent’s farce, prior to the financial fraud, are almost extensions of the crisis ordinariness, it is the “thick moment of ongoingness” enacted in slow motion. Compare these scenes to the one in which Rosetta is fired and chased through the factory, we have two subjects who are in the aftermath of being fired and are clinging to their employment. But while the frenetic physical chase and removal of Rosetta depicts a hyper-crisis, Vincent’s driving and scheming unfold at a different pace with a different affect entirely.
So should we understand the pastoral coasting of Vincent in his car to be an over extended crisis ordinariness? From the title of the film, Vincent’s initial reenactment of his former job can be interpreted as a period of suspension, a postponement or deferment of the temporal organization of the 9 to 5, five-day work week. He is taking time out or time off. While the specter of his former job is enacted by his calls to his wife and his non-existent meetings, he is both operating in a temporal no man’s land, a non-normative impasse that is just deadlocked as the historical present, just as futureless as his former life.
The conclusion of the film is critical. Vincent’s submission to the final job interview is an undermining of the political potency of precarity as Vincent is easily absorbed back into the motions and habits of the normative ‘good life.’ The audience and Vincent both understand that his re-found complacency will not yield the pleasures or fulfillment his employment promised him.
In “Exchange Value” (mentioned by Berlant) Charles Johnson’s depiction of Cooter and Loftis’s parents demonstrated their consent to struggle through the present in order to enjoy the future, while Time Out and Vincent’s re-absorption into the cruel optimism of employment depicts the way in which one struggles through the superficial pleasure of the present that is ultimately enclosed in an impasse of no future. Vincent demonstrates neither refusal nor fight, merely a tacit acceptance of an offered way back in.