Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cruel Optimism Close to Home

In this last reading response I'm posting, I'm revisiting Cruel Optimism; it's a work I feel I know pretty intimately by now, having made it one of the cornerstones of both of my essays for this course, and yet I still feel as though complete understanding of the topic eludes me. Or perhaps, rather, something indistinct plays at the edges of my understanding; for I feel as though I understand cruel optimism, as a concept, pretty well by now: it is a situation in which the giving up of an object or desire is too painful to bear, and yet the possession of that object/desire/artifact/argument contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Success will never come from it, and yet, one cannot let it go because it simply means too much.

So, I get it.

I keep coming back to the idea of labor, though, the concept of employment. It is not the theory itself that bothers me, I don't think; and it's not that the examples bother me, or rather, they don't bother me because I don't feel that they exemplify the theory itself; they do, that much is for certain.

Perhaps what disquiets me is the sad knowledge that I know, even as Berlant refrained from using empirical examples, electing to use poetry and films to make her point for her (and this is fair enough, as the idealized version of cruel optimism, as it is captured by the page or by film, is probably easier and less contentious to recognize than the realities of life under capitalism for so many), that these are true events.

I am reminded, offhandedly, of the film El Norte, one of the sadder movies I've seen recently (although many criticize it for its low production qualities, I'm a bit of a sucker, coming from a family of Hispanic immigrants myself). The struggles those main characters faced; the reality of their sacrifices coming to the United States, and the crushing poverty they faced in the United States, a poverty that was every bit as oppressive and deadly as the conflict the main characters fled in their native land …

With most theory, it is easy to separate the reality from the theory; to assume abstractions and create hypothetical people engaging in the activities theorized. But with cruel optimism (perhaps because of its cruel nature) … everything stings just a little bit closer to home.

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