The following was published in UChicago News on November 6, 2019, and as part of the Big Brains Podcast series by UChicago.
For most Americans, the driving force in their personal and public life is a desire to attain the “good life”. But what if our attachment to that desire is the very thing holding us back? Lauren Berlant is a theorist and English professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Cruel Optimism” a book about when you're attached to forms of life that fundamentally get in the way of the attachment you brought to them.
Berlant has been writing about finding attachment and belonging in America her entire career. But she says the Presidency of Donald Trump has completely shattered our understanding of what it means to have a public and a shared connection as citizens. But she wants to try and reshape things.
Paul Rand: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What motivates you to go to a job you may not love, save up to buy a house or a luxury car? For most Americans it's a desire to attain the quote-unquote “good life.”
Tape: A great vacation starts with a great airline. The good life. Maybe I'll see you on the plane.
Tape: What is the good life? It's about being totally alive in every fiber, every thought, every moment.
Tape: To those who know the good life, comes from the moments you live, not the things you own.
Paul Rand: But what if that promise, that you can have the good life if you just work hard enough, is a lie?
Lauren Berlant: Starting in the 1970s, the image of the good life as an economic good life started losing its traction.
Paul Rand: Lauren Berlant is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. She spent her career theorizing and writing about finding meaning in American life and whom our society decides gets to be included, the citizens.
Lauren Berlant: There's this whole question of being deserving, which I find so terrifying with so much a part of the politicization of the good life.
Paul Rand: Berlant says that our society and individual sense of place in the world have been shattered in the last few decades. But she wants to find a way to reshape things.
Lauren Berlant: Insofar as I work with art and work with theory, my interest is in trying to produce better ways of thinking about what a good life would be that didn't depend on achievement and success and these kinds of very, kind of beef-jerky-like models of how people live.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, Lauren Berlant and the cruel optimism of the good life. I'm your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: What does it mean to belong in America? Who gets included in society and who gets excluded? How do we find meaning in this experience? These are questions that Berlant has been asking her entire life.
Lauren Berlant: My grandparents on my father's side were communists from Russia. And my grandparents on my mother's side were bourgeois nationalists and Zionists, and they ran guns for the Israelis. So there was a lot of citizenship talk in the family. And I was 11 in '68, so I came into kind of adult-y consciousness, political consciousness, during a period when people were really fighting about it. And so there was just a lot of that kind of conversation. And I think it really matters if you're coming up during a time of movement culture.
Paul Rand: The first books Berlant wrote were called her “national sentimentality” trilogy. They grappled with questions like “What are the relationships and responsibilities that we have to each other?” and “How are those bonds formed?”
Lauren Berlant: Thinking about belonging and attachment to life and the attachment to living on, how one lives on, has been incredibly important to me. Some people think they're attached to each other because of the way the law makes a web of constancy among them. So, we're all citizens. What does that mean?
Lauren Berlant: A few years ago, a student and I taught a class called Queer Arts After Stonewall.
Tape: Today marks 50 years since the start of riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. A police raid led to a backlash that fueled the modern-day gay rights movement.
Lauren Berlant: And when we were getting to thinking about the AIDS Quilt ...
Tape: At first light of day, a quilt, a dark reminder of AIDS and its victims, was unfurled, each panel representing a death.
Lauren Berlant: And it was unrolled in front of the Washington Monument, and there was a lot of citizenship talk during AIDS and ACT UP.
Tape: For society to differentiate gay people from straight people just doesn't make any sense.
Lauren Berlant: Just the way there was in the 60s, who owns the flag? Who does the flag describe? What does it mean to have an administration that actually wants you to die, that is actually enjoying the death of a population?
Tape: All the other health crises in the world, everybody rallied around. We're being ignored.
Lauren Berlant: And I said to my students, “For how many of you is citizenship a salient category?” One, a migrant citizen. And for that the rest of them, they had just taken it for granted. It wasn't a big thing then for them and-
Paul Rand: Were they surprised by their answer?
Lauren Berlant: I was completely surprised by their answer, but surprised in the way that I had to just berate myself that I shouldn't be surprised. So you can imagine that contemporary students who may be people who grew up during Occupy ...
Tape: Occupy Wall Street was a social movement against income inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of big business in politics spreading to hundreds of cities across America.
Lauren Berlant: People who are starting to think again about, “Well, what does it mean to be a public?”
Tape: What do we as Americans agree on? And what can we do about it?
Lauren Berlant: When I was doing my early work, the question of what a public was was so important. And then there was a long period, like the last decade, where everyone's like, “There's no such thing as a general public,” which is related to “There's no such thing as a Purple America.” And I think Obama basically emptied the bottle on the model of citizenship is a kind of meta-category that makes all of us have something in common with each other.
Paul Rand: What do you mean, he emptied the bottle?
Lauren Berlant: Well, he said there's no Red America or Blue America. There's purple America.
Barak Obama: Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of “Anything goes.” Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.
Lauren Berlant: And now everyone's like, “Where is purple America?” My first three books were about national sentimentality, e.g., Purple America.
Lauren Berlant: The idea that there was some common space that people thought was more or less a fact of a common space. And even if you had different affective relations to it, like you might hate it or you might like it, you saw that you were attached to it. Because everybody is holding the same songs or the same images or the same fantasies, they have something in common with each other.
Lauren Berlant: And I think that's been pretty shattered. So we're living without national sentimentality for the first time since the 19th century, maybe the late 18th century.
Paul Rand: Right now, we're not?
Lauren Berlant: Right now.
Paul Rand: And tell me what you mean more by that, “We're living without national sentimentality.”
Lauren Berlant: We're living without a normative sense that to be American means to have something in common with other people who are members of the set.
Paul Rand: And we don't have that anymore.
Lauren Berlant: I think it's been completely wrecked. And that's one of the great effects, by which I don't mean one of the good effects, of the current administration.
Tape: Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs.
Tape: Increasingly we Americans occupy alternate universes.
Tape: But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
Lauren Berlant: That is asking the question again of you might be here, you might be in the same space as me, but it doesn't mean we both belong to this space.
Tape: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Tape: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.
Lauren Berlant: And the Ministry of Cruelty or whoever makes his decisions decided to float the idea of giving up birthright citizenship. To me that's just a kind of astonishing moment in dialing back what constitutes belonging-
Paul Rand: Sure.
Lauren Berlant: ... that you have to earn belonging now, that it's not something that you show up for, and it has to be fought for because you can see the incredible vulnerability of people who don't have it as a protection.
Lauren Berlant: And I think it's a really big question now. What are our names for the thing that we hold in common?
Paul Rand: One of the forces driving the breakdown of the bonds that hold our society together is a concept Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” But it's not at all the kind of optimism that you're thinking of. That's after the break.
Paul Rand: So you had a book that came out and the title ... It was this concept around Cruel Optimism, which is a really in some ways cynical point of view, somewhat disheartening point of view, as I read more about it and I'm sure that ...
Lauren Berlant: Everyone says that about me. In some ways, I'm so surprised by it.
Paul Rand: Tell me what you mean by it. And why are you surprised that that's how I interpret it?
Lauren Berlant: So, cruel optimism is when you're attached to objects or object worlds or forms of life that fundamentally get in the way of the attachment you brought to them, and of the optimism you brought to them.
Lauren Berlant: So, for me, it's a heartbreak. It's not cynical.
Paul Rand: It is a heartbreak.
Lauren Berlant: It's a heartbreak that the world isn't worth of our attachment to it, that it gives us objects or ways of life or forms of life that are constantly betraying us.
Lauren Berlant: The easiest example of this is a broken heart. So, you saw another person or you saw in your family or you saw on your kids or you saw in some form of kinship, the possibility of a kind of mutual, a mutuality and staying attached to the world. And then when that doesn't last 30 years or when it only lasts two weeks or when you realize you haven't fundamentally been recognized in a way that you can bear, the fear is that when you lose that relation you would lose your world.
Lauren Berlant: If you break a pencil you don't say, “I'll never write again.” But when your heart breaks you say, “I don't know if I can go on. I don't know if I can bear more loss.”
Lauren Berlant: And right now we have the problem of the kind of capitalist betrayal of people's sense that there would be continuity and there would always be upward mobility.
Tape: 10 years ago, I was a high school dropout, broke and deeply in debt. Today I'm a millionaire.
Tape: Get Rich With Real Estate, the program all America's talking about.
Tape: It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you got to believe anything is possible.
Paul Rand: That was the American Dream, right?
Lauren Berlant: That was the American dream, but also just the concept of the good life itself. Is the world set up for me to actually not only not drown in life, but also add up to something? So, people are trained to think that what they're doing ought to matter, that they ought to matter, and that if they show up to life in a certain way, they'll be appreciated for the ways they show up in life, that life will have loyalty to them, their job will have loyalty them, or their intimates will have loyalty to them, or their dog will. I know so many people who have just given up and are now completely obsessed by their pets because work and love and life aren't producing the kind of loyalty that dogs are bred for, for example.
Lauren Berlant: And now, I'm just thinking about people and their dogs. I'm a cat person.
Paul Rand: And I'm sitting here thinking about my dog, so it's-
Lauren Berlant: Exactly. Exactly.
Paul Rand: Yeah.
Lauren Berlant: Right. And I've worked at this university for 35 years.
Lauren Berlant: So, for me, my job was the thing that was going to produce continuity for me in the world. But let's say I hated my job, or let's say it turns out that living for work is not really a good idea, and working to live would be a better idea.
Paul Rand: And we know it's not.
Lauren Berlant: Well, but I think in fact, capitalist structurations of subjectivities suggest that ambition is all about trying better yourself and trying to better your lot and trying ... There are all of these concepts of upward mobility that organize our sense of life. And so the argument of Cruel Optimism is that, starting in the 1970s, the image of the good life as an economic good life started losing its traction.
Paul Rand: Okay, but it was real before then, is what you're saying.
Lauren Berlant: I'm not saying it was real. It was better.
Lauren Berlant: What happened is people started selling off public goods to private ownership.
Lauren Berlant: That really matters. And then the notion of the entrepreneurial subject was invented, and notions of human capital became dominant in certain fields. And the idea that you could game the system, you as an individual could game the system rather than what happened in the Depression, and the long period also after World War II, which is the idea that everybody's boat could float even though there would still be inequality.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: Right. But what starts happening is that the sense that you're on your own, that the gradual diminution of the Great Society and the New Deal model of social accountability-
Paul Rand: Is gone.
Lauren Berlant: Gone.
Tape: It is 1932 and the American economy is sick. But America's new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has a plan.
Tape: Soon after taking office, Roosevelt made it clear that he would be President of all the people, including those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Tape: I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people.
Tape: He causes the government to borrow vast sums of money, which it uses to put people back to work. He reforms the banking system, polices the stock market. He builds the Social Security system, guaranteeing people they will never retire into poverty.
Lauren Berlant: Before Social Security was passed, old people just died. And you were your family's responsibility. If your family had stuff or they liked you, you might not die right.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: And then suddenly people who weren't in production were taken care of if they participated in the economy at all or not. It's amazing. You can't imagine that getting passed now. So the postwar period, the exceptional postwar period, between the 40s and the 70s, where the GI Bill ... If you just think about the effects on American society of the GI Bill, it's kind of astonishing.
Tape: The GI Bill promised World War II vets a raft of benefits.
Tape: If they can't find you a job right away, you'll be given $20 a week up to a limit of 52 weeks. The government pays all of your school bills up to $500 a year and living expenses of $50 a month or $75 a month if you have dependents.
Lauren Berlant: And now people would say, “Did you earn it? Did you deserve it?” There's this whole question of being deserving, which I find so terrifying, was so much a part of the politicization of the good life.
Lauren Berlant: You remember George Bush I saying, “A thousand points of light.” The idea of a volunteer society became so important in the United States, and that's incredibly depressing. The idea that everybody who's generating value and reproducing life shouldn't be able to survive, and more than survive. One of the things that happens in this model of entrepreneurial subjectivity is that survival looks like the best possible horizon of living.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: And-
Paul Rand: Which is not very appealing.
Lauren Berlant: Right. And survival is success. It's so terrible that people's best creative energy is sucked up trying not to drown. Those questions, which are material questions ... What will you do if you lose your job? What will you do if you're 60 and real estate has just gotten too crazy? How are you going to live? If the policymakers of the society have already sold you out because they think that profit should be held by capitalists, then the world doesn't exist for you. And then we're back in the 1920s and the 1910s and before that.
Paul Rand: What do you do when you've lost your sense of belonging, when there's no public for you to belong to, and the world you thought was promised to you turns out to be an illusion? Understanding these concepts shines a whole new light on President Trump and even the 2020 election.
Lauren Berlant: I don't think that the Obama election did anything but to amplify the rage that people who thought that life would come to them if they showed up for work and if they showed up for each other, whatever, however local [crosstalk 00:16:48].
Paul Rand: But it didn't deliver.
Lauren Berlant: But it didn't deliver. And it was already not delivering for a lot of people. If you think about Appalachia or you think about Detroit or you think about ... But I remember sitting at the Starbucks on 53rd Street in Hyde Park when Obama got elected and all the people sitting around going, “This is going to be our time.” And it wasn't just African American people thinking that. It was also youth thinking that.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: It was also people who thought that there was still a chance for there to be a genuinely redistributive administration. And then of course it turned out that he had drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid when he was at the University of Chicago and he really did believe in entrepreneurial subjectivity and people responsible-ising upward mobility. And he would go and say that to people. And I'm just like, “Yeah, there are no jobs.”
Lauren Berlant: And there's that joke about “The Obama recovery was really great. I should know. I have three of those jobs.” This idea that he was going to return the United States to a space where there was an Everyone who would benefit from the vast wealth that is here was very quickly trashed. And that's what the Obama administration and then, made possible to lead to the Trump administration, where it became very clear that it was going to be a culture of “My sovereignty or yours” and “My people, my base, or yours.”
Lauren Berlant: And I could see that people, that white people especially, were dying to just stop being politically correct, stop feeling shamed, and to blame somebody for the fact that their good faith showing up to life wasn't being rewarded.
Lauren Berlant: And meanwhile you had Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal Democrats saying, “We're going to do a little for you. We're going to see if we can try to help.” There was nothing inspiring about that.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: When she said that, I thought ... And now Kamala Harris says that.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: “I'm just going to do what I can and we're going to govern with what's possible.” And then, and then Elizabeth Warren says, “Why would you bother running for President if you're just going to do what's possible, meaning what's probable?” That what you have on his side is a kind of radical freedom. “Let's reimagine the world.” And meanwhile you have-
Paul Rand: So, sort of cruel optimism, as to what he's promising?
Lauren Berlant: Well, it's my view, but I'm not objective about it. It's my view that people who thought that he was going to bring jobs back and people who thought that they were a public that he had a commitment to, are going to have to have been very disappointed because he's a showman. He goes to Indiana and says, “I'm saving your jobs” and then the jobs leave anyway.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: And he goes to Coal Country and says, “I'm going to save your jobs” and then the jobs leave anyway. But on the other stand, he still represents an affective freedom. And so affective citizenship, he has delivered on that.
Paul Rand: So, I don't pay pick up you as necessarily being traditionally political in a sense. But if you were going to give political advice, and you're saying, “Listen, you got Kamala Harris saying this. You've got others saying this,” which you don't think it's going to resonate, what's the anecdote to this? And if you were going to be giving advice, saying, “This is what got us to this point,” what is the answer to get us out of this?
Lauren Berlant: Wow. So I read a piece about John Kerry that talked about his inauthenticity with respect to himself. He was the person who said, “Who wants to be the last person to die in an unjust war?” And then by the time he's a candidate, he's saying, “I'm showing up for service.”
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: Okay, so he totally disavowed his left political positions, and people can smell that. People can smell self-betrayal.
Lauren Berlant: So, one thing is-
Paul Rand: That's an interesting word, “self-betrayal,” isn't it, in this case? Yeah.
Lauren Berlant: Well, I thought it was.
Paul Rand: Yeah.
Lauren Berlant: But also, who's he kidding? So in fact, I have this whole ... I'm writing a book on humorlessness after the next book, and I have a chapter on Comb-Over's subjectivity and I never thought we'd have a president with a comb-over. And the thing is, we're all comb-over subjects, which is to say there are things about us that don't make any sense that we hope no one will call us on.
Lauren Berlant: Okay. And we comb-over to him.
Lauren Berlant: And that was a comb-over moment for Kerry.
Paul Rand: Yes, it was.
Lauren Berlant: And everyone knew he had that vulnerability and they totally exploited it.
Paul Rand: Yup.
Lauren Berlant: But this is about Kamala Harris. I think she could ... She's somebody who is really good when she's against someone, but she stands for nothing. So, the thing is, I feel like you have to have something you would die for you. You have to have something that people really believe that you would actually be willing to be exposed about. And with Trump, it's cruelty.
Lauren Berlant: So on the other side, what would you be willing to be exposed about it?
Paul Rand: Give me an example of what that could possibly be.
Lauren Berlant: So, for example, universalizing citizenship, like whatever kind of law would follow from that.
Lauren Berlant: People who are here already generating value, who are producing life do have a general amnesty.
Paul Rand: Got it.
Lauren Berlant: That seems really important to me because people are already holding up the world together in the old-fashioned sense of “There is a general society.” And Andrew Yang has his version of that, which is a ...
Paul Rand: The Universal Basic Income.
Lauren Berlant: Universal Basic Income.
Paul Rand: That's running through my head at the same time.
Lauren Berlant: That's right. And that sounds too scary to people because the people who have been working thinking other people are going to get stuff without working-
Paul Rand: Doing nothing, right.
Lauren Berlant: Without ... Right. But they're not doing nothing. They're raising children. They're having families. They're participating in the community in all sorts of ways. But right now we don't really trust the people who aren't doing whatever it is we were told we had to submit to in order to be able to constitute ourselves as productive members of society. So that would be a good example.
Lauren Berlant: But I think generally we're going to have to think about whether we have a general public or not. So the question of who is responsible and whether it's the family who's responsible and this increased normativity of the family, or whether we still have an image of the state as a necessary provider of goods and resources, is really what's at stake right now and I think should be at stake for the Democrats. But your mileage may vary.
Paul Rand: So, do you think this is healable?
Lauren Berlant: Well, it was destroyable. So, in my lifetime, the model of an increasingly inclusive citizenship was a value that motivated people. And then in my lifetime, it's been totally trashed.
Paul Rand: Mm-hmm.
Lauren Berlant: In my lifetime, women were transformed from having only patriarchal control over their bodies to having more and more kind of respect in the workplace and also respect. Legal dignity, let's say, is the technical term for it. And in a minute, it gets trashed.
Lauren Berlant: But the fact that you can see that there would be a build, I'm all about the build. How are we going to build it? What's the relation between the small gestures that one could do toward building? And this is where the more moderate Democrats, they could still say they were trying to build something visionary and then say, “Here's how I would do it. I would do this thing first and then that thing first.” So, it's the Ruth Bader Ginsburg model of feminism, which is she wasn't interested in a general emancipation. She was going to do this thing and that thing and then she was going to-..
Paul Rand: It adds up.
Lauren Berlant: ... the weakness in the system.
Paul Rand: Right.
Lauren Berlant: So, my optimism is ... It's changed in my lifetime. It could change again. I guess my pessimism is that the cruelty has released affectively so much rage at the sense that other people are stealing the good life from oneself, which is another way of talking about anti-PC, that I don't know how you get the anger back into the bottle. I don't know.
Lauren Berlant: The thing that produced the idea of a general progress in a general public world, it didn't come from rage. It came from some sense of inclusivity as one of the models of being American. And it was still struggled against. The New Deal, all the Republicans have wanted to do since the passage of the New Deal is to try to destroy it. So we have to have a longterm project, and we don't have one, partly because Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter kind of gave into the neoliberal model of “Well, maybe we should have corporate-public partnerships.” And in the end the logic of the corporate won.
Lauren Berlant: So, how do you break the property concept that has organized your sense of belonging to the world? So, my argument there is that you have to break analogies because a lot of the ways we build the world is to make “This is like this, and this is like this, and this is like this.” And then you can just start refusing analogies.
Lauren Berlant: They could say, “Well, actually it's not like this.” There's a normativity to the kinds of connections that you make. But I'm interested in the rhetorical question and the kind of the politics of refusing the rhetorical question because someone will often say, “Well, why ... “ Milton Friedman would say, “Why would we give the state the opportunity to organize our lives. The state is the worst possible institution for organizing our lives.” And he thought it was a rhetorical question.
Lauren Berlant: And it isn't. You could say, “Oh, for these 10,000 reasons.” And then you would have to have the argument. You break normativity by refusing its right to ask a rhetorical question. You break normativity by refusing its sense that we know what the evidence of democracy is because we can put different objects near it. And that's a thing that I think is just so important about why scholarship matters and why scholarship and the humanities matters and why just experimental thought matters is the way you break something isn't to just find a better object. It's to loosen up the object and transform it from within itself.
Lauren Berlant: And so what we have to do, kind of as artists and writers and teachers, is to ask the question, “Are there other concepts of the good life that would be more satisfying than the ones that you have been trained to pay attention to?”
Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Our show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.