cruel optimism
April 19, 2014, 10:26 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

We are told we need hope when there is none. Hope is the lingua franca in a society in which the relationship between work and the expected dividends of that work are broken – when you work your ass off and get nowhere. Hope is turned into a virtue and an issue of personal responsibility. Thereby, no efforts are expended to make the system any better and you alone are responsible for your relative successes and failures.

Cruel optimism says ‘you must believe in a brighter future,’ as it erects insurmountable obstacles to finding that success.

From an essay by Jo Littler:

According to Cameron’s stated worldview, the ability to ‘believe in yourself ’, and by extension, your child, is primary. This is a discourse which vests not only power but also moral virtue in the very act of hope, in the mental and emotional capacity to believe and aspire. Hope and promise become more integral in an unequal society in which hard work alone has less and less chance of reaping the prizes. Through this rhetorical mechanism, instead of addressing social inequality as a solvable problem, the act of addressing inequality becomes ‘responsibilised’ as an individual’s moral meritocratic task. This process devolves onto the individual personal responsibility not just for their success in the meritocratic competition, but for the very will to compete and expectation of victory which are now figured as moral imperatives in themselves. Not investing in aspiration, in expectation, is aggressively positioned as an abdication of responsibility which condemns yourself – and even worse, your child – to the social scrapheap. […]

Here, social disadvantage is only ‘real’ in that it is an obstacle over which pure mental will and aspiration – if they are expressed correctly by being combined with hard work – can triumph. These tropes and discursive elements generate an affective mode which Lauren Berlant aptly identifies as ‘cruel optimism’. This is the affective state produced under neoliberal culture which is cruel because it encourages an optimistic attachment to the idea of a brighter future whilst such attachments are, simultaneously, ‘actively impeded’ by the harsh precarities and instabilities of neoliberalism. If ‘Aspiration Nation’ is related to such ‘cruel optimism’, it also draws on the English trope of ‘having a go’, which involves a sort of non-competitive competitiveness, of being prepared to compete without any expectation of winning, out of a recognition that sporting competition is a mode of social participation; although the difference is that in the Aspiration Nation you can’t just do your best: you have to want to win.

Jo Littler, Meritocracy as Plutocracy, New Formations

from Spurious by Lars Iyer






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