Friends, let us hold space and remember Cruel Optimism author Lauren Berlant upon word of their passing. “A relation of cruel optimism exists,” Berlant wrote, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). We are all in such relationships, are we not? “Speaking of grieving,” they wrote, it was in grieving French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that Berlant “first saw optimism as the thing that keeps the event open, for better or ill” (viii). How does one come to recognize that one’s optimisms have become “cruel”? What is it that moves us out of ourselves? “A satisfying something,” they whisper. “An intelligence beyond rational calculation” (2). And we are here, we are caught in this “scene of fantasy,” we are in the throes of it. ‘Tis our present, our contemporary moment. And this moment is what Berlant calls an “impasse”: “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward” (4). That is the genre of these trance-scripts, is it not? “The impasse is a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things” (4).
Wherefore this talk of alienation, with its paranoid, “friend-enemy”-divided, ego-centered picture of the cosmos? Why no delight in others? May we re-cast ourselves as optimists? May we create, despite the limits of our condition, applying ourselves with purpose so as to rework these conditions? A voice intervenes to help us pick the lock. “Conditioning scenes,” it tells us. Conditioning scenes furnish the materials and sometimes the rules, says Sidney Hook, “but never the plots of the dramas of human history” (The Hero in History, p. xiii). What if, in the script of our awareness, we replace “I” with “we,” and “alienated” with “outstanding”? Can we still find in ourselves a “center” to which can be assigned narrative categories like responsibility, decision, and action? What would occupy this center? A Head? A Brains Trust? A Party? A Corporation? A Church? A Logic? Big Brother? Dear Leader? To whom do we grant agency: founding fathers or We the People?