Judged solely by its title, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press) could easily be dismissed by some as just another cynical work of cultural critique. Instead, Berlant strives to distance herself from “the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold to a dream.” It would be easy for Berlant to join the in tradition of satirizing optimists as fools and simpletons like Voltaire’s Candide or 30 Rock’s Kenneth. However, her goal is not to ridicule the optimist, but instead to trace the psychological disposition toward attaching optimistically to an ideal and the social and political impact that results when the entire public pursues their version of “the good life.”
Although the book does not specifically name queer studies as its main subject, it nonetheless bears the hallmark of queer theory’s challenging of normative categories of gender, bodies, and desire. Borrowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on affect and attachment theory, Berlant asserts that all attachments we have to ideals, objects of desire, and our dreams are inherently optimistic because we pin our hopes to them, believing they can satisfy our desire and recognize in us the identity we wish to inhabit.
(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary)