Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety
How Lauren Berlant’s cultural criticism predicted the Trumping of politics
By Hua Hsu
March 18, 2019
♦ Published in the print edition of the March 25, 2019, issue, with the headline “That Feeling When.”
In October, 2011, the literary scholar and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant published “Cruel Optimism,” a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed. Berlant had taught in the English Department at the University of Chicago since 1984. She had established herself as a skilled interpreter of film and literature, starting out with a series of influential, interlinked books that she called her “national sentimentality trilogy.” A sense of national identity, these books argued, wasn’t so much a set of conscious decisions that we make as it was a set of compulsions—attachments and identifications—that we feel. In “Cruel Optimism,” Berlant moved from theorizing about genres of fiction to theorizing about “genres for life.” We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author. But often what we feel instead is a sense of precariousness—a gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won’t give us control over the story, much less guarantee a happy ending. For all that, we keep on hoping, and that persuades us to keep on living.
The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” We are accustomed to longing for things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes or cake. Perhaps your emotional state is calibrated around a sports team, like the New York Knicks, and despite hopes that next season will be better you vaguely understand that you’ll be let down anyway. But our Sisyphean pursuit of the good life has higher stakes, and its amalgam of fantasy and futility is something that we process as experience before we rationalize it in thought. These feelings, Berlant says, are the “body’s response to the world, something you’re always catching up to.”
“Cruel Optimism” was dense and academic, but it proved enormously influential. Its timing was serendipitous. The book was published at a moment when Barack Obama could still credibly draw upon “the audacity of hope,” and, with a second term in sight, people wondered if he would finally unleash the progressive will that many believed lingered deep inside him. Those who opposed him continued to work themselves into a radical frenzy, as the Republican mainstream reoriented itself around the Tea Party. Berlant tuned in to a wider sense of disaffection—the feeling among average voters that neither of these visions for change was really about them, or for them. According to Berlant, these suspicions manifested themselves in mundane ways: hoarding things or overeating might be attempts to overcome feelings of personal powerlessness. And her affective framework was a means of understanding larger manifestations of these suspicions, too: the Occupy movement, which began in September, 2011, could be seen as a response to the cruel optimism of capitalism, the pent-up outrage of citizens realizing that they’d been chasing nothing more than a dream.
In the years that followed, Berlant’s interest in the immediacy of what others call “felt experience” helped explain why people were feeling increasingly unsteady. It was as though they were in relationships that lacked reciprocity. Her work, like the school of thought that had produced it, was attentive to the buffeting emotional weather of everyday life: consider our Twitter-fed swings of anger and mirth, the oversharing and moodiness ascribed to younger generations, the paranoia stoked by proliferating conspiracy theories, even the emergence of the eternally sad pop star. Shortly after the publication of “Cruel Optimism,” Berlant began to sense a subtle, atmospheric disturbance. In September of 2012, she offered a diagnosis on her blog:
Many of you would say that Donald Trump was excluded from the Republican convention, has no traction as a political candidate, and is generally viewed as a clown whose spewing occasionally hits in the vicinity of an opinion that a reasonable person could defend. But I am here to tell you that he actually won the Republican nomination and is dominating the airwaves during this election season. He is not doing this with “dark money” or Koch-like influence peddling. He has done this the way the fabled butterfly does it, as its wing-flapping sets off revolutions.
Berlant felt Trump’s spectral presence everywhere, his bluster mimicked and channelled by the Party establishment. Though hardly a man of nuance, he had tapped into the subtleties of affective politics. She called it “the Trumping of Politics.”
Literary criticism used to be centered on meaning. The critic interrogated a poem or a passage, and applied her preferred theory of how meanings were produced and where they could be found. A New Critic might have scrutinized form and irony, explicating the interplay between overt and actual meaning; a deconstructionist might have been attuned to the way the metaphors and propositions in a passage undermined each other; a historicist to the way the meanings of a text might be situated within larger political or social tensions. For each, the task was interpretation, and the currency was meaning. In the past couple of decades, however, a different approach has emerged, claiming the rubric “affect theory.” Under its influence, critics attended to affective charge. They saw our world as shaped not simply by narratives and arguments but also by nonlinguistic effects—by mood, by atmosphere, by feelings.
The so-called affective turn was propelled, in no small part, by a series of essays, starting in the mid-nineteen-nineties, by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who had become fascinated by the work of the psychologist Silvan Tomkins. He had identified nine primary “affects,” some positive (interest, enjoyment), most negative (anger, fear, shame, disgust, “dissmell”), one neutral (surprise). Tomkins—who had a background in theatre—believed that people acted toward one another according to social scripts. We could achieve peace or happiness by understanding how the scripts worked and by avoiding situations that triggered negative affects. But literary critics like Sedgwick were less interested in figuring out how to make people better than in understanding why we feel the way we do.
During the two-thousands, affect theory became one of the dominant paradigms of literary studies, and a bridge to other fields, notably social psychology, anthropology, and political theory. Scholars like Sara Ahmed, Sianne Ngai, and Ann Cvetkovich began exploring the emotional contours of life during increasingly precarious times. They were circling around a kind of overstimulated numbness, considering everything from what it meant to call something “interesting”—a hedge against actual judgment—to the relationship between economic anxiety and mental health. In “Ugly Feelings” (2005), Ngai published a “bestiary of affects,” including animatedness, envy, irritation, paranoia, and the combination of shock and boredom that she called “stuplimity.” Other affect theorists noted that, amid a sense of dawning futility, many people seem to derive their greatest pleasure from making others feel bad; disaffection and disillusionment are contagions we can spread ourselves.
Berlant roots her version of affect theory less in works of psychology than in works of Marxist thought, especially those of Raymond Williams, who, back in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of the “structure of feeling.” He was trying to describe how we come to agree on social or cultural conventions—the intuitive, pre-ideological sense a cohort has that one version of the future is feasible while another is not. Berlant, in turn, sought to chronicle “dramas of adjustment” that have overtaken the postwar, boom-time conceptions of the good life, and that might “force into being new recognitions of what a life is and ought to be.”
The draw of the American Dream, in her view, has always been its seductive invitation to fuse one’s “private fortune with that of the nation.” When she began teaching at the University of Chicago, in the mid-eighties, Ronald Reagan spoke confidently of a “morning in America,” and the American story of postwar prosperity still seemed possible. General skepticism about meritocracy and opportunity, felt most acutely by marginalized groups who couldn’t see themselves in picket-fence campaign ads, had yet to go mainstream. Berlant saw the contradictions within the public realm played out in sentimental fiction. These works were often seen as unserious because of their appeal to emotion and their focus on the domestic sphere, and yet they could move people to act.
In sentimental fiction, we encounter righteous solutions to problems that feel unresolvable in real life. Berlant held that American popular culture had been built, layer by layer, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “The Simpsons,” upon the assumption that identifying with “someone else’s stress, pain, or humiliated identity” could change you. “Popular culture relies on keeping sacrosanct this aspect of sentimentality—that ‘underneath’ we are all alike,” she observed.
Everyone has heartstrings. Over time, she wrote, we had grown addicted to having them pulled, rather than focussing on what the pulling could accomplish by way of political change. We’d replaced tangible action with affective experience. “What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation,” she asked in a 1999 essay, “when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumph?” Somewhere along the way, doing good had come to seem irrelevant—or maybe just felt impossible.
In 2002, Berlant helped found the Feel Tank Chicago—her version of that ubiquitous vehicle of policymaking the think tank. The collective consisted of academic colleagues, artists, and activists who sought to take “the emotional temperature of the body politic.” It functioned both as a support network and as a strategy workshop for “political depressives.” Underneath the playful conceit was the very serious possibility that politics was essentially theatre, and that it was basically impossible to opt out of one’s part in it. As Berlant later wrote, in “Cruel Optimism,” “The political depressive might be cool, cynical, shut off, searingly rational or averse, and yet, having adopted a mode that might be called detachment, may not really be detached at all, but navigating an ongoing and sustaining relationship to the scene and circuit of optimism and disappointment.”
We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.” What stories do we tell ourselves in order to stay afloat? In December, 2007, she started a blog called Supervalent Thought, dedicated to slowing the world down, zooming in on its mundanities. Some of its most bewitching posts had a voyeuristic intimacy, cataloguing interactions on city streets or in coffee shops, scrutinizing nonverbal cues, gestures, and fleeting expressions—the traces of affect that litter our daily lives.
In one post, Berlant recounts an argument between a cashier and an angry customer at a convenience store. The customer leaves in a huff but forgets his credit card, and the “aggrieved” yet duty-bound cashier rushes out after him, hoping to get his attention with an unusually loud whistle—the kind “that you know requires your fingers.” When the cashier returned, Berlant complimented him on his technique. “He told us a story about elementary school,” she wrote. “He said he had had a math teacher who insulted and shamed him. One day she was using him as an example, and he just put his fingers in his mouth and blew.” It was an experience that couldn’t be easily distilled into lesson; it endured as a lingering affect. Berlant was interested in the “atmosphere” of scenes like these, acted out by dispirited characters in search of a plot.
“The Hundreds” (Duke), Berlant’s latest book, co-written with Kathleen Stewart, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, grows out of these short writing exercises. Each entry is an experiment in “following out the impact of things” in a hundred words, or a multiple of a hundred words.
The result is a strange and captivating book. It is an inventory of what Berlant and Stewart call “ordinaries,” which arise from encounters with the world that are “not events of knowing, units of anything, or revelations of realness, or facts.” They are records of affect, meditations, manifestos, and prose poems. There are entries on smoothies and weird encounters at the liquor store, digressions on selfies, yoga, and capitalism, a reference to the TV show “Search Party” and the real-estate app Zillow. The authors sift through the detritus of the American Dream—the symptoms of cruel optimism. Men at the local deli seem to suspect that life is “a set of roadblocks cooked down to a rage.” One particularly haunting page recounts an argument that the narrator had with a neighbor over a urinating dog. Another woman walks by, trying to calm the author down and bring her “back to the good.” “His words were spitballs; hers were gently bouncing tennis balls. He was a rage machine; she was a sympathy machine, but she seemed so tired, too, and I could only imagine why.”
In Berlant and Stewart’s hands, affect theory provides a way of understanding the sensations and resignations of the present, the normalized exhaustion that comes with life in the new economy. It is a way of framing uniquely modern questions: Where did the seeming surplus of emotionality that we see on the Internet come from, and what might it become? What new political feelings were being produced by the rudderless drift of life in the gig economy? What if millennials were unintelligible to their parents simply because they have resigned themselves to precariousness as life’s defining feature?
A lot of affect theory is abstruse to the point where you forget that it aims to describe basic facets of everyday reality. Stewart’s books have been a notable exception, interweaving diaristic observation and everyday reportage with critical theory. The sentences in Berlant’s previous books and articles tended to be very long, conveying the sweeping complexity of her ideas. But she seems invigorated by the neurotic limitations of this form, which produces a kind of frenzied poetry. “The Hundreds” calls to mind the adventurous, hybrid style of Fred Moten (the book includes a brief poem by him), Maggie Nelson, or Claudia Rankine, all of whom bend available literary forms into workable vessels for new ideas. Berlant leans into the wit and vulnerability on the edges of her previous work. “There is nothing I love more than watching someone use their freedom,” she writes. “I’ll coast in awkward transit, family meals, and acrid sex to get next to a freedom. I’ll fling myself at ordinary monsters if in the crevasse of the mistake I get next to a freedom. We bear each other hoping to breathe in each other’s freedom.”
The most penetrating moments of “The Hundreds” occur when the authors meditate on what it means to write about life in the first place. Their efforts end up telling us something about what it means to assess our lives without giving up on ourselves: “We make a pass at a swell in realism, and look for the hook. We back up at the hint of something. We butt in. We try to describe the smell; we trim the fat to pinpoint what seems to be the matter here.” It’s like an asymptote, moving toward but never arriving at the point of convergence. This is, of course, the geometry of cruel optimism—the endless chase for a destination you’ll never reach. It’s tiring work: “When writing fails the relation of word and world, it spins out like car wheels in mud, leaving you stranded and tired of trying.”
“All attachment is optimistic,” Berlant argued in “Cruel Optimism,” because it forces us out of ourselves. From there, we enter “into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, or scene.” The challenge is finding configurations that don’t simply reproduce the same old patterns of life.
There’s a stirring moment, at the end of “Cruel Optimism,” when Berlant writes about the book’s cover image, a painting that depicts the artist and disability activist Riva Lehrer lying beside her dog, Zora. Lehrer seems to float behind Zora, her hand covering her face. Zora is blind in one eye and wears a cone around her neck. They are, by conventional standards, limited and vulnerable beings. But, to Berlant, they are a “team.” They “seem at peace with each other’s bodily being, and seem to have given each other what they came for: companionship, reciprocity, care, protection.” In the absence of real stability—the state of affairs that we must come to terms with—there is still the possibility of true solidarity, the experience of “having adventures and being in the impasse together, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and also, allowing for some healing and resting, waiting for it not to drop.”
In moments like these, Berlant’s work can feel strangely and kindly optimistic. What’s moving about her reading of Lehrer’s painting is this awareness of the boundaries between these bodies, as well as the atmosphere they nevertheless share. Maybe relinquishing or recalibrating our fantasies of the good life doesn’t lead to absolute darkness. It can simply be a matter of coming to grips with different possibilities of communion, figuring out who benefits from our collective weariness. The political backdrop that inspired “Cruel Optimism” seems quaint compared with the divisiveness of the present. But attentiveness to affect encourages us to imagine ourselves beyond the present: even if feelings of exhaustion, indifference, or disillusionment may have been naturalized, that doesn’t mean they’re natural.
“No one wants to be a bad or compromised kind of force in the world, but the latter is just inevitable,” Berlant once wrote in a short essay on her personal credos. “The question is how to develop ways to accentuate those contradictions, to interrupt their banality and to move them somewhere.” We can build worlds out of these small ambitions. We continue to write, even if it occasionally feels as though we were spinning our wheels, and we continue to live, even if it means giving up the certainty that our story is going to end the way we want it to. Writing on her blog a few years ago, Berlant issued what she described as her collective’s secret motto: “We refuse to be worn out.”
♦Published in the print edition of the March 25, 2019, issue, with the headline “That Feeling When.”