January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m sometimes surprised, on reflection, by how seldom people write about the experience of futility, not least because my own life often seems consumed by it. A lot of it, I suppose, has to do with the wish to avoid melodrama, a category of affect or discourse for wh/ futility is seemingly always being auditioned. To say that an action or situation is futile is to construct a representation that subjects reality to a distorting or heightening effect. Things, we are told (if we are told at all, rather than silently nodded along to whilst our auditor prepares a swift exit), ‘aren’t that bad’; ‘things’ are taken to exist in a state of affairs in wh/ effort is met – not always, but often enough to justify the supposition of a causal relation – with reward. Neoliberalism disposes itself, temporally, as a structure of fantasy: the scene in wh/ effort meets w/ its reward (wh/ may be repeated enough times to suggest causality – “hard work” winning out) exists outside any given moment & yet suggests that it may invoke itself in time, as a future. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (whose title alone could do most of its work) is almost revelatory in the way that it suggests how futility is politicised, is striated by class. (This is especially useful, if nothing else, as a reminder that futility & the seemingly lifelong programme of humiliation that comes with it is not ontological – that the only solution is not, for example, self-murder.) The other old story, spelled out in Socialist Worker headlines: that ‘hard work’ meets w/ success for those primed to have it meet it (by family connections, nepotism, training in bourgeois social codes), whilst for those not in such a position – & especially those who cannot plug themselves back into the matrix of production (the disabled, the long-term unemployed, etc) – a sense of futility is the result; no matter how hard you work, in an economy of workfare, internships, precarious work, terminally scarce full-time work, a non-existent living wage & employers dodging the minimum wage, the rent will just barely be paid. Is futility the Real to the Symbolic of self-help/on-yr-bike, etc? Perhaps not. Berlant stresses that cruel optimism, a peculiarly post-Fordist structure of affect, isn’t quite that simple: the object of fantasy, though it cannot fulfil fantasy, doesn’t become a source of disillusionment as such. Fantasy is fantasy because it still exerts power over us even after its absurdity is acknowledged. Futility (as the prose style of this note perhaps suggest) can be destructive frustration, or, in this case, an icy, ironic perspective (though it doesn’t usually last – perhaps only the length it takes to write a blog post). What would it take to get at the Real of the structure of desire called cruel optimism?


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