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Uncertainty Feels Better

March 31, 2010

This is the story of why I’m glad that I got a late rejection letter.

[Hi! I’m back. This is my new blog, where I move away from the old post-every-day model, and instead focus on a few specific things. See the “about” page for more details.]

So a lot has happened since the last time I posted something on my old blog, and a lot of can’t really be recounted in a public forum like this one. What I can say is that:

  • I’ve written two more chapters. Four in total so far. Yay!
  • My sense of being supported and respected by my program has been profoundly damaged, and the events that led to that damage also led me into a financially precarious situation for next year (when my funding runs out).
  • The month of March has been particularly cruel in this regard, since this is when results for fellowships and job searches usually arrive. I’ve become something of a connoisseur of rejection letters.

Now to the story.

This past weekend, I put myself in a 5-day lockdown to finish my fourth chapter in time for a March 30th due date. At the beginning of this period, my stress levels had become such that I was only sleeping a couple of hours a night and I had erratic episodes of elevated heartbeat (which I think is what a low-level panic attack is supposed to feel like, but I digress). In sum, I was under a lot of stress and was feeling defeated both by events in the recent past as well as challenges looming on the horizon ahead of me.

Then, I heard from a couple of classmates that they received their rejection letters for the ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship the week before. Where’s my rejection letter? Why is the response taking so long? Is it maybe that I’m going to get a fat envelope instead of a thin one this time? Excited by the possibility of securing $25,000USD to support my dissertation work next year, I scoured the internet for information on when the award letters were sent out. I looked at several wiki pages dedicated to humanities fellowships and discovered that the response letters had been sent out almost two weeks earlier. Clearly, my (hopefully good) news would be arriving in the mail any day now.

This morning, when I went to campus to take care of some paperwork, I discovered that my letter hadn’t been delayed; it had just been sent to my academic mailbox. As you might’ve guessed from the first line of this blog post, it wasn’t an acceptance letter.

But here’s the funny thing. As depressing as the news was, I was really glad to learn of this news today and not five days ago. Why? Because the five-day interval between finding out that other classmates had been rejected and finding my own rejection letter was one where the promise of security, validation, and relief was materializing just outside my door. It made me feel a little bit lighter. It energized me with possibility. It made the grueling intellectual/creative work-schedule seem a bit more tolerable. It held out the possibility that my work might be worth something (i.e., money, but also respect and a few other things).

As delusional as all of these fantasies may have been, they helped me push through a task that was threatening to drown me. And for that, I am grateful.

But I also wonder about the implications of this transient moment of comfort. What this episode teaches me is that I can more easily survive under bad conditions when I can hang on to the possibility of something good—or at least better.

Lauren Berlant wrote a pair of essays, “Cruel Optimism” [1] and “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal,” [2] both of which examine how people, objects, and scenes can be magnetized with the promise of a life that is at least marginally easier to live in than the present one. Sometimes it’s not even about a better life, but about the comfort of just feeling close to something that can include you and sustain your sense optimism. And, yet, Berlant raises the difficult question of whether such objects of comfort also sustain abusive relationships—and, for Berlant, the promises and the abuse are bundled together in the same “object of desire.” This is what makes “cruel optimism” so cruel:

What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object or scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment, the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world. ([1] “Cruel Optimism,” 21)

These concerns can also be expanded to our own ambivalent connections to modernity, capitalism, and a market system that does not care about how you’re feeling, thankyouverymuch, so long as you’re productive and not being inconvenient to the flow and accumulation of wealth. So, sometimes dreams and fantasies actually make you a better subject of exploitative labor, anesthetizing you to unfair or intolerable conditions.

This poses a problem for labor politics (and politics in general). A commonly-assumed tenet of political strategy/analysis is that, as conditions of life get worse, people become increasingly motivated to resist the state. A fortiori, when conditions become intolerable, citizens will no longer tolerate the state and the revolution begins. Thus, dysfunctional systems will self-correct over time, either through careful rebalancing from above, or from drastic reorganization from below. The management of this dynamic is one definition of politics.

But then there is this promise, that makes intolerable conditions tolerable in advance of—or in the place of—their actual amelioration. What is the tipping-point for political backlash, given this seemingly infinite capacity to adapt to bad conditions? How do you manage to exercise political agency, when modernity has become so good at exhausting and distracting you? Should a politically-engaged person be allowed any pleasure, if that threatens to weaken her/his resolve? Which is more politically productive: being constantly appalled by the innumerable injustices of your everyday life, or feeling vitalized by the promise of a better life to come?

The proper dialectic answer to this binary would be “both,” but I’m going to go with “neither.” I’m still not sure what does turn a particular person or group political—although the old Marxist-Leninist concept of overdetermination is probably pertinent here—but I imagine that it has less to do with positive or negative affect, and more to do with a sharp variation in affect. It’s a question of what counts as ordinary and therefore unremarkable and therefore unworthy of intervention. A sudden change of the affective landscape, whether it be surging hope or shocked horror, scrambles the sense of ordinariness and creates an opening for a sense of The Big Event, The Tipping-Point, or the Historical Moment to emerge. This seems like a far distance to travel from a story about hope and rejection letters, but makes me feel all the more ambivalent about producing intellectual capital under conditions of desperation.

Works Cited

  1. Berlant, Lauren. 2006. Cruel Optimism. differences 17(3): 20-36.
  2. Berlant, Lauren. 2007. Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta. Public Culture 19(2): 273-301.
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