Lauren Berlant’s work asks difficult questions about survival in neoliberal economies from what she has called a position of “depressive realism,” which as I read it is a way of sitting with, or occupying for a time, the raw and attritional realities of the present without being allowed escape through dreams of possibility or imaginations of meaning that invest slow suffering with phantasmatic, digestible dignities.
This is like sitting for a time with what Emmanuel Levinas called “useless suffering” – a resistance to transforming suffering into something intelligible, manageable, useable, or just alright.
The work to give meaning to useless suffering has nothing to do with the lives, human, animal, and other, that live it, are exhausted by it, and die from it. Modes of evasion and foreclosure, attributions of meaning, paeans to the nobility of suffering, ascriptions of dignity and the like are meant for those who create and share them amongst each other. Like all cultural capital, they have an exchange value, marking the transmitter as both sophisticated and empathetic, and linking together a community of the same.
Distant sympathetic relations with “useless suffering” form in part the basis for a community predicated on the gift exchange of tragic stories and heroic survival, narrative transformations of the unruliness of suffering and life, and its human production (politics), into non-threatening, tragic, and heartwarming tales. These shared tales support a community of meaning that is otherwise alone, and whose existence is predicated both literally and imaginatively on the sad other to whom they extend their charity. Somehow it is not the few “we” who need them; it is the many “them” who need us. This is what Didier Fassin calls “humanitarian reason.”
Michel de Certeau attended more keenly than most to the excesses that could not be so easily contained in soothing tropes that made intelligible and safe the eruptions of the ordinary. He addressed the flip side of Michel Foucault’s excavation of (made) knowledge (of the other) in relation to normativity and power. De Certeau asked instead, sociologizing Lacan, “What escaped and what returned?” He saw in the utopian moment of France 1968 the possibility of otherwise, even if briefly, and saw this as not just an ideal but as a necessity for human survival. This latter seems prescient now.
I began to think seriously about the cruelty and institutional utility of hope in 2005. I was sitting and sweating, half asleep on a wooden sofa at one end of a small brothel semi-disguised as a hair salon on the edges of one of southern China’s largest cities. It was a very hot and humid southern China day. I had been doing research on labor migration and low-echelon sexual labor for about a year at that point. Xiao Jing was sitting in one of the two barber chairs in the shop and humming to herself a song to pass the time. The song was called Weidao （味道), meaning aroma. The lines are about longing for a lover who is not present:
I miss your smile
I miss your outercoat
I miss your white socks
I miss the smell of your body
I miss your kiss
I miss the faint smell of tobacco on your fingertips
And the feeling of being loved.
I asked Xiao Jing who she was thinking of when she sang that. She replied that she was thinking about her weilaide (未来的) partner, someone she had not met yet but who she believed was waiting for her already. The term weilaide enabled an impossible object of desire to be present imaginatively but also ultimately falsely. She described it as being connected to a future by a line. Like a life line.
I witnessed over the following years how this hope, interconnected with a cluster of other imaginings of a good future, shaped her decisions, often in ways that hurt her in the present. And I watched as it all began to unravel badly over time. I began to connect this as well to the optimisms – the dreams of the good life or at least a better life – that motivated most I knew then, and many I know now in Hong Kong, to sacrifice so much as they exhaust themselves through hope.
Berlant calls this cruel optimism. She goes further in unraveling how cruel optimisms constitute the ground of life and meaning in neoliberal economies, how people may be both undone by these optimisms and yet lost without them, and yet how within present life and bodily disrepair there are still moments of companionship that do not make disappear the appropriation of senses, meaning, and desire that is neoliberalism(s) but that do make for the occasional places of rest, love, and survival. In this, they make possible imagining more flourishing forms of life and community.
My ethnographic work asks in part “What is beyond cruel optimism?” What about people who no longer maintain optimistic attachments to the promises of different neoliberalisms? What about those who recognise their cruelties or even find ironic humor in and over them? This takes us into endurance and exhaustion. Or melancholy – not in the way Berlant seems to treat it, as a psychological mode of temporising – but as a sociological condition of refusal – a recognition of the impossibility of attaining the object of desire I have extended my life towards. Yet I will not release it still.
The first form of agency is refusal.
We come across this in our work in different ways. What do we tell young people in Hong Kong about their options? Hong Kong’s education system is in many ways a paradigmatic case of cruel optimism. It hold out the promise of opportunity while delivering remarkable inequality through inequitable means, and structures both through the two intertwined forms of misrecognition that make this all possible – self-blame for failure and the hopeful embrace of possibility. “If you don’t make it, it’s your fault” is the necessary correlate to “I can make it, it’s all up to me” – and vice versa.
For-profit non-degree tertiary programs – outsourced to the market by the Hong Kong government – are among the parasitic forms that feed on the hopes of the young and their parents. Success stories, though real, are part of the cruel hope con, luring large numbers who will spend money they and their families can often ill-afford, and with little return – at least for them. The lumpen, as they are often portrayed, can at last have worth in Hong Kong’s neoliberal economy and to Hong Kong elites as they seek ways to create and extract profit from lives that may otherwise just work in low-wage service industry or similar jobs, their potential (economic value) diffused in low monthly earnings instead of being realised and skimmed off in lump sum payments and loans for 60,000+ HKD a year in tuition fees.
Or we can think beyond cruel optimism. Many young people I talk with know it’s a con, but they don’t know what else to do. They are increasingly unmoved by the moralistic, emotional, and rationalistic stories that make Hong Kong’s version of a neoliberal economy seem inevitable, even ethical, yet they have nothing fully formed with which to replace it. They do not want to let go of the cluster of images that constitute the “good life,” which is not just about that life in the future but about themselves and who they are now – a person who might yet realise that life that awaits them, and to which they are imaginatively intertwined. These imaginings have constituted them as hopeful subjects oriented towards Hong Kong’s lodestone of possibility – a local dreamland.
Yet young Hong Konger’s increasingly recognise that this is all much like the proverbial carrot dangling in front of the horse’s nose – distracting, luring, and leading them on without reward and into exhaustion for the use and comfort of others, with every part ultimately extracted for value. Or they are abandoned with lumpen others if they have no extractable value left to render up, mined out as it were, displaced to the margins of ever-expanding New Town developments on the geographic edges of Hong Kong. Fortunately, the work of New Town development and the displacement of growing hundreds of thousands of people is a golden opportunity to create and reap profit.
One night in 2008 in a small, very dank brothel on the edges of Guangzhou, I asked Anna if she would consider some other kind of work. She had come back bleeding from an encounter with two drunken customers. I had grown increasingly desperate and begged her to consider other options. Anna was young but she was always patient. The others said of her “she couldn’t see any bad thing.” By this they meant that her heart stayed good no matter what. Anna was always patient with everyone, but kneeling on the squat bathroom floor and trying to clean herself up, she lost her patience and half shouted at me:
“What should I do then（你要让我干什么呢) ? You want me to go home and grow crops? It is very bitter and tough! You want me to work in a factory? You know that I did that already. My back ached. I had terrible breathing problems. The air was even worse than here! It stank and smelled like chemicals. I was bent over a table for 10 hours a day. It was very bitter and almost no money! So what should I do then? If you can tell me, then I will do it!”
I heard something like this again in Hong Kong recently, if not as dramatically. I asked a young woman in Tinshuiwai, Ying, why she wouldn’t join her mother in her small business selling dried seafood, and instead had decided to enrol in a paid certificate program that took two years, was expensive, and might still not result in a better job. She asked me what else did I think she should do.
Ying explained to me that her mother’s work did not even really pay the bills, although it was considered better than most. At least she owned her own business. Ying knew that paying for additional schooling was very likely not going to better her life prospects, but she felt it was still something, it meant something. She would try. Perhaps things would get better in Hong Kong in the meantime. At least she wouldn’t be working in a 7-11 any time soon or in the smelly stall with her mother, her life done and laid out to dry with a final cut of the line that connected her to a better future. For a time at least she wouldn’t be like the older women her mothers’ age who had no real hopes of their own, except – another cruel optimism – for those invested in their children.
Instead Ying would be someone still in school, trying to better herself. She would be a student with imagined possibilities still ahead, not a worker resigned to a life in dead-end jobs, part of a flexible labor force without recognised social value or even a lasting grip on this life. If nothing else, she would have a certificate. She knew this meant little, but she also desired this modest form of recognition, and this delay.
In a sense this is both cruel optimism and something beyond that, a working out of the logics that constitute meaning and value even in the absence of real hope. In another sense, this is melancholy, a social refusal, a stubborn demand, and a form of endurance. Ying thought of the two-year program as a deferral, and a respite before a life of slow exhaustion. The work we are engaged in at Project Share is in part to provide an honest and livable answer to the question, “What would you have me do instead?”
We are now in Hong Kong seeing different responses to this reality. Some, as in Paris 1968, are utopian, pushing beyond common sense to other possibilities, demanding the impossible, which is another word for the unthought, perhaps a cruel optimism, but also an urging towards life even in, maybe inspired by, the looming shadow of its loss.