In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant develops their titular concept as a relationship or attachment to something that is non-trivially detrimental to the subject experiencing that attachment, at the same time that participating in it provides a tether to a sense of identity, belonging, or managing that nothing else available can. For months, the back of my head has been trying–not to understand or figure out–but to at least articulate what seems to be happening with the well-documented phenomenon of conspiracy theories (e.g. QAnon) and the interconnected proliferation of disinformation, from brute ideological propaganda (e.g. Fox News) to memes shared on Facebook. I don’t think that cruel optimism on its own accounts for this proliferation, but it goes a long way towards helping to understand one of the key functions of misinformation, which has little to do with convincing anyone per-se about the validity of their claims.
With cruel optimism, there is a certain non- or extra-rational feeling that gets attached to the object of optimism. This attachment is not (purely) ideological, but affective: it seems to resonate with some aspect of the subject’s identity, desire, or mood in a way that can’t always be logically deduced. In this sense, cruel optimism seems to resonate with Ernesto Laclau’s understanding of political articulations, where social forces get linked to up to political positions not because they belong together, but because of contingent, thoroughly not-necessary historical conjunctures.
There is no necessary connection, for example, between (on the one hand) a conspiracy theory that posits the existence of a child sex trafficking (among other things) and (on the other hand) Republican political ideology, policy, or political action. There is, instead, a certain articulation, read here as attachment or linking, that connects the one to the other through an affective resonance. While that resonance is difficult to parse, we can quickly point to the ways in which the grievance, fear, and anger raised by mainstream Republican political discourse resonates with and is amplified by the sense of simultaneous persecution (the world is run by people other than “us”) and self-righteousness (these people are clearly evil) produced and facilitated by the fantasies that QAnon conjures.
This is why the content of QAnon’s claims doesn’t much matter; it’s not about truth or falsity, but the consolidation of a certain (angry, toxic) social group. Misinformation can sometimes function as a floating signifier in this way, in the way where the content is irrelevant (hence, often inconsistent); what matters is that it gets attached to a certain group community in an identifiable way so as to say, if you identify with this group, these are the ideas that belong to you, even if only for a short time.
The battle then is not about which ideas will be accepted as valid and which will be dismissed as “fake news”; rather, the battle becomes about which groups attached to those ideas get to decide what counts as common sense. If, as Stuart Hall insisted, hegemony is the site of a constant struggle, one gets the sense from both Fox News producers and consumers that they increasingly understand this, that they understand media’s role in upholding or contesting hegemonic discursive formations (which is to say affective/practical formations), and that the outlandish return to, doubling down on, and embrace of misinformation is a purposeful effort to wrest some sort of control over that narrative, however extreme it needs to be to jerk attention away from an alternative, neoliberal, increasingly mainstream consensus which at last nominally embraces concepts–such as diversity and globalization (offshoring, sure, but also immigration)–that are perceived as threatening to a white supremacist “way of life.” This process, it seems, is suffused with desperation, out of a kind of sense that a world is at stake, because it is.
Of course, in addition to functioning as an affective tether to a certain, destructive way of life, misinformation also undermines democratic institutions, and amplifies neo-fascism.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.
Hall, Stuart. 2019. Essential Essays Volume 1, edited by David Morley. Duke University Press.
Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.