Finding a Better Society: The Work of Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech Publishing


This is a book critique of Lauren Berlant's 2011 book Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press). In this book, Berlant explores how people in Europe and the United States survive neoliberal postwar restructuring. This review defines the term cruel optimism which Berlant has created to describe the process of survival individuals undertake. Next, this review critiques the shortcomings of Berlant's discussion as well as highlights the important contributions that cruel optimism presents in political and performative literature. Through a detailed discussion of the good life, Berlant introduces a compelling examination of social thought on topics related to sovereignty, slow death, capitalism, and queer theory. Berlant delineates the good life as relating to four areas: promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy. Berlant draws from examples across disciplines and within numerous genres to make a strong societal critique of why and how people cling to false promise. This review also briefly pinpoints a few drawbacks or challenges to Berlant's book. Ultimately, this review concludes that Berlant's book is valuable call to action in the humanities and social sciences which utilizes numerous historical and cultural sources to paint a troubling critique of individual lives in post-war societies.




Ryan, M., 2016. Finding a Better Society: The Work of Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism. Spectra, 5(1). DOI: