“Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal” Notes on Berlant

In “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” Lauren Berlant close reads these two films from the 1990s as entry points into a larger discussion of the role of children and affect within the globalized labor networks of late capitalism. The article is devastating in its presentation of the function of fantasy and imagination. As Berlant says “I want to tell a story from this perspective about post-Fordist affect as a scene of constant bargaining with normalcy in the face of conditions that can barely support even the memory of the fantasy. How do fantasy-practice clusters…become the grounds for political and social conservatism?” (278). This question may not seem like a natural one at first. Berlant’s aim in the article, however,  is to demonstrate how affect is completely entangled with  social and political economies, as well as circuits of labor.

Affect cannot be considered separately:

“There is no room to make a distinction among political, economic, and affective forms of existence, because the institutions of intimacy that constitute the everyday environments of the social are only viscerally distinct but actually, as we know, intricately and dynamically related to all sorts of institutional, economic, historical and symbolic dynamics” (279).

But why do affective fantasy practices produce “social conservatism”? Berlant links the fantasy and longing for “normativity” on the part of the children represented in the  films as a major link in hegemonic systems of labor. The “will to feel that feeling” of normalcy, or “aspirational normalcy” constitutes an affective reinvestment into the “the normative promises of capital”  (281) rather than leading to a subversive or resistant stance. Berlant describes how the rise of immaterial labor and the weakening of nation-states, and, consequently, citizenship rights, has led to the situation of “survivalists, scavengers bargaining against defeat by the capitalist destruction of life” (282). Because of their inability to ‘get ahead,’ these “survivalists” have nothing to pass along to their children except the hope for a better life. This is the fantasy that underpins the production of “social conservatism.”

In the second half of the article, Berlant prepares to theorize childhood by engaging in a theoretical archive including Judith Butler, W.R.D. Fairbairn and Christopher Bollas. It might be helpful to unpack this section together in class so we can see precisely where Berlant positions herself in this conversation.

We could also discuss how often the construction “a story” comes up in the article. Why does Berlant insist over and over again on the narrative quality of these issues?

One more interesting issue is the discussion of futurity in the article. It brought to my mind Elizabeth Povinelli’s critique of the “future anterior,” especially part of Berlant’s closing material:

“I close, therefore, not with a solution to the problem of aspirational normativity as expressed in the conventionalities of subaltern feeling, because, I am arguing, the subordinated sensorium of the immaterial worker, whose acts of rage and ruthlessness are mixed with forms of care, is an effect of the relation of capitalism’s refusal of futurity in an overwhelmingly productive present and the normative promise of intimacy, which enables us to imagine that having a friend or making a date or looking longingly at someone who might, after all, show compassion for our struggles, is really where living takes place.” (301)

I was especially interested in the idea of “capitalism’s refusal of futurity” in the passage above, but I decided not to excerpt the paragraph because I think we can use it as a productive place to start talking about the thrust of the article overall.

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