In the chapter that we read from Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, there were several intertextual connections that I made with both her work and Halberstam’s chapter (from The Queer Art of Failure), and Laurent Cantet’s movie Time Out and Halberstam’s chapter. Among the connections I made were Berlant’s mentions of optimism and the “good life” to Halberstam’s mentions of “mass delusion.” Early in the chapter Berlant says of Laurent Cantet’s films “[the stories] witness the blow to traditional props for optimism about life-building that had sustained the aspirationally upwardly mobile, and pay attention to how different kinds of people catch up to their new situation” (192). Furthermore, the films posit—on the subject of living life— “that there are no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built” and that Time Out’s protagonist, Vincent, has “postoptimistic response[s]” to the thought of “good-life fantasies”(192, 200). Berlant goes on to describe Cantet’s characters as living in an “impasse,” a transitional place in the present that is “barring the reproduction of inherited fantasies of what it means to want to add up to something—that story of the good life” (201). The painstaking restlessness that fatigues Vincent throughout the movie seems to me to be a reaction of disillusionment from the deflective optimism that creates these good life fantasies.
This deflective optimism of Berlant’s good life fantasies is the place where I draw a parallel to “mass delusion.” Halberstam uses Barbara Ehrenreich’s explanation of the term as “positive thinking…that emerges out of…a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions” (3). According to Ehrenreich those people effected by mass delusion are under the false pretenses that, “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure” (3). Halberstam’s application of low theory though seeks to “to explore alternatives and to look for a way out of the usual traps and impasses of binary formulations” possibly of those rendered in mass delusion (2).
During the comforting loneliness of life away from his family,Vincent slowly becomes aware of the flaws of positive thinking (via other people’s reliance and expectations of his performance of success) in the isolation of the impasse—he attempts a sort of erasure of himself on the road. Scenes of him driving remind me of Halberstam’s mention of the ways in which low theory works to provide “more creative..ways of being in the world” (2). By keeping his family and especially his wife at in the dark, while in Geneva, he is “losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” (2). Vincent’s family are a reminder of his heteronormative success—they are the “reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” that Halberstam speaks of (2). As long as he isn’t answering to them directly, face to face, he is allowed to keep his mind off of living up to those good life fantasies, and able to lose his way into another kind of opportunity, a queer one at that.
Vincent embarks on shady business deals with friends and in these scenes takes on the negative affect of cunning. Both with these friends and his wife and family Vincent acts as an optimist, buying into other people’s fantasies of the good life, their mass delusion—of who he is, a well meaning, generous good-guy who possesses his father’s much remarked on enthusiasm. But in scenes when he is then released from this visage and able to indulge in his isolation it is just as Halberstam describes as his “opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (3). The facial expression of Vincent is able to wear its disappointment, disillusionment and despair again, because he needn’t hide his failure(s) from anyone. While wading in his impasse, Vincent meets his surrogate, Jean-Michel, who shares his experience and his dispassion for the delusion of others’ good lives. It seems then, that Vincent is—as Halberstam said, in regards to the negative thinker, “Relieved of the obligation to keep smiling” in front of another and with the help of negative thinking—able to “use the experience of failure to confront the gross inequalities of everyday life” (4). As the viewer finds out though, this is a relationship that comes to pass and Vincent must return to that inner liminal space of which others hope he does not return to for good.