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Lauren Berlant defines cruel optimism in the first line of their influential book by that name as “a relation [that] exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Living under capitalism, in one way or another, we are all trapped in such relations of cruel optimism. Regardless of our own personal epistemologies, we’ve all had misguided attachments to good life fantasies (be it professionally, romantically, or politically). We may know—or actively refuse to know—that getting there will take a toll on our well-being. This optimism is not a naïve one, nor is it a subscription to a state of oblivion. It has very much to do with how we experience the here and now: our present reality circumscribed by an economic landscape of elusive promises and increasing precarity, “an impasse,” as Berlant puts it, from which we cannot escape. Berlant’s optimist is one doomed to tread water. This ineffectual movement within “the same space” is a far cry from dramatized narratives of crisis we see in films where protagonists break stuff and storm out. But what happens to this genre of struggle and uncertainty in worlds with extra-ordinary possibilities?
In Beth Morgan’s novel A Touch of Jen and Ted Chiang’s novella “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” the authors imagine just that. For the characters in “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” a way out of the impasse presents itself in the form of a device called a prism, which allows its users to video chat with their parallel selves, or “paraselves,” living in an alternate, concurrent timeline. Many are eager to try “Selftalk,” thrilled at the opportunity to find out how their lives could’ve gone differently. This dialogue with themselves holds the promise of putting a stop to what ifs. Characters buy prisms or get in touch with “data brokers” in hopes of reassuring themselves that they’ve made the right choice; be it accepting a new job offer, leaving their partner, or moving to a new place. In this way, prisms become a window to the unknown, a medium onto which people project their desires for stability and certainty. This isn’t the only way prisms are used, though. Another use reflects a thirst for optimization; some imagine it can enable a “collaboration with yourself” where you divide tasks between your two selves to increase your productivity. It is worth noting that the novella was also published under the name, “Better Versions of You.” The theme of self-actualization is at the forefront of both Chiang’s and Morgan’s work.
Morgan’s novel A Touch of Jen follows the lives of Remy and Alicia, a cringe-worthy and miserable couple who are obsessed with Remy’s former work colleague Jen. Their fixation on Jen seems to be the only thing bringing them together. They text each other every time she posts a new pic on Instagram, they lie in bed at night thinking about what Jen would do or say in certain situations, and they even role play scenarios where Alicia pretends to be Jen during sex. As the plot progresses, the fantasy of being with Jen doesn’t seem so out of grasp. Remy and Alicia bump into Jen by accident in an Apple store and she invites them on a surfing trip in the Hamptons. In contrast to Chiang’s foregrounding of his story’s speculative nature—and the immediate introduction of a bifurcated present—Morgan’s novel slowly introduces its otherworldly elements throughout the book. For instance, Remy begins to hear knocking, scratching sounds the closer he gets to Jen, yet it isn’t until the end of the book that we are fully introduced to a parallel reality and the characters’ connections to it.
This connection is fed by the characters’ engagement with a self-help doctrine which operates in this story in a similar fashion to the quantum reality of prisms in Chiang’s novella, opening a channel of communication between the characters’ world and another world. Over the course of the trip, Jen can’t stop talking about The Apple Bush, a self-help book that she says changed her life. The book is filled with references to flows and energy, which as Jen explains to Remy, are a means to communicate with universe: “Energy speaks. It lets the universe know it can communicate with you. And then your greatest desires are possible. That’s how you reach your Consummate Result—the ultimate version of yourself.” Remy, who prides himself on his cynicism, scoffs at this and at first dismisses the book as another ploy to capitalize on people’s gullibility, yet a few chapters later, we see him adamant on fulfilling his Consummate Result, which he believes is to be with Jen.
Much like in Chiang’s story, there are parallel streams of reality with different versions of Remy, Alicia, and Jen. But instead of having the ability to talk to them directly, the characters in A Touch of Jen have to interpret “Signifiers,” messages from the universe, which (in a literal manifestation of New Age magical thinking) will teach them how to achieve their Consummate Result. And, as one of Jen’s friends puts it, “if [something] is meant to be often enough, then all the parallel Streams swell into a wave that’s powerful enough to inundate our own reality!”
If the present for Berlant is “an extended now,” then these two speculative fictions create a further extension that appears at first glance to stretch time and space beyond the confines of the impasse. Communication with parallel streams of reality seems to hold the promise of moving forward and fulfilling your desires. What these characters are sold is a sense of authentic agency, as an antidote to the alienation and powerlessness they experience in their daily lives. But things aren’t going very well for them.
In “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” better versions of you, though accessible through a screen, are far out of reach. It is this very accessibility that ends up trapping the characters in a cycle of what cultural theorist Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings.” The story follows Lyle, who purchases a prism to help him decide whether to accept a new job offer. Lyle takes the job and soon grows bored of it. His paraself, meanwhile, stays at the old job and gets a promotion. Struggling with feelings of jealousy, Lyle attempts to follow the fortune of his paraself, reaching out to a woman his paraself has been dating and reasoning that if their paraselves have connected, then they should get along too. The date is a flop: Lyle can’t stop talking about how jealous he is of his paraself, and the awkwardness comes to a head when he suggests that his date use his prism to speak with her paraself, who, of course, can confirm how great he is. Disturbed, the woman asks Lyle to lose her number, and the ordeal only deepens his crisis.
Google “self-talk” and your top results will likely refer to the power—and even magic—of learning to control your inner dialogue. Self-talk is a prominent feature of modern psychology, especially within the branch of cognitive behavioral therapy. It is usually an approach aimed at relieving stress and broadening horizons of thought you have about yourself. But in Chiang’s story, self-talk is a trap. It ends up leaving characters worse off, hyperventilating instead of unburdened. Here we find the familiar tropes of aspirational and entrepreneurial rhetoric turned on their head: “Being in competition with yourself” becomes something sinister. Just like the corporatization of the internet, the self-talk process throughout the story is commodified with the introduction of the prism and “data brokers” who consistently try to monetize feelings of attachment and anxiety felt by prism users. But instead of consuming the lives of others, in this universe you are lurking on your best self.
The theme of neurosis runs deeply across both books. One of the main characters in “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is Dana, a therapist who runs support groups for prism users. Sitting in a circle, her patients share stories about encounters with their paraselves and frustration with themselves for feeling the way they do. Dissatisfaction and self-doubt are rampant. Her patients find themselves constantly checking what their paraselves are up to and wondering why good things aren’t happening to them as well. Some of them are surprised that they are overcome with such uncharacteristic feelings of envy. As Nat, an employee at the prism rental shop Self-talk, puts it: “We’re not always wanting what other people have. But with a prism, it’s not other people, it’s you. So how can you not feel like you deserve what they have?” She reassures her colleagues by saying that the problem is not within them but with the prism, and we see some of them even considering selling their prisms in hopes of feeling better.
The title of Chiang’s novella is a reference to Kierkegaard’s 1844 book The Concept of Anxiety, which discusses the specific dread that one can experience on the edge of boundless possibilities. As Chiang puts it, the characters’ access to this quantum reality forces them to think about “the enormous role that contingency play[s] in their lives,” driving some to extremes of selves-monitoring and control. In some, it triggers an aggrandized sense of agency as they believe that each of their choices can produce an alternative branch of reality. Put differently, the dizziness Chiang refers to is symptomatic of Berlant’s impasse. Those boundless possibilities when channeled through narrow capitalist understandings of what a desirable life should look like (the perfect job, the suburban family, the right house) end up having the paradoxical effect of making characters feel stuck.
Much like the characters of Chiang’s novel, Remy and Alicia are deeply unsatisfied with their lives. Remy is consistently described by the people around him as a negative person. Throughout the story, he overthinks things like not being invited or his colleagues talking about him at work. Remy believes that his relationship with Alicia is holding him back and that he was never this antisocial before dating her. After his random encounter with Jen at the Apple store, there’s an amusing scene where Remy frantically drafts and deletes several messages to Jen that she notices and asks him why he’s being weird. His actions, increasingly compulsive, speak to the depth of his fixation on Jen, and to the lack of control that he has over his mental state. He checks his messages’ “ratio of playfulness to aggression,” stares intensely into Jen’s eyes, and shuts off notifications so he doesn’t have to worry about Jen’s replies. Meanwhile, he makes fun of everyone else for trying—most particularly, Jen’s boyfriend Horus, a big guy surfer and basic himbo, whose “whole I’m so chill thing” and “virtuous” rejection of online culture seems to push Remy into a silent rage.
Alicia’s anxiety on the other hand is mostly manifested in her people-pleasing and oversharing. Her endorsement and even active partaking in Remy’s Jen fantasy is hard to read about without wincing. On the surfing trip at Horus’s place in the Hamptons, she uses a fake voice to sound more excited and talks about her experience with bulimia and the time she spent at a recovery center to a silent and uncomfortable crowd. Her eagerness to please backfires. Towards the end of the trip, everyone thinks that both Remy and Alicia are freaks, and after a bizarre sleepwalking incident, the couple is thrown out.
What makes A Touch of Jen so clever is that it does not shy away from the obsessive fantasy but satirically embraces it, taking it to an otherworldly and frightening extent we rarely see. The spirit from the parallel reality that’s trying to get in touch with Remy turns out to be a monster that threatens his life and needs to be vanquished. It also turns out to be a reflection of someone in Remy’s life that is standing in the way of his achievement of his Consummate Result: namely, Jen.
It’s perhaps evident to many of us that taking control of our lives or having our shit together is increasingly elusive. And certainly, this can be intensified through the way our attentions and desires are manipulated by algorithms. But while disconnecting or shutting off our phones might provide a sense of temporary relief, it won’t make the ugly feelings go away.
A Touch of Jen leaves us with a twisted happy ending, where getting what you want comes at the price of sacrificing others; whereas Chiang demonstrates the impossibility of the good life myth and the craze for mastery over our fates that we often hear echoed in contemporary society. Despite living in worlds with more possibilities of action and more opportunities to fulfill their fantasies, the characters in both novels do not end up feeling fulfilled.
It might be tempting to interpret both of these works as commentary on our addiction to technology and its slippery promises for self-actualization. But that would miss the mark, as technology is just a vehicle through which affective realities are intensified. Reading these stories, you realize that the real trap is individualistic narratives of success and the “cruel” nature of normative desires which leave us on the brink of misery and neurosis. Such desires are woven into the very fabric of capitalism. Instead of approaching these works as cautionary tales that invite us to be grateful for what we have, we could read them as a reflection of a violent landscape of desire. The cautionary tale reading pushes forward an apolitical asceticism as a conclusion, mostly because it is easier to imagine desire as something we can control. The answer here is deemed simple: just don’t pursue things that you can’t have. The cruelty of such desires however is most effective in that you cannot easily give up on them. As Berlant puts it in the end of their book, “it is awkward and […] threatening to detach from what is already not working.”
Where does this leave us on the optimism front, though? In a recent piece on magical thinking, Gasira Timir writes that speaking of optimism is sort of passé. Gone are optimistic attachments to a bleak reality. The 2020s, set at the backdrop of a global pandemic, mark the hyperindividualistic era of manifesting; a downright rejection of the stakes of reality. With the pandemic, Timir argues we are no longer operating in the realm of what Berlant called “crisis ordinariness,” but rather that of “crisis extraordinariness.” While extraordinariness (be it through the pandemic or Chiang and Morgan’s alternate realities) might’ve highlighted a sort of heightened spiritual individualism, it was also grounds for a collective reinvention of the power of the imagination. From Black Lives Matter protests for George Floyd, to mass uprisings against police brutality and inequality in Colombia, campaigns against family values in Egypt to the rise of what Miriam Tiktin calls “a feminist commons” in times of social distancing, people are coming together and resisting life as we know it under the heteronormative and imperialist foundations of capitalism. A clear message underlying these movements is that we are not going back to normal. This form of rejection of reality is not a retreating into the self but rather a desire for better ways of living together.
Eman Shehata is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at London School of Economics researching and writing on the politics of work and desire.