The ‘situation’ is what’s unfolding

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism; detail from book cover

“…throughout [this book] I define the genre situation in terms of the situation comedy or the police procedural. The police conventionally say: ‘We have a situation here.’ A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event.”

— Lauren Berlant

In “a situation,” as Lauren Berlant writes in her introduction to Cruel Optimism (2011), our relationships are in flux, and the very manner in which we must live out and storytell that personal or political change is also “unstable, in chaos.” Rather than think of ourselves as living in an ongoing state of exception with an ongoing set of traumas that are “exceptional shock[s]” to some presumed ordinary state, Cruel Optimism proposes that we consider ourselves as ordinarily dealing with “incoherence…in the face of threats to the good life [we] imagine.” It is thus more accurate to say that we experience “crisis ordinariness.” There is never not a crisis. Sometimes our crises just feel less prominent.

Berlant also gives us “perturbation,” which she describes in her introduction as “Deleuze’s word for disturbances in the atmosphere that constitute situations whose shape can only be forged by continuous reaction and transversal movement, releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries.” A perturbation is a situation in which you have to make a conscious choice to act differently.

One further concept may be useful for fiction writers to attempt to distinguish whether their story focuses on the present or on a future resolution. “Transformation,” Berlant says in Chapter 2, “is always in the language of the aftertime; what the novels [The Intuitionist and Pattern Recognition] want is to provide the sensorium for a reconceptualized present.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: