the aesthetic is proletarianized

Daniel Avatar

4 notes on class, fate and cruel optimism


I turn on the TV and see a wealthy YouTuber interviewing a Millennial in her early 30s without kids on how to choose the best tiny home to buy with a $35,000 maximum budget. The host of the show is also the real estate agent and he is smirking the entire time. Both of them are too happy. They both have some enigmatic enjoyment at the encounter. We aren’t told whether this will be a cash purchase or a loan. What matters to the viewer is the immediacy of the optimism of both parties.

Optimism becomes cruel under conditions of what Lacan called a pressurized surplus enjoying. This is a form of enjoyment that is anxious and hot, an enjoyment looking desperately, and uneasily, for relief. Under conditions of cruel optimism the subject is only given another surplus to resolve its state of agitated enjoyment. The only relief for this excessive enjoyment is…more enjoyment.

It is sometimes a mystery to me why Lacan says the discourse of the capitalist does not require castration, but in the case of cruel optimism this becomes apparent: the superego demand to enjoy only offers… more enjoyment. Maybe the queer theory people are right: we must turn to those affects that are not permissible under such conditions of cruel optimism. We must turn to the affects that enact singular castration on the subject. They wouldn’t say that, but maybe we should.

If the situation does not provide a true support, a true S1, then the subject can take it upon itself to disrupt the situation. But acephalous protest is not a praxis.

To leave a subject with nothing but unresolvable enjoyment and a cruel optimism is to leave the subject with an equally agitated sense of their own singularity, or uniqueness. Clement Rosset says in The Real and its Double that uniqueness has a fragility because “the uniqueness of the thing which constitutes its essence never has any participation in being.” What is being found in, to the extent it is found at all? It is found in negativity, in the nothing.

Rousseau: “I never meditate, I never dream better than when I forget myself.”

Lacan: “The individual is most him or herself in the wondrous emptiness of being, rather than the personal Ego, the Other or the totality.”

Harold Bloom: “The American is most him or herself when they are completely alone.”

An agitated negativity finding another source of negativity, alone.


The last movie I really liked was Nomadland. This is a saga of the lumpenproletariat, an all-too-common diary of poverty. The predominant Boomer understanding of Nomadland is not this account at all. The Boomer view of Nomadland is that it is a story about the American Emersonian spirit, a tale about “gritty self-realization,” “the joy of the open road.” Now I am cancelling Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Horatio Alger. To hell with this idea of American liberty! People have lost their minds. Nomadland is a film about the perversion of Americans ideas of fate itself.

Rosset again: “it is the fate of everything that exists to deny, by its very existence, any form of different reality.” The fate of the woman in Nomadland is cruel optimism: but hey, the Boomer says, “at least she chose to exist problematically.” There is indeed a perverse a dignity in her apparent free choice to not remain in the comfort of her boyfriends home. It is this illusion of choice that effaces the entire thing and flings her into the cauldron of liberal equality: she is one of us proletarians of the aesthetic. Make a note to study liberal theories of equality because they have one, even though you wouldn’t know it.

Nomadland is certainly right about one thing: falling into a total pauperized retirement often happens with one’s family totally oblivious & in denial about it happening. I’ve seen this. You’ve probably seen this. The discourse doesn’t see anything. It simply maintains, it exchanges one pressurized and agitated enjoyment with another stand-in product, what Lacan called the master signifier, the S1. But this product of enjoyment isn’t up to the task, the stand-in does not relieve. This is what Lukács calls reification. And just because discourse does not depend on a worldview, we sure miss the worldview of the working class don’t we.

You know what, maybe liberalism doesn’t depend on a worldview. Roland Barthes is right when he says what distinguishes the bourgeoisie is that they disavow themselves as a class. Once the ruling class disavows their status as a ruling class, we’ve all entered into the downward spiral that has brought us to the proletarianization of the aesthetic.


The “1619 project” is becoming a praxis, a worldview of university centers, nonprofits, and professional groups. Since one of the authors was denied tenure, this project is now seen as if the author is a critic of the US establishment and powerholders. She may have been wrongfully denied tenure — I am sure that she was. Yet the situation now is that the 1619 project is becoming an un-criticizable educational orientation, the fact she was denied indicates something about its subversive, and by extension, therefore necessary, utility. No discussion can be had of the implicit anti-solidarity basis of the report, its outright hostility to class struggle.

In that sense it’s a class device unto itself, a cudgel to further a certain agitated sensibility within the liberal managerial class that sees itself as radical. That the author has delivered keynote addresses to Shell Oil and major corporations for years now is not seen as a contradiction nor is it seen as a problem endemic to the very model of the report and its desired ends. What interests of power is it serving? We are beyond that now; there are only two sides, so pick one.

Socialists need to offer a better alternative to this orientation towards racial justice, admittedly. But it is very hard to do so without riling up the sentiments in a way which leads to nothing but misunderstanding. Socialists need to make the case clear why this praxis is harmful and does not produce the effects it purports to effect, that there is a better way to talk about racial justice and history. Perhaps I say this with too much reason, but it is worth saying nonetheless.


I’ve been obsessed with the idea that the aesthetic is proletarianized. Logan Paul appears on my timeline…is this Post Malone? No, he doesn’t have tats everywhere but there is the same sense that maybe this guy is from a trailer park. I Google him and notice the most Googled data on him, the most important thing about Logan Paul is how much money he makes per year.

If Logan Paul is from a trailer park, would it matter? When I hear that this is racial capitalism, I believe it’s true. We are in a racialized capitalism and let’s take the logic further: today we have the racialization of class. Logan Paul and Post Malone are the racialization of whiteness; they look rough around the edges but don’t let that fool you, they are rough around the edges. This roughness signifies nothing.

Post Malone and Logan Paul efface the class struggle. They remind us that we do not need solidarity. As proletarians of the aesthetic everyone is tokenized with no class relation. But we insist that class solidarity is medicine, it is the outside.

A body riddled with tattoos is an aesthetic example of the very nonsense of the body in contemporary capitalism. It’s an aesthetic example of the very nonsense of our situation and its loneliness. What one affirms with the overdone tattoos is the one, the singular uniqueness, all alone.

There was a time in my life when I was young that class spoke in the popular culture but I was not attuned enough to hear it. Listen to early Kurt Cobain interviews in the supposed early part of the End of History, he spoke of himself as working class. Perhaps what the racialization of capitalism means is that everyone is a token, a stand-in that does not satisfy the absent class relation.

2 responses

  1. Night of the World

    Nomadland was very good—I have friends that literally live like that, but they are relatively young and the lifestyle for them is somewhat more by choice (to avoid the ossifying spiritual brutality of suburban corporate life). I have mixed feelings here, especially when considering what may be awaiting them on the horizon of age/fatigue.

    At the end of Nomadland I read those final scenes as her tarrying with the negative and finally “packing away” the baggage of her faithfulness-beyond-the-grave for her dead husband. It seemed open to me, that perhaps the road she was embarking on from there was one leading away from her former hang-ups and back to Dave. Did something signal to you that this wasn’t the case? That she was continuing in her rambling ways?

  2. Ben Dreith

    Hi Daniel,

    I am very interested by your idea of the tattooed body as an over-determined way of signaling desire for a a virtual individuality that is never quite possible in the subject.

    Perhaps there is some potential in this misprision? That this over signification of the body brings us close to a politic embodied in the body. I think of Pierre Clastres’ observations of coming of age rituals and the attendant jamming of metal through limbs as a way of integrating the individual as individual into the body politic.

    Right now I think tattoo culture in its American iteration is the dialectical inverse of the “ruining” of the body that is how many boomers view tattoos. That political nostalgia is tied to the absent body of purity and health that signifies the early time, the time of ripeness and health, which is then funneled into a conservatism. Whereas the more “experience” oriented millennial few the tattoo as a seizing of the moment as the solidification of individualism. In this is the shadow of the queer utopia as you were mentioning, but it is always differed into another form of identity, the “token,” as you say.

    Interesting stuff, thanks.

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