In times that feel like transition, when an enormous growing-up is immanent, when the consequences of aggregate neglect or “disproportionate distribution of concern,” as Ayesha Siddiqi has said, has undone or ruined us and others, we come to the juncture James Baldwin described in New York in 1963, where a person has got to decide “whether to go up and over or down and out.” When a group and not a solitary individual experiencing these ruptures in sync, we often hear calls for positive thinking amid the outrage. In Bright Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich claims such calls are often used as a “palliative, a way of resigning oneself to a negative reality rather than questioning and resisting it.”
Positivity, though, is not necessarily synonymous with self-care sentiments like “blocking out the fakes” and “allowing only good energy in,” or with family values, or with flat nondynamic righteousness, or with any capitulation to capitalism. It may also signal a push for action that relieves a shared burden. It is often confused with optimism, which is predictive and future-oriented, and positivism, which is imperialist, reiterating the hierarchies and biases of the past.
But positivity is neither: It is rooted in the present moment, not a counterpoint to our bleak so-called life but continuous with everything bleak about it. It is not a form of blindness but a politicized way of seeing different possibilities as opportunities emerge and circumstances unfold. The forthcoming high-school student walkout demanding that Congress address U.S. gun laws exemplifies positivity in a time that is extremely wrong, a time when locked-in power structures use the despair generated through surveillance technology, disputed access to medical care, and nuclear brinkmanship to extend their influence.
Ratings-driven social media not only reinforce the neoliberal principle of modernization through the expansion of competition throughout everyday life; they also create a craving for reminders that life is worth living, and what it is worth living for. Outrage may travel fast, but it’s also an excuse for inaction: “Habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing temporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success,” write Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in their “Accelerationist Manifesto,” and the same can be said for habitual negation or @ing the president. Navigating negation, arguing for yourself forever, disproving the premises of a bad-faith conversation again and again, can become a spectacular waste of time.
In “Anthem of the Sun” Olivia Rosane argues that communal survival skills are an alternate technology, which can greatly impact civilization perhaps because of the way they appear understated, peripheral.
In “Momentary Connections,” Hanif Abdurraqib describes the importance of finding small, finite joys in an internet that can seem filled with vitriol and too vast to comprehend.
And finally, Sasha Geffen, in “Playing Favorites,” shows how video games reflect the gamification of social interaction inherent in most social media, reducing interaction to “likes” and superimposing a binary system of approval or disapproval over a player’s field of vision.
In her 1998 lectures “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry argues that a “quality of heightened attention” is extended to other forms of life from beautiful things, “spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.” The main benefit of positivity, expressed as a beautiful gesture, may be the alertness it brings to others. “Through its beauty,” Scarry writes, “the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care.” We become eligible to take advantage of existing social technology — tools that illuminate dimensions of critical empathy in which we were previously inept — to carry what we find beautiful to what we find is not getting enough attention, toward the ultimate goal of climbing up and out of our own collective cruelty.
Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s next installment, AURA, featuring limerance, blockchain art, ostentatious journaling.