Energetic Pessimist

This is another short burst from the excellent intellectual biography At the Risk of Thinking: An Intellectual Biography of Julia Kristeva by Alice Jardine.

On page 9, Jardin says,

Kristeva has described herself as an “energetic pessimist”—which also describes me exactly.

I read that, and I think, "Me too!" I might add "energetic pessimist" to my title (Associate Professor).

Later Jardin writes about why Kristeva is a pessimist. It has to do with how technocratic capitalism and neo-liberalism have worked in concert to limit the spaces available for a person to roam free and think.

Kristeva argues first and foremost that to truly be alive, one must have a living psychic space and that in the contemporary world, one has to make a strong effort to keep it alive, for example through psychoanalysis, through an artistic practice of some kind, or through the rediscovery of past religious experience—even if one is an atheist. She calls for a new “discourse on life” because the need to believe—to have an immovable certitude about something—is in crisis today, in large part because of the suffocation of psychic space. According to Kristeva, this state of affairs leads to “new maladies of the soul”—to violence, addiction, criminality, nihilism, and somatic suffering.


A while back, I'm not sure how long ago I started telling people, "Pessimism is the new optimism." I started saying this after listening to an episode of Why Theory where Todd and Ryan talked about the difference between the pessimist and the cynic. Their argument was:

  • The pessimist sees that the world is terrible but also sees themselves as within the world (i.e., as implicated in the state of the world) and therefore desires for it to be different/better. The pessimist is sad that things are the way they are and that there is so little they can do to make things better. Be that as it may, the pessimist will get involved in the impossible project of pushing against the tide of awfulness.
  • The cynic believes themselves to be outside of the world, not a part of it, and then enjoys being critical of the world from their fantasized outside position. The cynic is the person who gets a kick out of being a cranky curmudgeon.

I think the idea of an energetic pessimist could be described as someone who works to maintain their private personal psychic space against the ever-encroaching forces that seek to dominate how people think, feel, and live.

To me, this idea is beautiful.  

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