Aesthetics of the Impasse in Modern Family

cultural analysis research paper close reading
good life impasse crisis ordinary aesthetic capitalism social media

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I argue that much of what makes Ed Fornieles exhibition Modern Family (2014) possible is its creation during a time of what Lauren Berlant calls crisis ordinary. This is a state in which the mode of crisis is enfolded into every- day life, a perpetual feeling of potential doom hanging overhead. Crisis ordinary is secured by relations of cruel optimism, in which “...something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” 1 Entering into the debris of cultural spam-turned installation of Modern Family, its narrative can be read as attempting to navigate the perpetually overwhelming in a sea of aggregated social media content. In this essay, I consider what happens in Fornieles’ use of the good life through the lens of Berlant’s concepts within her book Cruel Optimism. I argue that the transformed gallery of dilapidated scenes of Los Angeles suburbia, scattered with life-scale sculptures and trending lifestyle paraphernalia and truisms (such as “BE YOURSELF” and “WE ARE ONE”), is a physical realization of an impasse. This impasse serves as a “surrealistic affectsphere” of the present, aesthetically framed as the outdated American dream. Does Modern Family act as an “...[empowering] nod to a global, collective consciousness” or an uncanny valley? 2 Might this gesture enable a confrontation, an opening for “detachment from our anchors;” and/ or “...optimistic projections of a world that is worth our attachment to it...”? 3


In the method of close reading the exhibition environment, visual, auditory, and lighting details, and position as an affective environment, I develop a dialogue between Ed Forniele’s installation Modern Family at Chisenhale Gallery with Lauren Berlant’s concepts of the good life, impasse, crisis ordinary, and cruel optimism; and Arjun Appadurai’s understanding of modernity, globalization, and commodities and the politics of value.


  • Fornieles’ distorted aesthetics are the representation of a globalized locality through two localizing frameworks: the American TV series Modern Family and family as a normative construct.
  • Argument that this inexhaustible digital circulation as a practice and a mode of living has become a habit that sustains anchors in commodity- and social-life fantasies, forming relations of cruel optimism.
  • This habit of digital circulation is marketed and creates human transactions out of new localities based in a sustainable floundering through the desperate, infinite hoarding behavior encouraged by social and service sites.
  • This habit is tracked and used to sustain our aspirational living that hinders our ability to move past this circulation- we are paying for the “free” fantasy objects with our exploited social and personal movements.
  • The infinite flow of digital collages in the installation also indicates the development of the attention economy in which our attention is the currency.
  • Fornieles puts to use big data as the secretion of the bind of cruel optimism.
  • Fornieles transforms the relationship into a source for self-reflexivity and creation.

Concluding Question
Social media sites make a relation of cruel optimism through an inexhaustible flow of commodities as transitional objects. How can patterns in digital circulation be drawn to form a transitional intelligence to build a way out of its relation, rather than replications of objects of cruel optimism (like taking shape more in the spirit of PARO the therapeutic robot)?🝏