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This seems to be particularly true within parts of the American academic left, whose growing disillusionment seems to have fostered a desire for hope. Aside from Rebecca Solnit’s columns in The Guardian on the imperative to hope in dark times, an increasing number of scholars have argued for the necessity of hope to mobilize resistance against Trump. For instance, Corey Robin recently argued in Jacobin that “fighting Trump requires believing in the possibility that we can change our circumstances,” and in The Nation, Ronald Aronson pleaded to the left to resist what he perceives as a growing hope fatigue: “hope matters to us because the left is its natural home, one the left should not lose” (2017).
However, as Ben Anderson has argued on this site, there are risks entailed in the current desire for hope. For Anderson, “there is something too comforting about this story of hope kept alive.” The risk is that it installs a sense that Trump—and the general right wing populism he represents—is but a passing moment, and that the "normal" order of liberal politics is soon to return. According to Anderson, a forward-looking hope may thus come to naturalize the status quo:
“by attempting to name what is possible it [the desire for hope] risks presuming the stability and legibility of the present.”
To his unease I wish to add three points that I feel every desire towards hope should bear in mind.
There is no genuine hope
Underpinning the contemporary desire for hope, as well as the historical fascination for hope as a mode of “transformative political agency” within critical political theory (what Susan McManus has referred to as the “hope project” ), is a tendency to define what a “genuine hope” as a prerogative of the left and of the future is. Hence, the contemporary obsession to describe the hope articulated by Trump as not really hope, but as an “anti-hope,” whose real affective logic is one of “despair and anger,” of “fear,” and “decline.” In contrast to Trump’s hope, real hope is progressive and pluralistic. It is a matter of trust, of being open both to an unknown future and to others who we not yet know. According to Solnit, hope is an experience of the world’s "interconnectedness" and "indivisibility." For Robin, hope is grounded on a belief in contingency, on a recognition that the present realities of war and division are not rooted in “dark and deep truths” about human nature, but are possible to overcome.
However, hope arguably does not have a uniform "genuine" meaning or direction. On the contrary, as Terry Eagleton’s exposé of its conceptual history makes abundantly clear (2015), the concept of hope seems to be essentially contested. Hope is not one emotion. According to Eagleton, “there is in fact no characteristic feeling, symptom, sensation or behaviour pattern associated with hope” (2015: 55). In other words, hope should not be read by default as the opposite of neither fear, despair, nor anger, but as being ambiguously related to such concepts. As noted by McManus, there is fear and uncertainty attached to every hope. Quoting Ernst Bloch, she holds hope to be a precarious experience without guarantees: “else it would not be hope” (1986a: 340).
This ambiguity is evident throughout hope’s conceptual history, at times causing great debate as to hope’s political potential. The first historical reference to hope that has survived to our days—Hesiod’s narration of the legend of Pandora (1983)—is a clear example both of this ambiguity and of the political contestation surrounding the definition of hope. According to the legend, hope both belongs to, and is separated from, the category of human suffering. Embodied in the goddess Elpis, hope is included in the box of miseries that Pandora is ordered by Zeus to unleash onto mankind as punishment for stealing from the Gods. However, in her final act Pandora closes the lid, keeping hope alone from being released. Hope’s ambiguous position has puzzled interpreters. Some have taken the fact that hope “is caught by the lid [of Pandora’s box] to symbolize that hope always desires to be realized but never is” (Verdenius, 1985: 68). According to Nietzsche, Hesiod’s poem is evidence that hope “is in truth the worst of all evils, because it protracts the torment of men” (1996: 45). Another common interpretation has sought to maintain the purity of hope that Hesiod’s poem seems to problematize, arguing that Elpis should not be interpreted as hope, but as expectation. But as argued by Willem Jacob Verdenius, such interpretations reduce neither the ambiguity of Hesiod’s poem nor of hope (1985: 69).
It is this ambiguity that every attempt to define hope, such as those offered by the "hope project," is reductive of. Definitions that, because of this ambiguity, appear not to describe, but to be performative of, hope. Importantly, the object such acts are performative of is not only the affect of hope, but also the affective subject of hope. Which brings me to my second point:
There is not one hopeful subject
Central to the "hope project" is a definition of hope as formative of a revolutionary and becoming subject, capable of transcending particular identities. While hope is held as an activist affect, it is ultimately defined to be without an antagonistic Other. According to Negri and Hardt, “hope ultimately resides in camaraderie, the possibility of the creation of a fraternal society of equals” (quoted in Brown et. al., 2002: 200). Aronson holds hope to be “an experience of coming together” (2017), constitutive of “a we committed to expanding and deepening democracy.” For Solnit, the mobilization of resistance against Trump is evidence of “another America rising and taking action,” one that is "beautiful," "empathic" and "solidaristic."
According to such definitions, hope is both there and not there. Hope is both intrinsic to life—an inextinguishable and uncontainable human force of creativity that forever transcends totalitarian attempts of sovereign power, as defined by Anthony Burke (2011: 108)—and formative of a particular transcendent form of life, as per Solnit’s, Aronson’s, and Negri and Hardt’s claims rehearsed above. According to Richard Rorty, hope is the task of politics: to foster a subject capable of setting “aside religious and ethnic identities in favour of an image of themselves as part of a great human adventure” (Ibid.: 238-9).
Yet despite how attractive such descriptions undoubtedly are, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find an articulation of hope that does not remain particular, that does not invoke the very limits they claim to transcend. This is arguably especially true for a universal hope presented as without subject. As argued by Julian Reid, every definition of life—every claim to establish the fact of life, however progressive they may seem—is part of an “imperative discourse on life” (Reid, 2011: 772). The "fact" of hope included. As Reid reminds us, not only are such "facts" necessarily particular, they are also contingent, dependent on a set of historical and political conditions.
Contrary to Aronson’s proclamation, commitment to hope is not a prerogative of the left, nor of progressive politics. Hope is rather omnipresent in the political vocabulary of the West. According to Anderson, all political campaigns, including Trump’s, “express and offer more or less specific hopes, albeit in a range of different tones.” The object of such campaigns are not only to project a vision of the future, but to invoke a subject of hope it claims to represent, to establish the limits of human belonging, by identifying which lives are on the side of hope and consequently of life, and who is perceived to obstruct its path. Contemporary examples of this language include not only Barack Obama’s empathic promise to recognize the inherent hopefulness of the global poor of human life to transform the world “from the bottom up,” but also the notion of a "striving" hope that Trump holds to be the life force of the nation state, as detailed in his inaugural address: “a nation is only living as long as it is striving.” Contrary to the leftist subject of hope—held to be revolutionary and transcendental—the subject of this hope is arguably a neoliberal form of life, whose cosmopolitan values may vary, but at its core remains the same: individual, entrepreneurial and struggling—capable of succeeding “despite great odds.” As I have argued elsewhere (Tängh Wrangel, 2017), the hope this individual is called to embody is not directed towards the future. Its task is not to transform the world, but to change one’s individual place in the present world. Which brings me to my third and final point:
Hope is not the future
While hope undoubtedly is related to the future, the "hope project" often perceives this relation to be uniform, defining hope as a radical break in which the future enters the present. Bloch’s conceptualization of the “ontology of the not-yet” (1986b: 87) is perhaps the most well-known example of this category of thought. According to Bloch, hope is an actualization of the future in the present, an unsettling experience beyond the steady pace of predictable linear time. Reid holds a similar view, finding in Gaston Bachelard’s conceptualization of the imagination what Bloch would describe as hope:
“not only the promise of a world beyond […], but the actual existence of the beyond in the psychic life of the subject. It is the enactment of the beyond now” (2011: 161, emphasis added).
It is arguably from this perspective that Rorty is able to argue that hope, not the future, should be the true object of politics. According to Rorty, what ultimately matters to politics is not whether particular hopes are realized, but whether politics realizes hope; the production of a critical “imaginative power” (Ibid.: 87) that would increase the scope of “human freedom” (Ibid.: 129).
According to this logic, it is not only that hope and the future becomes one and the same. It is rather that hope substitutes itself for the future, replacing the desire to actualize the future with a desire to experience the future as possibility. According to Ghassan Hage, this logic of substitution, in which hope takes the place of the future, is exemplary of our present capitalist society:
“Instead of living an ethic of joy, we live an ethic of hope, and that becomes an ethic of deferring joy” (2002: 151).
As Hage notes, there is a suffering entailed in this form of hope, one that keeps the working class docile. It is neither agential nor subversive, but is better described as a kind of waiting, as observed by Brian Massumi: “a deferral of the present to the future [rather than] a way of bringing the future into the present” (2015: 32).
This neoliberal hope is not false; it is not opposite to "genuine" hope. On the contrary, it represents the paradigmatic form through which hope is defined today. If we do not acknowledge this, we risk being unable to see that hope is complicit with the fear, despair, and antagonisms of our present society. We also risk alienating those whose hopes the left should ignite and represent, portraying them as devoid of something that is arguably central to their populist mobilization. Indeed, while right wing populism seemingly competes in portraying the future in negative terms—warning of the end of Western civilization—it is not without hope. If anything, the populist promise is immersed in what is presented as a radical hope: a dream that the political center can be disrupted, that the future is not pre-defined by "natural" laws of globalization, that relations of power and domination can be restored to its "proper" form. Is this not hope? Is this not to believe in the human capacity to initiate change?
To disrupt this nostalgic, racist, and reactionary hope, it is arguably not enough to commit to hope. No particular politics follows from such commitments. As argued by Hage:
“we need to look at what kind of hope a society encourages rather than simply whether it gives people hope or not” (2002: 152).
Hope alone is no answer. Indeed, given hope’s ambiguous relation to despair, fear, and suffering, it seems crazy to desire hope. At risk with the desire for hope is not only our capacity to imagine a world beyond human vulnerability, but also our capacity to bring the future forth. If hope is a “tough-minded and inspired disposition to act,” as argued by Aronson, then this disposition arguably requires that it acts towards the realization of something other than itself. If this disposition is to be released does it not demand that we replace the desire for hope with a desire towards a different and better future? That we act not for hope, but of hope—recognizing that while hope may be a great means, it is a lousy end. As stated by Reid, the “imaginary must find its matter, its reality” (2011: 161).