December 8, 2012, by Gianlluca Simi
Dr. Colin Wright’s Keynote Address: The Politics of Hope
Dr. Colin Wright, co-director of the Centre for Critical Theory, has kindly given us permission to reproduce here his keynote address, delivered to Vital Theory 2012 delegates.
I will say just a very few words about the question of hope, and why it is vital, precisely, that we develop a theory of the politics of hope today, just to sketch out some areas we might explore during the workshops and return to in the open discussion at the end of the day. My very simple answer is that hope need to be theorised because it represents, to me at least, one of the key sites of contestation around what is, or should be, or could be, at stake in politics itself. Hope crystallizes the issue of what politics is for by outlining the parameters of what we can expect from it: is politics about conserving the status quo, or about social and cultural transformation?
We can get a sense of this with a quick and very loose survey of the criticisms of hope’s alleged excesses. The strongest tradition of this comes from the right, and arguably emerges from revisionist and reactionary accounts of the French Revolution. But the same rhetorical mechanism gets elaborated as anti-totalitarianism, and anti-Communism in particular, in the Twentieth Century, which then feeds into critiques of Islamic fundamentalism in the Twenty First. Consistent within this whole tradition of thought is the notion that hope for changeinevitably tips over into fanaticism when hitched to the violent abstraction of an Idea. For the right then, militant forms of hope stand condemned by the bloody history of their over-zealous implementation: revolution breeds Terror, utopianism morphs into fascism, the dream of alternatives turns ineluctably into the nightmare of extremism, all because of the immodesty of a hope that exercises the tyranny of the unmediated concept. This was already there in Hegel’s critique of the French Revolution in his Phenomenology, but the argument has done sterling service against most forms of emancipatory politics ever since, and it persists to this day.
Take for example the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism from 2010. “Hope”, he says there, “detached from faith and untempered by the evidence of history, is a dangerous asset, and one that threatens not only those who embrace it, but all those within range of their illusions”. Playing at being an evolutionary psychologist, Scruton goes on to try to trace the human tendency toward hope in a “prehistoric source”, supposedly demonstrating that “civilization is always threatened from below, by patterns of belief and emotion that may once have been useful to our species, but that are useful no more”. Our species is now so highly developed, according to Scruton, that hope is as vestigial as the appendix, a kind of affective counter-part for junk DNA.
There are also critiques of the excesses of hope coming from the left, however. Marx’s critique of religion as the opiate of the masses was partly aimed at the soporific effects of locating redemption always in the hereafter, instead of in the concrete present of class struggle. This opens out onto a broader critique of the quietism potentially inherent in messianic modes of subjectivity, whereby supreme confidence in a future freedom ends up suspending the action needed to realise it in the now. Yet this critique of the temporality of hope also moves in the opposite direction. Historical materialism inherits from Hegel something of his critique of the Idea when isolated from its material or sensuous conditions. Thus, Lenin, that great reader of Hegel, was famously critical of what he called ‘juvenile leftism’, which is to say, the breathless urgency to realise the hoped for goal right now – a reification of spontaneity insufficiently attuned to practical questions of the opportune moment, arguably Lenin’s specialist subject. Against this backdrop, a thinker like Ernst Bloch, whose three volume The Principle of Hope takes seriously the notion of a utopian human impulse with transformative potential, sticks out from the Marxist cannon like something of a sore thumb, though he too remains critical of the reactionary dimension of abstract hope. In quasi-Heideggerian mode, Bloch argues instead that hope, which rests on what he calls an ‘anticipatory consciousness’, is a praxis that actualizes in the world a future-oriented project, one that emerges from a past but is not determined by it, and heads towards a goal that is anything but mere fantasy.
In combination then, critiques coming from Left and Right warn against harbouring the wrong kind of hope: abstract, impractical, dreamy, consoling, dangerous, not dangerous enough, and so on. However, arguably the most hegemonic discourse about hope today, the one that most insidiously nullifies hope’s relation to the politics of change, is a liberal and indeed neo-liberal one. Now, hope is positively affirmed in order to be depoliticized. Hope is affirmed as a universalisation of the American dream and the right to happiness. If militant hope is an art of dreaming dangerously, the liberalization of hope is its humbling into a set of distracting, idle daydreams, supported by consumer objects of wish-fulfilment (hence our participatory workshop on objects today). We have the right to dream of nice clothes, a big house, a fancy car, mind-blowing sex, but not of an alternative to capitalism. We have the right to compete with others to get these things. We have the right to hope that the rest of the world will catch up with our way of thinking about the right things to hope for. We have the right to believe that there are no limits to any of this, neither of the exploitation of labour, nor of ecological resources, nor of the creativity of destruction, nor indeed of subjective docility. This is where we come full circle with the right’s critique of hope as a slippery slope towards fanaticism. For what crazier position can there be now than that of market fundamentalism, which looks to the problem for salvation? This is what I would call hoping against hope.
And when the world falls short of the Idea of free-market capitalism and its limitless promises, as it constantly and necessarily does, what is prescribed? Positive thinking. One of the best selling self-help books in the aftermath of the credit crunch was entitled I Got Fired … And It Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me!, magically turning the problem of precarious labour into just another entrepreneurial opportunity. The title of another book in this genre expresses well the depoliticized nature of neo-liberal hope: Loving What Is.This is what Lauren Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’: a condition in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”. And as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown in her book Smile or Die, this cult of exorbitantly positive thinking was decisive in the global financial collapse in the first place. We should note carefully that a close semantic cousin of hope, ‘confidence’, has long been a central signifier for stockbrokers and hedge fund managers.
To recover hope from this neo-liberal quagmire of what Judith Halberstam has called ‘toxic positivity’, clearly some critical theoretical work is required. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory is a vital, though by no means sufficient resource for such work. After all, Adorno’s negative dialectics both refuse the incipient totalitarianism of a synthetic trajectory towards the absolute, and yet still situates the ‘labour of the negative’ within an emancipatory and not at all a nihilistic political project. Amidst the modish ‘critique of critique’, these lessons are easily forgotten. However, such a careful re-reading of the tradition of Critical Theory with a view to revitalising militant hope would certainly have to interrogate the question of what we can realistically hope for from critique today. I obviously ask this question in the context of a rapid and unrelenting neo-liberal marketization of the university and higher education sectors. These forces are making universities much more likely to aspire to becoming research and development hubs for industry than – to recycle a an ideal of the univerrsity from May ’68 which suggests a connection to the history of the labour movement rather than to industry per se – ‘factories of thought’.
It is also a characteristic of liberalism to pride itself on the creation of spaces of supposed dissent, with a view to maintaining the health of democracy. If the university continues to trade in part on this image, we should be alerted to the danger of academic critique’s complicity in what it ostensibly opposes. For example, personally I can see an awkward formal similarity between Scruton’s advocacy of conservative pessimism and both the ‘capitalist realism’ identified by Mark Fisher, and the cynical reason so richly elaborated by Peter Slöterdijk. I am tempted to reach for a line from the film As Good As It Gets which I use far too often to make this point: Jack Nicholson’s troubled character says to his unhelpful interlocutor, “I’m drowning here, and all you can do is describe the water”. Without hope, isn’t critique for critique’s sake in danger of drowning in this same problem?
Rather than simply bemoaning the supposedly hopeless situation in the neo-liberal university however – and or what it is worth, I do not think it is hopeless – it is perfectly in keeping with the tradition of critical theory to look well beyond academia for dynamic critical practices, and that is what I think our workshops this morning will do. When we do this, I genuinely think that there is much cause for what I might want to term ‘critical optimism’. For all their inevitable problems then, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the Indignados of Spain, the snowballing Quebec protests, the remarkable survival of the Zapatistas in Mexico, significant recent mobilisations around the Palestinian question and so on, all indicate the persistence of hope, not as an abstract dream that ultimately keeps us asleep, but as an immanent, wakeful, collective praxis. Equally, the precarious but persistent forms of artistic practices that dovetail with creative modes of activism show that however much liberal arts institutions try to capture the energy, the affect, and the solidarity arising from radical art practices, a hopeful remainder escapes their grasp.
Even in the absence of such radical political and artistic sequences however, even in the kind of world Alain Badiou describes as ‘atonal’ – or rather precisely in such worlds where the grounds for hope seem to have fallen away – hope becomes a crucial subjective resource. I would therefore like in closing to turn to an unlikely resource for thinking through the politics of hope that Badiou also draws on: the incomparable writings of Samuel Beckett.
Despite existentialist readings of Beckett as a nihilist, hope is a crucial theme in his work. Throughout his literary and theatrical output, but particularly during the later phase, we find in Beckett’s work the juxtaposition of utter abjection and hopelessness on the one hand, and a dogged, quite irrational stubbornness and courage on the other. This optimism is irrational, in the end, precisely because it is hitched to the simultaneous strength and fragility of the Idea. Language itself, and by extension thought, gives us the indestructible power to imagine an encounter that could change everything, even though all we have ever known, experientially, is a blind writhing in black mud (How It Is), or a meaningless circling within a sealed, unlit cylinder whose interior resembles Dante’s Inferno (The Lost Ones). There is hope even in these claustrophobic spaces. Beckett once said in interview “The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess […] It’s no good closing your eyes, you must leave them open even in the dark”. This idea of leaving our eyes open even in the dark strikes me sage counsel. In a piece called Company, Beckett also wrote, with his habitual surgical precision, the following statement which I would like to meditate on for a moment: “Better hope deferred than none. Up to a point”.
What are we to make of Beckett’s line? It perhaps reminds us of Shakespeare’s “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, and thus of the message that it is worth taking the risk of acting on our desire. Yet Beckett adds two twists, forming a kind of literary mobius strip. Firstly, hope is deferred. It is in storage, as it were, but ready to emerge under more propitious conditions, even if, and this is crucial, they never arise. Secondly, this axiom is true “only up to a point”. What is the point of this point? I think there are at least two ways of reading it: on the one hand, it is “better” to maintain this groundless or hopeless hope only up to that point beyond which it becomes something akin to Berlant’s ‘cruel optimism’. We can find a similar sentiment, posed with deliciously black humour, in The Unnameables: “Is not a uniformsuffering preferable to one which, by its ups and downs, is liable at certain moments to encourage the view that perhaps after all it is not eternal?”. Here speaks a very Catholic agnostic I think. In any case, we can make another point of that point, by interpreting it as referring to a limit beyond which deferral should itself be deferred, that is, a point beyond which hope should come out of storage. But for that to be possible, Beckett reminds us – and I will end on this important point about the politics of hope – it must have been there all along.
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