Hope : Bruce Robbins

This category clearly includes a certain number of people on what might be called the deconstructive or messianic Left. The messianic Left is not wrong about the absence of adequate grounding for hope; that is a condition of life on earth. It is wrong in giving a positive value to that inadequacy. Messianists sometimes talk as if the hoper accrued extra moral credit for a project’s ungroundedness and therefore had a financial interest, so to speak, in maximizing the risk of her or his political investments.

To adopt this crypto-Christian attitude is to forget how much others stand to lose from the collapse of political projects, some of them merely defenses of existing ways of life. That is why the messianic Left is greeted with such sarcasm even by a Left-Catholic like Terry Eagleton. “For this style of thought,” Eagleton writes, mentioning Benjamin, Derrida, Agamben, and Badiou, “the revolutionary event must indeed be miraculous, since there would seem little in a fallen world to warrant it. If historicism invests too much trust in the works of time, apocalypticism reveals too little.”7 The impulse to work toward a secular conception of hope can also be considered an effort to take the concept back from messianism.

Given that large majorities of the American public express hopes of heavenly immortality and in the meantime believe that by pluck or luck they will eventually rise into the richest 5% or 1% of the population, and given that educators have a professional and citizenly duty to educate, there is something to be said in favor of the severity of the empirical view. For all practical purposes, we can be certain that some hopes are false hopes. Why glorify uncertainty? Uncertainty is not your friend when climate change deniers sow the seeds of doubt as to whether global warming is really anthropogenic or when the mainstream media sow the seeds of doubt as to whether the dead children in a Gaza school can really be attributed to Israeli bombs. These things are certain enough, and we want to be able to say so. Isn’t it enough that we admit our lack of certain knowledge when as so often there is no possible way of avoiding that lack?

There is no need to get hotly defensive every time knowledge threatens to intrude into hope’s vicinity, a zone (hope cannot be the only example) that has been posited in advance as unknowable–in other words, posited as a sort of sacred ground, where to know is to violate and profane. It seems more suitable to begin not with maximal incertitude but with maximal adversity, as Jonathan Lear does in his book Radical Hope.8 What did hope mean a century ago for the Crow Indians, for whom the killing off of the buffalo meant the death of their way of life? Today, what should hope mean for the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories and especially Gaza, or for that matter the Palestinians of the diaspora and those who are second-class citizens in Israel, none of whom would benefit from a so-called two-state solution? For all its difficulty, neither cause would count as Revolutionary with a capital R, and for both success of some sort is at least conceivable. Perhaps hope is best applied to cases like these rather than to cosmic, all-or-nothing questions like revolution or global justice.

Global justice is the theme of an essay entitled “Cosmopolitan Hope” by Catriona McKinnon.9 McKinnon is one of the hopers-against-hope. The type of hope she cares about involves “refraining from judging the probability of an objective.”10 For her, the unlikelihood that the objective will be achieved is irrelevant: “Cosmopolitans can be, and often are, deeply pessimistic about the prospects for realizing the cosmopolitan ideal, and yet continue to hope for it.”11 She illustrates this position with the story of

a mother whose teenage daughter has been missing for six months who retains hope that one day her daughter will return. The mother does not think that the return of her daughter is probable, which is not to say that she thinks it is improbable either. Rather, she makes no judgments about its probability . . . her failure to make probability judgments about her daughter’s return does not prevent her from hoping for it.12

This is an alienation story: it aims at getting back something one has had and lost. As such it does not involve much creativity or risk. Bloch would say that its hope is not genuinely oriented to the future. It’s really as if the mother can’t help hoping, in part because she knows or thinks she knows, having her memories to fall back on, exactly what it will be like to have her daughter at her side once again.13 In order to hope, she does not think she needs to imagine something as yet unknown to her. This may have something to do, one speculates, with why her daughter left, if that’s why she’s missing. But the mother would be the last person to consider that, since in refraining from all reflection on probabilities she is also refraining from analysis as to why her daughter may have chosen to absent herself in the first place, if that’s what she did, and thus also from the sort of thinking that might help her discover where her daughter actually is, assuming she is still alive. Calculating the probabilities of the daughter’s return would lead back through the probabilites of how she disappeared and where she might be; in other words, it would mean doing something to get her back. Unlike faith, hope must be interested in trying to achieve its object and willing to make the corresponding effort, even in the face of uncertainty.

7. Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism (London: University of Virginia Press, 2015), n.p. Eagleton adds: “the Messianism of the later Derrida would be confounded were the Messiah to do anything so drearily determinate as to arrive. It is the privileged view of those who have no need of any very palpable form of redemption, and for whom the idea of hope as a perpetual, open-ended anticipation of nothing in particular is therefore likely to exert some appeal” (n.p.).

8. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

9. Catriona McKinnon, “Cosmopolitan Hope” in The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, ed. Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 234-249.

10. Catriona McKinnon, “Cosmopolitan Hope,” 240.

11. Catriona McKinnon, “Cosmopolitan Hope,” 240.

12. Catriona McKinnon, “Cosmopolitan Hope,” 239.

13. This is what Ernst Bloch would call in The Principle of Hope a “filled affect” as opposed to a properly future-oriented “expectation-affect.” As Fredric Jameson explains, filled affects “ask for fulfillment in a world at all points identical to that of the present, save for the possession of the particular object desired and presently lacking. Such affects are primitive or infantile to the degree that they amount to magical incantations, a conjuring up of the object in question just exactly as we long for it, at the same time that we hold the rest of the world, and our own desire, magically in suspension, arresting all change and the very passage of real time itself” (Marxism and Form, 126-7).

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