Hope : Bruce Robbins

McKinnon supplements her argument with another analogy.

A person stands at the edge of a crevasse and is committed to continuing forward. In order to be able to jump across she has to believe that she can make the jump successfully and, importantly, this belief alters the probability of making a successful jump: if she cannot talk herself into this state of belief then her ability to make the jump will be impaired.14

If I have to choose between thinking of the global justice movement as a mother hoping for the return of her missing daughter and thinking of it as a woman jumping off a cliff, I’ll opt for the woman jumping off a cliff. It’s not very creative, but it does accept the elements of risk and open-ended futurity. Although even here the “crevasse” assumes solid ground on the other side, which is perhaps not quite as much attention to the risky future as the narrative calls for. Unless the fact that the reader is forced to accept the “commitment to continuing forward” as a premise that cannot be doubted makes this commitment not in fact free at all. Considering how dire the (unmentioned, unmentionable) consequences would be of failure to jump all the way to the other side, we might then conclude that, like other “hopers against hope,” McKinnon is trying very hard not to look at probabilities she knows are there but that she realizes do not favor her cause.

Could a cosmopolitan hope ever allow itself to look the probabilities in the face? Like most cosmopolitanism of the “old” or universalistic sort, McKinnon’s comes out of the Kantian tradition. My effort here might be described as imagining. by contrast, a Hegelian cosmopolitanism and a Hegelian hope. By this I don’t mean re-affirming Hegelian teleology, the infamous cosmic optimism of a secularized Christian providence. I intend only to go along with Hegel’s anti-Kantian and ethically quite unsettling premise that intellect and will are interdependent and that moral norms and commitments are historically produced, historically determined, and historically relative.

If so, then cosmopolitanism, a term much more closely associated with Kant, could be re-conceived not as the geographical translation of universality but rather as a provisional aggregate of various sporadic expansions of ethics to larger scales, ethical expansions beholden to and tainted by realities like commercial interconnectedness, the often coerced diasporic movements of peoples, developments in communications and transportation technology, and so on.15 My hypothesis is that this mode of grounding hope can be brought to bear on the calculation of probabilities for global justice, a goal that seems on the contrary tailor-made to induce hopelessness.

Consider, then, some famous words that George F. Kennan wrote in Policy Planning Study 23, a confidential document circulated within the U.S. State Department in 1948 and published to the world at large only three decades later. “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”16 It seems noteworthy that Kennan’s statement had to be kept secret and, when it was ultimately leaked, was considered scandalous. Why should it have been scandalous? After all, Kennan does not admit to theft; he does not say (as he might have) that our wealth depends on their deprivation.

Yet his words were clearly perceived as embarrassing, and the embarrassment deserves to be thought of as a significant historical phenomenon demanding explanation of some sort. It implies the existence of an unarticulated cosmopolitan norm which recognizes that access to the world’s resources ought to be better aligned with population–ought to be subject to something like global democracy, perhaps, or at any rate not simply a matter of each nation trying to seize as much for itself as it can. If this is indeed what a great number of us believe, how did we come to believe it? Where did this unarticulated norm come from? How did we arrive at this intimation of global justice?

One place to look for this history is in what I think of as “commodity recognition scenes” – literary epiphanies in which some familiar consumer good is suddenly recognized as coming from a distant place of origin and from the labor, perhaps the coerced or otherwise unpleasant labor, of the distant inhabitants. The first such scenes I could find belong to a tradition in which a male moralist points the finger at a woman in the act of consuming a luxury. An early example would be when Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver observes that “this whole globe of earth must be three times gone round, before one of our better female yahoos could get her breakfast, or a cup to put it in.”17 Swift of course fails to note that what’s true for a female yahoo drinking her morning tea out of a porcelain teacup is equally true for yahoos who are male; they drink the same tea out of the same cups. Commodity recognition scenes emerge only when they can target the supposed consumer excesses of women—in other words, they emerge with a strong push from misogyny. And yet a misogynous recognition of distant labor is better than no recognition of distant labor. Once the recognition is out there, it becomes possible for the misogyny to be subtracted, leaving something of value behind.

14. Catriona McKinnon, “Cosmopolitan Hope,” 247.

15. I develop this idea at greater length in my Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

16. On the history of the Kennan line, see Gilles d’Aymery, “Context And Accuracy: George F. Kennan’s Famous ‘Quotation’” in Swan’s (March 28, 2005) http://www.swans.com/library/art11/ga192.html

17. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, (ed.) Christopher Fox (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 1995), 203. See the commentary in Charlotte Sussman, Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 9. See also Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). My warm thanks to Katie Trumpener for bringing these materials to my attention.

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