Hope : Bruce Robbins

Hegelian hope gets a conveniently offbeat formulation in Ghassan Hage’s Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society.26 Capitalist societies, Hage argues, distribute hope unequally. But if hope is a kind of currency whose uneven distribution molds the landscape of class inequality, it is less like capital than like longevity or security. The Left cannot simply oppose Thatcherism, Hage says; rather, it must learn from Thatcherism’s success in distributing hope in a certain way. “Compassion, hospitality, and the recognition of oppression are all about giving hope to marginalized people. But to be able to give hope one has to have it.”27

Those who have it are, in a sense, the haves rather than the have-nots. To some degree they are beneficiaries of an unjust system. If good–that is, more hope–is going to emerge, it must emerge from within a bad system. Hage rejects the model according to which, hope being a scarce commodity, it can only be distributed more widely within the nation-state if it is withdrawn from those outside the nation’s borders–in other words, if the nation is aggressive and racist toward its others. By his model, on the contrary, cosmopolitan hope will arise from the already hopeful, even if the already hopeful are nationalists who “see in every Indigenous person or refugee someone aiming to snatch whatever bit of hope for a decent life they have.”28 Hope is not subject to zero-sum calculations. In order for one person to have more of it, it is not necessary for someone else to have less. This is the best argument for the nation-state as continuous with the project of cosmopolitanism: it allows at least some to have hope, despite the capitalist market, and therefore makes it possible that hope can be passed on to others.

This case can also be made from a different direction. If you google the word “hope” together with the name of some philosopher, hoping to nab a juicy quote from her or him about the concept of hope, what you mainly get is commentators telling you what they “hope to show” or “hope to argue” not about hope, but about some entirely different aspect of the philosopher’s thinking. “I hope to show” seems to offer a firmer conception of hope, more active than passive. To borrow Arjun Appadurai’s distinction from The Future as Cultural Fact, it is closer to “waiting to” than to “waiting for.”29

It is a better grounded conception of hope. Pursuing this thought, I came upon Jane Gallop’s book The Deaths of the Author.30 In that book Gallop notices that when Gayatri Spivak talks about her work as the author of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, she uses the word “progress,” as in the sentence, “My book charts a practitioner’s progress.”31 “‘Progress,’ Gallop goes on, “does not seem like a word one would expect Spivak to use. The word ‘progress’ generally denotes the most triumphant relation to temporality. ‘Progress’ here represents the least troubled or troubling, the most positive version of a writer’s change over time.”32 In fact, she concludes, this somewhat conventional phrasing is “quite atypical of the book.”33

“My book charts a . . . progress,” like “I hope to show,” inhabits a domain of meta-commentary or para-commentary that seems more conventional than the domain of conceptual argument, or at least ruled by different conventions. Still, why not give Spivak credit for her acknowledgement of “progress,” a term she knows very well would set off alarm bells? If we can admit to making progress with a piece of writing, if we can admit to seeing progress happen, at least intermittently, in our institutions or our fields, then perhaps we should be able to learn from these admissions of achievement–learn to acknowledge other kinds and scales of progress, if and when we can perceive them, even if they seem trivial. And take them as a showing or arguing of grounds for hope.

At the moment of considering the progress one may or may not have made in one’s scholarly work, one is tacitly measuring its importance within a collectivity of other scholars. This leads to a hypothesis. It seems possible and perhaps even likely that the fact of belonging to the small but relatively tangible collectivity of fellow scholars makes progress in that domain relatively easier to acknowledge, and that uncertainty as to whether or not one belongs to a larger collectivity makes it more difficult to acknowledge progress elsewhere. If so, the moral of the story for the would-be progressive would be that hope requires membership.

That sense of membership is largely missing from T.J. Clark’s 2012 New Left Review essay “For a Left with No Future.” Clark writes:

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Not any more: because optimism is now a political tonality indissociable from the promises of consumption. ‘Future’ exists only in the stock-exchange plural. Hope is no longer given us for the sake of the hopeless: it has mutated into an endless political and economic Micawberism.34

Susan Watkins responds–correctly I think–that the “no future” position derives in large part from Clark’s fidelity to a Weberian meta-narrative of modernity as rationalization and disenchantment–for her, and for me, a serious if widespread mistake.35 Yet Clark’s essay ends with its own tough-minded hopefulness. Responding to the charge that his anti-utopian position is simply reformism, he replies, “The label does not scare me . . . Reform, it transpires, is a revolutionary demand.”36 Hope re-forms around the collectivity of revolutionary reformers.

Ernesto Laclau makes a similar link between hope and actually existing constituencies in a 2002 volume of Australian interviews entitled Hope: New Philosophies for Change.37 You are in danger of losing hope, he says, if you imagine it “in terms of the fulfilment of a perfect state” of emancipation.38

But on the other hand there is a proliferation of new hopes, new demands, and these demands can be put together to create some kind of more feasible social imaginary. This is not to say that our expectations are any less than in the past, but that at any moment in time we have to construct partial social imaginaries of transformation.39

The task of the Left, he concludes, “is to provide some more global notions of emancipation. But these notions have to be constructed around a particularized item.”40

26. Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (London: Merlin, 2003).

27. Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism, 9.

28. Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism, 9.

29. Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (London: Verso, 2013).

30. Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

31. Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author, 130.

32. Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author, 130.

33. Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author, 131.

34. T.J. Clark, “For a Left with No Future,” New Left Review 74 (2012).

35. Susan Watkins, “Presentism?” New Left Review 74 (2012). It is a pervasive article of faith in and around the Left in our time that there is no progress, even when our own existence and habits of daily expression, like “I hope to show,” seem to be evidence that we also believe the opposite. Here the exemplary figures are Nietzsche and Foucault, each of them so focused on destroying the complacencies of providential and progressive thought, so intent on showing that what looks like reform is always already another regime of domination, that they encourage a temporal vision of endlessly repeating cycles that ought to be at least as suspect as the linearity it is asked to replace.

36. Susan Watkins, “Presentism?,” 73.

37. Ernesto Laclau, “Hope, Passion, Politics–With Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau” in Hope: New Philosophies for Change, ed. Mary Zournazi (London: Routledge, 2002), 122-148.

38. Ernesto Laclau, “Hope, Passion, Politics,” 123-4.

39. Ernesto Laclau, “Hope, Passion, Politics,” 124.

40. Ernesto Laclau, “Hope, Passion, Politics,” 124.

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