The Afterlife of Hope

We promise each other
future celebrations.
—Audre Lorde, “Depreciations”

Because ready / is never a question just a reminder / to breathe / and jump
—Shailja Patel, Migritude

Writing on hope in 2012, a few days before the U.S. election, feels like dancing the Macarena in 2012: embarrassing, shame-filling, out of sync and out of time, even ethically questionable. After all, we live in a far different time from 2008, presumably. A time when this exchange from Migritude feels much more appropriate:

Why do you live in the US when you’re so critical of it?
Because I’d rather be in the country dropping bombs than in the country the bombs are falling on. (88)

Against the fuzziness of hope, the certainty of mortality. Or at least a carefully staked wager.

Those who, like me, wrote on hope in 2008, feel compelled to apologize for a naïveté that I’m not sure we had. If (revisionist?) memory serves, hope was less something incarnated in Obama than it was something (re)activated as energy and possibility. As I tried to situate it in the Kenyan context, hope offered an alternative energy to the enervating and debilitating politics of cynicism and patronage. It activated and suggested possibilities that we could not have envisioned then, possibilities whose long temporality might mean that even now they are not visible. The possibilities of hope could be untethered from Obama’s first term. This is, I confess, a revisionist account, or seems like it.

The turning away from hope, the (re)embrace of a “practical” politics that is, variously, abrasive, ironic, cynical, inevitable, bitter, realist (think of the genre), even naturalist (think of the genre), or, rather, the (re)embrace of a “grown-up” attitude toward politics in which hope is attributed to the silliness of first-time voters who didn’t yet know how to feel politically or what politics is supposed to feel like, should give us pause. The glee with which some writers have proclaimed the inevitable “end” of hope and the embrace of politics as it “ought” to feel worries me.

Must the political be the site of bad feeling?

Could hope be a placeholder—as all words are—for a desire to feel otherwise about the present and the future, not a mystification, but a much-needed jolt of energy? Must hope always be something tied to bad faith? And what would it mean to read hope’s histories as it continually flies from Pandora’s historical box to re-energize emancipatory and participatory projects?
*
if we win
there is no telling.
—Audre Lorde, “Outlines”

I (re)turn to hope to find something other than what I’ve been told politics feels like. Acknowledging that feeling is multivalent: anger and rage are also about hope.

Down Wall Street
the students marched for peace
Above, construction workers looking on remembered
how it was for them in the old days
……………………………………
so they climbed down the girders
and taught their sons a lesson
called Marx a victim of the generation gap
called I grew up the hard way so will you
called
the limits of a sentimental vision.
—Audre Lorde, “The Workers Rose on May Day Or the Postscript to Karl Marx”

When I started re-reading Audre Lorde a few years ago, to teach her work, I was stunned by what felt like the absence of hope in her work. I wanted to be inspired, to find a language of boundless possibility, unbounded optimism. But Lorde’s work felt much too angry, too attuned to the materiality of bad feeling to provide the quick pick-me-up I wanted. My desire for a quick poetry of transcendence/transfiguration that would make me “feel good” or “feel understood” rubbed against the thick difficulty of other kinds of feeling. Her formal difficulty—Lorde is impossible to paraphrase—refused to let me treat her work like poppers or 5-hour energy.

Hope is not absent from her work, but one must contend with the difficulty of finding Pandora’s box. One realizes why hope must exist, what it means to take it seriously, what it means to desire it. As I contend with her work—here, one must imagine Jacob wrestling with an angel, and being marked with a limp—I think about the difficulty of hope, the labor of hoping, against the easy certainty of knowing “things are never going to change” and “there is no winning.”

if we lose
someday women’s blood will congeal
upon a dead planet
if we win
there is no telling.
—Audre Lorde, “Outlines”

Shailja Patel teaches me how to re-read Lorde, dares me to plunge, again, into a moment of feeling that seemed to come and go much too easily: “Make it / to find out / what your own hands are good for” (“Making It,” 122). “Making it” thinks through the labor of persistence incarnated in creating art. With Lorde’s “Outlines,” “Making it” shares the scale of those conditionals—“if we win,” “if we lose.” It is precisely the scale of those conditionals that returns me to Pandora’s hope.

Pandora’s hope is difficult, necessary hope. Hope claimed in the thickness of everything that stands against it. Hope as a kind of labor, even, and perhaps especially, when one’s humanity is being judged.

Yet, if hope has been lost as a shared vocabulary of feeling, what it activated continues to thrive across a range of movements and engagements. Hope’s energies persist, or struggle to persist, even as they traffic under other names. At least I hope so.

To speak of the afterlife of hope—of hope as spectral or zombie-like, differently configured materialities—feels tautological, to the extent that Pandora’s hope is already imagined as spectral or zombie-like, even as it energizes and activates. Hope is what remains. I wonder what it means to turn away from what remains, or to believe we have, or should.

11 thoughts on “The Afterlife of Hope

  1. I want to think of Pandora’s Hope. I am comfortable with knowing that, in my country, Pandora holds a box, within which there is hope, although it might remain unopened.

  2. Hi, Emmanuel, the one context I left out of this account is the energy of hope required in Kenya after the election violence. It was so energizing to turn away from Kenya and to think with another vocabulary of feeling, and to imagine the possibility of even an unopened Pandora’s box.

    Hi, Annie, thanks for the difficult work you’re doing of documenting and disseminating information on LGBTI Jamaica.

  3. Could hope be a placeholder—as all words are—for a desire to feel otherwise about the present and the future, not a mystification, but a much-needed jolt of energy? Must hope always be something tied to bad faith? And what would it mean to read hope’s histories as it continually flies from Pandora’s historical box to re-energize emancipatory and participatory projects?

    I wonder ought we to make a distinction between a hope that is the result of marketing from above, and an organic hope that springs from a popular desire for a better world.

    It seems to me that this is important because the kind of hope that the Obama campaign invoked is a very dangerous kind of hope. I worry about how it displaces and disrupts the work of activism. A sort of, ‘we’ll take it from here’ attitude that works for power, and against popular desires. I think this is what the disoriented left is suffering in the US at this minute. In Obama were placed the hopes of lengthy efforts built up over years of opposing Bush and the Republicans. The organising force, the recruiting power of movements is debilitated when professional politics and groups aligned closely with the state and capital take over popular struggles. It matters little what sorts of new recruits they bring in, the hope they engender is a false hope.

    In that way, I fear, this kind of hope works not as a place holder, not as a supply of energy, but as a deflector and absorber of popular energy. It works not to emancipate but to bind. You could see this in much of the ‘lesser evil’ debate. The Dems may be bad but they are all we’ve got. The imagination is stifled, and possibilities encumbered by this kind of hope that isn’t participatory (at least not in any meaningful way) but that is instead required to be unthinking and trusting – salvific in a religious sense.

  4. I worry overall about how anyone could have hope in elections. Just thinking about electoral campaigns and the sorts of things candidates are required to say in order to excite their bases, the sorts of delusions they encourage, should encourage a healthy cynicism, which is why I for one was very resistant to the Obama bug.

    Politics of this sort captures popular aspirations and organisation, subverting it for capital and the state. The evanescence of hope may be a relocation to more fruitful associations, not an absence altogether.

  5. Sorry, the second comment was in reference to this.

    Yet, if hope has been lost as a shared vocabulary of feeling, what it activated continues to thrive across a range of movements and engagements. Hope’s energies persist, or struggle to persist, even as they traffic under other names. At least I hope so.

  6. I think I’m at a very basic level of thinking right now, unable to distinguish between bad hope and good hope, hope directed toward good ends and hope co-opted for bad ends. I really just want to believe that the circulation of the term does some kind of good. Because I’m convinced that banishing it from our collective vocabularies does harm.

  7. You make me think of Naomi Klein’s wonderful wordplay piece on hope in 2009:

    http://www.naomiklein.org/articles/2009/04/lexicon-disappointment

    “In trying to name these various hope-related ailments, I found myself wondering what the late Studs Terkel would have said about our collective hopeover. He surely would have urged us not to give in to despair. I reached for one of his last books, Hope Dies Last. I didn’t have to read long. The book opens with the words: “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”

    “And that pretty much says it all. Hope was a fine slogan when rooting for a long-shot presidential candidate. But as a posture toward the president of the most powerful nation on earth, it is dangerously deferential.”

    “Which brings me to the final entry in the lexicon.

    “Hoperoots. Sample sentence: “It’s time to stop waiting for hope to be handed down, and start pushing it up, from the hoperoots.”

  8. This is absolutely wonderful. As one who, by necessity as an undocumented person, has lost “hope” in the mainstream political process, I’ve found that I can only create a hard-won hope by fighting every day in solidarity with the many others who struggle for existence and meaning in a dehumanizing society (other undocumented people, women, the poor, my LGBTQ brothers and sisters,etc…). This form of “hope” is not the pie-in-the-sky type. It needs to be laboured upon every day and it even acknowledges the days despair, while not giving in to them. I have been reading a lot of Albert Camus for sustenance these days. His discourses on maintaining realistic, illusion-less hope in the midst of struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds are invaluable. Courage is communal and is not easily granted. It must be wrestled into existence in solidarity with others. I needed to read this today. Thanks Keguro and Shailja for leading me to this blog post.

  9. Shailja, I love “hoperoots!” Love it a lot! And I think this orienting of hope–paying attention to where it comes from and how it works in those spaces is so central to how I think about it.

    Lovely!

    The labor of hope and the hope of labor!

  10. Pingback: Re: The Afterlife of Hope | Emmanuel Iduma

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