Thoughts on hope and resignation
Every morning, waking up, I lie there a couple of minutes, not daring to open my eyes. I force them closed. Keep my hands over them. Let the fingers slide over the eyelids. Attempt to rub the fear away. I check if they are there, even though it is only when I open them, I can be sure. Are they here today? My cockroach eyes. Is this the day, when it is finally my turn to wake up in bed, changed, not suddenly, but after a long time’s processing? But I am privileged. I don’t have to check if my back is a hard shell. My legs are always their firm meaty mass and I don’t fear that they have become thin and many during the night. It is not me, not initially me, the world turns into a verminous creature.
It is interesting. While transformation seem more and more impossible to us, we are silently changed. It is not really anything new. For a long time, neoliberalism has had as one of its main functions, exactly, to insist that there is no alternative. “Nothing to talk about here,”1 was the archetypical statement by the prime minister, which we analysed in the first decade of the new millennium. The decade before, they tried to tell us that we had reached “the end of history.” Naturally, reforms were still necessary – we had to change from “welfare” to “workfare,” adjust to the integrated world capitalism, work faster and longer, change paradigm from rehabilitation to punishment, introduce New Public Management, and privatise – but that was, exactly, “necessity,” because actual transformation was no longer possible, not even as a thought. All holes were closed, there was nothing to talk about here, no space for actual disagreement or politics.
‘Actual political disagreement is not between one who says white and another who says black, but between two who both say white but does not understand the same thing by it,’ in this way Jacques Rancière, slightly paraphrased, explains it in Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy. It is a question of clashes between different way to experience and understand the world. In this way, it is a precondition for political disagreement that there is a hole between the signifier and the signified, between what we are talking about and the words we use to talk about it. But when necessity takes the place as the driving force in political discourse, this space is removed – “nothing to talk about here” is exactly a speech act which serves to remove this space: the only possibility of disagreement is if it is possible to find a flaw in the argument’s own logic, if the government does not deliver what it claims to deliver, outside of that there is nothing, no values, no space for a more fundamental disagreement. And so, no space for actual alternatives.
The shutting down of this space can take many shapes. In his book, Yearnings in the Meantime – ‘Normal Lives’ and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex, Stef Jansen describes a situation where life is at one and the same time defined by a desperate need for societal changes and an almost complete impossibility of imagining this happening. Jansen’s analysis has many facets, which I will not delve into here, and is strongly based in his anthropological research in the Sarajevo neighbourhood Dobrinja. To equate living conditions in Sarajevo and Copenhagen is a difficult task, and certainly not my objective here. There is no doubt that, for most, the possibility of “a normal life” and a functioning state, which is the central yearning for most of the people in Jansen’s examination, to a far wider extent is possible here in Denmark than in Bosnia. What I want to emphasise here is Jansen’s concept of being caught in the meantime. In the concrete analysis, this meantime is connected to a specific Bosnian exceptionalism – you don’t have to spend much time in Sarajevo to know the shrug on the shoulders and the phrase “samo kod nas” – and the feeling that elsewhere, a development takes place, which is blocked there. Corruption, neoliberal economy and the political games are blocking the possibility of seeing changes (for the better) as an actual possibility. In this sense the future is blocked, you only live in this meantime.2
The most interesting part of Jansen’s book is his introduction of time as a horizon that is not simple chronology, but in many ways, is decisive for the experience of living conditions and the possibilities of action that appear in the present. Hope has a special relation to time. As opposed to utopia, hope has an element of realism – while utopia describes the unattainable for which you may strive (or find inspiration in) but never realise, the ideal good, then hope is a far more concrete projection of the existing good on a possible future. Not a certain future, here hope differs from optimism. Optimism is connected to realism to a far greater extent than hope – optimism includes an expectation of a change for the better, but this expectation when it comes to hope is… well, a hope. It is not unrealistic, but far from certain. Hope is a projection of the concrete good – from the present or the past (or, perhaps, even from art) – on a possible future, where this good has a greater possibility and role to play. In this sense hope is at one and the same time insistence on the good, which exist, and the creation of a possible future in which this good has changed the world for the better. Hope depends on the possibility of creating the existence of the future in the present.
But when this future is blocked, when the possible change becomes impossible to imagine, then hope also becomes impossible, or at the very least highly limited. And this have great consequences for life in the present. This is true on the personal level: Jansen argues that when hope of the societal change for the better is blocked, the horizon of the personal morality is limited to its existence in an unacceptable present. From his research, Jansen makes use of the example of how a person who regards corruption as morally reprehensible, but at the same time lives in a society where corruption far along is a condition, can become capable of paying it herself. This happens exactly because the only realistic horizon for the action is an unacceptable present – the possibility of judging your own action in a hoped future where corruption is fought and limited (also as a consequence of your own refusal to contribute to it) is blocked, and so the action is isolated to a present in which there is no alternative, nothing to talk about here. But, of course, it is also true for collective action. Protest and uprising are, especially in order to be maintained, dependent on hope. We know, from experience, that our demands are rarely met. We know that we face overwhelming force. The meaning of the protest action is therefore, almost every time, to be found, apart from the concrete goal of change, also in its role as manifestation of an insistence on the good, which exist, and in its ability to project the possible future in which this good has a greater part to play. Protests and actual political movements are thus depended upon breaking the resignation to the meantime.
I can feel their pressure, my cold cockroach eyes, which show me images and not truth. I wait in fear, feeling their pressure. I hate them. My green-blue cockroach eyes. When in glimpses, I see them growing in the mirror. I wait, feeling their pressure. Just the final pop and they are stuck. Two ping-pong balls fully popped, and will I then be the one standing there with the cake in my hands?3 I can feel their pressure, their cracking sound in my cranium. And I feel it, the desire to claw them out, turn them into a bloody mass, before they finally stick. I reach for a pen, remove the top. The desire to poke them out, leave an abject mass of ink and blood that would draw a more honest image of the world than these eyes, that I one day finally will wake up with, which turn people around me into vermin.
At a debate in the exhibition space CAMP in the start of March, a text by Achille Mbembe was read out, he describes something which he calls negative messianism: “Negative messianism is a messianism that has forfeited the idea of redemption.” Mbembe’s text takes its starting point in Trump’s America, but sees this as a symptom of a more global situation and development. He describes a drive toward destruction, segregation and suicide in an experience of the world which tells us that it is impossible to escape destruction anyway. There is something principally contradictory in this negative messianism, the hope of the coming of the good deprived of the aspiration of ‘the good’, but it still appears to me as an interesting description of the movement, which Trump is an expression of, and that we can recognize many places closer to here. The enthusiasm for, well, for what? For nothing? For the denial of the aspiration of ‘the good’?
I’m not sure, if I will go as far as Mbembe and insist on describing a negative messianism. I’m not sure either, if what I really want to diagnose here is Trump. But, I believe there is something important in the question of messianism. Whether it has turned to be negative, or more simply is denied. The denial of the messianic. The absence of hope.
The question of messianism very much includes the question of time. Not only time as simple chronology, but the question of time horizons workings in the present. If a thought is to challenge the existing, it must include something not (yet) existing to find its condition of possibility. The messianic in classical sense is, exactly, the promise of the coming of the mythical good – heaven on earth, the thousand-year kingdom, communism – and this promise creates a time horizon, which functions back onto the present and creates the foundation for action within it.
Jacques Derrida points out that: “[a] ‘successful’ revolution, the ‘successful foundation of a state’ (in somewhat the same sense that one speaks of a ‘felicitous performative speech act’) will produce après coup what it was destined in advance to produce, namely, proper interpretative models to read in return, to give sense, necessity and above all, the interpretative model in question, that is, the discourse of its self-legitimation.”4 What Derrida talks about in this text, in which he reads texts from Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt on the subject, is first and foremost the question of how law is always based on a fundamental, violent transgression of itself – both the ‘law-preserving’ and ‘law-creating’ violence is founded in a violent past or future past (the grammatic futurum perfektum) which justifies the violent transgression of the law, the exception that makes the function of the law possible. But, as the quote shows, this truth is also valid in other areas. The existing system is, devoid of a ‘natural’ foundation, based on a ‘violent’ decision of its meaningfulness, its legitimacy, and so willing to go far – to the exception and by that outside its own immediate limits – to safeguard this meaning from any real alternative. While ‘the successful revolution’, in its classic sense the overthrowing of the existing system on behalf of the establishment of a new, must base its ‘violence’, its transgression, in a future which justifies it. This is the messianic in traditional sense – the promise of the coming of the good, which justifies actions in the present.
What is important, to me, here is mainly, how to Derrida it is the projection of the future in the present that works back onto the present. It is the projection of the possible consequences of the action, which creates its own model for interpretation, which gives it meaning in the present. Now, of course, we know well that there is good reason to be suspicious of this type of classic messianism, which actions the promise of the coming of the good can justify in ‘the successful revolution’: if the action today only finds its meaning as an exception to create a promised future, it is not different in essence from the violence that is carried out in the exception to ensure the existing; then it can, in the same way, justify whatever in order to maintain the model of interpretation which endows it with meaning. This is where the term weak messianism, in Benjamin, Derrida, and others, becomes so central.
Weak messianism is the uncertain promise of the potential of the good in a possible future. In this sense the struggle, if based on such a weak messianism, becomes based on uncertainty. A consciousness of the fragility and temporality of the good. And an uncertainty regarding the model of interpretation for action in the present. It is not a necessary future, but a possible future, that is projected in the present as a possible foundation for interpretation of action. Not a new system, but a value, something it makes sense to fight for.
I see them. They exploit us, these ‘the least of these’. They are greedy and lazy. We must limit them, cut their benefits, discipline them, for they are not like us. And while we see people struggle to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads in the city, where the price of living is constantly increasing, while we see their struggle become tougher and tougher because of our actions, we ask with our cockroach eyes as in Matthew: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”
There are no actual values in the meantime. When the present is blocked, or at best left to necessity and fear, and the present filled by the silent change driven by market forces, values have no model of interpretation reaching beyond the existing to mirror themselves in. This is perfect conditions to operate in for identitarian movements, such as nationalism, which, in the words of Danilo Kiš, ”lives by relativism,”5 and for a culture of lived nihilism.
In Race Matters, Cornel West describes this lived nihilism as one of the main factors in what he analyses as the crisis of black America:
“Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.”6
Again, we must not be blind to the huge differences involved in comparisons across time and place – and position in terms of privileges in the world: it is not my intention to draw a direct line, but more so to ask if we cannot also recognize some of the same here. There is no doubt that the material and structural conditions under which you live have a great effect on the experience of meaninglessness and absurdity in the world. But if we can recognize elements of this lived nihilism in ourselves and in society, we must question the conditions that create the break-down of meaning and hope.
Here, it is, naturally, relevant to look at both the material conditions, the economic grounds for a good life, but also the conditions of possibility of the structures of recognition, which create the self-esteem of the individual. We can go far, here, by following, amongst others, Axel Honneth’s model for recognition – the need for recognition in terms of love (the experience of being of unique and inalienable value to another), recognition in terms of moral respect (the experience of being of equal normative and juridical value in society), and recognition in terms of solidarity (the experience of possessing skills that are of fundamental value to a concrete community).7 By asking how society in the best way can create the conditions of possibility for this recognition, we can, certainly, find a long list of concrete demands to fight for, which will counteract lived nihilism.
But, we must also question if this is enough. Put forward as a program of reforms, such analysis often end up appearing as optimism – they project a future that will be good, as soon as these changes are carried out. Only, this presume that we have a horizon in which transformation is possible. Of course, minor adjustments can be carried out, which may counteract symptoms in the existing system, but in the silent change we are experiencing, the development is exactly the opposite. The resignation to the meantime is strong. There is no reason for optimism. And this is where the question of hope becomes so central. Hope is, exactly, hope in a situation where optimism is idiocy.
It is not enough to ask which structures create recognition or justice: we must, at the same time, ask which create hope. What in the world make sense? And which struggles we can fight to strengthen this and project it on a possible future, as hope that functions back the other way to strengthen its existence today?
Hope and optimism, even if in a way related, are two very different forces. Where optimism is based on a relatively certain expectation of the future, the projection of a coming future based on existing forces with the strength to create this; then hope is based on a far more fragile base, the projection of an uncertain future based on existing elements that may be strengthened in this future. But in its own way, optimism is a more fragile force, its strength is based on the fulfillment of its promise – if, for instance, a protest movement based on optimism does not win an immediate victory, the risk of resignation and melancholia is great. Here, it is different with hope, which is not dependent on the immediate victory, but is based on its own strength to project meaning into the fight on a more general level. Or, in other words: Optimism is the projection of existing structures, which in continuation of them will create change for the better. Hope is the projection of existing values, which in the fight for them will strengthen their potential to transform the world. Optimism is about improvement, hope about the meaning of fighting for ‘the good’.
And can we not recognize this in many ways here? The blocking of the future and the resignation to the meantime. Activist hopelessness and exhaustion already before the struggle begins. How many of the struggles of the left wing, both the parliamentarian and the activist, that are about fighting against cutbacks and deteriorations, instead of speaking truth to power, instead of fighting for ‘the good’. How any talk of actual values is constantly blocked by the constant demands of necessity. The silent change, more and more people being left to a lived nihilism, the growth of the cockroach eyes, around us and in ourselves.
I struggle with them, my cockroach eyes. I feel their pressure and I fear the day, when they will finally be here. But, I also see how your face, the wrinkles round your eyes, the resistance in your actions make my eyes more beautiful. I open them, it is not today. Maybe soon, I feel the pressure. But today, I still see you in them.