Tag Archives: hope

haunted by (hopeful) futures

The great pleasure of following Adam Roberts’s blogging—once you’ve gotten past the minor frustration of finding that he’s upped sticks and moved to another domain and/or platform for whatever he’s currently driven to write about—is watching him try out ideas, throw together a hypothesis, then start poking it to see if it holds up.

Latest case in point: do the ghost stories of Dickens mark a shift in the way in which fiction thinks about futurity? It’s quite a chewy idea, and you should read the whole thing if you’re curious, but this is perhaps the crucial part of the argument:

By the end of the [19th] century, most notably with the variegated futuristic fictions of H G Wells, the notion that the future would be in substantive ways different to the present had bedded itself into the emergent genre, such that it is — now — a core aspect of science fiction’s many futures. Nowadays ‘futuristic fiction’ simply comes with the sense, baked-in, that the future will be different to the present, not just in the old utopian writing sense that a notional 1776, or 1789, will usher in a new form of social justice and harmony (according to whichever utopian crotchet or social-reform king-charles-head happens to be yours), but that change will happen across multiple fronts, have intricate and widespread ramifications. That the future will be a different country, they will do things differently there.


What I’m trying here is to see, by laying it out, whether there is a argument of some significance that can be established. Does it begin with Dickens? So, to strike the keynote again: in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ (1824) or Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (1834) the present is haunted by the past, as is the case in most ghost stories. But in Christmas Carol and ‘The Signal-Man’ the present is haunted by the future.

I am not anywhere near sufficiently well-versed in C19th fictions to have an opinion worth hearing on this theory, but it’s interesting nonetheless—particularly as Roberts ties his proposed pivot (in part) to the concretised-modernity of the railways in “The Signal-Man”, and as y’all know well by this point, infrastructure as a cultural and political force is totally my jam.

I will also include this earlier part of the argument, for reasons of resonance which will become clear:

Through the early nineteenth-century plenty of books were set in ‘the future’, many of them utopian works in the Mercerian mode like Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338 (1835) and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). But alongside this ‘new’ version of futuristic fiction was a vogue for a second kind of futuristic fiction, secularised (to some extent) versions of the old religious-apocalyptic future-imagining. […]

We might style these two modes of imagining the future as spinning ‘positive’ (utopian) and ‘negative’ (apocalyptic) valences out of their futurism, but let’s not. That would be clumsily over-simplistic of us. I’m more interested in the way the two modes feed into one another.

Again, no prizes for intuiting my interest in this part of the piece, and it will be interesting to see how (if?) Roberts collides the axes of utopia/apocalypse with haunting-pasts/haunting-futures. But it also chimes nicely with a little bit by Warren Ellis (who I’m very glad to see blogging once again):

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

Nothing theoretically novel in that, perhaps, but it’s a very succinct way of stating one of the major threads of post-Moylan critical utopianism. As someone caught awkwardly between the positions of critic and author—and, some would say, not really covering all the bases on either pole; Roberts is a hard act to follow on that front, and not only because he’s so terrifyingly prolific—it’s satisfying for me to find statements from someone firmly in one camp (in this case, Ellis as author) that map clearly to statements from the other.

Because, contrary to the cliches, this theorist is pretty keen on seeing how theory plays out in practice…

Solnit’s hope vs. Arendt’s natality

Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope is so succinct a summary of my own definition that I assume I must have picked it up from her (and from others who got it from the same source). This version is from a new interview at LARB, which I’m stashing here so I can cite it properly going forward:

I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them. We will see.

Interesting to compare this to Samantha Rose Hill’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s definition of hope:

It was holding on to hope, Arendt argued, that rendered so many helpless. It was hope that destroyed humanity by turning people away from the world in front of them. It was hope that prevented people from acting courageously in dark times.

Now, I’m not about to gainsay Hannah Arendt, nor Rose Hill’s reading thereof—but nonetheless it appears that Arendt is using the term in a very different way to Solnit: Arendt’s hope is much more like Solnit’s optimism, or so it seems to me. (It would be interesting to do a proper philological dig into the etymology of hope, and its different expression in the various Germanic languages.) That leaves Arendt’s natality as a plausible counterpart to Solnit’s hope:

An uncommon word, and certainly more feminine and clunkier-sounding than hope, natality possesses the ability to save humanity. Whereas hope is a passive desire for some future outcome, the faculty of action is ontologically rooted in the fact of natality. Breaking with the tradition of Western political thought, which centred death and mortality from Plato’s Republic through to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Arendt turns towards new beginnings, not to make any metaphysical argument about the nature of being, but in order to save the principle of humanity itself. Natality is the condition for continued human existence, it is the miracle of birth, it is the new beginning inherent in each birth that makes action possible, it is spontaneous and it is unpredictable. Natality means we always have the ability to break with the current situation and begin something new. But what that is cannot be said.

(In the spirit of honesty, I must confess to finding something unsettling about the connection of futurity to “the miracle of birth”; perhaps this is an expression of an institutionalised misogyny on my part? I both hope and believe that it is not… but if it were, then by definition I would believe it to be something else, I guess. Which is another unsettling thought… and perhaps the more pertinent of the two unsettlements for me to address.

But the idea that “the children are our future” has always seemed to me—a childless person by personal choice, rather than by political conviction—as a way to kick the can of change down the road, even if not intentionally or consciously: “well, we’ve made a mess of things, but if we bring the kids up OK, they can sort it all out when we’re in our dotage!” And I guess that, as a recent exile from Rainy Reactionary Island, I currently find it rather hard to believe that generations in their dotage will actually accept their children trying to change anything at all while they’re still alive.

Which is not, to be clear, to claim that there’s some inevitable conservatism inherent in parenthood… though it is perhaps to suggest—as I believe many feminist and post-feminist theorists have already done at great length—that the nuclear family is the institution that does the majority of the cellular-level work of reproducing capitalist relations. I dunno… this is one of the may fields where I need to do a lot more reading than I already have.)

terrible stories, told beautifully

A shameless wholesale reblog from Nicolas Nova, here, as he’s done the service of transcribing a bit from a podcast interview with Anna Tsing which I have yet to listen to, but which chimed so damn loud with a conference paper abstract I’ve been writing this afternoon (as well as with, well, everything I’ve been thinking and writing about for the last couple of years, but the last year in particular) that I couldn’t let it pass unblogged. Plus, y’know, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Anyway—quoth Tsing:

As I continue to read about the challenges around us, I have decided that’s not enough, we also gonna have to tell stories where we’re not winning, where there’s just terrible things happening and we might not win, and I know anthropologists have been very critical of those kind of stories, particularly as paralyzing, as leaving one dead-end. Then it’s gonna be a challenge, how do write those stories in a way that they’re not paralyzing, that they bring us to life, that we notice the details, all that art of noticing is in there, that we ‘stay in the trouble’ as Donna Haraway puts it, that we get involved, so that’s our challenge. So that rather than saying don’t do it, I think the challenge of our time is: ‘how do we tell terrible stories beautifully.’

At the risk of coming across as a shameless fan, I could argue that Tsing has already found at least one answer to her own challenge, as illustrated by her magisterial and beautiful book The Mushroom at the End of the World. But it remains a hard case to make, whether in academia (where, while you may have a solid theoretical justification for futures that contain the grit of failure and unevenness, actually getting that past the tacit and largely unexamined institutional bias toward optimistic futures over hopeful ones can be an uphill struggle) or beyond (where attempting to end-run accusations of “being a downer” by means of theory is, nine times out of ten, merely to dig one’s own hole a few feet deeper).

But nonetheless: terrible stories are a prerequisite for hope, because hope, being active, requires some undesirable future (e.g. what Lisa Garforth describes in her excellent book Green Utopias as the “apocalyptic horizon” of climate change”) to be deployed against. Optimism is not enough; optimism is Business As Usual; optimism is centrism’s implicit endorsement of the status quo. Optimism is another operationalisation of the Someone Else’s Problem field.

Hope is a harder thing to sustain—and I don’t for a moment claim to be much good at sustaining it myself. As Garforth also points out, the “end of nature” and the sense of foreclosure upon the future are closely related, and have changed the shape of hope’s expression over the last six or seven decades: they’re exactly why we’re distrustful of blueprint utopias, as futurity (quite accurately) does not appear to have the space for such blank-slate thinking.

But hope persists—and the persistence of hope is itself utopian. I have often argued here that utopia should be thought of less as a destination and more as a direction of travel, and I hold to that now—but thanks to Garforth, and to Phillip Wegner’s Invoking Hope (the proper reviewing of which is one among many tasks against which this blog post is a procrastinatory displacement activity), I understand that utopia also resides in the very attempt to travel at all, in the acted-upon belief that change is both still possible and worth attempting.

Which is why even though I feel I suck at sustaining hope, I also feel it gets a little easier the longer I try. The point of the work is the work.

declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.


defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.