Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

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.)

UAV god-trick

There is something sublime and hypnotic about seeing the earth from above. Before drones, satellites and helicopters provided such views, but this God-like perspective was never so abundant, nor accompanied by such elegant silence. As I sat there, I fell into a kind of trance, such that the images began to seem removed not only spatially but temporally. At some point, I understood that I was in the future, long after our planet had been obliterated, watching scenes that had taken place many centuries in the past; I was watching the final dramas of a fallen civilization.

What I was experiencing was delusion. It was the kind of hallucination induced by acid trips, madness, and extreme sleep deprivation, in which a person often feels that he is floating above his own body, looking down on it from above. Charles Lindbergh experienced something like this during his flight across the Atlantic, after remaining awake for over thirty hours. At one point, he felt as though his consciousness had become completely untethered. “For immeasurable periods,” he wrote, “I seemed divorced from my body as though I were an awareness, spreading through space, over the earth and into the heavens, unhampered by time and substance, free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems of the world.” This is an account of human consciousness leaving a body, leaving a plane. It is an account of a man becoming a drone.

Meghan O’Gieblyn at The Paris Review.

Cf. this riff from Rebecca Solnit:

… that unconscious bias I’ve often tried to describe as “from their mountaintop they see the playing field is level,” which is by the way a sports metaphor from the era when nearly all sports were male-only, as most televised sports still are. From the abyss, people see that the field is not level; what gets termed “identity politics” is an attempt to identify the inequalities and level them out, because not all inequality is economic and a lot of economic inequality is rooted in racism and sexism.