I’m hopeful, you’re hopeful (we hope)

Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Mary Zournazi Hope: New Philosophies for Change, 2002, Pluto Press, Australia [2003, Routledge, New York; 2002, Lawrence & Wishart, London], (pp. 288). RRP $29.95.

Conversation is one of the most enjoyable of human activities, and its role in facilitating philosophical thought goes back at least to Plato, whose still-sparkling dialogues have caused many a university-educated host to wonder what precisely is wrong with their dinner party? However, the delights of conversation are best experienced first-hand. In Hope, Mary Zournazi, has assembled a record of eleven conversations she had with twelve intellectual/cultural figures she admires, each prefaced by a short ‘meditation’ to introduce the theme of the particular conversation. The central subject, of course, is hope; but hope is an elusive theme, and the conversations traverse widely in quest of it. In contrast to conversing oneself, the activity of reading conversations is quite difficult, and notably less pleasurable.

The crucial importance of ‘hope’ as the subject of such contemporary conversations cannot be denied. Both as a noun and a verb, this word that connects expectation and desire is a matter of life and death for human beings. In Christianity, the traditional religion of the West, hope is of one of the cardinal virtues, along with faith and charity (love). The other great source of culture in the West, ancient Greece, contributed a myth about the origins of hope. Zeus sought to punish humanity and sent a beautiful but empty-headed woman, Pandora, to earth. He gave her two things: a jar that must remain sealed, and insatiable curiosity. The result was inevitable:

But now the woman opened up the cask
And scattered pains and evils among men.
Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing,
Hope, only, which did not fly through the door.

Hesiod (1973, p.62)

Curiously, neither Zournazi nor her interlocutors refer to Pandora, although she is the first character mentioned in the ‘Introduction’ to Joseph J. Godfrey’s A Philosophy of Human Hope (1987). The contrast between these two books is instructive. Zournazi’s ‘new philosophies for change’ should not be read as suggesting that she has ‘worked out’ a philosophy of hope, for she has not. Godfrey’s book is a general theory, working toward unifying the Marxist atheist view of Ernst Bloch, the Christian view of Gabriel Marcel, and the theist view of Immanuel Kant. In contrast, Zournazi’s conversations are ideas, fragments, pieces of stuff with which to work further, not a fixed and ‘completed’ product.

Zournazi’s personal concerns shape the conversations. These include the experience of migration and growing up as the child of migrants, the malaise engulfing Leftist politics throughout the developed world, and the tangled web of postmodern theory that informs most contemporary Leftist intellectual products. All these subjects are worthy of investigation. Nikos Papastergiadis observes that the experiences of change, exile and migration are constitutive features of modernity (p. 80). Julia Kristeva notes that the disappointment and frustration of the Left in the face of widespread and successful right-wing populism needs to be answered with new re-statements of the Leftist position (p. 76). Postmodern thought is pervasive and so needs to be taken seriously, whatever the conclusions drawn about it. And the relation of ‘hope’ to these concerns is manifold: migrants hope for prosperity and happiness in a new land; political activists hope for a better world and a more humane future; and many hope that education, culture, and thought may have a transformative effect on an increasingly consumerist, dollar-driven society, among others.

Zournazi's personal concerns shape the conversations.

That said, as an effort to think originally about hope and to develop a philosophy and a politics to reinvigorate the Left, the book is a failure.

Zournazi sees the conversational format as embodying ‘the spirit of dialogue, where generosity and laughter break open a space to keep spontaneity and freedom alive’ (p. 12). Certainly, the past twenty years has seen a radical shift in the way society and politics works, and talking about a lot of things has become peculiarly harder. The Marxist ‘solution’ has been totally discredited. The continued existence of Cuba and North Korea cannot stand against the outbreak of jouissance witnessed at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Something may be salvaged from the Marxist position, as Kristeva opines, but what remains unclear. Zournazi and her colleagues believe strongly in revolutionary politics, the continuing relevance of Marx, and the need to question and challenge contemporary capitalism.

These are admirable ideals. What, then, needs to be clarified is why the conversations feel so tired and lacking in relevance; why, despite all the talk of faith and hope, belief, and trust, it is so hard to believe that this book (or even this kind of conversation among this kind of people) will make any difference at all?

First, the intellectual referents of most of Zournazi’s interlocutors are postmodernist, yet within the academy there is a powerful sense that postmodernism has reached the brink of exhaustion. In conversation after conversation in Hope, there are appeals to the usual gurus: Guattari, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, Nietzsche, and Latour. Orthodox mantras are chanted: ‘the individual as something in itself is something of a fictional construct’ (Isabelle Stengers, p. 257); ‘there is this Nietzschean thing that there is no virtue whatsoever in pity’ (Alphonso Lingis, p. 29); ‘the idea of language as the bulwark of identity itself is interesting insofar as it can dissolve’ (Gayatri Spivak, p. 175); and ‘[t]he drama of the Left today is that it has a certain handicap in the hegemonic game, and other discourses like ‘moral majority’ and so on have had the upper hand in the last few years, simply because the discourse of the Left has been associated to contents which are very difficult to put together in terms of a more widespread social imaginary’ (Ernesto Laclau, pp. 127–128).

These thoughts may once have seemed interesting and challenging, but by now it should be apparent that the emperor really does have no clothes. It is commonly argued by postmodernists that their critics are right-wing, reactionary, capitalist, and so on; this is no more than an ad hominem attack, and often not true anyway. In reality, critics of postmodernism are usually against irrationalism, epistemological anti-realism, illogicality, and a host of other flaws of postmodern reasoning. It is deeply saddening that Laclau’s comment (reproduced above) really means that right-wing populism has gained ground because Left wing intellectuals are incomprehensible and irrelevant; and formerly Left wing parties have moved to the right because that is (seemingly) what the people want, and they are not getting any other messages from their elites. It is also nowhere acknowledged that the anti-globalisation protests and May Day demonstrations of recent years (which Zournazi’s interlocutors refer to on occasion) are led, in the main, by anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, who seemed entirely irrelevant twenty years ago, but have gained ground recently as the Left lost credibility.

Within the academy, postmodernism has reached the brink of exhaustion.

Second, this book contains much that might once have been the province of religious thinkers and practitioners, but in a secularised form. The notion of hope as one of the three cardinal virtues is important here. In Christian theology hope, the quality of not giving up, leads to help from God (Romans 15: 4–6). Most of the conversationalists agree that hope is something that goes against the grain, that flies in the face of the evidence—people hold out for a better future, another possibility, even when the outcome is bleak and is known. Lingis speaks of the courage of people facing death in hospital wards (p. 24) and Michael Taussig discusses people he has met in Colombia, enduring hardship in life but never ‘wanting to entertain disillusion and depression’ (p. 46).

The future-orientation of hope is linked to community, and the book is filled with discussions of what is means to belong to a community, and how the individualist-orientation of the contemporary West has caused anomie and disorientation. Two prototype communities are religious: the pre-modern tribe, united in a spiritual and cultural microcosm; and the community of faith, such as the Christian church or Buddhist temple. Many of the communities discussed in Hope resemble these prototypes: the migrant communities shrewdly assessed by Ghassan Hage and Nikos Papastergiadis are modern tribal equivalents; the activist communities of gays, Aborigines, and workers are communities of faith.

The second cardinal virtue, faith, also occupies a central place in the book. Papastergiadis speaks of ‘faith without certitudes’, which he links to unconditional love and trust (p. 83). Christos Tsiolkas one of the most interesting speakers—he is neither an academic nor theorist, but a novelist and gay activist—reports his experience of prayer after the suicides of two friends: ‘I wasn’t praying to a God in any sense, but the very act of prayer itself assisted me. Now you can call that meditation or a whole lot of secular terms to explain it, but when I talk about faith it is about that sense of being’ (p. 100).

At the start of the twentieth century Freud, Marx and a host of others prophesied the death of religion. But by the close of the twentieth century, religion was not only not dead, but vitally alive and growing. As the traditional Christian forms declined in the West they grew in the developing world. Meanwhile, the chief missionary religion of Asia, Buddhism, has spread rapidly in the West, and new religious movements and secularised, exoteric esotericism represented by the ‘New Age’ movement have sprung up everywhere. The Marxist-inspired contributors to Hope don’t say much about religion, probably because they don’t see it as having value (it didn’t for Marx). Only Tsiolkas, in a perceptive discussion of mutual acceptance (not tolerance), notes that gays, lesbians, political activists, and so on, who insist that religious people acknowledge their positions, have to acknowledge the position of religious beliefs and practices too (p. 107).

Winston Smith wrote 'if there is hope it lies in the proles'.

To conclude this meditation on the three cardinal virtues, love is also invoked by several conversationalists, most profoundly by Julia Kristeva. She advocates a notion of ‘care’ (etymologically related to charity, caritas), which she sees as an alternative to the commodified, romantic notions of love which are everywhere: ‘[t]his would be a somewhat disenchanted kind of love, without the romantic, enthusiastic dimensions which cause us to distrust love. These days, however, we’ve forgotten how to attend to the sufferings of other and ensure they get the chance to start over’ (p. 66). Kristeva’s own writings are often obscurantist and infuriating, but her conversation here is a gem of clarity. The fact that she is a therapist makes her attentive to people and a believer in change; therapists are the priests and confessors of this secular age, and a cure is the absolution of sins.

Western people are concerned with meaning and meaninglessness, with making sense of the past and present, and trying not to be anxious about the future. For this concern to be productive, many conversations of the type envisaged by Zournazi have to happen. But the ideas that feed the conversations will have to be different to those she has harnessed. Raymond Tallis (1997), among others, asserts that the ideas of postmodernist thinkers are profoundly anti-hope. They speak of the death of the author, the imaginary individual, and the lack of reality of the material world. They also claim that there has been no progress throughout human history, and that the irrational and illogical (for example, magic) are as effectual as reason and science. People struggling with life are unlikely to be impressed. Winston Smith wrote ‘if there is hope it lies in the proles’ (Orwell 1978, p. 59). With due respect to the general reader, who is no prole, this is probably true. Revolution, radicalisation and a new vision for the future must spring from life experiences of the people concerned; the chattering classes will probably miss the boat.

REFERENCES

Godfrey, J. J. 1987, A Philosophy of Human Hope, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht.

Hesiod. 1973, Hesiod and Theognis, trans. D. Wender, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Orwell, G. 1978, 1984, Penguin, Harmondsworth, [1949].

Tallis, R. 1997, Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism, Irrationalism, Anti-Humanism and the Counter-Enlightenment, St Martin’s Press, New York.

Carole M. Cusack is a Lecturer in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include factors influencing religious conversion, secularisation and the growth of ‘New Age’ religion, and European mythology.

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