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Hope Matters

Hope Matters in Our War


Hope is one of the most puzzling of human affects. Some call it an emotion. Whatever it is, however, insofar as it is future-directed – like its shadows, anxiety and fear – it is inalienably human. 

Moreover, its object varies according to one’s experience of the present. I don’t mean the present in the strict phenomenological sense of the ephemeral present, the contents of which are constantly shifting, even if, structurally speaking, the present itself remains in place like the proverbial gate through which the future rushes into the past. 

What I have in mind is rather the extended ‘present,’ as in the sentence, ‘The present era is one of unmitigated anxiety,’ in the face of which one is bound to feel either hope, or anxiety and/or fear. The feeling of fear is more specific than anxiety, insofar as it pertains to an identifiable source, such as the fear of a volcanic eruption, whereas anxiety is a pervasive mood. 

Judging by the people in the community where my partner and I live, I would venture to guess that, at present, we live in a time of pervasive anxiety, with particular instances of fear manifesting themselves intermittently. Under such circumstances hope is likely to be negatively experienced. What I mean is that, when there is a veritable blanket of anxiety covering the everyday, shot through with streaks of fear, hope is so voided of an imaginable, positive form, that it morphs into a mere ‘If only this would change’ – a sentiment that is easily recognisable in the fraught present. How does ‘hope’ apply to this present of ours?

Hope is paradoxical. It only makes sense to say ‘I hope that…’ when concrete, reliable information about the imminent future is absent. One says ‘I hope’ when such information is lacking, and depending on how one judges the present, what comes after ‘hope’ will either have a positive (‘hopeful’) or negative (‘hopeless’) valence, such as in the sentences ‘I hope the indications of the situation improving are reliable’ (positive), or ‘I hope that economists are wrong about their gloomy forecast.’ In short; in saying that ‘We hope,’ we acknowledge that the future is, strictly, unknown. 

The ‘philosopher of hope’ – rightly known as such, given his extensive and profound reflections on this distinctively human phenomenon – Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), published a massive three-volume work with the title, The Principle of Hope (1954-1959), in addition to all his other writings about this and related phenomena, such as ‘utopia’ (a concept that pervades The Principle of Hope). There are few, if any, thinkers who can cast more light on the meaning of hope than Bloch. 

In Volume 1 of The Principle of Hope he writes (1996, pp. 3-5): 

Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? What awaits us?…

It is a question of learning hope. Its work does not renounce, it is in love with success rather than failure. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them, cannot know nearly enough of what it is that makes them inwardly aimed, of what may be allied to them outwardly. The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong…

Isn’t the relevance of these words, written around the 1950s, to our present situation unbelievably conspicuous?! Who we are and where we come from: the people who, for a long time (since the Second World War) have had the experience of a relatively peaceful, economically comparatively stable – bar a few hiccups here and there – existence, and who now find ourselves in a traumatically disrupted, comparatively uncertain situation globally, with financial and economic pitfalls looming, and the memory of a totalitarian power grab, disguised as a medical emergency, fresh in our memories. 

Where are we going? We don’t know, although all of us would probably be able to say what we are hoping in this regard, in both negative and positive terms. What are we waiting for? A good question; unless one knows with a fair degree of probability what your enemy’s next move is, it is difficult to act proactively. 

Except, that is, by painstakingly analysing what one knows about the foe’s past actions and deceptions, and using the results of such analyses to prepare for what seems to be the most likely next move on their part, hoping that your anticipation is accurate. What awaits us? We cannot say with certainty. That is where hope beckons. And where the opportunity of ‘learning hope’ awaits us, that it is ‘superior to (passive) fear,’ and not susceptible to nihilism. On the contrary, hope implicitly sets its sights on life-giving value. 

The last sentence in the excerpt, above, is crucial for understanding the existential meaning and potential of hope, where the German philosopher says: “The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong…” His use of the word ‘becoming’ marks him as a ‘process-philosopher;’ that is, someone who regards the process of change, rather than ‘being’ or permanence, as fundamental, and the implicit exhortation, that people who wish to turn (positive) hope into actuality, should do hope’s work for it, infuses his statement with optimism. 

This is particularly noticeable because he reminds us that we, as humans, ‘belong’ to becoming, and therefore have the capacity to influence the direction of change. It is redundant to point out that, thinking about the darkened present through the perspective delineated by these words, is heartening, hope-inspiring. We are the agents of change, if we would only listen to the wisdom dwelling in that simple word, ‘hope.’ Elaborating further on ‘hope,’ Bloch proceeds in a manner that is just as highly pertinent to us today:

The work against anxiety about life and the machinations of fear is that against its creators, who are for the most part easy to identify, and it looks in the world itself for what can help the world; this can be found.

Hope’s work against anxiety, etc., must be directed against those responsible for employing certain ‘machinations’ – what an apposite term for what is happening today, with its connotations of deliberate scheming and plotting, through subtle instances of predictive programming, among other tactics – in this way creating the circumstances under which anxiety and fear can flourish. ‘For the most part’ these unscrupulous individuals are indeed easily identifiable, as long as one presupposes that those doing the identifying have been disabused of any lingering, unjustifiable bias in favour of obfuscating mainstream narratives. 

The many people who are still, incomprehensibly, in thrall to distorting accounts of events over the past four years, and no doubt dissembling reassurances concerning what is happening today, would be unable to perceive these schemers for what they truly are. 

The term, ‘truly,’ serves as a reminder that one of the most important tasks facing those who wish to do the work of ‘hope,’ by discerning what there is in the world (already) which can “help the world,” because (as Bloch assures one), “this can be found,” is the work of ‘truth-telling’ (or parrhesia) in the sense that the ancient Greeks gave to this term. Ruthless truth-speaking or truth-writing – which is what Brownstone writers (among others) do – is a catalyst for hope, as evidenced by the appreciative responses from readers. Truth-telling is all the more necessary because of the way that those in the corridors of power abuse ‘hope.’ Bloch puts it this way:

Hopelessness is itself, in a temporal and factual sense, the most insupportable thing, downright intolerable to human needs. Which is why even deception, if it is to be effective, must work with flatteringly and corruptly aroused hope.

Again it is as if the thinker of hope was blessed with prescience as far as today is concerned – not merely with his pronouncement about the intolerable nature of hopelessness, which is universally true, and not only in this era. It is what he writes about the corrupt manner in which those whose self-imposed task is to deceive, employ “corruptly aroused hope,” which reverberates with current practices. 

For example, given the glaringly obvious disapproval of President Biden’s handling of the US economy, reflected in constantly dropping approval ratings among Americans, it is disingenuous, to say the least, for the White House to claim that his “…economic plan is working” – something that was plainly intended to ‘arouse hope’ on spurious grounds. 

Moreover, judging by what has been said above, it is evident that a variety of factors influence the kind of hope – negative or positive – that one feels about extant reality. Perhaps an example of something that exercises such an effect on hope, as opposed to hopelessness, would be illuminating. What would give more hope – a sustained image of an utterly predictable future, or one that is open-ended, with the promise of creating a better future than what lies behind us? Let us turn to cinema.

James Cameron, one of the great directors of the present generation, and a master of science fiction, has given us a cinematic paradigm for both of these countervailing possibilities of hope in relation to the future. In his Terminator films – particularly Terminator 2: Judgment Day – he plays with time paradoxes to get across the idea that someone could return from the future – a future paradoxically first made possible by what happened in the past – to prevent this future from happening. 

Technology plays a central role in these movies, and as in all genuine science fiction, both its power to create and to destroy are highlighted. (See Chapter 9 of my book, Projections: Philosophical Themes on Film, for a sustained discussion of Terminator 1 and 2 in relation to time.) I believe that they are works of cinematic genius, which succeed to combine dystopian and utopian images – however improbable that may seem – in cinematic artworks.

Keep in mind that a ‘dystopia’ is a dysfunctional, inhospitable ‘place,’ and a ‘utopia’ – from Renaissance thinker Thomas More’s eponymous work – is an imagined ‘no-place,’ a place that does not exist, or may at times be conceived, for instance in the reflections of Bloch and his friend, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, as a modern society (like that in the US post-World War 2) where people believe that they have everything that they need for a happy life (except that this belief leads to problems that negate their utopian belief). 

So how does hope feature in these films by Cameron? I shall start at the end of Terminator 2, where Sarah Connor, one of the protagonists, says in voiceover, with the camera focusing on the road in front, slipping under the car as they drive:

The unknown future rolls towards us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine — a terminator — can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.

This sounds a utopian note in relation to hope in the future, which once seemed predetermined to Sarah, when the powers rallied against her and her son, John, seemed unconquerable – she even names hope explicitly. Whence this hope? And why ‘utopian?’

For those who are not familiar with these films, a synopsis will have to do. In The Terminator (the first one) a ‘terminator’ – or cyborg killing machine – is sent from the future to kill an initially uncomprehending Sarah Connor, who does not know, at the time, that the son she will soon have, John Connor, will one day be the relentless leader of the ‘resistance’ against the (rule of) the artificially intelligent machines. 

The machines therefore intend to ‘terminate’ her, in this way precluding her conceiving and giving birth to John, and ensuring their complete victory over the remaining humans. Against the odds, however, the terminator’s mission is thwarted when Sarah crushes it in a mechanical press, but fatefully the processing chip (CPU) that was the basis of its AI is retained, thus creating the opening for Terminator 2

The latter movie features two terminators, and the temporal paradoxes are even more pronounced here: a protector terminator is sent back from the future by John Connor, who is now the leader of the resistance, in other words, by himself, to stop the second, more advanced terminator from killing him as a recalcitrant boy of ten in the past. The older model protector terminator does battle intermittently with the advanced, liquid-metal T-1000, who has the edge over the older cyborg (half-cybernetic, half-organic), but it acquits itself well, doing its protective work.

The crux of the narrative is the attempt, by Sarah, John, and the protector cyborg, to find and destroy the CPU-unit from the first terminator, and when – against all odds – they finally manage to vanquish the T-1000, the protector terminator, having learnt from ‘his’ human companions to value human life, sacrifices himself, crucially destroying his own CPU-unit, so that they may live. 

Here is the utopian, hope-inspiring moment in the film – that an intelligent machine, originally programmed to hunt down and kill humans, but reprogrammed by the resistance in the future, can be persuasively imagined as a saviour of humankind, in this way making possible a future free from lethal domination by AI machines. In other words, no matter how dark the present may seem, the future is never cast in stone. Corroborating this interpretation, earlier in the narrative John sent Sarah, at that stage his mother-to-be, a message through Kyle Rees (John’s father-to-be), sent back in time by John to protect her from the first terminator (another time-paradox). The message was: 

Thank you Sarah for your courage through the dark years. I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.

The ‘future is not set’ – if there is a utopian element in this series of films, it is this, encapsulated in the earlier quotation, too, where Sarah talks about the “unknown future” and her renewed “sense of hope.” 

Just as we find ourselves in ‘dark years’ at present, we cannot afford to believe for a moment that the technocratic cabal has succeeded in determining, once and for all, what our future will be – that of slaves in their AI-controlled, neo-fascist, feudal dystopia. We are free human beings, and by doing the ‘work of hope’ by seizing on opportunities that are latent in the world, to challenge them with courage, we shall prevail.

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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