Hope needs a place to perch

July 18, 2022

“‘Agency’ is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

“It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.” – Kim Stanley Robinson, Dystopias Now

I get asked quite a lot if I’m optimistic or pessimistic. If Ways of Being is a ‘hopeful book’.

Optimism, pessimism, hope and despair are not useful ways of thinking about the present crisis. They are transient and not to be relied upon, however much they might help us to bear the awful weight of everyday, actual living. States are the infinitesimal, fleeting waypoints in ongoing processes.

Optimism and pessimism, in particular, are conditions of foresight, they are predictions about the future, not guides to living in the present moment. I don’t care about the future, as I don’t care about predictions. Means not ends, as Huxley endlessly reminds us. We make the future, moment by moment, by our actions in the present, which is the place in which we have agency.

Hope, meanwhile, is a fickle thing – the last little bug at the bottom of Pandora’s pot, drying its wet wings in the hot sun. Nice to look at, sure, but liable to flit off again when startled.

Hope needs a place to perch. To have any meaning, any validity, any use or power, it must be founded upon agency, upon the deep-seated capacity to change. To change first oneself – already a process of negotiation with the world – and then to change everything else.

To learn, to make relationships, to process, to move energy from one place to another: these are both fundamental requirements of a healthy organism, and necessary steps in building a nest for hope, for making it meaningful and actionable.

Ursula Le Guin defined technology as “what we can learn to do”. She also defined technology very broadly – a refrigerator, a computer, a fishhook, a pair of shoes – as “the active human interface with the material world.” Anything you can learn to do builds your capacity, creates agency, puts you in charge of your own life and makes it meaningful. Only then can hope settle, and be put to use.

1 Comment

  1. […] James Bridle writes: […]

    Pingback by Present futures plus agency - Seedlings by Johannes Kleske — August 3, 2022 @ 1:45 pm

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