CfP. ‘Hope’ to Solve Some ‘Problems’ Here? Investigations into the Agentive Potential of Ambiguous Terms
The February Journal
Special Issue (autumn 2024)
Edited by Isabel Bredenbröker
In their conversation on ‘How to Change Alt Right Minds’ (2022), the trans-female Youtube host ContraPoints and the U.S. political commentator and podcaster Jon Favreau talk about how positive change can be effected in the world. They discuss this on the example of harmful extremist political convictions as well as in relation to climate change, two phenomena that are widely seen as ‘problems’ (see also ContraPoints 2018). Both agree that hope is a driving factor in effecting active engagement, as it tackles feelings of helplessness that may lead to inactivity or defensive-aggressive positions. But what does ‘hope’ mean in this context, and how does it relate to ‘problems’?
This special issue investigates the potential of ‘hope,’ which is understood here as a future-oriented political practice. It combines critical perspectives on ‘hope’ with thinking about ‘problems.’ We want to sharpen the analytical usefulness of these ambiguous categories. Both refer to figures of thought in disciplinary discourse as well as to objects in the social imaginary that gain meaning through vernacular exchange. ‘Problems,’ commonly understood, describe situations in need of resolution. As an analytical category, the term ‘problem’ is used differently across many disciplines, usually upholding the promise of resolution via response. However, in the case of ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973), neither the definition of a problem nor a solution may seem to be within reach. This appears much closer to social realities which are messy and complex. On an emotional level, ‘problem’ has a moralizing ring to it in everyday usage, equating things that are problematic with being difficult, undesirable or bad, while ‘hope’ seems to carry morally positive qualities. Opening up a forum to exchange ideas about ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ from practice-based and research-focused perspectives, we ask: what does the concept of hope do—theoretically, socially, and emotionally—in relation to ‘problems’? Can we sharpen these terms or make use of their ambiguous nature in a productive way? Are there alternative terms that are more useful and, if so, what are they? What are the social lives of these terms, and how do they inform research and analysis?
Placed within a moral and temporal dimension of extremes, hope has been discussed in relation to utopian and dystopian thought, for instance, by Craig Browne (2005). These extremes can also be found across a variety of discourses that deal with hope. The first wave of feminism held on to hope as a means to achieve social change. Contemporary queer and feminist voices amplify this notion whilst being aware of their sometimes uncomfortable relation with hope, as discussed in depth by Rebecca Coleman and Debra Ferreday (2011) in their edited volume Hope and Feminist Theory. Combining theoretical engagement and activist intervention, Judith Butler (2011), for instance, stated during the Occupy Wall Street movement: ‘If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.’ This seems to resonate with earlier words by the Russian cartographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who is quoted to have said: ‘The hopeless don’t revolt, because revolution is an act of hope.’ Queer theory taps into both ends of the spectrum, with Lee Edelman (2004) refusing the insistence on hope as something that ultimately serves to affirm conservative moral orders, and José Esteban Muñoz (2019) thinking through possibilities of queer futurity as something to hope for (2019). Similarly divergent positions exist in the humanities and social sciences as well as in the natural sciences and social movements. Lauren Berlant (2011) calls out ‘cruel optimism’ as a form of self-exploitation via misguided desire, and Frank B. Wilderson III (2020) calls on afropessimist critique to confront the social fact of racial injustice. Jane Goodall (2021) insists that hope is a mode that must inform environmental research practice and scientific inquiry, while climate and ecology research has speculated that the moment to turn the escalating processes of global warming and mass extinction has already passed. Yet, past and present political, environmental, antiracist, feminist, LGBTQAI+, and labor movements also continuously reinstate the hope for change through struggle. What can we take from such differing positions? How can these different understandings of hope be made productive for exploring the murky middle grounds of life, for staying with the trouble, in the words of Donna Haraway (2016)? And how do understandings of ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ as figures of thought play out when grasping the connections between research’s actively-intervening and reflectively-analytical elements? Here, Hirokazu Miyazaki (2004) shines a light on the connection between hope and research, stating that ‘hope is a method of knowledge formation, academic and otherwise’ (p. vii). Following up on this definition, we ask: can research claim agency by engaging with the agentive role of hope as something that is forceful or subversive (see Elliot 2016; Giroux 2004)?
The notion of hope is rooted in Western philosophical discourse and famously linked to the enlightenment’s paradigm of knowledge via Kant’s ‘What may I hope for?’ Critical approaches range from the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ (MacMahon 2017) to contemporary engagements with the philosophical canon, for instance, by Dilek Huseyinzadegan (2018), who asks ‘What can the Kantian Feminist hope for?’ How can a thus canonized concept of ‘hope’ be interrogated and possibly reappropriated from multiple perspectives, including non-Western traditions of thought, when engaging with phenomena identified as having the qualities of ‘problems’? Such may be armed conflicts, war and violence, the changing global climate and ecological transformations that are wreaking havoc on life as we know it, effects of historical events like colonial encounters and contemporary late liberalist doctrines, labor struggles and precarious existence, racisms and many more (see Jansen and Löfving 2009). As scholars, activists, artists, and researchers, we often address ‘problems’ in that way, usually with the hope of understanding them better, sometimes with the hope of contributing to their transformation and possibly the creation of better futures. But as Jarret Zigon (2009) finds by relating to ethnography that frames understandings of hope among his interlocutors in Moscow, it is exactly the everydayness of hoping, defying both ends of the utopia-dystopia spectrum, that describes the social life of this concept best.
We seek contributions that address the entanglements of perspectivally framed ‘problems’ (in the sense of Haraway’s situated knowledges (1988) or, simply put, with an understanding that what one person sees as a problem may not concern another person at all) and the application of hope as a contested concept. This special issue invites contributors to probe into the usefulness or uselessness of the terms ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ and their relation to each other for informing a mode of critical inquiry. Contributions may analyze concrete contemporary and historical phenomena from social contexts, social movements, artistic practices, and ecological issues. We particularly invite case studies or ethnography-based discussions of situations in which these terms are either used by interlocutors or may serve as analytical tools. Contributions can also take artistic forms realized in different media or speak about artistic practice. While we are primarily interested in hands-on engagement with real-world examples which can be productively linked to the concepts of ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ or help to critique them, we also welcome contributions that wrestle with the canonized side of both concepts. We invite contributions from the social sciences and humanities (anthropology, history, philosophy, regional studies, religion, literature, and arts) as well as from the natural sciences and art practice.
Possible angles that may be addressed in proposed contributions:
- the instrumentalization of the terms ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ in public political discourse, particularly critical analyses of alt-right strategic usages and productive discussions of approaches from the Left;
- social uses and applications of the terms ‘hope’ and ‘problems’ in ethnographic or case-study based situations;
- discussions of terms that may serve as (better) counterparts to this conceptual pair from non-European traditions of thought;
- discussions and/or applications of both terms as analytical tools in situations that seem to call for them, such as: contemporary ecological conditions relating to climate change and human interventions in ecologies; or contemporary effects of global historical events such as colonialism or capitalism on cultural, political, and social institutions (for example, museums, governments, and universities, but also practices like commemoration, knowledge-formation, trade and sharing, etc.);
- the formation of moral categories via the terms ‘problems’ and ‘hope,’ or the analysis of socially shared moral categories through these terms;
- queer and feminist perspectives on the application of these terms and/or on specific discourses informed by the traditions that exist around them;
- artistic and auto-ethnographic responses that either situate themselves within the discourse or frame the terms in question within a specific context;
- contributions that are informed by an activist practice which stands in dialogue with research and/or artistic practice;
- disciplinary investigations into the meaning and use of these terms as well as their connections, pointing towards contemporary interdisciplinary conversations about them.