On Hope and Indeterminacy
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World
“How,” Anna Tsing asks, “might capitalism look without assuming progress?” Narratives of progress, she reminds us, cannot be the grounds for thought (or critique or politics). In letting go of progress, Tsing offers us a book about letting go of assumptions—of the pregiven—to make sense and open space for a rethinking of the givenness of the social through what she calls the “arts of noticing.” To let go of progress is to allow oneself to be open to the possibility of something otherwise: the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.
I’ve been thinking about hope recently, and Tsing’s book has been an excellent companion for thinking through my questions and concerns about the role of hope in thought. Hope is not a category of analysis that Tsing takes up directly, even if the word hope does make it into her book on a few occasions, both as something we would want to hold onto—for example, she writes that “if we end the story with decay, we abandon all hope”—as well as something to be wary of, listing it as one of the objects of the narrative of progress from which she is seeking to move away. The Mushroom at the End of the World is a craft of what we might call affirmative critique, a mode of thought and being that critiques and resists present injustice while simultaneously, creatively, and joyfully opening space for something otherwise. It is for this reason, I suspect, that it and works like it are often—at least in whispers along the (masculine) hallways of academic departments—seen as too hopeful and not critical enough. This is a charge that I wanted to think through, because I am simultaneously wary of hope and also deeply drawn to—and perhaps inclined to produce—work which is often characterized as (too) hopeful.
If not progress, then what? I wondered as I read the book. Can hope be the grounds for a politics that can respond to life in capitalist ruins? Must the openness that Tsing wonderfully performs and attends to throughout The Mushroom at the End of the Worldbe predicated on a sense of hopefulness? Or, alternatively, must thought—thinking—abandon hope alongside progress? In thinking through these questions and reflecting upon Tsing’s book, I’d like to use this essay as a space to think about the relationship between hope—be it that of the ethnographer, or any one/thing else—and what Tsing refers to as the “so-much-more out there.”
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The question of hope leads me to think about temporality. In reflecting upon her work on animal exploitation in India, Naisargi Dave writes (2015; italics in original): “I do care that there is some ethical or political effect when someone reads my writing. I won’t say I hope that there is such an effect. I’m not writing deliberately with any consequence in mind. But I care if there is such an effect.” This distinction between hoping and caring, I want to argue, following Dave, is an important one, with the difference being a temporal relationship to one’s inclination and capacity to respond to the world. Donna Haraway (2016) writes against hope, too, in her recent book Staying with the Trouble. “Make Kin Not Babies,” Haraway urges us. This is her vision, her slogan, for the Chthulucene, a neologism that she proposes as an alternative to the Anthropocene/Capitalocene. Such a vision is founded, Haraway tells us, neither on hope nor on despair, but rather in staying with the trouble. Haraway’s book performs that vision of what it might mean to stay with the trouble by weaving speculative fabulations of thick copresence, of becoming-with, of response-ability that stick with nitty-gritty material semiotics and, in doing so, open up space for something otherwise. In this vision for an otherwise—a vision that is here and now, one that takes us through the future but is not predicated on the logic of futurism, “without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds” (Haraway 2016, 136)—we see an opening into a vitally infectious queering of the ways in which oddkin relate. For Haraway hope, like progress, defers response-abilty; it is a form of cruel optimism (Berlant 2011), dependent on what Haraway calls an “abstract futurism.”
But is all hope bad? Is all futurism bad? I am anxious about hope and futurism, like Haraway, but I am also anxious about abandoning hope and its relation to the future altogether. In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz (2009) develops a theory of queer futurity through a critical methodology of hope (see also Miyazaki 2004). “Queerness,” Muñoz (2009, 1) wrote, “is a structuring and educating mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” Drawing upon the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Muñoz makes an argument for “educated hope.” Central to this argument is the distinction that Bloch makes between abstract utopias and concrete utopias, in which abstract utopias are “untethered from any historical consciousness” while concrete utopias, in kinship with educated hope(s), are “relational to historically situated struggles, a collective that is actualized or potential” (Muñoz 2009, 3). Muñoz primarily draws on works marked by a queer aesthetic—including, to name a few, artwork by Andy Warhol, poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and the writings of Jill Johnston—to find traces of concrete utopias that contain “blueprints and schemata of a forward-drawing futurity” (Muñoz 2009, 1).
In reading Haraway and Muñoz together, along with Tsing, my sense is that, although dangerous, hope is not (always) the problem. Rather, the problem is abstraction: abstract ideologies (namely, progress) for Tsing, abstract futurism for Haraway, and abstract utopianism for Muñoz. Abstraction is deterministic; it cannot account for indeterminacy. In their varied performances of affirmative critique, Tsing, Haraway, and Muñoz all linger in the space of indeterminacy. Muñoz’s methodology of hope is, indeed, following Bloch, founded on the indeterminate, not-yet aspect of hope itself. For Tsing, the “unit of analysis is the indeterminate encounter.” Haraway’s (2016, 11) desired Terrapolis is “open, worldly, indeterminate, and polytemporal.”
One might argue that the obvious antidote to abstraction is empiricism—or, for anthropologists, ethnography. Yet, in my reading, this is not exactly where Tsing, Haraway, or Muñoz go: at least not toward what Tsing calls a “simple empiricism.” Stuart McLean (2015) notes that “to claim that the task of anthropology is that of documenting the existing world risks . . . enshrining a normative empiricism that absolutizes existing actualities as the unchallengeable horizon of what might ‘count’ as reality.” World-making, as Tsing offers it, is one way to move beyond a normative empiricism to explore the indeterminate, virtual space that opens up between actual and potential worlds, even as we remember, as Giorgio Agamben (1998) argues, that not all potentialities have the same potential.
In the spirit of Tsing’s anti-ending, I ask: What are the empirical grounds of indeterminacy, of potentiality, of the virtual? How would one do an anthropology of indeterminacy? Tsing offers one way: “look around rather than ahead.”
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Dave, Naisargi. 2015. “Queer Respites.” In “Queer Futures,” edited by Tom Boellstorff and Cymene Howe, Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, July 21.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
McLean, Stuart, Andrés Romero, Robert Desjarlais, Brian Goldstone, and Anand Pandian. 2015. “Image as Method: Conversations on Anthropology through the Image.” Somatosphere, August 14.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.