I have been thinking a lot about hope these days. Reflecting on the places we visited on this journey and the people we have met, one of the most noticeable qualities we encountered along the way has been the experience and expression of hope.
Despite the adversity encountered by First Nations peoples’ in Canada or indigenous communities in Mexico who suffered the violence of colonialism, dispossession of their lands, repression of their culture and way of life or else by favela residents in Rio de Janeiro facing prejudice on a daily basis on top of the challenges of poverty and inequality, we met hopeful people and places.
People who were creatively engaging with the challenges imposed by the conditions they faced in the present and the legacies of the past by building and living alternatives. This in stark contrast to the discernible absence of hope we seem to be submerged in through the dominant mass media we are submerged in, and the academic and institutional environments we are educated in.
I have been reflecting on a quote Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, related to us during one of our conversations. Quoting Czech novelist, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel, Gustavo described the notion of hope Unitierra was using. This notion of hope, I believe, gave coherence to their autonomous and collective forms of learning and engagement with the challenges faced by urban and indigenous communities in the Oaxaca region. I recently traced the source of the quote by Havel:
Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.. […] Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.
(The quote comes from an article he published in Esquire magazine in 1983 – available online – and is also found in Havel’s 1991 book. Disturbing the Peace.)
This existential, embodied and non-future oriented understanding and experience of hope appears honest, empowering and appealing to me. It also resonates with the practices of Unitierra, as well as other places we visited, and the attitude they are living by.
By contrast ‘hope’ is not a word you often hear in the corridors of educational institutions. In my 20 + years in such places of higher education I do not remember ever having really encountered it, either as a topic of learning or a focus of discussion. No doubt it has similar ‘fuzzy’ connotations as ‘love’, ‘compassion’, things seldomly considered as worthy subjects of inquiry or conversation in institutions concerned with ‘knowledge’.
Instead these institutional learning spaces have excelled at developing and imparting the very useful (and valued) skills of empirical inquiry, analytical thinking, and – though some would argue decreasingly so – critical thinking.
In the social sciences in general (and I am not even speaking here of the humanities and natural sciences too, where this also applies, but that is another story), the tools of critical thinking and empirical enquiry have been sharpened for generations, with methodological developments and morphing theoretical paradigms. But the conditions within which such developments take place are rarely examined in any depth, let alone challenged. Can critical thinking apply itself to itself?
This question has haunted me for years, as has the sense that there is a largely unarticulated and un-criticized set of assumptions, habits of thinking, practice, belief and social organization, that are a part of disciplinary ethos and institutional life. Beyond that still, there is an unquestioned and unchallenged set of assumptions, practices, values, beliefs and social organizational norms surrounding our system of higher education (or more broadly education). If these disciplinary, institutional and educational systems where to be considered a society and culture of their own, social scientists would be investigating them, also challenging claims to universality and so forth.
My restlessness and increasing unease within the academic contexts I taught and researched in then came from this sense that the conditions within which I was working, thinking, researching, teaching in, where shaping my practices, values, beliefs and how I related to others and to the place I lived in, but in ways that were both taming and at the same time part of a larger and deeper logic I did not fully understand.
I could also sense how this taming, reproducing a logic, set of values, ways of relating, acting and believing was also affecting students. Students, like all of us, are bombarded with the negativity and sense of hopelessness of the mass media. But their capacity for critical thinking is also, hopefully, sharpened through the course of their studies.
Across the social sciences students learn about countless injustices in the world today and in the past, and to critically engage with various modern institutions from a perspective that also points out the adverse effects of these: government, corporations, the economy, development, medicine, technology and so forth.
This is a hugely important part of a modern education, the capacity to also understand the horrors of the world and carefully consider the causes of these. At the same time, given the triumphalism of neo-liberalists across the political classes, business and academia, there is also the sense that we are at the end of the road for any further experimentation – that the battle of big ideas and for the organization of society is over. Whether fully conscious of this or not, this has bred a cynicism in the corridors of academia, a cynicism and sense of hopelessness that is also transmitted to students.
This has made me wonder how academic institutions reproduce hopelessness by the taming of imagination, thought and learning, which at the same time devalues and delegitimizes other aspects of our human experience and capacity to learn. Aspects which have to do with the other ways by which we are in and learn in the world not only by critical thinking, empirical enquiry, analysis, but by feeling, doing, valuing, relating to others and place.
This journey has been for us in a large way about re-learning hopefulness, in the sense quoted above by Havel, learning that what we are doing can make sense even when other things in the world (media, political, corporate and academic consensus and its legitimized cannons of knowledge) appear to point in the opposite direction.
It has also been a learning and unlearning journey, in the deepest sense, with both happening simultaneously. Unlearning in as much as layers of habits, beliefs, ways of thinking, relating, valuing are brought into consciousness and, at least to an extent, let go of in the face of new possibilities.
I have always liked (Deleuze and Guattari’s) expression of how thinking, or rather new thoughts, emerge from a situation of shock with the world, when something new is brought to awareness, provoking us to try to make sense of it in a different way. Instead of falling back to habits when faced with the new, or taming it into an academic logic, through this journey we sought to embrace this shock of the new, explore it, open ourselves to it. In many cases the new happens to be really very old!
Unpeeling an ingrained logic and habit of thinking and the emotional tone of hopelessness is not easy. I think for us it has been gradual and is ongoing.
At this point of the journey – and looking back at what we have written up in these posts since October 2012, we can see some contours of what we have been learning and some key ideas and experiences that have crystalized, configuring what might be described as enlivened learning. That is, a learning that is not tamed, reduced or reductive, abstracted or detached…. Rather, a learning that takes place from our whole being and within our network of relationships with others, humans, non-human beings and things.