Monday, December 31, 2012

Hopelessness: the Engine of Hope

Our lives are not our own.
From the film Cloud Atlas
 [W]hen the early Spanish explorers first saw what non-Native Americans now call the Grand Canyon, there was nothing in their conceptual repertoire – in their language – to enable them to perceive its dimensions accurately. For example, they thought the Colorado River, at the bottom of the canyon, was only a few hundred feet away. As a result, foot soldiers in full armor were ordered to reconnoiter the area – to run down and have a look around – and to the surprise of their countrymen, they never returned. This example illustrates how conception (what we think) precedes perception (what we experience through our senses) and how our expectations, beliefs, and values – all of which are carried by language – determine the way we experience our world.
Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson (2006:257)

So, friends, we are about to enter 2013. Predictions are a dime a dozen, but there seems to be a fairly robust consensus emerging that the coming year will be very turbulent indeed. 

I don’t like predictions, nor do I seek them out; there is an inevitability to history, a vastness, that renders all prediction casuistry and chicanery in my opinion. And yet we would not be human if we did not try to impose sense on past, present and future events. Perception is interpretation, and interpretation is rooted in conceptual frameworks. Broad consensus is a vital battle ground, particularly in hierarchical, state-based social systems in which an ‘elite’ seeks to control as much as possible. Prediction is thus in part ongoing propaganda for controlling and shepherding ever-emerging consensus, to define ‘reality’ as it unfolds before our eyes. Currently, many pundits not normally given to ‘doom and gloom’ are predicting just that: doom. It is as if we are being spoon fed hopelessness under a glittering veneer of ‘business as usual’. Or it is as if we are selling despair to ourselves due to some collective cognitive dissonance we can’t (won’t) quite perceive. 

This is all standard fare, but deeper change is afoot than simple economic turbulence leading painfully but inexorably back to ‘normal’ – growth, Growth, GROWTH! of the economic realm. I believe we are transitioning from primarily ego-based interpretations of ‘reality’ – in which fear, control, ‘selfishness’ and ‘competition’ rule – to a paradigm in which we are far more consciously aware of the ego’s role in our perceptions and can therefore operate/react with greater consciousness and wisdom. A paradigm is emerging in which the sense that “our lives are not our own” is not reflexively dismissed as ‘socialism’, and money (whatever that is) is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a non-valuable record of economic transactions fostering cooperation and inventiveness in the interest of a growing commons which serves each ‘individual’. We are leaving behind one sense of what freedom is all about, and developing a different, perhaps more mature definition of freedom. Also up for redefinition are wealth, value and success; dessert, reward and punishment; obligation and responsibility; health and much else besides. We are not going through a simple economic downturn, but this has been true since 2007, and actually far earlier. 

There is no hope for the old system. Hopelessness is thus justified. I suspect many of us feel it. For many across the world, conditions are so terrible only suicide offers any hope of release from the pain. Indeed, hopelessness is pervasive enough, the absence of a clear, alternative vision palpable enough, to make it sometimes seem like the only possible way is down, forever. For that which is dying, the only way is down, but it is precisely this death which feeds the birth of the new. As Charles Eisenstein argues in his latest article, we are in the space between stories. On one hand we see decadence, decay, oppression, fascism, open corruption and criminality unimaginable even months ago. On the other we dimly perceive something vague. The former thus seems far more real, far more worthy of our attention. If we gaze at it for too long, we panic, do whatever we can to prevent its collapse. This is hopelessness, this is desperation. The new, the unknowable alternative, is so vague, so silly, so untried and untested, so impossible, it cannot inspire us. Hopelessness wins.

Ralph Boes* was interviewed in Basel on the 23rd December this year (a few days ago). He describes a hopeless situation in Germany due to Hartz IV. He says many pregnant mothers on Hartz IV have committed suicide in despair. The pressure from the state system is so inhuman, so counter to the realities of people’s lives and the job market, that death offers the only release. And yet, just as we recently passed the winter solstice, just as we know 2013 is upon us, just as we know 2012 cannot be revived, we know spring must come. Of course, tired clichés aside, there is the matter of the timescale, there are the significant matters of war, environmental stress, fascism, dystopia. I agree that these are precarious times; I am not here selling some assured transition to flower-filled meadows alive with love and life. Boes uses the analogy of marching across a frozen sea. The weather warms, the ice breaks. For a while, marching forwards still makes sense, and swimming remains unimaginable, foolish. But at some point, after enough ice has melted, swimming becomes the only option. We are just about at that moment, and as we abandon what was once solid, what once stretched out all around us as far as the eye could see, we are called upon to be inventive and creative, and to begin imagining the new as we build it. Not just fringe loons like myself, but everybody, all talents, all perspectives. In this sense, we are becoming the 100%. 

Just as the Spaniards did not have the conceptual experience required to gauge the scale of the Grand Canyon, so we cannot appreciate the task in front of us. We are our habits, our patterns of thought, our beliefs. In this sense, the old travels with us into the new and does not die, but is transformed. Indeed, old and new are little more than opinions, perspectives. There are no endings, no beginnings, only ongoing emergence, and our lives are not our own. Hopelessness gives rise to hope as surely as Yin and Yang birth their opposites at each of their extremes. But hopelessness and hope are, at one level, ego-effects (as are all ‘opposites’), and dwelling on them, as on predictions, misses the point. How many of us make it through the turbulence is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the issue either, and applies equally to good and bad times. It’s not about individuals in the ego-sense, in the ego-perspective, and never really has been. We are wholly caught up in, and are generated by the infinite interconnectedness of everything, tasked with somehow making the ‘best’ of our lot, our ‘fate’, our biology, our history, come what may. 

There is free will, but it is not the ego’s plaything as ego would have us believe. Perhaps Jung had it right after all; “Free will is doing gladly that which we must do”, but I think there is more to it than that. As we are forced to let go of what we once held precious, as we jump unwillingly into what appears to be an inhospitable sea of endless uncertainty, the deeper meaning of free will becomes apparent; it is rooted in (and perhaps generates) circumstance, reflex, reaction, experience, bondage, limitation. And yet there in the ego’s blind spot, something gives birth to creativity and new forms, and we can be privileged to be part of that as one gift of interconnectedness. I like to think of this mystery as free will, but it is not ‘ours’ to wield. I see our egos as being on the receiving end of free will, not in any way as masters of it. From the ego’s point of view, ‘true’ free will is thus a paradoxical and magical thing, but a magic which destroys as it creates – forests, people, cities, civilisations … everything, causing both suffering and bliss, tragedy and good fortune, suicide and survival, hope and hopelessness, blandness and vibrancy: binary opposites as ego-effects.

To the extent that binary opposites exist at all, it can be helpful to see them as creators of both unity (“We”) and diversity (“I”). Our perceptions/experiences thereof, rooted in and shaped by slowly changing conceptual frameworks, are as much a part of their composition as is their endless, autopoietic spiralling. As the African word “Ubuntu” has it, I am because we are. I believe this wisdom is going to be increasingly helpful to us as we navigate the uncertainty ahead, as we deal with the exhausting see-saw of hopelessness and hope, as we build the ‘new’ from the collapse of the ‘old’.

The title of this article is thus deceptive, the content’s message purposefully muddled in a contortion of contradictions. Regardless of current or impending horror, regardless of imminent bliss or utopia, our lives are not our own. And yet we are indeed confronted by a daunting transition to something potentially ‘better’, we are indeed called to act, to be agents for positive change and to be creative through a transition that is, because of its enormity, very painfully disruptive. We must act despite the fact that this transition is far mightier than any of us as ‘individuals’, even though our actions can seem futile, a drop in the ocean. 

In this convoluted, long-winding way, I wish you what is most appropriate and beneficial both to you and us for the times ahead, and a creative relationship with your ever-changing circumstances.

Brace yourselves, it's going to be a bumpy ride. 

*Ralph Boes' 90% sanctioning was revoked towards the end of November. According to the employment agency, there had been an unspecified legal complication/error. Boes is eating normally again. We can reasonably read into this that the state does not want a public martyr in the Hartz IV colosseum and knows it is on shaky legal ground when it comes to Hartz IV.


Florian Popp said...

Dear Toby,

what a splendid surprise to discover a new post from you just before the year ends. And again, you found the right words, real, nurturing language, so I can leave behind 2012 and venture out into 2013 somewhat more... placid. Gelassener.

Guten Rutsch
, and I'm looking forwart to meet you again next year, and to witnessing the change that's sure to come - whatever it will look like...

Toby said...

Hey FP, I'm glad the words I sweated bood over these last three days worked on you as I had hoped. This whole hopelessness and despair thing is very important to me, something that takes up a lot of my thought, and I suspect I've got a relatively helpful bead on it now, though that does not mean under control. Far from it. But these efforts to understand and explain can work as pain-relievers from time to time.

And yes, I'm looking forward to a 2013 meet up too. Dir auch einen juten Rutsch. Bleib gelassen!

Debra said...

Hi Toby,
Like Frank, I like your new post a lot.
I have started reading the Chickering translation of Beowulf, out loud, and translate passages of it into French.
I believe that there is a place between hope and despair. A middle ground that I am trying to live in, regardless of how bumpy the ride is.
I still notice that the "and" word is an extremely difficult one for our civilization. It is not always easy to notice that you are not always forced to choose between two irreconcilable opposites.
Have a happy new year, my friend. Cheers.

Toby said...

Thank you Debbie.

It must be both rewarding and fascinating to translate a translation into French, which is not your mother tongue. There are untranslated works in German I want to translate, but that Big Money Beasty stands between me and my passion, still. This is where effort sustained through both hope and despair (for both can be very distracting), a.k.a hard work, sows healthy seeds (imagine me confessing that! -- times really are a-changing). If I keep at it, and luck is favourable enough, perhaps I'll get my wish(es).

You know, a while back, I wrote a short story in which I studiously avoided the word "and", long before the either/or of Leibniz and Descartes, and the both/and of Yin and Yang had struck me as being in any need of reconciliation. But yes, the Western mind is lost in binary choices, living in a conceptual framework way too limiting to be healthy. I like to think of opposites not as mutually exclusive, but as generators of 'scales' which need them as poles that bleed into each other. I think this perspective can be helpful in this area.

Happy new year to you too, my Internet friend, and continuing wisdom in and from all you do.

Malagodi said...

All art must be hopeless.
Otherwise it is just theater.

That which is irredeemable
Cannot be redeemed.
Even Jesus said so.

The task is not to save
But to salvage what one may.

Toby said...

Hi Stephen,

I've been pondering your poetic comment for days. There's so much space in it, I can only agree and disagree in equal measure. Each word requires defintion to be understood in the poem's context; what is "art", what is "hopeless", what is "redeemed", etc. And that makes me seem like a hopeless pedant, but there we are.

I would say, all in all, the poem seems to be a big shout for the inevitability of entropy. But there is creativity too, without which there cannot be entropy, and without which we could not have this conversation, however much we might be talking past each other. There is more to life than salvaging, though I agree that 'saving' people (and perhaps anything) is probably melodramatic (in the sense you appear to be using "save").

Do you think there is an end point, a Heaven? Might Heaven be about perpetual redemption with no risk of further failure/suffering, i.e., being saved? Do souls reach Heaven because they fully deserve to, and vice versa? And what are the criteria for entry/rejection? Can we understand good (helping others?) and bad (harming others?) sufficiently to know how to behave, to 'earn' the ultimate reward? (Perhaps these questions are only tangentially related to what you intended with your comment, but I feel like asking them anyway.)

Debra said...

Just theater...
What's to say ?
Words fail us, don't they ?
Particularly on blogs...
After finishing "Beowulf", I have pulled out Robert Browning's collected poetry, and am now reading... "DRAMATIS Personae".... which is particularly nice, read aloud.
I bow my head and knee to Robert, who was a genius, and one of the few people after John Donne ? Milton ? capable of condensing philosophy and poetry, and making them stick together.
Back to my piano...

Toby said...

All the world's a stage.

Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow
A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Words don't fail all of us. ;-)