It’s been almost two decades since David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. Writing at the end of the millennium, Harvey saw a dire need for utopian imagining and optimistic thought: “I believe that in this moment in our history we have something of great import to accomplish by exercising an optimism of the intellect in order to open up ways of thinking that have for too long remained foreclosed.” Harvey’s call has been answered, but not in the way he hoped.
Today, “optimism of the intellect” has become a major rallying point for capital accumulation amid economic downturns and environmental destruction. Hope is now mobilized in the elite utopianism of Silicon Valley, in its transhumanist cults of immortality. It forms the backbone of “resilient” urban growth strategies that have, in places like San Francisco, led to the dispossession of the poor. Meanwhile, the ability to think differently has become a highly-prized business skill and a defining feature of the so-called “creative class,” who cities behold as the angels of hope and fight like demons to attract. Hope is also exported overseas. Celebrity humanitarians like Bono and Angelina Jolie spread “geoeconomic hope,” bringing tidings of global capital to the places like Burma and “Africa,” where individuals are enrolled as neoliberal citizens through hopeful affect and future promises endlessly deferred. These cosmopolitan dreams were summed up in the iconic “hope” poster that became the face of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
If there are spaces of hope today these are not the radical ones Harvey and others had in mind. Hope itself has been steadily privatized as a principle for the global elite. In the face of mounting evidence on climate change and its gloomy prophecies, optimism appears as eternal evasion – a longing to preserve in perpetuity the very world that created this mess in the first place. Such a world benefits a select few. As Kafka once said, there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.”
Rather than looking to new utopian possibilities it’s time to reckon with what’s already at hand, sorting through the debris. This task is neither hopeful nor exciting. It does not involve a “beautiful sense of creativity,” as some geographers would have it. It is truly nothing new.
Nearly ninety years ago Walter Benjamin (1929) said something similar in his essay on Surrealism. Here, in bitter contrast to Harvey’s hope, Benjamin calls for the “organization of pessimism,” a phrase he takes from the French Communist and Surrealist writer, Pierre Naville. Pessimism is considered a form of mistrust: “Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity, but three times mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals.” To organize such pessimism, for Benjamin, is to strip politics of any higher morale or transhistorical import. It means “to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover within the space of political action the one hundred per cent image-space [Bildraum].” Benjamin’s image-space is immediate – it does not stand for anything else and extinguishes all external meaning (see Khatib 2014). It “can no longer be measured out by contemplation,” remaining impenetrable to the creative and hopeful intellect that thinks in terms of the new. Image-space is only visible under the flash of what Benjamin calls “profane illumination.”
Organized pessimism can be found today in spaces considered the opposite of profane: in Christian churches and other religious institutions that have opened their doors to refugees. For those fleeing situations of war and violence, optimism simply isn’t enough. It was Pope Francis who said this best. In 2015, as unprecedented numbers of migrants arrived in Europe, he called upon Catholic parishes, convents, and monasteries to provide sanctuary. It wasn’t enough to say, “Have courage, hang in there,” he added. What was needed were tangible services, shelter, and support. The Pope called this “concrete hope” but, without its religious trappings, we might see it as closer to Benjamin’s organized pessimism. For sanctuary is based on a deep mistrust in the state’s recognition of human rights, whose universality is ultimately one of “European humanity.” Instead, sanctuary provides a space of immediacy that protects refugees from growing levels of deportation in the US and elsewhere (see figure below) – as well as sheltering others who are threatened with state violence. This is not a utopian project but one of organizing and extending counter-topographies already in existence, unfurling them everywhere.
To be clear, this is not a dismissal of hope. Especially in the context of transnational migration hope remains important on many levels. Hope continues, for instance, to mobilize the caravan of Central American migrants fleeing violence in their countries of origin, during their journeys, and in their attempts to cross the US border. Hopes are literally vital here – hope for asylum, for education, for a job, for a better life. But these are quite different from the “creative” or “contemplative” hopes described above. They are located, not in some utopian future, but in everyday spaces already in existence, “circles” that can be crossed over into and occupied. Here, hope is not about waiting around for something – or someone – to arrive, whether foreign capital, a creative class, celebrity humanitarians, technological advances, or a more progressive political regime. Hope is not abdicated to any authority but planted in the ground itself – in people capable of loyalty, in traditions capable of heterodoxy, and in legal rights that can be seized (with suspicion) and opened up. Today the church provides one such grounding point, but there are others.
The point is that, when materially embedded in space – such as the sacred space of the church and its practices – hope is no longer hope in the traditional sense. It becomes “critical and non-contemplative,” no longer referring beyond itself but rooted in the urgent needs of the oppressed. Such “hope” remains pessimistic about dominant forms of universality, since it is always on the side of what and of who has been cast aside as waste and surplus. This comes close to what, in the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1925), Benjamin described as “the gaze of melancholy.” Under this gaze, life flows out of the world, rendering it a “heap of ruins.” For sanctuary practices, this heap includes not only the ruins of present conflict but also the rubble of history itself. Churches cite past traditions of heterodox justice. These include medieval asylum practices in Europe as well as abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in the US. These histories do not provide hopeful or utopian models to follow but concrete strategies that are grasped and brought into the present, organized across borders to form an image-space of insurgency. In its contemplative sense, hope is useless here. It is shed like the milky brille over a snake’s eye. Underneath is something closer to love in the face of ruin, descending down through the earth on the way up to the stars.