High hopes

This collection of conversations, loosely organised around the subject of hope, is between Sydney-based freelance philosophy writer, Mary Zournazi, and other contemporary philosophical writers whom she admires. Most of these people are academics, based in Europe, the US and Australia. The best-known are probably psychoanalytic thinker Julia Kristeva and Gayatri Spivak, the translator of Derrida.

Zournazi is to be congratulated for having tracked down so many important professional critical thinkers (although all on the B-list rather than the A-list) and to have done so despite, as she asserts, being the daughter of migrants to Australia and not having ‘lived out [her parents’] dream of success in the new country’. To have been able to spend three years travelling around the globe interviewing her favourite philosophers sounds pretty successful to me.

The interviews are not conventionally philosophical. Take sentences and part-sentences like ‘What if hope was like another human “sense”—like some kind of anatomical part of us, not physically but allegorically? Hope as a sense that is visceral and ever-present, much like the kaleidoscopic experience of a fair’. These (in this case, Zournazi’s) words, like a great deal of the book, need to be read with a certain lack of attention, otherwise you’re stuck wondering what an allegorical part of your anatomy could be like, or how the ‘experience of a fair’ can be ever-present. There is certainly something meant here, but it’s hard to discern what.

But if you can bring yourself to read that way, there are interesting and valuable things to be found. It is tempting to write them all out as aphorisms, and to then dispense with the book altogether. Take these aperçus from Michael Taussig: ‘Hope is against the evidence … it comes out in spite of what went before’ or ‘Life is not a matter of one initiative after another.’ Or Alphonso Lingis’ observation that ‘a lot of intellectual activity, at least in the 20th century Western cultural orbit, correlates lack of hope with being smart, or … with profundity.’ Or Ghassan Hage’s rather un-P.C. thought that ‘racism … provides [migrants] with a good reason to hate people they already hate for a “bad” reason’ or that ‘There is a priestly element in the intellectual disposition’.

Indeed, the priestly status of these contemporary intellectuals is manifest in the book by liturgical reiteration of their various dogmas (the gift, the body, the other) or authorities (Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Walter Benjamin), in the avoidance of systematic argument, and in Mary Zournazi’s role as disciple and mediator. Also noticeable is the total failure to consider more traditional religion—still a potent influence and an important site of hope—in other than dismissive terms.

The trouble is (and I don’t know if it is this style of book or this style of philosophy) that the speakers are only thinking intermittently. They talk their way towards some new or interesting or plausible idea, then drift off again. It’s all rather vague, repetitive and hard to follow.

You sense Zournazi’s interviewees trying to help her out. All of them make interesting and thoughtful points, but they seem to work as much against her questioning as with it. ‘Is that what you’re getting at?’ she asks Taussig; ‘I wasn’t,’ he replies, but he’s happy to talk about it. A lot of the time, she and the interviewees don’t seem to know exactly what each other means, but they are determined not to let that stop them from talking.

Many of the participants seem anxious that the discourses in which they professionally engage be able to address the sorts of topics that are usually the province of humanist discourse—more approachable but, according to the postmodern mind-set, discredited. For most people, postmodern thought seems to offer nothing more profound than a bottomless scepticism, out of which hope (much less faith or charity) seems unlikely to emerge. Hope, if it is to be real, must be usable and practical, and not simply ‘fun and intellectually stimulating’, as Taussig describes the subject.

The book needed tighter editing (and far better indexing); Zournazi should have used an editor to massage the transcripts into a more publishable form, and sought clarification from the interviewees. There’s too much bumf.

It’s not a heavy read, but it’s too vague at the micro-level and shapeless at the macro-level for the general reader. I suspect that Hope’s main readership will be students of the various people interviewed.

In the first conversation, Alphonso Lingis quotes Nietzsche’s remark, ‘it is bad taste to formulate rational arguments in polite society’, and then comments, ‘most of what we say is nonsense.’ I’ve never thought of a book of philosophy needing to be polite, and feel that readers of a book about hope are entitled to expect more.

Much of the conversational effort seems aimed at redefining hope. In the second-last interview, Brian Massumi concedes, ‘rationally, there really isn’t much room for hope’, which may explain both why the interviewees emphasise that they want to discuss the present rather than the future, and why the conversations aren’t particularly rational. Of course, one hopes in the present, but for the future.

The discussions frequently bring up the daily issues, the environment, multiculturalism, and the world situation after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But useful insights come in isolated phrases, rather than in the whole. Unless you count the mere possibility of having a philosophical conversation as a positive thing, which of course it is. However, it requires postmodernists to be talking not only to each other.

I found Hope difficult to read, or at least to read with attention, and in the end, slightly depressing. Useful hope is not, I think, going to come from this direction. It’s all very well for postmodernism to proclaim the failure of the Enlightenment, but the failure of postmodernists to conceive a future is one of the sure signs that unless things change, between them and the devotees of brute power who seem to be on the ascendant, there may not be one. 


Paul Tankard is a Lecturer in English at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Hope: new philosophies for change, Mary Zournazi.
 Pluto Press, 2002. isbn 1864031409, rrp $29.95

 

Recent articles by Paul Tankard.

Being about thinking

 

 

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